- The Viking Age as a Period of Religious Transformation: The Christianization of Norway from AD 56–1150/1200 by Sæbjørg Wallaker Nordeide
Claimed on the publisher’s website to be ‘the first to delve into Norway’s history of Christianization since 1973’ this work bases itself primarily on archaeological evidence, mainly that derived from excavation of burial sites. It lists several closely related objectives, the primary one being: ‘ To improve the chronology of the Christianization process in the late Iron Age and the early Middle Ages in Norway based on new analyses of archaeological sources’ (p. 18). (Sæbjørg Nordeide explains that for scholars in Norway and elsewhere in Scandinavia, the late Iron Age includes the periods known elsewhere as the Merovingian and Viking periods, and ‘early medieval’ refers to ‘the period around the eleventh and twelfth centuries’ (p. 5).) At the core of the book is a detailed and comprehensive analysis of burial data (nearly 500 graves) from 21 of Norway’s 430 municipalities, all in the south and central parts of the country and selected to represent ‘different ecological zones’, ‘different cultural zones’, or ‘different kinds of Thing (assembly) locations’ (pp. 26–28). The investigation is ‘based on museum catalogues and archives, and only rarely by [sic] studying the artefacts themselves’ (p. 25). As the [End Page 262] author acknowledges, this puts her at the mercy of reports that in some cases were based on excavations by unskilled amateurs or archaeologists using techniques no longer acceptable.
Nordeide has to her credit important archaeological publications dating back to the late 1980s, but in style and approach this book has many of the characteristics of a PhD thesis. Earlier scholarship is reviewed, objectives and a methodology outlined, the findings presented in great detail, region by region, in a chapter extending from p. 91 to p. 234, and tentative conclusions outlined and discussed. A thirty-seven-page appendix lists in tabular format the grave finds in each municipality. The author emphasizes strongly and repeatedly the many difficulties associated with interpreting the archaeological evidence, and in particular of determining whether a particular grave should be considered ‘Norse’ (i.e., relating to the pagan religion of Scandinavia) or ‘Christian’. As her discussion makes clear, this careful and cautious approach is fully justified, but, with the mass of detail, it contributes to making this a work likely to appeal mainly to the specialist.
In Nordeide’s view, some general observations can nevertheless be made. The conversion to Christianity was probably fairly rapid in most areas. It did not occur because people felt the traditional Norse religion was no longer adequate: in fact, the enhanced quality of artefacts in Norse graves from shortly before the conversion suggests there may have been a reinvigoration of the Norse religion before it disappeared. Kings and the towns they founded played a major role in the establishment of Christianity. Influence on the Christianization process from central Europe might have been stronger, and that from the British Isles weaker, than has often been suggested.
As the author acknowledges, these observations are not new ideas, but contributions to an ongoing debate. Some at least also rely in part on evidence from written sources such as Icelandic sagas. Nordeide quotes saga evidence in Norwegian and English translations, and is probably less cautious in accepting their evidence than a specialist in Old Norse language and literature would be.
A few minor anomalies may be noted. The mode of expression on pages 79–80 gives the impression that the Vita Ansgarii (more usually Vita Anskarii or Vita Ansgari), normally attributed to Rimbert, was written by Ansgar himself. The English translation from Heimskringla quoted on p. 238 is not from the Hollander translation, as stated, though the translation on p. 304 is correctly attributed to him. The pro-Christian initiatives mentioned on p. 324 should be attributed...