The Conversion of the Vikings in Ireland from a Comparative Perspective

The Conversion of the Vikings in Ireland from a Comparative Perspective

By Gwendolyn Sheldon

PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2011

Abstract: The history of the Viking invasions in England and what is now France in the ninth and tenth centuries is fairly well documented by medieval chroniclers. The process by which these people adopted Christianity, however, is not. The written and archaeological evidence that we can cobble together indicates that the Scandinavians who settled in England and Normandy converted very quickly. Their conversion was clearly closely associated with settlement on the land. Though Scandinavians in both countries expressed no interest in Christianity as long as they engaged in a Viking lifestyle, characterized by rootless plundering, they almost always accepted Christianity within one or two generations of becoming peasants, even when they lived in heavily Scandinavian, Norse-speaking communities.

While the early history of the Vikings in Ireland was similar to that of the Vikings elsewhere, it soon took a different course. While English and French leaders were able to set aside land on which they encouraged the Scandinavians to settle, none of the many petty Irish kings had the wealth or power to do this. The Vikings in Ireland were therefore forced to maintain a lifestyle based on plunder and trade. Over time, they became concentrated into a few port towns from which they travelled inland to conduct raids and then exported what they had stolen from other parts of the Scandinavian diaspora. Having congregated at a few small sites, most prominently Dublin, they remained distinct from the rest of Ireland for centuries. The evidence suggests that they took about four generations to convert. Their conversion differed from that of Scandinavians elsewhere not only in that it was so delayed, but also in that, unlike in England and Normandy, it was not associated with the re-establishment of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. Rather, when the Scandinavians in Ireland did convert, they did so because they were evangelized by monastic communities, in particular the familia of Colum Cille, who had not fled from foundations close to the Viking ports. These communities were probably driven by political concerns to take an interest in the rising Scandinavian towns.

Introduction: The primary goal of this study is to try to determine when, how, and by whom the Vikings who settled in Ireland were converted to Christianity. Although both the effect of the Vikings upon the Church in Western Europe and the conversion of Scandinavia have received a fair amount of scholarly attention, very little work has been done on how the Scandinavians who settled in lands that had long been Christian – England, the Hebrides, Ireland, and parts of the Carolingian Empire, for instance – became Christian. This lack is particularly striking in the field of medieval Irish history. Indeed, I can find only one article that focuses exclusively on the examination of the evidence for the conversion of Scandinavians in Ireland. There are, perhaps, a number of reasons why scholars have hesitated to address this topic. The first is that for centuries, all the way until the mid-twentieth century, the tone for the study of the Vikings in Ireland was set by the twelfth-century Cogadh Gaedhil re Gallaib, a work whose description of the righteous, Christian Irish gradually taking their country back from the wicked, heathen Vikings greatly shaped Irish nationalism. Under the influence of this narrative, much of the Irish scholarship on the Vikings has focused on the damage that the Vikings did to Irish society, rather than on the assimilation of the Vikings into the Irish population. Another reason that so little work has been done on this topic might be that, unlike in England, there is little in the Irish landscape to testify to the Scandinavians’ religious shift. In England, such monuments as the Gosforth Cross, with its depiction of scenes from Norse mythology, and the hogback tombstones of northern England and southern Scotland, attract historians’ attention to the issue of religious transition during the Viking Age. Ireland, by contrast, has very few runic inscriptions that appear in religious settings and only one hogback tombstone. Furthermore, the Scandinavian influence on Irish art does not become apparent until the eleventh century and even when it does so, it is more stylistic than iconographical. We do not find standing crucifixes in Ireland with scenes of Scandinavian mythology. For whatever reason, the question of how the Scandinavians in Ireland became Christian has not been studied much and it is this lack that I mean to address.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Toronto

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