“Viking” Pilgrimage to the Holy Land fram! fram! cristmenn, crossmenn, konungsmenn! (Oláfs saga helga, ch. 224.)
By Jessica A. Browner
Essays in History (1992)
Introduction: “Viking pilgrimage”–the phrase seems a contradiction. For three centuries, from circa A.D. 750-1050, the political and economic life of the Northern world was dominated by Scandinavian military activity and trade, but it was as Vikings that the Norsemen became known to the peoples of the Christian world, who depicted them as reavers and slayers of unparalleled ferocity. The piratical phase of Viking activity, however, was relatively short-lived, and was followed by a more restrained colonization phase. When the Scandinavians first began to settle in the West in the latter part of the ninth century, they came into sustained contact with Christianity and its clergy, and it became inevitable that the barbarian Northmen, with their primitive beliefs in outmoded gods and with their lack of writing and literacy, would be greatly influenced by the higher Christian civilization which they now encountered at such close quarters. Not surprisingly, the conversion of the Viking peoples and their integration into the Western European Christian community has influenced decisively the historiography of the Northern world.
Previously defined in terms of what they were, Scandinavians of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were implicitly defined in terms of what they were not — sea-borne adventurers and predatory warriors of the type familiar in old heroic tradition. The creation of such a marked dichotomy between “Christian” and “Viking,” however, has tended to place undue emphasis on the forces of change, often at the expense of native cultural traditions which persisted through the Viking age and well into the Christian era. Indeed, it was the pagan traditions of the Northmen which ensured that the transition to Christianity would be a relatively simple and painless process. After all, the new religion was a royal one, and its literature, notably the Old Testament, described a world very much like their own in which the success of kings as they led their armies in search of glory and gain depended upon their obedience to the will of God. Some Norsemen thought the worship of Christ compatible with that of the pagan gods. Icelander Helgi the Lean, as mixed in faith as he was in blood,” believed in Christ, and called his seat in the Eyjafjord Kristnes (“Christs Headland”), but when at sea or in times of great stress he would invoke Thor. A soapstone mould from Trendgården in Denmark, too, was clearly intended to accommodate either belief, since both crosses and hammers could be cast from its mould.
It is hardly remarkable that some Scandinavian kings, like other barbarian rulers before them, were willing to accept that the God of the Christians was more powerful than other gods, a lesson reinforced by their awareness through piracy and plunder, admittedly of the achievements, wealth, and magnificence of their great contemporaries in France, Germany, and England. Norse settlers in these countries, too, whether royal or otherwise, may have converted simply out of political expediency. In 1016, a Scandinavian empire of Denmark, Norway, and England was ruled by Cnut, a Dane and a Christian; by his death in 1035, Scandinavia and her Viking provinces had been almost completely integrated into the world of Western Christendom. Whilst adopting the forms and practices of their new religion, however, these ex-barbarians did not entirely abandon the elements and practices of their earlier culture. The persistence of cultural continuity through the conversion process and beyond can be demonstrated in several areas, but nowhere as clearly and yet as unexpectedly as in the institution which epitomized the Christian experience, that of Holy Land pilgrimage.