Women and Christianity in Western Scandinavia

The Conversion of Scandinavia is like the conversion of all areas a debated and contested topic in historical writing, not only because it is so decisive for the further development of the nations which we today know as Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, but also because different historians read the sources differently, and that is not even taking into account the use of archaeological evidence. But during the last decade or so have the historical research started to go interdisciplinary in the approach to this topic, yet it have seem that the scholars have forgotten that the area they are concerned with is waste and contain many differences within itself. This have caused a number of theories and approaches to the topic to surface and then to disappear after some time, or as a Norwegian Bishop said it in 1930 when he attempted to make sense of the historical research about St Olaf up to that point; ‘If you go to the historians for answers you will witness a Polish parliament, were everyone will be looking after their own interests and tear apart everyone else’s ideas and meanings. The development of historical research on the topic is like a household where things are being put to the side, or stored away because it is of no use anymore, or thought unreliable, but who knows maybe some of the ideas and approaches that have been stored away might one day be packed out of the boxes again and embraced once more.[1] So with this in mind we should explore the problems about the interpretations of the conversion in Scandinavia.

First of all we should all know that the idea which is taught in schools that Christianity was brought to the region with sword and blood, based on the Icelandic sagas, especially Heimskringla and the Sagas of the Norwegian Kings, is wrong.[2] I have elsewhere on this blog described the issues with the sagas as a source,[3] but I can in this instance add that for the region as a whole the sagas do not give enough information about the transition period between Paganism and Christianity, it almost seems like it all happened over night. However, we as readers of history are aware that there are other accounts to this matter, though all of them have their own issues which I will not go into detail about here, but these sources can help broaden our understanding of the late pagan world and the early Christian world in the North as well as the transition between the two of them, did this transition happen overnight in 1000 on Iceland and in 1030 in Norway and in the 10th century in Denmark?  Or are we more likely to find that things took time and that the two religions and beliefs lived side by side for a period of years? I remember from my education in a Norwegian school that the conversion we dealt with as a clear-cut change that happened almost overnight, and this was thought at a point when academic historians already had started to see the possibility that Christianity could have been present in the country long before the textbooks suggest it. [4]

More resent research have included the use of archaeology among their evidence, which have brought a whole new debate about this period,  a debate we here don’t have time nor place to give you full update on, but the main thing you need to know is that everything isn’t always what it seem. It is in this environment many new articles and books have been publishes as a contribution to the search for the “truth” about the conversion in Scandinavia. Among the recent and valuable contributions to the topic is Anne-Sofie Graeslund’s[5]  and Jørn Staecker’s[6] articles in the 2003 book ‘The Cross goes North’.  Yet both seem to apply their research and findings to the entire region even though they are only from a very small area, respectively from Birka in Sweden and parts of Denmark and these areas are both very well-connected with the continent through trade and other connections. They were also the areas where German and Carolingian missionaries worked in 9th century.[7] It has to be said, both articles were primarily concerned with the role of women in the conversion of Scandinavia, and their belonging in the new faith. Although these articles do stand fast in their conclusions and in their own right is worth reading, I believe that their generalization for all of Scandinavia based on the few sources and the little spread of evidence geographically might suggest that further research is needed, or that it need to be reevaluated. For there seem to be little if no evidence from Iceland or the western parts of Norway areas which traditionally have been associated with each other.

In a recent study the author(me) found that be looking at the evidence supplied through the Sagas and other medieval literature from Iceland and comparing this with the archaeological reminds found on Iceland and in the four western Counties in Norway; Møre og Romsdal, Sogn og Fjordane, Hordaland and Rogaland, one can see that the conclusion that Scandinavian women were attracted to Christianity at an early age, based on Graeslund and Staerker’s articles, might not fit with the situation for the western parts of Scandinavia which was closed connected to the British Iles then to the continent,[8] after all a large number of settlers to Iceland came either through Scotland Ireland and England or the Hebrides, Orkney’s, Shetland and Faeroe Islands, which at the point were among the native population Christian, at least in the name. This suggest that many settlers who came to Iceland were acquainted with Christianity, and as the sagas and Landnamabook suggest, among these were some Christians who were both baptized and had received communion, among these the majority were women, though it seems from the same sources that religion did not at this point restrict the marriage marked  for the settlers or their counterparts in the British Isles, for it is suggested that there were marriages were one was belonging to the traditional beliefs and the other were Christian, in these cases it was most likely that the Woman would be Christian and would bring her religion with her to their new home on Iceland. Although these evidence are good in themselves there is one slight problem; so far it have not been found any Christian burials, not male nor female, in Iceland that dates before 980 A.D., so therefore it have been suggested that after the first generation of Christian settlers the Christian minority on Iceland took on the costumes of the pagan majority, and adapted to the political and cultural climate on the island to survive.[9] It have been suggested that since burials are done after the deceased is passed, they might not reflect the religious views, beliefs and practices held by the deceased, but rather by their family which is left behind, this might explain why we so far have not found any Christian burials on Iceland. Yet it have to be mentioned that the majority of the burials on Iceland are not what one would expect from a Viking burial; large mounds with ships and lots of goods, they are rather more sparsely equipped, and the majority are also found by share luck due to earth erosion or construction work.[10] Some archaeologists have suggested and believe that the tradition of flat ground burials, i.e. burials underground without a mound, are influences of Christianity, and the same is said about the lack of grave goods. If these are true then we might have to reevaluate the theory about the re-conversion back to paganism due to the political and cultural climate on the Saga island before the conversion in 999/1000. Already here we can see that the once straight forward conversion story of the north might be more complex than first believed, for aren’t these evidence killing each other?

Well to make it a bit more interesting; in the western counties of Norway, one can in the 8th and 9th century burials which archaeologists have classified as Christian or Christian influenced, and of these the majority are female, or cannot be gender determined. In an area where the ratio between burials is five male burials for every female burial,[11] one would expect to find evidence for Christian influence also in a larger number of male burials, yet the burials we here are concerned with are those the archaeologists have found, I.e. those that either have been marked by some means or just found by accident, and most of these bear witness of belonging in the upper layers of society,[12] therefore this evidence is not just demographically corrupted due to the unevenness between the genders, but also due to the possibility that maybe 90% of the population might have been buried in unmarked graves and we cannot therefore study these persons burials to trace the religious beliefs of the time through them. Yet those burials that have been classified as Christian can primarily be found in up to late 9th century and again in the late 10th century with a gap of about 50-70 years where they not only decrease in number, but also totally vanish for a period.[13] In this same period we see an Increase in the use of rich and well equipped mound or boat burials of the pagan traditions. And this leaves us with the question; do we see a decline in Christianity in the period and an increase in the traditional paganism as a reaction against this acceptance of the new faith? We hear about this in the sagas, that the powerful earls of Lade among others reinstituted and supported a revival of the pre-Christian traditions, as well as attacked Christians and attempts on accommodating for the conversion.[14] Are we once again faced with the possibility of a conversion back to the pre-Christian traditions? Or is the lack of Christian burials just and evidence for that the Christians started to bury their dead in flat ground graves without markers which is why we have not found any? Or what happened? For in the late 10th century we find in at least two locations regular standardized Christian burials in cemeteries that suggest that the religion were well established by the last two decades of the tenth century in Norway, which is the same time as we see the first archaeological evidence for Christianity on Iceland also appearing . So where Staecker and Graeslund suggest the conversion was done once and was final then, it seems like the western regions of Scandinavia follows a different pattern with a period where the Christians disappear from the sources for the majority of the 10th century, and at the same time it looks like we find a pagan revival in the same regions. This suggest as earlier explored that the women in western Scandinavia might initially have been drawn to the new faith in the early period, through contact with the world outside for then, to go back to the traditional religion when the political and cultural climate changed to be more hostile towards Christianity in the 10th century.


[1] Berggrav, E., Brytningene omkring Olav og Stiklestad: Momenter til et opgjør foran jumileet, (1930, 7)

[2] R.Kayser, Norges Historie, 1866, 4-5

[3] See article on the blogg from 14th of February 2011.

[4] R. Danielsen, S. Dyrvik, T. Grønlie, K. Helle, E. Hovland, Grunntrekk i norsk historie, fra vikingtid til våre dager, (1991, 31).

[5] A-S Graeslund, ‘The role of Scandinavian Women in Christianisation: the Neglected evidence’, in Carver, M., (ed.), The Cross goes North, (2003).

[6] Staecker, J., ’The Cross goes North; Christian Symbols and Scandinavian Women’, in Carver, M., (ed.), The Cross goes North, (2003).

[7] K.C. Alvestad, Women and Christianity in the ninth and tenth century Western Scandinavia, (2011,Unpublished, 7).

[8] O.G. Moseng, E. Opsahl, G.I. Pettersen, E. Sandmo, Norges historie 750-1537, (2007, 81).

[9] J. Jochens, ’Late and peaceful. Iceland’s conversion through arbitration in 1000’, Spectrum, vol. 74, No. 3, (Jul.,1999),640.

[10] B.B. Birgisdottir, ’Gravskikk på Island og norskekysten i vikingtiden, et bidrag til diskusjonen islendingenes opprindelse’, in A. Christophersen, & A. Dybdahl, (ed.), Gasir- en Internasjonal handelsplass i Nord-Atlanteren, (1999, 78).

[11] E.M. Skipstad, Kvinner og Kristendom på Vestlandet; En Undersøkelse med utgangspunkt i Graver fra yngre jernalder i Sogn, (2009, 40).

[12] Ibid, 47.

[13] Ibid, 67; J. Staecker, ’The Cross goes North; Christian Symbols and Scandinavian Women’, in Carver, M., (ed.), The Cross goes North, (2003, 468-470).

[14] P. Hærnes, ’Kristen innflytelse  i Rogalandsk vikingtid’ in, H-E. Liden, (ed.), Møte mellom hedendom og kristnedom i Norge, (1995, 85)

Bibliography:

Alvestad, K.C., Women and Christianity in the ninth and tenth century Western Scandinavia, (2011,Unpublished).

Berggrav, E., Brytningene omkring Olav og Stiklestad: Momenter til et opgjør foran jumileet, (1930)

Birgisdottir, B.B., ’Gravskikk på Island og norskekysten i vikingtiden, et bidrag til diskusjonen islendingenes opprindelse’, in A. Christophersen, & A. Dybdahl, (ed.), Gasir- en Internasjonal handelsplass i Nord-Atlanteren, (1999)

Danielsen, R., Dyrvik, S., Grønlie, T., Helle K., Hovland, E., Grunntrekk i norsk historie, fra vikingtid til våre dager, (1991).

Hærnes, P., ’Kristen innflytelse  i Rogalandsk vikingtid’ in, H-E. Liden, (ed.), Møte mellom hedendom og kristnedom i Norge, (1995)

Graeslund,A-S., ‘The role of Scandinavian Women in Christianisation: the Neglected evidence’, in Carver, M., (ed.), The Cross goes North, (2003).

Jochens,J., ’Late and peaceful. Iceland’s conversion through arbitration in 1000’, Spectrum, vol. 74, No. 3, (Jul.,1999)

Kayser, R., Norges Historie, 1866

Moseng, O.G., Opsahl, E., Pettersen, G.I., Sandmo, E., Norges historie 750-1537, (2007).

Skipstad, E.M., Kvinner og Kristendom på Vestlandet; En Undersøkelse med utgangspunkt i Graver fra yngre jernalder i Sogn, (2009)

Staecker, J., ’The Cross goes North; Christian Symbols and Scandinavian Women’, in Carver, M., (ed.), The Cross goes North, (2003).

https://wuhstry.wordpress.com/2011/02/14/the-icelandic-sagas/

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