The Christianization of the Norse took place between the 8th and the 12th centuries.
It was a gradual process that took considerable effort by Christians.
Christian clergy attempts to convert the Norse proved to be difficult. The Norse people were quite content with their own gods and simply did not wish to be converted. In many cases, conversion was only achieved by force.
Prior to Christianization, the traditional religion of the Norse people was firmly in place. The Norse religion wasn’t just a form of worship, it was a part of their culture and way of life. A belief system that was so deeply rooted that it made the concept of the original sin and other Christian beliefs just too hard for the Norse people to understand or believe.
Because of hard core Norse beliefs, converting the Norse was a task that took Christendom a relatively long time to achieve. As far as the Norse were concerned, their gods had brought them nothing but success in battle and they had absolutely no reason to embrace the Christian god.
This led to the Christians to seek Norse conversion by any and all means possible, including converting existing Norse beliefs, practices, and cultural beliefs into Christian ideology.
This was often practiced in order to introduce Christian beliefs in a way that the Norse could relate to in comparison to the gods they already knew well.
So to help convert the Norse to Christian ways, many pre-existing Norse practices and customs were converted into Christian practices, such as the Christening of a child for example. The missionaries adopted the name-fastening ceremony practiced by the Norse pagans and adopted it into their own religious ceremony know today as a christening ceremony.
When a child was born, there was a great deal of ceremony conducted by the Norse. For example, a newly born infant would be placed on the ground and then remained there until he or she was picked up by their father (or next of kin in his absence) and placed in the folds of his cloak. This act of picking up the infant by the father ceremoniously acknowledged the legitimacy and acceptance by the father as his offspring.
The father then examined the infant for any abnormalities and judged whether or not it had a future. This process decided the fate of the child as to whether it was to live or be left exposed to the wilderness to die. A custom commonly known to be practiced by the Greek Spartans.
If the child was free of defects and deemed to live, a sacred religious rite called the Ausa Vatni was preformed. This ceremony was conducted by either sprinkling or pouring water over the child and then naming the child.
This ceremony was an ancient sacred rite of the Old Norse religion that predates Christian baptism. To expose a child after this ceremony was preformed was considered murder. The rite of Ausa Vatni was also practiced by some of the Northern Frankish tribes. Some forms of Christian baptism are based on this rite and only changed it in name by early Christian missionaries whom made it a part of Christian practice.
There is also record of the sacred rite being practiced in the Norse Sagas. One example is the birth of Sigurd, whom was the son of Ragnar Lothbrok. Ragnar’s wife, Kráka (also known as Aslaug) bore Ragnar a son and they carried the child to Ragnar to see him. Ragnar took the boy and placed him in his cloak and gave him the name Sigurd. In addition, it was customary to give a gift to the child during the naming ceremony. In the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, it is said he took a gold ring and gave it to his son as a “name-fastening (Old Norse ‘nafnfesti’).”
The gift given to a child during the nafnfesti (name-fastening) rite varied from either rings, weapons, and other tokens, to even such things as entitlement to farms, or lands.
In addition to the Ausa Vatni rite and Nafnfesti ceremony of giving a gift while naming the child, it was also customary practice to give a child a gift when they cut their first tooth. This practice later evolved into modern day’s practice of the “tooth fairy.”
Another well known ancient Norse practice worth mentioning that was taken into Christian practice was the celebration of Yule.
The pagan holiday of “Yuletide” became what we in the modern day know as Christmas. The Scandinavians still use the word “Jul” or “Yule” for Christmas. This celebration was originally a fertility rite used to ensure good harvests in the following seasons. The Old Norse practice of receiving a blessing from spirit of the farm that guarded and protected it was later substituted by receiving blessings from a Christian priest.
However before Christianization, each Norse farm was believed to have its own land spirit or protector which the modern Danes and Norwegians call a “Nisse” (“Tomte” in Swedish). The Nisse spirit was replaced with the Christian St. Nicholas or Santa Claus. However, the conversion attempt wasn’t completely successful by the Christian missionaries and to this day on Christmas Eve many children in Scandinavia whom aren’t waiting for Father Christmas, instead await a Nisse or Tomte to arrive with gifts.
Once the Norse had a better understanding of Christian concepts as they were compared to their own established religion, they eventually were able to accept Christianity and its beliefs.
Many early successful conversions of the Norse was done by relating Christian concepts as closely to Norse practices as possible.
However, most conversion attempts were done by means of entire communities converting as a whole rather than individual conversions. Mass conversions were carried out by methods such as demanding conversions through subjugation. The subjects of a leader would be forced to convert.
Typically, the Norse leader or King would convert to Christianity and as an opportunity to solidify their power, they would force all their subjects to convert as well. Peace treaties formed with other Christian monarchs were often only achieved if the Viking leader converted to Christianity and had their men do so as well. Even when at the Norse’s mercy and being demanded silver payments to release cities conquered by Norse raiders (Vikings). They managed to buy the Norse off with caches of silver and an agreement of Christian conversion.
So instead of trying to convert individuals to become Christians, the community would be ordered to convert by their leader. This made the clergy’s job easy as entire regions would become converted by order of their King.
Not all agreements went as planned for Christian monarchs and clergy when they ordered their followers to convert.
There were instances, such as when Jarl Haakon Sigurdsson was in Denmark. Harald Bluetooth forced him to accept being baptized as a Christian and to take clergymen with him to Norway in order to spread Christianity in Norway. Haakon had no choice by to accept, but when favorable winds allowed Haakon to set sail and leave, he commanded the clergymen off his boats to return ashore as he and his men left.
Once an area was ordered by their leader to convert, missionaries, priests, and monks would then come in to finish the process. Once the people were converted, the old gods and practices would be outlawed. Entire communities would be baptized and swear oaths to forsake the old gods and take in Christ as their only god.
Further subjugation took place through instruction and discipleship training by christian missionaries that would be set up. Even still, foreign missionaries did get resistance, often for no other reason than distrust of them simply because they were foreigners.
The English missionaries were more successful in their attempts at spreading Christianity because most of them came from England.
It was as simple as that. English missionaries were more trusted because they were from conquered areas that were under subjugation by the Norse. The Norse had already gotten used to the English people and their customs. The Norse weren’t as suspicious of the English missionaries, militarily or politically, as they were the missionaries from other Norse lands, such as the Germanic Kingdoms or Francia.
One attraction to Christianity was that Norse pagans were impressed and tempted by the sheer materialistic power of world of Christendom. Christian lands, especially to the south, were rich with bountiful crops. This led many Norse to believe that the Christian god was more caring and generous.
Their pagan beliefs and faiths were mostly focused by gaining material prosperity through specific gods that gave attention to specific things. For example, they worshiped gods of agriculture because they wanted their crops to grow. Please the gods that favored cattle so that they would produce more milk. The Norse gods weren’t particularly concerned with the human plight and were very hard to please.
When these Norse pagans looked at the wealth and power coming out of Christian Europe, they were impressed. Obviously the Christian God would deliver the goods and gave greater concern towards humankind. The Christians built bigger buildings and formed wealthy cities. Christians possessed more and it was of greater beauty and quality. The Christian crops were bountiful, so it was obvious to the Norse that the Christian god was more generous.
This was why when the Norse did begin converting, some pagans had no problem converting to Christianity. They had the hope that conversion would give them material prosperity that was nonexistent with their current gods. The Norse gods didn’t seem to care about them, but perhaps the Christian god will.
However, a majority of Norse converts would often continue with their pagan practices. Norse paganism was also a part of their culture and was very hard to simply cast aside. But thankfully for the Norse, strict Christianity wasn’t enforced. Besides, the Norse were polytheistic and had many gods, accepting a new god alongside their already many existing gods wasn’t that hard for them to do or accept. They didn’t exactly convert to a new god and discard the old ones, they simply added another one to the count.
Polytheist pagans have lots and lots of gods.
Gods for everything: gods of weather, of harvest, of the sea, of the sky, of beer making, of battle, and so forth. The Christian god was simply another god to them. The concept of a monotheistic faith of having only one god didn’t sink in very well at first. This is why even after being converted, it took a very long period for Christians to wash away the Norse belief in many gods, goddesses, spirits, fairies, elves and giants from coexisting with faith in Christ.
The image of a “Victorious Christ” frequently appears in early Germanic and Norse art, suggesting that Christian missionaries presented Christ to the Norse as a figure of strength and as a victor in battle. Using the Book of Revelation that tells of Christ’s victory over Satan to play a central part in the spread of Christianity among the Vikings, whom looked to Odin and Thor for such attributes.
Even still, completely converting the Norse to true monotheistic Christianity was an extremely difficult task. The Norse never had anything against the Christians or their religious beliefs. The notorious Viking attacks on monasteries were due to the fact that they were rich and poorly defended. These raids were nothing more than opportunities for a Viking raid and had nothing to do with the Christian religion itself. The Christian monasteries were easy pickings.
Many Norse monks didn’t take the whole religious life all that seriously. Becoming a monk at the time was seen more as a means of acquiring an education and learning to read and write. The strict conversions did not take place until later, especially when the age of Protestantism was sweeping across Europe.
Read more in: The Vikings by Njord Kane
For the most part, Christian conversions weren’t taken seriously at all by the Norse.
Missionary monks that came into Norse areas trying to convert them simply were ignored and tolerated because they were regarded as peaceful and harmless.
The first serious conversion attempts began somewhere between 710 AD and 718 AD, when a Anglo-Saxon monk named Willibrord had made unsuccessful attempts to convert the Danes. This took place during the reign of King Ongendus (also known as King Angantyr). Unfortunately, his efforts to spread the Christian faith were simply not appealing to the Norse Danes.
Not one to give up, in 725 AD, Willibrord made another attempt and led another mission to Denmark in hopes of conversions. Yet even though he was well received by the king, his mission once again had little effect on the general populace.
This failure did not stop the missionary monks from trying, as they were usually sent and backed by the Frankish King (Holy Roman Emperor) Charlemagne and other rulers in the Kingdoms bordering south of the Norse. Church missions were strategically built where they could make attempts to convert the populace.
However, even after a church was established they were sometimes later targeted by pagans. In the Netherlands, a church in Deventer was sacked and burned by a Saxon expedition in January of 772 AD. This act gave the Frankish King Charlemagne the justification (Casus belli) to wage war on the Saxons.
The war began with the Franks invading Saxon territory.
They conquered and subjugated the Engrians and destroyed the sacred symbol “Irminsul” at Eresburg (near Paderborn, Germany). The Sacred Symbol “Irminsul” represented “Yggdrasil,” the pillar tree that supported the skies and cosmos and was considered sacred to Odin and the gods. Which made it extremely sacred to the Norse. Its destruction was a grave insult to the Norse.
When the King of the Franks, Charlemagne, chopped down the Irminsûl, the sacred column or holy tree of the Saxons, it began the Viking Age and relentless raids on Frankish lands. The retaliation was ruthless. In a series of several ambushes, Charlemagne had also assassinated around 5,000 Saxon nobility and effectively decimated the Saxon’s ability to further resist his armies any longer. This allowed further subjugation and forced conversions into Christianity of the Saxon Norse.
Unfortunate for the Saxons, the methodology used by King Charlemagne was to convert his enemies by essentially defeating and killing them. After they were dead, he’d have a priest say some words in Latin and sprinkle some water over them and thus they were converted as Christians.
These were the events that influenced the Norse in Scandinavia to finally cease all hostilities against each other and focus their attention on a mutual hatred and thus began to wage war and attacks on Christianity. This was part of what started what we know as the Viking Age, as anything Christian was considered by Norsemen as a legitimate and justified target to raid.
Prior to this event in 772 AD, the kings of Norway were at war and allied against the Danes with Charlemagne. However, when the Frankish King had the Irminsûl cut down and the Saxon Nobles assassinated, the various kings of Norway switched sides, uniting with their Norse brethren (the Danes) and went to war against Charlemagne.
This effectively put a damper on any attempts by missionaries with their efforts to convert the Norse into Christianity.
It was later, after Charlemagne, in the 820’s AD and onward that the missionary Ansgar and his followers, with the support of the new Frankish King, Louis the Pious were able to establish missions in both Denmark and Sweden. Even though the missions were made with the support local Norse rulers, once again the missionaries had made little to no influence on the population as a whole.
It was in 826 AD, that Harald Klak, the King of Jutland, was forced to flee Denmark by the Danish King Horik I. King Harald was forced to go to King Louis I of Germany and seek his help in getting back his lands in Jutland. King Louis I offered to make Harald Duke of Frisia if he would give up the old Norse gods and convert to Christianity. Harald agreed to this proposal. He, his family, and the 400 Danes that were with him were all then baptized as Christians.
When Harald returned to Jutland, the missionary monk Ansgar was assigned to accompany him and oversee Christian adherence among the new Norse converts. It was when King Horik I once again forced Harald Klak from Denmark that the monk Ansgar left Denmark and focused his efforts in Sweden instead. In 829 AD, Ansgar established a small Christian community in Birka, on the island of Björkö in Sweden. By 831 AD, the Archdiocese of Hamburg was founded and assigned the proselytizing responsibility for converting the Scandinavians from their traditional Nordic beliefs to Christianity.
Regardless of the mass conversions spreading through Scandinavia, Sweden did face a pagan reaction in the mid-11th century and Christianity did not become firmly established there until in the 12th century.
The greater increasing numbers of converts was because from the 11th to the 14th century, Christian society in Europe became less tolerant of other religions and beliefs. This was the time period when the Christian hammer slammed down on pagans and heretics. This is also when we see the persecution of Jews and the crusades against Muslims happening. At this time, forcible conversion became widely accepted, especially in Scandinavia and the Baltics, the only European region that remained resistant and unconverted.
When the Protestant Reformation began, it spread through Scandinavia like a wildfire.
Protestantism took hold easier that did the earlier Catholic Church’s attempts.
All of Scandinavia had ultimately adopted Lutheranism over the course of the 16th century, because the monarchs of Denmark (whom also ruled Norway and Iceland) and Sweden (whom also ruled Finland) converted to that faith and required their subjects to convert as well. The Scandinavian having a firmer grip on their subjects than ever before, had an easier time converting their people from Catholicism to Protestantism.
In Sweden, the Protestant Reformation was spearheaded by Gustav Vasa, whom was elected King of Sweden in 1523 AD. Swedish national conversion to the Protestant faith led to the discontinuance of any official connection between Sweden and the Papacy. Four years later, in 1527 AD, the King of Sweden succeeded in forcing his dominance over the national church. This was when the king took possession over all church property and church appointments required royal approval. The national church and clergy were now subject to civil law, along with Lutheran Protestant ideas and views which were now to be taught in the schools and churches.
Under the reign of King Frederick I in 1523 to 1533 AD, Denmark remained officially Roman Catholic. King Frederick initially persecuted the Lutheran Protestants, but later he began protecting the Lutheran reformers. Due to this religious tolerance of Protestantism, conversions to Lutheranism grew significantly among the Danish population.
King Frederick’s son, Christian, was openly Lutheran.
When King Frederick died, his Lutheran son was prevented from succession of the throne because of the Catholic hold still in place in the nation. It was when the National Assembly terminated the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in 1536 AD and after his victory in the “Count’s War” the following year that he was crowned as King Christian III of Denmark and Norway. At this point he was able to continue the reformation of the state’s church and began to enforce Lutheranism in his kingdom. The resistance to this religious change nearly escalated to the point of civil war.
It was also during this time of the Protestant Reformation that Iceland had also adopted Lutheranism in place of its earlier established Roman Catholic religion. However, the Protestant Reformation in Iceland proved to be much more violent than in most of the other lands ruled by Denmark. Iceland had to be converted by force.
It wasn’t until Lutheranism was firmly in place that Catholicism was outlawed by Icelandic law. It was outlawed to the point that for more than three centuries no Catholic priest was permitted to even set foot on Iceland.
- Kane, Njord. “Chapter 6 – The Christianization of the Norse.” The Vikings : The Story of a People. 2nd ed. Yukon: Spangenhelm, 2015. Print. 978-1943066018
by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing
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