By Stephen Mitchell
Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 81:3 (2009)
Introduction: If we are to believe any number of histories, spiritual life in medieval Scandinavia, and especially the conversion to Christianity, is readily summarized: paganism collapsed against Christian conversion efforts in dramatic fashion at a meeting of the Alþing, or when a missionary bore hot iron, or an exiled king had a deep religious experience, or when a pagan revolt was finally overcome, and so on. Or at least that is how learned lore, now as then, has elected to present “the facts” of the Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish experiences. Even the smartest and most subtle accounts of the period understandably want to provide their readers with fixed, clear dates, organized around monumental events and thus tend to identify dramatic moments after which the country should be viewed as fully Christian.
But as regards the conversion process and its aftermath, it is vital to keep in mind that the possible conversion of the head of the central authority in each of the emerging protonational polities did not necessarily mean much to the average man, woman, or child in those worlds who had grown up surrounded by entirely different customs, rituals, and semiotic systems. That is not to suggest that they would not soon think of themselves as good, devout Christians, but their habits and references to tradition surely evolved only over time, and not overnight. The constant reminders in the various sections of the law codes, synodal statutes, and penitential handbooks about the need to address hindrvitni, vidhskipilse, vantro, besvarilse, and other aspects of lingering non-Christian behavior surely signal this fact. Presumably their many prohibitions were not all born of a supercilious and merely theoretical need to control but also reflected to some degree actual conditions within the various bishoprics.