How Christian Were Viking Christians?

Olaf II of Norway. Based on drawing by Peter Nicolai Arbo (Norway 1831-1892).How Christian Were Viking Christians?

By Elena Melnikova

Ruthenica, Suppl. 4 (2011)

Introduction: Once the most religious Emperor took pity on their [the Northmen’s – E.M.] envoys, and asked them if they would be willing to receive the Christian religion; and, when they answered that always and everywhere and in everything they were ready to obey him, he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Him […] The nobles of the royal palace adopted these Northmen, almost as if they had been children: each received a white robe from the Emperor’s wardrobe, and from his sponsors a full set of Frankish garments, with arms, costly robes and other adornments. This was done repeatedly, and more and more came each year, not for the sake of Christ but for earthly advantages. They made haste to come, not as envoys any longer but as loyal vassals, on Easter Eve to put themselves at the disposal of the emperor; and it happened that on a certain occasion they came to the number of fifty. The Emperor asked them if they wished to be baptized. When they had confessed their sins, he ordered them to be sprinkled with holy water. As there were not enough linen garments to go around on that occasion, Lewis [Louis the Pious – E.M.] ordered some old shirts to be cut up and tacked together to make tunics or to be run up as overalls. One of these was forthwith clapped upon the shoulders of one of the elder men; and when he had looked all over it for a minute, he conceived fierce anger in his mind, and said to the emperor: ‘Look here, I’ve been through this ablution business about twenty times already, and I’ve always been rigged out before with a splendid white suit; but this old sack makes me feel more like a pig farmer than a soldier. If it weren’t for the fact that you’ve pinched my clothes, and not given me any new ones, with the result that I should feel a right fool if I walked out of here naked, you could keep your Christ and your suit of reach-me-down’.

This tale about a Viking with extensive experience in being baptized is most probably a creation of Notker the Stammerer, who composed a collection of anecdotes about the deeds of Charlemagne for his great-grandson Charles the Fat on the occasion of his visit to the monastery of St Gall in 883. Notker does not conceal his belief in the traitorous nature of the Vikings and their baptismal practices being ‘not for the sake of Christ but for earthly advantages’, and the purpose of the tale is to prove this. However, whether this is pure fiction or a report of a real event only slightly exaggerated by the author, the tale is representative of that time in several respects. Firstly, Notker states that the tradition of baptizing Vikings emerged soon after the Viking raids to Western Europe started. Secondly, he views the baptism of Vikings as something of a mass phenomenon. Thirdly, he stresses the pragmatic purposes of the Vikings in undergoing baptism. Fourthly, he considers the Frankish emperors responsible for introducing the Vikings to Christianity. Finally, Notker accuses the Vikings of ignorance in terms of the meaning of the sacraments, but at the same time he notes their knowledge of Christian rituals. Writing in the last quarter of the ninth century, it is possible that Notker’s portrayal of Louis the Pious’s reign was coloured by events from later decades; nevertheless his account still provides us with an indication of how familiar the Vikings were with Christianity.


Every single feature in the account’s description presents a problem in itself, and some of them have been the focus of previous studies, especially in the last two decades. One of the most intriguing yet complicated aspects of this issue is the mental adaptation of Christianity by these northern heathens: what did the Vikings know of Christianity, how did they appreciate Christian teaching per se and in comparison with their native beliefs, in what way was Christianity enrooted in the minds of pagan Scandinavians? Some of these questions have been touched upon in previous scholarship, but mostly in connection with other topics and for the period after the ‘official’ Christianization, so that the Vikings’ early Christian phase has not been considered as a specific phenomenon.

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