Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Lesson 5 - The Conversion of the Vikings

The Vikings were Norse (Scandinavian[1]) warrior-seamen who raided, traded, explored and settled in wide areas of Europe and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to the mid-11th century. They left their islands and peninsulas of Scandinavia for overseas adventures. Their adventures and exploration gave their name to an epoch, Viking Age. It is the term for the period in European history, especially Northern European and Scandinavian history, spanning the late 8th to 11th centuries when the Vikings explored Europe by its oceans and rivers through trade and warfare.

They lived in the fjords and viks in their homelands. Fjord is a narrow, deep sea inlet, steep-sided and bounded by mountains, formed by past glacial erosion. Vik is a small bay or inlet. Etymologically, the word vik is the source for the word Viking but it is still disputed. The two suggested origins are the Old Norse word vik meaning bay or the Latin word for town, vicus.

They sailed westwards to the British Isles and further west to Iceland, Greenland and even in the shores of North America. They sailed southwards, using the river systems of the modern Low Countries and France. They sailed eastward across the Baltic Sea and by river and portage[2] reached deep into Russia. They used the European river system as natural aquatic superhighway in plundering. It is very navigable and accessible.

They sailed as pagans of deities like Thor, the thunder god; Odin, the god of spear; and Frey, the god of sexual pleasure.
Take note that their gods speak more about themselves. They have Thor and Odin because they were warfreak. Their worship of Frey did not only lead to fertility of their land but also proliferated massive polygamy. One wife was the wife of another. One husband was the husband of many others. As a result there was population explosion.

Actually, as means of livelihood, they were farmers who cultivated the land in the short farming period. They relied heavily on cattles and livestock. But the tremendous increase in population is directly proportional to the increase of demand for food. In other words, the more the people, the more mouths to feed.

Nordic villages are independent from one another since they didn’t have a king that unified them. One village plundered another village in search for food. This prompted them to sail away from their homelands and search for food and wealth overseas.


The very first known attack by the fierce Viking was on the peaceful monastery at Lindisfarne in 793. Lindisfarne was a church and monastery, built there in 635, and was one of the first establishments of Celtic Christianity in England. The most famous product of the monastery was the Lindisfarne Gospel (an illuminated Latin manuscript now in the British Museum). It was a holy place desecrated by the Vikings. The defenceless and peaceful monks were on their way for mass when they experienced hell on earth. They were plundered and slaughtered. Contemporary writers will describe the attacks as stinging hornets and ravenous wolves. They destroyed everything in sight and took with them some monks as slaves

In 794, the Vikings plundered Jarrow, Orkney, Shetland islands, Hebrides and the famous island monastery of Iona. In the following year, Iona was plundered again and also the island of Skye, the island of Lambay and islands west coast of Ireland. Iona devastated again in 802 and 806 and 68 Irish monks were slain. Many parts of Britain were devastated. Many monasteries were plundered.

The Vikings devastated the monasteries not because they were against monasteries as places of Christian worship but against monasteries as keepers of gold and silver vessels and as places containing prominent men, who could be held for ransom. Undefended monasteries were obvious targets.

Then, they penetrated the river system of modern France and the Low Countries. For two generations one could see fleeing monks on the roads leading to Burgundy. The monks from Auvergne and Flanders carried their saints out of the place of plunder. The canons of Tours carried the body of St. Martin of Tours four times away from destruction.


The Long-ship is characterized as a graceful, long, narrow, light, wooden boat with a shallow draft hull designed for speed. The ship's shallow draft allowed navigation in waters only one meter deep and permitted beach landings, while its light weight enabled it to be carried over portages.  

Longships were also double-ended, the symmetrical bow and stern allowing the ship to reverse direction quickly without having to turn around; this trait proved particularly useful in northern latitudes where icebergs and sea ice posed hazards to navigation. Longships were fitted with oars along almost the entire length of the boat itself. Later versions sported a rectangular sail on a single mast which was used to replace or augment the effort of the rowers, particularly during long journeys. Some were decorated with dragon head designs

The repeated Viking invasions of England brought them into close contact with the already Christianized people. Since the Vikings did not fear the English people militarily or politically, English missionaries were allowed to move about fairly freely in Scandinavian countries without being looked on with suspicion. As had been true with the barbarians, the religion of the conquered became that of the conqueror.


In the early 9th century, the Danes raided English monasteries and took people as slaves. By 874 only the southernmost kingdom remained. However under Alfred the English (+13th cent), the Danes  were defeated in 878. In the following year, Alfred and the Danish leader Guthrum (+890) made a treaty. England was divided between them, the Danes taking the eastern part. With the peace treaty, Guthrum accepted Christianity and so were his followers. The succeeding Danish kings became Christians and died with full Christian rites.

What happened was a rapid assimilation of Christianity. The process of assimilation in Ireland had already begun in the late 9th century with the intermarriage of some Viking leaders and Irish princesses which was accompanied by the Viking’s conversion.


There were three attempts for the Vikings to establish a permanent settlement in France. Only one was successful, that is in the region of the lower Seine River. This is the part of France that still bears their name, Normandy. how could this be? The Carolingian Emperor Charles the Simple (879-929) made an agreement with the Viking King Rollo (ca.846-931). He allowed Rollo and his subjects to settle in the under populated region and in return, he became a Christian and promised to defend the lower Seine from future attacks , from the Bretons and other Vikings. There were consequent intermarriages between Viking men and Christian Frankish women. They adopted Christian names. For example:
Rollo à Robert
Geloc à Adele – daughter of Rollo
Thurstein à Richard
Stigand à Odo

William Longsword (893-942), son of Rollo (now Robert) wanted to enter the monastery. He was a devout Christian but he was restrained so that he could be the successor of his father. He married a Christian princess and his sister married a Christian prince. Gradually, they became French speaking.


Beyond Ireland and Scotland and the islands of the north, the Viking sailors discovered the empty land they called Iceland. It was empty which means uninhabited except for Irish monks who lived inn the southwest during the summer seasons. The settlement happened between 870-930. It was a migration of tens of thousands. There was no assimilation needed and their Christianization came from their Norse homeland.

According to legend, a sudden volcanic eruption in the year 1000 led the settlers to accept Christianity.A Viking leader/missionary named Gizur demanded the official acceptance of the Christian religion. All people were baptized either publicly or privately. Soon bishops were appointed and the canon law was codified

Beyond Iceland to the west, the Vikings sailed and with them was the Christian religion. Eric the Red (ca.950-1003) set sail 450 miles from western Iceland when he caught sight of an enormous land mass with imposing glaciers reaching 1,900 meters. He turned south following the coast around Cape Farewell, east of which he found green, richly looking land on deep fjords, reaching out from the mountains, reminiscent of Norway.

Eric the Red called this land, Greenland. He was remembered in medieval Icelandic saga sources as having founded the first Nordic settlement in Greenland. Greenland’s conversion followed Iceland’s conversion in 1000. Christian churches flourished in Greenland.

A diocese was established in Gardar in the 12th century and bishops from Greenland travelled to the continent for ecumenical councils. Eventually by the 16th century, the diocese disintegrated for unknown reason. Probably, it was because of the climate. For 80 years, no bishop or priest resided and many inhabitants abandoned the faith. Once a year, they exhibited a sacred linen once used by the last priest who celebrated mass there about a century ago.

More is known about the conversion of the Vikings who journeyed abroad than the Viking who stayed at home.


In the 8th century, Denmark was visited by St. Wilibrord but with no success. In the 9th century, Ansgar,  the apostle of the north, only gained little success.

The conversion of Denmark was brought about by the conversion of their king, Harald Bluetooth (ca.935). His mother was Christian but his father was pagan. Probably, he was converted to Christianity before assuming the throne.

According to legend, German missionaries preached the doctrine of Trinity but the Danes would believe only our God as inferior to other gods and one among their many gods. An ordeal of fire proved that Christianity is the true religion.

Others would say that the conversion of the Danes was politically motivated for it would mean closer ties with the German emperor.

A rune stone of about 8 feet have this inscription: “King Harald had this stone made in memory of his father, Gorm, and his mother, Thyri, the same Harlad who conquered all Denmark and Norway and who made the danes Christian”- a simple act that made Denmark officially Christian.


The conversion of Norway followed later in the 11th century. King Olaf of Norway (960s-1000) fought England in the last wave of the Viking attacks in the 990s. In 994, he became a Christian in England as part of the peace settlement. The English King Ethelred stood sponsor at Olaf’s confirmation. After receiving gifts, Olaf promised "that he would never come back to England in hostility." Olaf then left England for Norway and never returned. After returning to Norway, Olaf seized the crown of Norway and converted his people to the Christian faith.


For Denmark and Norway, the kings’ conversion followed their people’s conversion. Sweden was a different story. Another king named Olaf of Sweden received baptism from English missionaries and his daughter married the converted king Olaf of Norway. Yet conversion of people did not follow.

Large areas of Sweden remained pagan for a century. At Uppsala, pagan worship and sacrifice even human sacrifice followed. The Christian king Inge refused to worship at Uppsala and feed for his life. By the 12th century, Uppsala was destroyed and the Christian church, still surviving, replaced it.

[1] Scandinavia is a cultural, historical and ethno-linguistic region in northern Europe characterized by their common heritage and language. In the strictest definition, it is composed of three kingdoms (Denmark, Norway, Sweden). The possible extended usage includes Iceland and Finland. The maximal extended usage that takes Scandinavia as synonymous to the Nordic countries includes  Greenland and Faroe Islands.

[2] Portage or portaging refers to the practice of carrying watercraft or cargo over land to avoid river obstacles, or between two bodies of water.

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