Bringing God to the Vikings
In those faraway times when the Scandinavian region spawned bellicose Vikings at a horrifying rate, most of Europe was already adequately christened. Not so Norway, Denmark or Sweden, where the ancient religion honouring Odin, Thor and Frey was alive and kicking well into the second millennium. Adam of Bremen, writing in the 11th century, has left us with a detailed description of the heathen temples in Uppsala (just north of Stockholm, these days Uppsala is the home of the Swedish Archbishop), complete with dripping human sacrifices and the bloodied statues of the gods. Seeing as Adam never saw these temples, we may need to add a pinch of salt or two to his descriptions, but still…
While both the Norwegian and Danish kings converted to Christianity in the tenth century, the Swedish kings were far more obdurate, laughing at the idea of replacing their powerful, lusty gods with that milksop, The White Christ. Turning the other cheek was to a Viking with any sense of self-respect an idiotic concept, and the “do unto your neighbour” part was not at all aligned with the idea of raiding and ravaging – although, to be fair, Swedish Vikings did less of the raiding and ravaging than their Norwegian and Danish brethren, no matter how nominally Christian they were.
Clinging to old faiths when everyone else is embracing the new can become a liability. Trade can be affected, treaties tend to be difficult to push through, and quite often Sweden found itself defending its corner alone, against its (more or less) Christian neighbours. The king in Sweden during the first decades of the second millennium was Olof Skötkonung, step-son to Sven Tveskägg (Svein Forkbeard) and, one would assume, under this particular king’s influence.
Sven had since some time back become Christian – his dad, Harald Bluetooth, embraced Christianity out of political reasons, hoping the Church would back his determined efforts to impose one religion (guess which) and one king (guess who) on the Danish. The contemporary Norwegian king, Olav, was not only Christian, he was also firmly on his way to his future sainthood although this didn’t stop him from dismembering people who refused to accept the new God, or from continuing his raiding expeditions when he felt the urge to fill his coffers, or to do some disembowelling on the side when people didn’t toe the line. Surrounded by these prime examples of Christian kings, Olof Skötkonung fell for peer pressure. He decided to convert, and sent to England for an adequate converter.
At the time, the Anglo-Saxon influence on the Nordic countries was huge. (Well, it still is; a bunch of enthusiastic Anglophiles the lot of us, if we’re going to be frank. I challenge you to meet a Swedish person who cannot quote extensively from Monthy Python) Yes, it was Sven Tveskägg who conquered England, not the other way around, but as a consequence, learned men and skilled craftsmen from England came in growing numbers to Scandinavia.
Our early churches were staffed with English clerics, our budding administration was developed by intrepid Anglo-Saxons, even that new fad (new from a Nordic perspective) minting coins, was overseen by English immigrants. Actually, the organisation of the Scandinavian mints seems to have been a monopoly, with one Englishman by the name of Godwine popping up in Denmark, Norway and Sweden to set up new mints, each such mint producing coins very obviously modelled on Anglo-Saxon coins, complete with picture of English King Aethelred (I kid you not) on one side and a cross on the other. On top of all this cultural exchange, we have Gloucester-born Saint Sigfrid, the man responsible for bringing the word of God to the Swedish King.
Depending on what sources you read, Sigfrid was the Archbishop of York, or he wasn’t. Adam of Bremen describes him as an English Benedictine monk, no more, no less. Mostly it’s Swedish sources citing him as an archbishop – I guess it made Olof feel more comfortable about his conversion if someone high up the hierarchy did it – but personally I doubt such a distinguished prelate would have left all behind to set off across the North Sea. Seriously, Olof Skötkonung’s immortal soul wasn’t that important.
Let us therefore assume Sigfrid was a lowly Benedictine monk commanded to bring the word of God to this heathen king. I don’t think he did handstands at the thought of leaving comfy and civilised England for the barabaric north. But with a sigh and a rustle of his heavy woollen habit he bowed to the will of his superior and started packing. Among the things he brought with him were his three nephews, rather oddly named Unaman, Sunaman and Wineman.
Off Sigfrid went to Sweden and the eagerly awaiting king. In 1008, Olof Skötkonung was baptised a Christian, and in gratitude to Sigfrid, he named the Benedictine monk bishop of Växjö – or maybe he was being pragmatic, Sweden wasn’t exactly littered with men of God, and the little settlement of Växjö needed a bishop. Whatever the case, Sigfrid blessed the king and rode off into the dark forests that covered most of Sweden at the time, making for the non-descript hamlet of Växjö.
Olof Skötkonung now had a tricky situation on his hands; while the southern parts of his kingdom were mostly Christian, the northern parts of it weren’t – and not too keen on having a silly bugger who had become a Christian as a king. After all, real men had no time for a wimpy weakling like the Christ, they wanted gods that roared and drank and fornicated – as real men should. Olof wasn’t about to push the issue. Instead, he told his subjects that he had no business dictating what beliefs a person should hold, as long as the beliefs in question didn’t threaten his rule. A happy compromise for everyone, and Olof could spend the last decade of his life bringing modernity to his backwards country , like issuing the first coins with aforementioned Godwine’s help, and endowing a church or two, complete with a literate priest.
Meanwhile, Sigfrid was enjoying a sequence of successful conversions. Step by step, he worked his way through the forests, baptising as he went. At his heels trotted his faithful nephews, and pretty soon Sigfrid preached to a sizeable congregation come Sundays. His new followers were dazzled by this educated Englishman, and even more by the church silver he adorned his simple church with. They listened avidly as he told them stories from the Bible, with, I assume, a predilection for the somewhat bloodier stories in the old Testament – the one about Jezebel and the dogs would have gone down well.
One day, Sigfrid was called away on the king’s business. Reluctantly, he left his growing congregation, comforted by the fact that his three godly nephews would keep them on the straight and narrow. Unaman, Sunaman and Wineman did as well as they could, but they were not as revered as Sigfrid, and one dark night some of the more recent converts broke in to steal the church silver. The nephews protested, raised their arms up high and prayed and preached, telling the thieves to stop this stupid behaviour. The robbers, stressed by these talking Englishmen, chopped their heads off, mid-sentence, so to say.
Sigfrid returned to find his church ravaged and his nephews gone. Well, he found their bodies, hastily buried, but their heads had gone up in smoke, something that had Sigfrid very worried as how were his poor, faithful nephews to face Resurrection without their heads? (Valid question; one that must have worried all those poor blokes that were beheaded and quartered in the centuries to come) Sigfrid instigated a one man head-hunting team, looking under every bush, every rocky outcrop in the vicinity. But the forests were vast, three heads were ludicrously small – think grains of sand in a desert, although not as well camouflaged – and no matter how much he looked, he couldn’t put Unaman, Sunaman and Wineman together again. Until the night he went walking along the shores of a nearby lake, bemoaning the loss of his beloved nephews.
Suddenly, Sigfrid saw a light come dancing over the darkened water. Hang on; there were three lights moving towards him, and as Sigfrid was a devout man who did not fear death, he remained where he was as the lights approached him. Clearly, Sigfrid was an early upholder of that very English “stiff upper lip” approach to life. Me, I would have run screaming into the woods, which goes to show I lack Sigfrid’s fortitude – which is why he is a saint and I am not.
Anyway, there was Sigfrid, staring as the wandering lights started to hover over the surface a short distance away. He took off his shoes and waded towards them, and “poof”, just like that, the lights were extinguished. Instead, Sigfrid came upon a huge barrel in the water.
In that barrel were the three missing heads, still talking thirteen to the dozen. On and on they went about God’s mercy and capacity to forgive. Sigfrid wept and swore vengeance, upon which one of the heads said “it is already done.”
“Yes,” added the second head, “the Lord has seen it done.”
“Upon the heads of their grandchildren shall vengeance be heaped,” said the third head. (Not entirely fair, in my opinion)
I will leave it up to each and every one of you to decide whether you believe in this story of decapitated talking heads. What is, however, undisputable, is the enormous impact of English people on the budding Nordic states. When excavating the ancient parts of Lund, at the time Scandinavia’s largest town, time and time again the archaeologists stumble over English names, English craftsmanship, English coins. The Scandinavian church was equally “Anglified”, the courts of the Scandinavian kings teemed with English advisors. And just so you know, Sigfrid isn’t the only Englishman sanctified for bringing the word of God to this remote corner of the world – but he’s the only one to come complete with his own personal ventriloquist act.
Obviously, a post about Vikings in the eleventh century has been inspired by my collaboration with several wonderful authors on the book 1066 Upside Down. My contribution will feature a young girl who hedges her bets when it comes to the gods – after all, both Thor and Jesus have their uses.
This post is a substantially modified version of a post originally written for the English Historical Fiction Author’s blog.