The conversion of the Scandinavians

We have noted the fashion in which the Scandinavians, the "Northmen," had ravaged much of Europe in the ninth and. tenth centuries. We have also seen that their conversion had begun before the year 950. At the instance of Louis the Pious the Archbishopric of Hamburg had been created as a missionary outpost for that purpose and Anskar had been appointed to it, had travelled widely in the northlands, and had made some converts.

After the death of Anskar (865) the prospect seemed so unfavourable for winning Scandinavia that late in the ninth century it was suggested that the see of Hamburg-Bremen be discontinued and it was only the reluctance of the Pope which prevented the step from being taken. However, some of the Northmen who settled in Great Britain and Ireland and the portion of the Frankish domains which later had its name, Normandy, from them, accepted baptism. Indeed, before the last quarter of the tenth century they had provided three archbishops for the Church in England. Under their contacts with the peoples whom they were attacking, the inherited religion of the Vikings was disintegrating and they were adopting both the faith and much of the culture of the conquered.

It was in the second half of the tenth century that Christianity began to make rapid headway in the three Scandinavian lands — Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. In each conversion was accomplished as a community affair by a kind of mass movement. In each the eventual triumph of Christianity came through royal initiative. In at least one of these lands, Norway, the kings took advantage of it to extend their authority over recalcitrant nobles. In each, as had been true in other states, the kings insisted upon controlling the church in their respective realms. Each obtained the creation of an archbishopric to head the church in his domains.

The actual instruction, baptism, and difficult nurturing of the infant churches was chiefly by missionaries from England. This appears to have been for two reasons. In the first place, through the repeated invasions and ultimately through the Danish conquest of England, close contacts had been established between the Scandinavians and that land. In the second place, since the English were a subject people, the Scandinavians had nothing to fear from them politically. Had missionaries been accepted from the Carolingian realms or from the archiepiscopal see of Hamburg-Bremen, they might have been the means of establishing Carolingian and then German political power in Scandinavia. As we have seen, missionaries were used by the Carolingians to extend their control over much of Germany. It would not have been surprising if a similar sequel had followed had the Church been founded in Scandinavia by missionaries from Carolingian and German territories. Since most of the missionaries were from England, the dream of Louis the Pious and Anskar that the Archbishopric of Bremen-Hamburg would be the radiating centre for Christianity in the North was largely although by no means entirely frustrated.

Denmark and Norway were brought to the Christian faith almost simultaneously, but the process of conversion began in Denmark slightly earlier than in Norway. That was probably to be expected because of the nearer proximity of Denmark to Christendom and the smaller size of the country. Not long before the year 950 a King of Denmark, Harald Bluetooth, was baptized. His son claimed for him that he had "made the Danes Christian," and we hear of bishops among that people. In the succeeding reign, that of Sweyn (Svend I), the conqueror of the larger part of England, a pagan reaction occurred. It was under Sweyn's son, Canute, that Denmark finally came into the family of professedly Christian states. From 1019 until his death in 1035. Canute was king in both England and Denmark and for a time he was also master of Norway. Canute was a Christian and beginning with 1020 he, vigorously supported the Christian cause. He made a pilgrimage to Rome and is said to have commanded that all his subjects learn the Lord's Prayer and go to communion three times a year. Many missionaries came from England, but it was not until early in the twelfth century that Denmark was removed from the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Hamburg and was given an archbishopric of its own.

In Norway the course of conversion was more spectacular than in Denmark. Harald Fairhair (died 933), a pagan, by much fighting had made himself master of most of Norway and had begun the establishment of a monarchy which would rule over that land. His son and successor, Haakon "the Good," had been reared in the English court as a Christian. He tried to win his people to his faith, but the opposition of the landowners proved too strong for him. Not many years after Haakon's death Harald Bluetooth of Denmark made himself lord of Norway and sought to spread Christianity in the land, but without much success. More effective were the brief efforts of a greatgrandson of Harald Fairhair, Olaf Tryggvason. A posthumous child, born about 963 or 964, from boyhood Olaf led an adventurous and colourful life. Early captured by the Vikings and sold as a slave, he was rescued by an uncle, adopted the life of a Viking, raided England, was baptized by a hermit on the Scilly Islands off the south-west coast of that land, and was confirmed by the Bishop of Winchester. Handsome, huge of stature, daring, fearless, he was the embodiment of the Viking ideal. In 995 he returned to Norway and there was elected king. He set about bringing all the Norwegians to acknowledge him and to receive baptism. The two processes seem to have gone hand in hand. He accomplished them by persuasion where possible and by force where necessary. Now and again he destroyed pagan temples and slew members of the opposition. Most of the land was nominally Christian when, in the year 1000, he perished in a great naval battle with the Danes, Swedes, and his Norwegian opponents.

The conversion of Norway was completed and the Church firmly planted by another Olaf — Olaf Haraldsson, or St. Olaf. Like the other Olaf, a posthumous child, he was also of the lineage of Harald Fairhair. Stocky, strong, skilful in sports, good to look upon, fair of hair, ruddy of face, keen of mind, with eyes before which, when they lighted up in anger, strong men quailed, he was a born leader of men. At the age of twelve he began his Viking career. He fought in England and France and raided the shores of Sweden. In his early twenties (in 1015) he went to Norway to claim the throne, defeated his enemies, and was rapidly acknowledged by thing after thing, the thing being the local assembly.

Once securely in power, Olaf sought to make his realm Christian not only in name but also in fact. Priests and bishops from England aided him in instructing his people, but not all these were strictly foreigners, for from their names it appears that three of the four bishops from England had Scandinavian blood in their veins. He travelled through the land to sec that churches were built and priests set over them. He framed laws on what he believed to be Christian principles, proscribing paganism and customs which were contrary to Christian morals. Yet even he did not bring about the baptism of all his subjects. Many local magnates opposed him, partly because of his attempt to increase the royal power at the expense of their authority and partly because of his suppression of the pagan shrines which were their property and from which came much of their revenues and prestige. Aided by Canute of Denmark, they rose in rebellion and in a battle in 1030 Olaf was slain. A revulsion of popular feeling swept Olaf to canonization. Miracles were soon reported to have been wrought at his tomb, churches were erected in his honour, and he became the patron saint of the realm.

Although the formal conversion of Norway may be said to have been completed by the time of Olafs death, the instruction of the populace in the tenets of the faith and the development of an organization for the Church required many decades. Monks and secular priests from England were of assistance. The scald, the bard who was an accepted feature of the old order, spread the message through his songs, and respected laymen who were committed to the new faith gave it prestige. By the latter part of the eleventh century the country had a diocesan organization. The division of the area into parishes and the provision of local clergy proceeded, although only gradually. Diocesan boundaries. usually conformed to pre-Christian political divisions. The Archbishop of Hamburg attempted to exercise jurisdiction, but the king angrily objected and insisted on having his bishops consecrated in France or England. In 1152 Norway was given an archiepiscopal see of its own and its church thereby achieved the kind of national status which prevailed in several other kingdoms of Europe. Technically this was within the structure of the Catholic Church of the West over which the Pope was supreme, but Rome was far away and its power not so effective as in nearer lands.

The last of the three Scandinavian kingdoms fully to enter the Christian fold was Sweden. Christians were to be found there at least as early as the ninth century, and An-skar visited the land more than once. By 936 such Christian communities as had existed seem to have disappeared, but the faith was soon renewed. Many Swedes who had been in England as merchants or soldiers and had been baptized there returned home. In the second half of the tenth century there were bishops in Sweden. Early in the eleventh century a Swedish king, Olof Skotkonung, was baptized and inaugurated a bishopric, under the jurisdiction of the see of Hamburg-Bremen. Although most of the land was still pagan and the main shrine of the old worship was maintained as formerly at Uppsala, missionaries from England were preaching the new faith. As was to be expected and as was true in Norway, Christianity triumphed first in the South, nearer to Christendom, and paganism lingered longest in the North. It was not until the first decades of the twelfth century that Christianity was dominant. Monasticism entered through the Cistercians who, as we are to see, represented a revival in that movement. When, in 1164, Sweden was given its own archiepiscopal see, its first incumbent was a Cistercian, its seat was placed at Uppsala, and the cathedral was erected on the site of the head temple of the pre-Christian pagan cult. Thus was Christianity clearly victor and not in a lax form but headed by a member of that order, then young, which represented one of the latest and strictest attempts to conform fully to the Christian ideal.

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