Christianization of Norway

Christianization of Norway

By Sæbjørg Walaker Nordeide

Conference Paper given in 2007

King Olaf I of Norway's arrival to Norway Based on drawing by Peter Nicolai Arbo

King Olaf I of Norway’s arrival to Norway
Based on drawing by Peter Nicolai Arbo

Introduction: A major change took place in Scandinavia around AD 1000: the emergence of a monarchy, the establishment of Christianity and urbanisation are the main elements of this change, followed by transformations in, for instance, social organisation, economy, technology and aesthetics. The order of events has since long been discussed in order to find the answer to the typical historical question: What came first and last in this historical sequence? What were the courses of events, and what were the consequences?

In a postdoctoral project I aimed to further knowledge about this chronology by focusing specifically on the change from Norse to Christian religion in Norway. I wished to analyse available information on chronology concerning three important aspects:

  • how long did the old Norse religion persist after Christianity was imposed
  • how early could a Christian cult be traced
  • and, because many scholars previously have stressed the possibility for syncretism or acculturation and gradual change, I also aimed to demonstrate whether there was a gradual shift from a Norse to Christian cult. In order to investigate the later aspect, I began mapping traces of cults from the period prior to the infiltration of Christianity into Norway, and ended my research with the establishment of the archbishopric of Nidaros.

Thus the period for my investigations was between c. AD 560 and 1152/53.

Early written sources describe missionary Christian kings who were baptised, often abroad, and who returned to Norway with missionaries, the example of King Håkon den gode (reign 934-961), who was raised in England, is a prime example of such a king. King Olav Tryggvason, brought up in Novgorod, and King Olav Haraldsson (St Olav) who reigned in the late 10th and early 11th century respectively are also described as kings who were important for the Christianization of Norway. This is particularly true of St Olav, who died in a battle in Trøndelag in 1030. The year 1030 has thus been seen as the ‘official year’ for the Christianization of the Norwegian population.

Contemporary written sources are, however, scant for this early period, and the reliability for later documents concerning this period are uncertain. Contemporary archaeological material has sometimes been interpreted to fit within the context of the written sources, but quite often the interpretation tells a conflicting story. In some areas, for instance in Rogaland, archaeological evidence has pointed to a slow and gradual change to Christianity after an early introduction, maybe as early as the 8th century. But in the vast majority of areas in Norway material culture demonstrates a sudden stop in the Norse cult during the 10th – 11th century, and eventually the appearance of Christian churches. The differences in interpretation depend on differences in archaeological material in various regions, but also on differences in theoretical background and methods.

Click here to read this article from the University of Bergen (MS Word file)


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