30th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 27-28, 2010

Maths Bertell, "Resisting Conversion in Medieval Scandinavia"

Why did the Scandinavian countries and Iceland abandon their ancient religion in favor of roman Christianity? The question rarely ascends, as to most the answer would be; they had no choice. But Christianization and conversion is a process with advanced and complicated mechanisms, and also different perspectives. When the question does arise, the answer varies from writer to writer, but also from field to field. Early research is heavily dependent on the thoughts of evolutionism and the step from paganism to Christianity is seen as a natural development from a “primitive” step towards civilization and culture. When encountering the Christianity of the European continent, the Scandinavians supposedly felt the shortcomings of their own inherited faith and started to act for a change on the return home. The conversion was then a relatively easy decision, according to some scholars. But other scholars have pointed to the difficulties with leaving the gods of the forefathers and the tight relationship between society, culture and religion in pre-Christian Scandinavia.

The Christianization of Scandinavia was a process that lasted for several hundred years. Medieval laws suggests that this may have been a slow process, as the laws of Gotland and Uppland as late as the 13th century speaks of prohibition of sacrifices at pagan holy sites. The Icelandic sources of the Old Norse Religion from the 13th century shows traces of Christianity. The traces have mostly been interpreted as influences but I’d like to stress the possibility of traces as signs of strategy against the new religion. Many conversions bear witness of such strategies (North America, Africa, Sápmi), where the believers of the old religion use the language of Christianity to boost the value and power of the beliefs of their forefathers.

The hypothesis of this paper is that the Christian influences in Old Norse religion source material should be considered as a reaction to Christianity and a wave of European influences into Scandinavia, beginning in the 6th century. This follows the archaeological perspective of Christianization as a slow process beginning early. Conversion on the other hand follows the Roman Church's gradually tightening grip of Europe. In this project it is studied in different perspectives. Conversion must be seen as a process over several generations. The first generation may not internalize the faith, but the following generations would gradually accept Christianity as a natural part of Scandinavian culture. The medieval texts of the Eddas and the texts of Adam of Bremen among others are studied in the light of conversion theories of Horton and Rambo.


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