Vikings are often seen as pagan looters who mercilessly attacked Christian churches and killed defenseless monks. But this is only part of their story. Vikings also played a key role in the spread of Christianity.
Norse mythology has long captured the popular imagination and many today hear stories about pagan gods, particularly Odin, Thor and Loki, recently reimagined in Marvel comics and films. Some even follow reconstructed versions of these beliefs, known as Ásatrú (the Aesir religion).
Our main source for this mythology, Prose Edda, was written by a 13th century Christian, Icelandic politician Snorri Sturluson. Scandinavia converted to Christianity after many parts of Europe, but this process is still an important part of the true history of the Vikings.
It would be wrong to minimize Viking violence, but during the medieval period the attacks were not restricted to these Scandinavian navigators. Irish annals, like the Ulster Annals, record far more Irish attacks on other Irishmen – including church invasion and burning – than Scandinavian attacks.
An ideological shock is one of the suggested causes of the "Viking Age." This line of thought suggests that pagan Scandinavians were trying to avenge Christian attacks, such as the invasion of Saxony by Emperor Charlemagne Frank. This 30-year conflict involved mass forced baptism, the death penalty for “pagan practices” and included the execution of 4,500 Saxon rebels in Verden.
It seems more likely, however, that Christian monasteries were initially targeted because they were poorly defended and contained portable wealth in the form of metal and people. Settling in richer Christian lands also offered better prospects than staying in Scandinavia with few resources.
The rise of Christianity
The conversion of Scandinavia was gradual, with Christian missionaries preaching intermittently in Scandinavia from the eighth century. Although there was some resistance, Christianity and Nordic paganism were not always fundamentally opposite.
The first Scandinavian king to be converted was the Danish exile Harald Klak. He was baptized in the year 826 with Emperor Louis I the Pious as his sponsor, in exchange for imperial support for an attempt to regain his throne.
Gutrum, a king of the Great Viking Army who attacked England in the ninth century, was also baptized as part of his agreement following the defeat by West Saxon King Alfred "The Great." In fact, getting in touch with Christian kingdoms that were more politically centralized led to further unification of the Scandinavian kingdoms.
One of the most significant turning points in Scandinavian Christianity was the conversion of the Danish king Harald Bluetooth in the 960s. Bluetooth technology was named after Harald because he brought together different parts of Denmark, while the technology unites communication devices.
Harald proudly proclaimed on the now iconic Jelling stone – an impressive monument with a runic inscription – that he "made the Danes Christians." And this link between royalty and Christianity continued.
Norway was converted largely due to two of its kings: Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf Haraldsson. The latter was canonized shortly after his death in battle in 1030, becoming the first saint of Scandinavia. The future Norwegian kings benefited from their association with Olaf Haraldsson, who became the patron saint of Norway.
Danish music at the 2018 Eurovision festival in Lisbon portrays Magnus as a pacifist Viking who refused to fight. Sources suggest that on one occasion Magnus refused to attack the Norwegian king and fled the fleet, but his career was not without violence.
Scandinavians who settled abroad on Christian lands were also converted to the dominant religion. While Scandinavian settlers initially buried their dead in traditional pagan ways, they soon adopted the customs of those around them.
Even Scandinavian settlers on the remote North Atlantic islands joined the European mainstream with some enthusiasm. Partly due to pressure from Norway, Iceland officially converted to Christianity in the year 1000, but some pagan practices were still tolerated.
Settlements in Greenland ultimately failed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but even when the inhabitants were starving, they still devoted precious resources to importing luxury goods into the church, including wine and clothing.
The Scandinavians also joined the crusades; now they were the Christians attacking the so-called pagans. The Norwegian king Sigurd was the first European king to personally participate in the crusades, making a trip between 1108 and 1111, shortly after the First Crusade culminated in the Christian reoccupation of Jerusalem in 1099.
After all, the crusades were not so different from the Vikings' attacks, but this time the killing and looting had the support of Christians. Instead of an afterlife in Valhalla as a reward for dying in battle, those who died in the Crusades would go straight to heaven.