15.05.28, Garipzanov, ed., Conversion and Identity in the Viking Age

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Kevin Wanner

The Medieval Review 15.05.28

Garipzanov, Ildar, ed., with the assistance of Rosalind Bonté. Conversion and Identity in the Viking Age. Medieval Identities: Socio-Cultural Spaces, 5. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014. pp. x, 256. ISBN: 9782503549248 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Kevin Wanner
Western Michigan University

Conversion and Identity in the Viking Age collects ten essays--including an introduction by editor Ildar Garipzanov and a concluding discussion by Jón Viðar Sigurðsson that both comment on the contributions falling in between--all of which reconsider in different ways and using different sources processes of conversion, christianization, or religious change in the Norse cultural sphere. Territories that are discussed in single or across multiple essays include the Scandinavian mainland and the "colonies" of Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and the Isle of Man. Most of the contributors focus more heavily on archaeological or material evidence than on literary sources, and most use the former to challenge or revise the portrait of conversion presented in the latter, which many suggest has heretofore been too readily accepted by scholars. More specifically, many of the essays suggest that conversion needs to be thought of as more of an ongoing process than in terms of dramatic or punctuating 'events,' and as a bottom-up as much as top-down driven phenomenon. Most concur that such shifts in focus can be accomplished by looking for evidence of the influx, acceptance, and adaptation of new religious ideas, symbols, objects, and identities in networks of trade and social exchange, and at the local level of homesteads and villages, rather than only or mainly through the activity of missionaries or rulers, or as measured by the establishment and growth of ecclesiastical institutions.

Garipzanov's introductory essay begins by problematizing the concept of 'conversion,' briefly discussing how this and related topics have been addressed in prior scholarship, and laying groundwork for the contributions to follow. He states that a major goal of the present collection is to foreground "the close connection between conversion and identities in the Viking Age" (7). Specifically, Garipzanov and other contributors are interested in tracing the ways in which the newly available identity of "Christian-ness" interacted with, supplemented, or clashed with identity markers for ethnicity, gender, power, and class. Perhaps the most interesting substantive insight offered in this introduction, and one that is developed by later essays, is that "Christian practices and beliefs were just one staple in a larger cultural package that was transmitted to the North via major networks of international trade and communication" (11). Garipzanov suggests use of the term "osmosis" as a way to characterize the process of religious change (4, 19), though he is not very explicit about why he prefers this term to others or what analytic advantage it provides, and the term is not taken up much if at all by other contributors.

The first two essays following the introduction are the only ones to focus primarily on written sources. The second of these, written by Haki Antonsson and which perhaps would have been better placed first in the collection, is, as its subtitle indicates, "A Critical Review of Recent Scholarly Writings" on conversion in Scandinavia. The essay delivers what is promised, though on the whole its discussion is rather abstract or general, with a focus on trends rather than particular works, and references to specific pieces of scholarship and scholarly opinions often relegated to notes. The essay that precedes it, Christopher Abram's "The Two 'Modes of Religiosity' in Conversion-Era Scandinavia," is the only one in the volume to focus squarely on written sources from the period under consideration, specifically such familiar texts as specimens of skaldic and eddic poetry, Snorri Sturluson's Edda, and Adam of Bremen's Latin church history. The novelty of Abram's contribution lies in his application to the Norse context of Harvey Whitehouse's notion that there are two cross-culturally encountered, ideal typical forms of religiosity. Abram's sensible and well-argued if unsurprising conclusion is that while pre-Christian Norse religion is closer to Whitehouse's imagistic type of religiosity (which perpetuates itself through low frequency but high intensity group ritual performance) and Christianity is closer to his doctrinal form (which perpetuates itself through low intensity but frequently reiterated informational instruction), the "religion" in either case is (as one would expect whenever utilizing ideal types) a mixed or hybrid form. Abram also suggests that each "religion" comes more to resemble the other, or increasingly borrows from the other's playbook, as they compete for adherents through the conversion period. A minor problem but one worth mentioning in Abram's essay is what appears to be a mistaken application of the term pantheism (the conception that "god is everything," and vice versa) to native Norse religion, when polytheism (the idea that there are many gods) seems to be what is meant (23).

The next two essays, Orri Vésteinsson's "Shopping for Identities: Norse and Christian in the Viking-Age North Atlantic" and Rosalind Bonté's "Conversion and Coercion: Religious Change in the Faroe Islands," form a bridge of sorts between those that precede and follow them, in that both address a balance of written and material data. Orri's essay seeks to account for the prevalence of literary activity and through it the production and maintenance of a Norse cultural identity in Iceland using archaeological evidence. He reads this evidence to suggest that a distinctive Norse identity gradually formed in this colony as a way of reaffirming its roots and thus legitimacy, while with the acceptance of Christianity this same cultural identity came to function more as a tool of distinction, marking out this society's difference from the rest of Christendom. Bonté similarly uses material evidence from the Faroe Islands to challenge the portrait of conversion provided by the Icelandic Færeyinga saga, suggesting that the former suggests a lengthy period of non-institutional, bottom-up development of Christianity in this locale prior to the Norwegian king Óláfr Tryggvason's literarily attested involvement in and consolidation of this process.

The last four essays before Jón Viðar Sigurðsson's summary discussion, written by David M. Wilson, Garipzanov, Søren M. Sindbæk, and Anne Pedersen respectively, focus primarily on describing and interpreting archaeological evidence, much of which will be familiar to scholars in the field, but some of which reflects recent discoveries; among the artifacts discussed are runestones, other sculptures made out of and/or inscriptions on stone, gravesites and grave-finds, coin-pendants, and brooches. One of the chief strengths of this volume lies in the demonstration by these essays of how archaeological data challenge and complicate the picture of conversion provided by the literary sources, in terms of dating, stages, agents, etc. The volume's use of "identity" as a common heuristic tool also allows its contributors largely to bypass or transcend what have for long been sterile debates over what, in psychological or "spiritual" terms, constitutes complete or authentic conversion. Most of the essays treat acceptance and adaptation of aspects of Christianity, or resistance to such, as a sociological problem involving the acquisition and/or construction of a new identity component that interacts in complex ways with existing markers, of gender, class, power, ethnicity, locality, and so on.

Conversion and Identity has no serious shortcomings, either in terms of its coverage or the quality of its scholarship and presentation. It is a solid example of the type of survey, one which poses new questions and reassesses the state of the evidence, which needs to appear from time to time to serve as a resource and basis for ongoing work in a field of study such as that of conversion-era Scandinavia. Some interpretations offered in the essays are certainly open to criticism, however. The general conclusions of several are, even if sometimes self-consciously so, very speculative, and the evidence (or, at times, lack thereof) could in many cases be read in different, even opposite, ways. As an example, when Orri Vésteinsson argues on the basis of the existing archaeological record that "Norse ethnicity only began to materialize in the mid-tenth century" in Iceland, and builds upon this conclusion to suggest that the island's "settlement population was too heterogeneous for particular ethnic markers to be meaningful or useful" (87), it is easy to see how such a reading of the evidence could be challenged. Could one not argue just as validly that markers of cultural distinction would tend to lose much of their meaning and usefulness, and thus be absent, under conditions of cultural homogeneity?

I also think there is less explicit appreciation than there might be across the essays of just how different native Norse paganism/heathenism/whatever-one-wants-to-call-it and Christianity are (conceptually) and were (historically) from each other, and thus a failure to recognize adequately what the introduction of the latter added, in a qualitative sense, to possibilities for identity formation in the North. For example, Abram proposes to use Whitehouse's ideal types "to explore the possibility that Norse paganism and Viking-Age Christianity were very similar at a level beneath the political, social, and doctrinal levels at which they were notionally incompatible" (24). He makes this case by illustrating how the two religions, one more imagistic, the other more doctrinal in character, came to resemble one another through a process of interaction and competition. What is missing here, however, is attention to what it meant for a "self-consciously" autonomous religious system, one, that is, that was perceived and represented by its practitioners and institutions as separable from and transcendent of cultural, political, social, ethnic, or linguistic identities, first to be introduced to and then to become dominant in a region that had before known only forms of "religion" that were functionally and conceptually inseparable from these. In other words, while it may well have been the case that Viking-Age Christianity was (or became) much like the paganism it sought to replace, the same cannot as easily be claimed for Christianity in the abstract. The latter provided the opportunity for people to take on a transcultural identity that was not coterminous with but rather, given its aim of global saturation, purposefully straddled cultural/ethnic/linguistic boundaries. Awareness of Christianity as a radically different sort of identity marker in the Viking-Age North is perhaps most present in Garipzanov's essay titled "Christian Identities, Social Status, and Gender in Viking-Age Scandinavia," in which he references Jan Assman's distinction between "invisible," or socially "embedded," and "visible," or explicitly known and defined, religion (144-145), but even here the analytic possibilities of Assman's distinction are not really exploited. Another, related matter that might also have usefully received attention in this volume is whether and, if so, how being an adherent/friend of specific members of the pantheons of either the Norse gods or, as things developed, Catholic saints factored into social identity in the period and places under consideration.

The volume as a whole has been well executed and carefully edited. Typographical mistakes are rare and minor, mostly amounting to missing hyphens (see, e.g., 7, 16, 53-54, 66), commas (e.g., before "however" on 54 and 61), or paragraph indentations (131), and there are a few inconsistencies in formatting of citations (e.g., cf. note 26 on p. 11 to note 22 on p. 147). Stylistically, there are some uses of present-day vernacular that are distracting and seem unnecessary or ill-chosen: while I do not object to using neologisms or slang terms that capture something more formal or familiar words fail to, "guess" would have done as well as "guesstimate" (11), and there seems little advantage to characterizing repeated use of brooch castings as a form of "re-blogg[ing]" (168). The presence of a bibliography (either for the entire book, or a separate one for each chapter) is missed, since limiting biographical information to footnotes forces one often to skim through pages of notes to find the first, full citations of sources that catch one's interest. Illustrations and other visual aids are well-chosen and well-placed within the text. Affiliations and job titles for all authors are given at the outset of each essay, but a separate section giving fuller contributor information, such as areas of expertise/interest and previous publications, would have been welcome, whether for established or for newer and thus less well-known scholars.

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