12.10.31, Winroth, The Conversion of Scandinavia

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Sæbjørg Walaker Nordeide

The Medieval Review 12.10.31

Winroth, Anders. The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants, and Missionaries in the Remaking of Northern Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. Pp. xi, 238. ISBN: 978-0-300-17026-9.

Reviewed by:
Sæbjørg Walaker Nordeide
University of Bergen

Winroth's book on the conversion of Scandinavia is one of a number of publications on this topic. However, the author justifies his contribution by approaching the theme from a different perspective and claims to offer a different interpretation from most historians. He states: "The 'Europeanization' of this area is often portrayed in terms of conquest and colonization, if not by rulers through soldiers and settlers, then at least by the church through missionaries, who preached and persuaded. Scandinavians are, in either case, depicted as passive recipients...this book will go beyond the two stereotypical interpretations of early medieval Scandinavian history: the image of the Viking raids as great adventures and the depiction of Scandinavian Christianization and state formation as a kind of colonization" (6). Winroth argues that this "error of perspective in traditional scholarship depends partially on the nature of the available sources" (6), as most scholars base their analyses on the writings of later Christian European authors who emphasised the triumph of Christianity and the barbarism of the pagan Scandinavians. By contrast, Winroth claims that "In this book, the voices of northern Europeans are heard again. We shall listen to what they have to say in their runic inscriptions and in their poetry" (7). Including archaeological material among his sources, Winroth claims to present a new model for the conversion of Scandinavia: instead of a sudden and complete conversion achieved by missionaries, he paints a picture of a slow and piecemeal assimilation extending over several centuries (9-10).

On the positive side, Winroth is a good writer; the book makes pleasant reading and might almost be described as a page-turner. The format is convenient, with 168 pages of text divided in 12 chapters of similar lengths. Furthermore, he makes an important but often-overlooked observation when he reminds us that Muslims and Jews as well as Christians were competing for religious as well as political influence in this period (8). Too often, studies of the Christianisation process focus entirely on the competition between Christianity and what are referred to generally as the pagan religions, which in a Scandinavian context primarily refer to Old Norse and Saami beliefs. On the other hand, the reader would have benefited from more guidance in the introduction regarding what to expect from the book, such as why the key word "Scandinavia" does not include the Saami people, who are hardly mentioned at any point (they do not even appear in the index). In addition, the definition of another key word, "conversion," is missing from the introduction, and such a definition does not appear until Chapter 8 (see below). There are also an inconveniently large number of endnotes in the book.

The main body of the text begins by describing "The Dynamic Eighth Century." This is the best part of the whole work, successfully combining sources of various types. The author describes material artefacts and building structures as key components of the chieftain's foundation of power, focusing particularly on the hall, a building with which the chieftain was closely associated. Winroth's focus on the social elite and how precious materials, artefacts and ideologies supported the chieftain's secular powerbase is a recurring theme in the book.

Chapter 2 deals with the Viking raids, starting with the written evidence for the attacks on the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793. Beginning as small hit-and-run raids, they grew in scale and expanded into ever larger areas: in addition to the better-known Viking attacks on the British Isles and Russia, there is evidence for raids around the Iberian Peninsula, in Italy and Africa. Chapter 3 focuses on the subject of gifts, and describes how Viking-Age society in Scandinavia was ruled by a warrior's ideology. In order to maintain and strengthen his secular powerbase, the chieftain depended on the loyalty of his men. Consequently, he nurtured a personal relationship with them through acts of generosity, giving gifts, holding feasts in the hall and participating in religious rituals that cemented the bond between them. Unfortunately, this point has been repeated often over the last 30-40 years, and its repetition throughout this book verges on becoming tiresome. For example, in Chapters 5-7, Winroth describes how exotic material and fine art made valuable gifts, while in Chapter 10 he notes how prestigious ideologies (i.e. the basic tenets of Christianity) were imported for the same purpose.

The process of colonisation is described in Chapter 4, where the author notes that those who failed to become powerful in Scandinavia could travel in three directions: a) to Western Europe and the British Isles; b) to the islands of the North Atlantic from the 870s onwards; and c) eastwards to Russia. Archaeological finds indicate a peaceful co-existence between Scandinavians, Finns and Slavs, and also suggest that the Vikings acted as peaceful merchants along the rivers of Russia.

In Chapter 8, two different interpretations of the word "conversion" are offered (103-104). The first is "Christianization," which refers to how Christian ideas and practices slowly infiltrated Scandinavia, how Christian burial practices were adopted, and how Christian symbols came to be accepted. Winroth argues that these processes began soon after the Roman Empire became Christian and continued until the church was firmly established in Scandinavia. After this time, the church continued to spread Christian ideas and practices throughout the population. The author's second interpretation of the term "conversion" is as a process of institutional conversion. Here, he refers to how Scandinavian kings destroyed pagan temples, built churches and introduced Christian kingship. This development began later but was completed more quickly than the process of "Christianization." It began when Ansgar had the first churches built in Birka and Hedeby in the 830s, continued with the conversion and baptism of the rulers, and was concluded when the third archbishopric was established in Uppsala in 1164. As the author notes, "The institutional conversion represented the alliance between the church and kings in Scandinavia. This kind of conversion was more a political event than a spiritual process" (104). In Winroth's analysis, the first of these interpretations (Christianization) is based on archaeological sources and the second (institutional conversion) is based on written sources.

According to Winroth's reading of the written evidence, the conversion of Scandinavia took place in three main phases: 1) the missionary phase; 2) the conversion of kings between 960–1020; and 3) the establishment of regular church infrastructure, ending with the foundation of the archbishoprics in Norway and Sweden in 1152/53 and 1164 respectively (104). However, many scholars have described the various phases of conversion in Scandinavia before, none of which are quoted in this book. One might wonder whether Winroth is unaware of these previous achievements, in particularly the work of Fridtjov Birkeli. [1]

Winroth claims in Chapter 9 that the conversion narratives are poor evidence for the story about the conversion of Scandinavia, which he illustrates with the example of stories about the conversion of King Olav Tryggvason. Nevertheless, his interpretations seem to rely a great deal on these sources, for example when trade networks are discussed. Although some archaeological sources are mentioned, the two important Viking-Age towns Ribe and Kaupang are almost entirely absent from the analysis, and where they do appear, the information is based on outdated archaeological literature. In Chapter 10 the author argues that Scandinavian chieftains imported prestigious ideology (i.e. Christianity) not to fulfil the mission statement of the Bible, for they did not think much about such beliefs. Instead, their aim was to build communities, as exemplified by the Danish king Harald Bluetooth and Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev who tried to build communities but did not succeed until they converted to Christianity (140). This topic is followed up in Chapter 11, where state formation is described as being associated with the Christianization process. Winroth describes how a new type of regime emerged beginning in Denmark late in the tenth century, based on formal leadership instead of personal bonds. This regime was formed and strengthened by the monopolization and control of religion, and in this respect Christianity was useful because a trained priesthood was incorporated into its structure. Winroth argues that Christianity legitimized a hierarchy of power, that it had administrative qualifications and international contacts, and that it fostered a mutually beneficial relationship between kings and clerks. The church provided the ideological backbone of kingship: the king ruled with God's approval and there was only one God and one king. In the concluding chapter, Winroth argues that conversion came from inside Scandinavia, facilitated by the elite who imported or invited missionaries and priests. Unfortunately, such theories are neither radical nor new.

By this point, the author's ambitions as presented in the introduction have come to very little. In spite of his criticisms of the traditional narratives presented in the written sources, Winroth's analysis continues to circle around such conventional views. Throughout the book, stories of kings and their men as described in the sagas dominate the text. I looked in vain for the variations and nuances in descriptions of people from various regions and landscapes, many of which are relevant to the story of conversion. Such observations have been published during the later decades, particularly in archaeological literature. [2] This oversight cannot be explained away by the fact that such archaeological investigations are presented in "obscure places" (x), for such aspects have been discussed in published PhD theses as well as in publications from important and well-known interdisciplinary journals and conference proceedings. Furthermore, while Winroth emphasises Scandinavia's important role in the history of Europe and vice versa, and while he includes quotations from Nora Berend's book on the topic, [3] readers may wonder why the history of conversion and state formation in Scandinavia is not related more to other parts of Europe where similar processes were going on at the same time.

I do not expect historians to be fully abreast of the latest developments in archaeological literature, certainly in comparison to archaeologists. Yet even with this concession in mind, I must point out that some of the literature cited is extremely old, such as in the case of Viking-Age decorative styles (68-71). Sometimes this leads to serious errors in the book, such as in the case of the Gokstad ship burial, which is dated to "some point soon after the middle of the ninth century" (44), and to "the early ninth century" (76). However, since 1993 the date of this grave has been known to be from c. 900. [4] Regarding the overarching question of conversion, the author seems to be unfamiliar with many aspects of the topic. For instance, he comments on slaves only as trade goods that "might have been too bulky or too difficult to transport long distances" (91). However, human slaves travel like other humans, and slaves have been identified as one of the potential channels of Christian influence, for some of them may have been Christian. [5]

Returning to one of the main motivations for writing the book, I cannot agree with Winroth's stereotypical representation of scholars depicting Scandinavians as passive recipients of Christianity, or describing the conversion as sudden process brought about by missionaries and conquests. Already in 1973, Birkeli argued for a slow and gradual conversion, and many scholars have followed in his footsteps. [6] Other scholars have used written sources to argue that the conversion to Christianity was quick and top-down, forced upon people who adhered to thriving, indigenous religions. [7] Sverre Bagge for example has emphasised the importance of the kings' role in the historiography of the Christianization process in Norway. [8] Similarly, for many years there have been discussions about how the Christianization process differed in time and space across Scandinavia. For example, it has been suggested that in Sweden, women may have played particularly active roles in the conversion. [9] Other scholars have argued that kings and members of the upper echelons of society actively chose to adopt Christianity as an appropriate legitimation of the formation of a monarchy, [10] starting with the Christian burial of kings and followed by those lower down the social scale (either because of personal convictions or as a consequence of legislation). [11]

With this overall view of Winroth's book in mind, one must question his reasons for writing it. Perhaps an article based on Chapter 1, combined with some of the factual information from the other chapters--such as his discussion of the Viking raids in Chapter 2--would have been a better approach. At least then the result would have been a piece of literature suitable for students of the Viking Age and the conversion of Scandinavia. As it stands, the work is too reliant on outdated scholarly literature and old-fashioned views to be recommended.



1. F. Birkeli, Norske steinkors i tidlig middelalder. Et bidrag til belysning av overgangen fra norrøn religion til kristendom (Skrifter utgitt av Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi i Oslo. II.Hist.-Filos. Klasse. Ny Serie; Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1973).

2. See for instance, F. Svanberg, Decolonizing the Viking Age (Acta Archaeologica Lundensia, 2 vols.; Lund: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2003). See also the various articles in A. Andrénet al., Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes, and Interactions (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2006).

3. N. Berend, ed., Christianization and the Rise of Christian Monarchy: Scandinavia, Central Europe and Rus c. 900-1200 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

4. N. Bonde and A. E. Christensen, "Dendrochronological Dating of the Viking Age Ship Burials at Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune, Norway," Antiquity 67/256 (1993): 575-583.

5. For instance D. Skre, Kirken før sognet. Den tidligste kirkeordningen i Norge (H.E.Lidén, Møtet mellom hedendom og kristendom i Norge; Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1995), 170-233.

6. See for instance A.S. Gräslund, Ideologi och Mentalitet (OPIA 29; Uppsala: Institutionen för arkeologi och antik historia, 2002).

7. G. Steinsland, "The Change of Religion in the Nordic Countries--a Confrontation between Two Living Religions," Collegium Medievale 3 (1990): 123-135.

8. S. Bagge, "Christianization and State Formation in Medieval Norway," Scandinavian Journal of History 30, no. 2 (2005): 107-134.

9. B. Solberg, Jernalderen i Norge (Oslo: Cappelen Akademisk Forlag, 2000); J. Staecker, "The Cross Goes North: Christian Symbols and Scandinavian Women," in The Cross Goes North, ed. M. Carver (Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2003), 463-482.

10. Bagge, "Christianization and State Formation in Medieval Norway," 107-134.

11. E. Roesdahl, "Aristocratic Burial in Late Viking Age Denmark: Custom, Regionality, Conversion," in Herrschaft-Tod-Bestattung, eds. C. von Carnap-Borheim et al. (Bonn: Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte der Universität Kiel/Verlag Dr. Rudolf Habelt GMBH, 2006), 169-183.

Article Details

Author Biography

Sæbjørg Walaker Nordeide

University of Bergen