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Christianization of the Kingdom of Norway


Processed on the basis of:
Bagge, S. – Nordeide, S. W. (2007). The kingdom of Norway. In: Berend, Nora (ed.) Christianization and the rise of Christian Monarchy. Scandinavia, Central Europe and Rus, Cambridge, pp. 121–166.


Christianization is an important milestone in the history of Scandinavia, in which pagan countries integrate into the European Christian context. It provides the basis for cultural change and heralds future developments and political orientations. Thanks to Christianization, the view of Christian Europe on the Scandinavian countries has changed, which until then has been perceived mainly as the homeland of the ungodly invaders.

Thanks to Christian historiography, which has its roots in the 12th century, most of the written sources we have about the pre-Christian period have been preserved. This literature has its limits – it can give us a more or less distorted insight into the Vendel and Viking period (approx. 550 – 1066 AD). The period and later written sources show a relatively high partiality, which prevents deeper research of the pre-Christian religion and the course of Christianization. Therefore, we often have to rely on the results of archaeological research.

On the other hand, it is true that the situation in Norway, which we want to deal with in this work, is probably best recorded in writing from all the countries of continental Scandinavia. In order to begin with a detailed description of Christianization, it is necessary to put the Norwegian conversion to pan-Scandinavian context. This is well served by the division of Helge Ljungberg, who divides Scandinavian Christianization into three periods:

1. the mission period – Denmark (up to 1000), Norway and Iceland (up to 1030), Sweden (up to 1100)
2. a consolidation period of approximately 50 – 100 years
3. the period of own Christian medieval culture

If we apply this to Norwegian conditions, the period until approximately 930 can be considered exclusively pagan. In the years 930 – 1030, on the basis of the first missions, a gradual Christianization is taking place. Until 1100, consolidation has taken place, after which we only hear of the original paganism rarely. Since the end of the 11th century, a period of independent Norwegian Christian culture has begun. It is important to remember that Christianity spread from the south and the west Norway to the north, where Christianization was completed in the years 1050 – 1100.

Before Christianity : religion and power

Our knowledge of the pagan myths of the Old North is based on Eddas, which provide a coherent and well-preserved mythology. On the contrary, reports of cult practice are scarce, and since they often come from sagas, they cannot be given greater truthfulness. It is obvious, however, that the most important part of the cult was the sacrifice (blót) in the shrines. The shrine (hof), which appeared in two dominant types, was located in a sacred territory (), which was forbidden to walk with weapons. The shrines were built near the farm. They were centrally located in the landscape and were therefore suitable for gathering. The research of the cult is greatly assisted by toponomastics, which, by analyzing local names, illustrates the worship of Óðinn, Þórr, Frey, Týr and Ullr in Norway. The worship of the pagan cult is also evidenced by settlements that include the words hov (hof, “shrine”), horg (hǫrgr, “pagan altar”), lund (lundr, “forest”), vang (vangr, “field”) and ve (, “sacred place”).

We have already said that archeology is a valuable source of knowledge when examining pre-Christian periods. The issue of burial in the pagan period is very closely related to Christianization, because we can deduce belonging to religion from the way of burial, the orientation of the grave and the burial equipment. In the pre-Christian period there were cremation and inhumation funerals with varying orientation towards cardinal directions. Evidence of the high status of the deceased is a mound and burial equipment consisting of property and animals.

The chiefs and monarchs, whose political power stemmed from land ownership and property from the expeditions, had a religious role in addition to secular functions. It is not unusual for monarchs to refer to their divine origin; for example, the Swedish and later Norwegian Ynglings cited the god Freyr as their ancestor, while the northern Norwegian Háleygjar cited the god Óðinn. The function of leaders was to lead the people – in times of war to battle, in times of peace to the religious and law assemblies. All these aspects of leadership were best fulfilled by the so-called hersar (“rulers”), who were the Norwegian equivalent of Icelandic goðar. A similar role was played by hǫfðingar (“chiefs”), but it is not a fixed title as in the previous case. All societies were ruled by jarlar and konungar (“kings”, elite), whose meaning largely coincide.

Written sources indicate that around 870 Norway was to be united, which was advocated by Haraldr Fairhair. However, historians now believe that the unification was incomplete, and it was not until the reign of Óláfr Haraldsson (1015-1030), today nicknamed Saint, that it was complete. The fact remains that the dynasty from which Haraldr came from has maintained an important position in Norway until the second half of the 10th century, so we can partially accept the reports of Harald’s sovereignty. The role of sovereigns later in Christianization was extremely important, as will be indicated in the next section.

In Sámi mythology there were mainly female deities; male deities were considered evil. People were buried near the rocks without much funeral generosity. Christianization among the Sámi, despite lively business and political contacts with Norway and Russia, proceeded very slowly and lasted until the 17th century.


Contacts of pagan Norway with Christianity

Based on the archaeological material we can say that the first contacts took place already in the pre-Viking period. We know safely that these early contacts were primarily material exchanges. With the advancing navy of the 8th century and intensive trade at the beginning of the Viking Age, the nature of these contacts changed. In this case, trade acted as a means of material and cultural exchange and emporia as places where religion manifested itself through the accumulation of imported objects. This is how Kaupang, the largest shopping center in southern Norway, proved its worth.

The 9th century was marked by acquaintance with the new faith, and thus a limited cultural exchange. Some warriors and merchants in Anglo-Saxon England and the West-French Empire have adopted prima signatio (“the sign of the cross”) or baptism to allow them to enter retinue or trade. Evidence of contacts in this period can be seen, for example, in Norwegian finds of vessels.

In the 10th century there was further deepening of contacts. The first missions come to Norway thanks to King Hákon the Good. There was a deep cultural exchange and takeover of artistic styles – eg. decoration with scenes of exotic animals and the use of end rhyme in poetry. In Norway, the first individuals or families accept Christianity. Acceptance of the new faith took place from above, which means that it was first received by the elites who then gathered around the monarch. The volatile political situation caused Christianity to be declared official only in the 11th century, so it is certain that Christians and pagans lived side by side. The question is how publicly people have professed their faith. For example, Hákon the Good confessed Christianity first publicly, then in private, and attended pagan festivities to reassure the landowners. There is evidence of syncretism, such as casting forms for amulets of hammers and crosses.



As we have already indicated, the first missions to Norway came during the 10th and 11th centuries. It is certain that they came mostly from Anglo-Saxon England, as evidenced by the fact that Norway has adopted English religious and legislative terminology. But we must not forget the influences of Hamburg-of the Bremen diocese, which were manifested mainly during the reign of Olaf Haraldsson.

The first Christian king was Hákon the Good, who ruled Norway from 934 to 961 AD. He was brought up in England in the court of King Æthelstan, where he received a new faith. After returning to Norway, he maintained contacts with England, built the first churches, which were later destroyed by the pagan population, and probably also raised a series of monuments in western Norway, which have been preserved to this day. He invited the first priests to Norway.

In 961, Hákon was killed by his nephews Haraldr, Gamli and Guttormr, who took over until about 970. Although they are not described very positively in the sources, they were also Christians. However, they did not carry out missionary activities and did not support the functioning of churches.

In 970, Jarl Hákon Sigurðarson became head of Norway, who avenged the death of his father Sigurðr by killing the previous King Haraldr. He was the last pagan Norwegian ruler. Written sources evaluate him as a perverse patron of paganism and protector of pagan shrines. We know that he received baptism in Denmark in exchange for granting Norway a fief, but after returning to Norway he gave up Christianity and evicted the priests. In his poems from his reign, we find signs of so-called “cultural stress”, which shows an unprecedented interest in pagan mythology. Jarl Hákon reigned until 995.

That same year, Óláfr Tryggvason returned from abroad, who claimed to come from the Haraldr Fairhair dynasty. The common people accepted him as king, and he, who was only the Danish appointed regent, overthrew Jarl Hákon from the throne. Óláfr was a Christian who was baptized in Andover, England, during the peace negotiations in 991, and once Hákon was dead, Óláfr began to intensively promote Christianity. He founded churches and towns (eg Níðaros, today’s Trondheim) and was the first Norwegian monarch to mint coins, or imitate Anglo-Saxon coins. His rule was forcibly ended when he was killed in the naval battle of Svǫlð in 1000.

Norway was subsequently fragmented again, and Eiríkr and Sveinn Hákonarson, the sons of Jarl Hákon Sigurðarson, took control. They were appointed as regents by the Danish king Sveinn Forkbeard and the Swedish king Óláf Skǫtkonungr, who participated in the death of Óláfr Tryggvason. Both brothers, unlike their father, were Christians, but they did not pursue missionary activity and build churches.

In 1015, when Eiríkr was on an expedition to England, Óláfr Haraldsson, another pretendent referring to the ancient Haraldr Fairhair dynasty, arrived in Norway. Sveinn Hákonarson was unable to defeat Óláfr and had to flee and give up his possessions. Óláfr was popular because the Norwegians revived the idea of unifying the country and independence from Denmark and Sweden. Today, historians consider Óláfr to be the first ruler to rule the whole of Norway, which corresponds to most of today’s territory. Óláfr was baptized in 1013/4 in Rouen and brought priests and monks from England (Grímkel) and present-day Germany (Siegfried, Rudolf, Bernhard) to Norway. At the meetings, he advocated Christian ordinances, in particular worship of holidays, and sought the organization of the Norwegian Church. Óláfr was zealous in promoting faith, perhaps even violent, and the sources mention the peasant revolt against him as a pagan reaction to his violence. However, most of the opposition chiefs were Christians. Óláfr was forced to leave Norway in 1028, went to Kievan Rus and returned in 1030. However, he was defeated and killed in the Battle of Stiklestad. Soon afterwards he was worshiped as a saint, apparently not for his strength in faith, but for his anti-Danish thinking. His government led the Christianization of Norway to its final stage and declared Christianity as an official faith at public meetings.

It is important to note that the southern part of Norway was under Danish rule until c. 1015, so Christianization was completed earlier there. Minor religious pressure has also played a role in the Christianization of Norway, which has continued to appear from the Danish side since the beginning of Haraldr Bluetooth’s reign (954-986/7).

Christianization proceeded faster in coastal areas, while it was slower in the mainland. For this reason, Óláfr Haraldsson devoted himself to missionary activities in Oppland, Norway. The north of Norway, where strong pagan cults were grown, was coldly opposed to Christianity, and most of the efforts to Christianize Trøndelag and Hålogaland during the 10th century came to nothing. Acceptance of Christianity in these problem areas can be considered only in the period from 1000 to 1050. The fact that sometimes it was not easy to identify with the new faith is described by the lawbooks in the end of the 11th century. At this time, they forbade pagan sacrifice (blót), eating horse meat, leaving new-born children, pagan funerals, divination and incantations, which means that it was still a living problem

The Christianization of Norway was inherently linked to the figure of a sovereign. Not only did he have the means and authority to organize the Church and forbid the pagan cult, but he motivated purposeful nobles and landlords to embrace a new faith with the prospect of personal gain and the growth of political influence. As an example we can mention the court poets, although religiously conservative, ceased to intentionally use kennings with mythological names around the year 1000 and began to focus on a new clientele, giving rise to the first Christian poems. It should be added, however, that the baptists did not always understand the essence of the new religion correctly, did not perceive the difference between God and Christ, the Trinity, they did not observe the holidays at the expense of the original pagan drinkings, and rather than forgiveness, they sought happiness from the new God in battle. In general, society tended to replace the higher deities (Æsir), while the lower ones (dísir, nornir, trolls, etc.) persisted in folklore. However, no one had compelled Christian Northeners to accept Christianity and they were free to choose. Although, in the context of Óláfr Haraldsson, we hear of some violence, Christian rulers usually did not enforce Christianity by force and, on the contrary, promoted non-forced Christianization.

So far we have dealt with Christianization from the point of view of written sources, although it is possible to find corresponding archaeological data for this scheme. In the 10th century, the graves of Christians appeared for the first time, but they are decorated in a pagan way. It is possible that this fact is related to the fact that Christ was understood as one of the gods that individuals accepted as a patron (fulltrúi). In the 11th century pagan rite ceased. Around 1100 we no longer find pagan graves. As we have said, there were many regional differences. Christian graves are characterized by W – E orientation without inventory.

Churches began to grow in the places of the original shrines, either district or private, wooden or stone. The first churches in Norway were said to have stood in Rogaland under the rule of Hákon the Good, but were destroyed. Another church was to be built by Óláfr Tryggvason in Níðaros in 997. Níðaros was also the seat of the first bishopric established by Óláfr Haraldsson, the first bishop being Grímkel, England. Since the 11th century churches were systematically founded.

To consolidate Christianity, it was important that Norway had its saints. Not counting Saint Óláfr, St. Hallvarðr and St. Sunniva were canonized, who were later worshiped in the dioceses of Oslo and Bergen. The worship of saints took place around 1030.


Royal Power and Consequences of Christianization

If we said earlier that political power was based on land ownership, then royal power was based in the early Middle Ages on military power that was used to enforce justice. That is why skalds often glorify the sovereign’s fighting skills in glorious poems. The king made laws and ensured their observance. Since the 11th century, monarchs have also minted coins, regulating trade. The more the position of a sovereign as a sovereign ruler strengthens, the greater the power of the Church.

This contributed to the establishment of the first bishops in Oslo, Bergen and Níðaros in the years 1066 – 1075. Others were established in Stavanger and Hamar. The first archbishopric was founded in 1152/3 and administered 11 bishoprics in Norway, Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. Norwegian dioceses originally copied administrative districts. Unlike the bishopric, the parishes were not formed until the 13th century.

It is evident that the rulers, being the original leaders of Christianization, perceived themselves as heads of the Norwegian Church, which greatly limited the pope’s powers to appoint high church dignitaries. In most cases, they were substituted by the monarch, which is reflected in their secular titles.

The strengthening of the church led to the further establishment of churches, with the most significant growth occurring during the 12th and 13th centuries, when over a thousand columned churches and stone cathedrals were built. In the 12th century, the monks settled in Norway – Benedictines around 1100, Cistercians in 1147 and Augustinians in 1160.

It is understandable Christianization brought cultural changes to Norway, the most important being the use of Latin and the emphasis on literacy. As a result, both spiritual and secular literature began to emerge.

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