Pagans and Christians at the frontier: Viking burial in the Danelaw

Pagans and Christians at the frontier: Viking burial in the Danelaw

By J.D. Richards

The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe, AD 300-1300, edited by Martin Carver (York Medieval Press, 2003)

Introduction: The Vikings are the victims of cultural stereotyping. In the popular imagination they provide the comic-book archetypal pagans: marauding shaggy war bands living and dying by the sword, with no respect for person or property, and least of all for the hallowed monasteries and clerics of Anglo-Saxon England. They worshipped violent and unforgiving Gods who inhabited the dark places of Northern Europe and they sacrificed animals and humans with complete disregard for Christian ethics. The Viking warrior aspired to the glorious death which would convey him on the journey to Valhalla where he would feast until Ragnorok.

On the other hand, the scholarly world, faced with an acute lack of archaeological evidence for Pagan hordes, has created an alternative stereotype of the peaceful immigrant and trader eager to take on all the trappings of the host society, including its religion. In Anglo-Saxon England, within the space of a single generation, pagan warriors had become Christian farmers. Christian burial was rapidly adopted, many choosing to be buried in churchyards. By the tenth century their ferocious leaders were commissioning stone crosses and establishing private chapels on their new estates.

[the] Evidence… all points to wide acceptance of the new faith already by the end of the 9th century. In the first decade of the 10th century the Danes can still be classed “pagans” by their enemies, but this is the last indication of any continuation of heathen religion.

Those Vikings who, after the late ninth-century partitions of land in East Anglia, Northumbria, and Mercia, settled in the area later known as the Danelaw, were amongst the first Scandinavians to adopt Christianity. They were Christian at least two or three generations before Harold Bluetooth’s claim to the conversion of Denmark. The rapid conversion of Scandinavian settlers, so we are led to believe, demonstrates the weakness of their own pagan religions in the face of an all-embracing Christianity, and provides another example of their eagerness to become assimilated.

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