The Conversion of the Vikings

God writes straight. My crooked lines, tortured between grace and the depraved human heart…. No matter how crooked I set it down, God writes it straight.  ∼ Brother Antoninus, O.P. (ca. 1949)

As Charlemagne lay dying in 814, a new threat was growing in the north. Norse tribes, attracted both by the weakness and the riches of the Carolingian empire, had begun sending their longships across the North Sea. Deterred by the great emperor’s strength, the Norsemen had not dared openly to assault the continent, but with his passing, and the accession of weak heirs, the Vikings seized their opportunity. They descended on Europe each summer, ravaging and pillaging. They could appear anywhere, their marvelous seamanship fitted them for long, open-ocean voyages, while their ships’ shallow draft mean they could course up the riverine systems of Europe, appearing almost anywhere. They struck terror into European hearts, similar to the present day fear of terrorism, for the next target was always unknown. They did not fight conventionally, there was no army to meet in battle, they simply raided and returned home. In winter they retreated to their ancestral lands, loaded with wealth to give as gifts and to demonstrate their prowess.

This was however no ordinary barbarian people. Long winters of enforced confinement led to interesting developments. A drinking party can only go on so long. These people were also avid storytellers, and their collected works became the sagas that we enjoy today, a stunning mix of earthy simplicity and insight into the human condition. Three hundred years before Dante, these Northmen produced the first native European vernacular literature. They were truly warrior-poets.

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Far and wide they spread, penetrating around Spain to raid Mediterranean shipping, harassing Kievan Rus, and eventually reaching Constantinople itself. To the west they ranged, conquering Britain, harrying Ireland. Still they were not content. In ships 60 feet long and only 15 feet wide, they bravely sailed into the North Atlantic, the most difficult of all seas to navigate. They pressed to Iceland, making a permanent settlement there. From thence they travelled to a place they called Greenland (perhaps realizing their previous marketing mistake). Finally the intrepid explorers pushed to Labrador, setting up a village one can still visit in northern Newfoundland. It did not last, but it remains one of the most significant achievements of human history. Columbus himself learned of the western lands when he visited Iceland in the 1470s.

Yet for all this achievement, they were causing chaos in Europe. Fear of their terrorizing raids was destabilizing society. The promise of the Carolingian Renaissance was in danger of collapsing completely. Empires had degenerated into small territories run by strongmen. The Church itself was in disarray, with the papacy at the lowest nadir in its history. Unless the Viking menace could be checked, there was little hope for any progress in any of these areas. They could not, however, be defeated in battle. Their raiding lifestyle made this impossible. The remoteness and diffusion of their bases made them difficult to attack, even had Europe been united under a strong emperor. There was only one way to check their advance: by converting them to the Church, thereby mainstreaming them into European and Christian culture.

Several tentative attempts had been tried, all of them unsuccessful. A first effort was made by St. Ansgar, Archbishop of Hamburg in the 860s but, following his death, the mission came to nothing. A particular difficulty was the devotion of the Vikings to their pagan gods. These Gods, like Odin, Thor, and Freya, had brought them nothing but success, so they reasoned. Why should they be abandoned for the God of those whom they were plundering? Clearly a more dedicated effort was needed. Indeed it would have to be one that came from the Viking world itself.

There was no further movement for 100 years, as Europe descended into an age of iron, with only isolated pockets of hope remaining, such as Alfred the Great in England, Alfonso III in Spain, and the fledgling monastic community of Cluny. Finally in the 960s, King Harald Bluetooth (the origin of the technology’s name) converted to Christianity. It seems he was personally committed to the faith, and he allowed Christian missionaries into his realm, but did little to exert any other pressure to convert. Paganism resumed after his death, but this effort may have helped to scattered seeds that would later bear fruit.

The critical figure arose in the person of Olaf Tryggvason. Before his birth his father had been killed. He and his mother were taken in by a rather frankly named man called Thorolf Lousebeard. In spite of that Thorolf and his mother were killed by Russian slavers, and Olaf was sold into the service of King Vladimir of Rus. Vladimir was later to lead his own country into Christianity, but as yet remained a pagan. Presciently, he saw an opportunity. Rus too was afflicted by Viking raiders. If he raised and trained this boy, and supplied him with material resources, he could return to the Vikings, make a claim as king, stop the raids on Rus, and perhaps make the Norsemen an ally. It was an audacious plan, and Olaf proved up to the task.

In 991 Olaf had gained a following and invaded England, defeating Ethelred the Unready at the battle of Maldon.   After several years of desultory raiding, Olaf contracted peace with England so that he could concentrate on the Norwegian throne. As part of his peace treaty, he consented to undergo baptism. This ceremony likely made little difference to Olaf, many other Vikings had done the same thing without any Christian commitment whatsoever. Indeed there was a pagan Viking ritual that was similar, a water sprinkling ceremony. Most thought nothing of it at all, but Olaf saw a possibility. Perhaps he could use Christianity as a tool to unite the disparate and dispersed Viking tribes, cementing his claim to the throne and achieving dominion.

Olaf, in my opinion, had no personal commitment to Christianity whatsoever, but his actions laid the groundwork for Scandinavian Catholicism. In 995 he was proclaimed king. He commanded the Viking lords to be forcibly baptized (never a policy of the Church, but Olaf cared little for Canon Law). This led to grumbling, but since few of them took it seriously it caused no great uproar. Seeing Scandinavia recalcitrant, Olaf decided to try an experiment. He would test his “Christian” policies in Iceland first, a neater geographical laboratory for his designs.

In 996 he sent the first “missionary.” Stevne Thurgilsson was Icelandic so he knew the land, but had little real interest in Christianity, so he simply raised an army and went about attacking pagan idols, attracting the ire of the Althing—Iceland’s parliament. The “mission” was a disaster. Olaf tried a new tack. There was a particularly troublesome Saxon priest at his court named Thangbrand. He was a murderer, a gambler, and a drinker. Olaf could kill two birds with one stone. He could get Thangbrand out of his court, and continue his mission to Iceland. Thangbrand, not thrilled with his new role as “Apostle of Iceland” had to be forcibly evicted from court and sent packing to the Arctic.

When he arrived he was none too pleased. He had no interest in preaching campaigns up and down the country. He began to loudly denounce the local pagan customs as soon as he landed, stirring up the local populace. Eventually overcome by his intemperate denunciations, several Icelanders began to challenge Thangbrand to single combat. This is exactly what he had been waiting for. He handily defeated all who came up against him. The practical Icelanders quickly came to the conclusion that indeed Thangbrand’s God was more powerful. In the year 1000 Christianity was proclaimed the official religion by the Althing. Thangbrand became the most unlikely “Apostle” in missionary history.

Cheered by his success, Olaf began to make plans to complete the conversion of the Scandinavian vikings. He called a great national assembly at Trondelag in 999. It was to be a general meeting of all the Viking peoples, at which would be decided the religious fate of the nation. There was to be a debate between the pagans and the Christians and, as representative of the traditional faith, the pagan was permitted to speak first. He gave a long and passionate defense of the old religion which had brought the Vikings such great success, and which had been the faith of their fathers. When he concluded, Olaf arose from his throne, complimented the speaker, took out his sword and clove him in twain, settling the matter in favor of Christianity.

Acts such as these are certainly repugnant and alien to the Christian faith, but sometimes God uses the most unlikely evils to bring forth good. As could be expected, Olaf’s high-handedness brought him hatred. In the year 1000 he perished in a sea battle, and immediately the Vikings reverted to paganism. The raids resumed. In 1011 they captured Canterbury, and took the Archbishop, Alphege, as prisoner to hold for ransom. All winter he stayed with them, treated with honor in the ancient Viking tradition of hospitality. Eventually Alphege tired of all this. He began to assail them, during one of their drinking bouts, that he had forbidden his Church to pay one penny for his release. The intoxicated Vikings grew restless, and began to throw plates at Alphege. One of the more sober ones, Thorkell the Tall, saw where this was going. He stood up to interpose himself, reminding the Vikings of their obligations of hospitality. While he was speaking the plates turned to axes, and Alphege, later a saint, died.

Thorkell was disgusted at this breach of Viking custom, and he took 45 ships along with his lieutenant, Olaf Haraldson, to fight on the side of Ethelred the Unready in England. Even with this help, Ethelred was still Unready, and he and Thorkell were driven from England to France. There Thorkell and Olaf were baptized, genuinely and completely converted to Christianity. In 1016 Thorkell brokered a deal between the Christian Saxons and the pagan Vikings of England, making a Christian Dane called Canute their king. Thorkell became his advisor and worked for peace and harmony in England. Olaf meanwhile returned to Norway and became king there. This time a genuine Christian ruled, and he sent missionaries out to every town, founded Churches, and established the Scandinavian hierarchy. 1000 years ago then it can be said that, after many twists and turns, Scandinavia entered the Church. The raids abated, and the Vikings entered the mainstream of European society. The threat had passed, and Europe stabilized, laying a foundation for the achievements of the Christian middle ages.

The crooked lines of men like Olaf Tryggvason and Thangbrand became straightened by men like Thorkell and St. Olaf Haraldson. Though underappreciated, the Scandinavian contribution to Christianity was substantial. They supplied many saints, people like St. Bridget of Sweden, the king St. Eric, St. Thorlac of Iceland, and St. Henry of Finland. Though little known, many Scandinavians opposed the monarchical reformation that saw the region ripped from the Catholic faith, people like Nils Dacke in the 1520s led a rebellion in Sweden, and Bishop Jon Arason who led an Icelandic force to stop the Reformation in the 1550s. Their contributions continued even after that. Famously Queen Christina of Sweden, a great patroness of scholarship, renounced her throne in 1654, and took up residence in Rome as a convert.   Even in recent times, one of the greatest Catholic novels ever written, Kristin Lavransdatter, was the product of Swedish Catholic and Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset. For 500 years Scandinavia was a beacon of the Church, and their astonishing culture and contributions should certainly be remembered, even as it should soberly remind us that on this, their 1000th anniversary of Christianity, how very little of the faith remains there today.

Editor’s note: Depicted in the illustration above is King Olaf I arriving in Norway, drawn by Peter Nicolai Arbo.

  • Donald S. Prudlo

    Donald S. Prudlo is Chair and Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa. His specialty is saints and sainthood in the Christian tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).

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