The Making of a Missionary King: The Medieval Accounts of Olaf Tryggvason and the Conversion of Norway
By Sverre Bagge
The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 105:4 (2006)
Introduction: The following article examines the oldest extant accounts of the conversion of Norway, from the Latin works of the late twelfth century until Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla from around 1230. Its aim is not to gain information on what actually happened during the conversion of Norway, but to obtain some idea of how the tradition about it developed, what changes were introduced in the understanding of the conversion during the period covered by the extant works, and finally what characterized the Norwegian-Icelandic tradition as a whole.
The texts show considerable variation in details but tell essentially the same story, which runs approximately as follows: The first attempt at Christianization was made by King Hakon Haraldsson godi (ca. 935-60), who was brought up at the English court and had become a Christian there. This attempt was a failure. Most of Hakon’s successors were Christian but did little to promote the new religion. The main credit for Christianizing Norway is given to the kings Olaf Tryggvason (995-1000) and St. Olaf Haraldsson (1015-30). The former is said to have Christianized the coastal regions and Iceland, whereas the latter converted the interior and organized the Church, and additionally re-Christianized the areas where the people had turned away from Christianity after Olaf Tryggvason’s death. Although Olaf Haraldsson was the great national saint at the time when these works were composed, the main figure in the conversion historiography is his predecessor Olaf Tryggvason. For this reason as well as because of the problems concerning the relationship between the texts dealing with him, Olaf’s life and missionary activity will also be the main subject here.
The first stage in the extant accounts of the mission is represented by three Norwegian texts from the late twelfth century, i.e., Theodoricus Monachus’s Historia de antiquitate regum Norwagiensium (ca. 1180) and the anonymous Historia Norwegie (second half of the twelfth century), both in Latin, and Agrip (ca. 1190) in Old Norse. From the point of view of narrative, these works do not contain much more than the minimum referred to above. Theodoricus does not even mention Hakon godi’s attempts to introduce Christianity, whereas Historia Nortoegie briefty concludes that he was an apostate who preferred the earthly kingdom to the heavenly one. The two Latin works, however, distinguish themselves in other and mutually different respects. Historia Norivegie, possibly the older of the two, emphasizes the importance of the conversion by developing the missionary biography, making the story of the conversion of Norway almost identical with the way in which Olaf Tryggvason receives God’s vocation to act as a missionary. The work also contains a long story about Olaf’s persecution as a child, probably modeled on the Biblical stories of Moses and Christ.