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§ 31. The Christianization of Norway and Iceland.

Snorre Sturleson (d. 1241): Heimskringla (i.e. Circle of Home, written first in Icelandic), seu Historia Regum Septentrionalium, etc. Stockholm, 1697, 2 vols. The same in Icelandic, Danish, and Latin. Havn., 1777–1826; in German by Mohnike, 1835; in English, transl. by Sam. Laing. London, 1844, 3 vols. This history of the Norwegian kings reaches from the mythological age to a.d. 1177.

N. P. Sibbern: Bibliotheca Historica Dano-Norvegica. Hamburg, 1716. Fornmanna-Sögur seu Scripta Hist. Islandorum. Hafniae, 1828.

K. Maurer: Bekehrung des Norwegischen Stammes zum Christenthum. München, 1855–56, 2 vols.

Thomas Carlyle: Early Kings of Norway. London and N. York, 1875.

G. F. Maclear: The Conversion of the Northmen. London, 1879.

Christianity was introduced in Norway almost exclusively by the exertions of the kings, and the means employed were chiefly violence and tricks. The people accepted Christianity not because they had become acquainted with it and felt a craving for it, but because they were compelled to accept it, and the result was that heathen customs and heathen ideas lived on in Christian Norway for centuries after they had disappeared from the rest of Scandinavia.

The first attempt to introduce Christianity in the country was made in the middle of the tenth century by Hakon the Good. Norway was gathered into one state in the latter part of the ninth century by Harald Haarfagr, but internal wars broke out again under Harald’s son and successor, Eric. These troubles induced Hakon, an illegitimate son of Harald Haarfagr and educated in England at the court of king Athelstan, to return to Norway and lay claim to the crown. He succeeded in gaining a party in his favor, expelled Eric and conquered all Norway, where he soon became exceedingly popular, partly on account of his valor and military ability, partly also on account of the refinement and suavity of his manners. Hakon was a Christian, and the Christianization of Norway seems to have been his highest goal from the very first days of his reign. But he was prudent. Without attracting any great attention to the matter, he won over to Christianity a number of those who stood nearest to him, called Christian priests from England, and built a church at Drontheim. Meanwhile he began to think that the time had come for a more public and more decisive step, and at the great Frostething, where all the most prominent men of the country were assembled, he addressed the people on the matter and exhorted them to become Christians. The answer he received was very characteristic. They had no objection to Christianity itself, for they did not know what it meant, but they suspected the king’s proposition, as if it were a political stratagem by means of which he intended to defraud them of their political rights and liberties. Thus they not only refused to become Christians themselves, but even compelled the king to partake in their heathen festivals and offer sacrifices to their heathen gods. The king was very indignant and determined to take revenge, but just as he had got an army together, the sons of the expelled Eric landed in Norway and in the battle against them, 961, he received a deadly wound.

The sons of Eric, who had lived in England during their exile, were likewise Christians, and they took up the cause of Christianity in a very high-handed manner, overthrowing the heathen altars and forbidding sacrifices. But the impression they made was merely odious, and their successor, Hakon Jarl, was a rank heathen. The first time Christianity really gained a footing in Norway, was under Olaf Trygveson. Descended from Harald Haarfagr, but sold, while a child, as a slave in Esthonia, he was ransomed by a relative who incidentally met him and recognized his own kin in the beauty of the boy, and was educated at Moscow. Afterwards he roved about much in Denmark, Wendland, England and Ireland, living as a sea-king. In England he became acquainted with Christianity and immediately embraced it, but he carried his viking-nature almost unchanged over into Christianity, and a fiercer knight of the cross was probably never seen. Invited to Norway by a party which had grown impatient of the tyranny of Hakon Jarl, he easily made himself master of the country, in 995, and immediately set about making Christianity its religion, “punishing severely,” as Snorre says, “all who opposed him, killing some, mutilating others, and driving the rest into banishment.” In the Southern part there still lingered a remembrance of Christianity from the days of Hakon the Good, and things went on here somewhat more smoothly, though Olaf more than once gave the people assembled in council with him the choice between fighting him or accepting baptism forthwith. But in the Northern part all the craft and all the energy of the king were needed in order to overcome the opposition. Once, at a great heathen festival at Moere, he told the assembled people that, if he should return to the heathen gods it would be necessary for him to make some great and awful sacrifice, and accordingly he seized twelve of the most prominent men present and prepared to sacrifice them to Thor. They were rescued, however, when the whole assembly accepted Christianity and were baptized. In the year 1000, he fell in a battle against the united Danish and Swedish kings, but though he reigned only five years, he nevertheless succeeded in establishing Christianity as the religion of Norway and, what is still more remarkable, no general relapse into heathenism seems to have taken place after his death.

During the reign of Olaf the Saint, who ruled from a.d. 1014–’30, the Christianization of the country was completed. His task it was to uproot heathenism wherever it was still found lurking, and to give the Christian religion an ecclesiastical organization. Like his predecessors, he used craft and violence to reach his goal. Heathen idols and altars disappeared, heathen customs and festivals were suppressed, the civil laws were brought into conformity with the rules of Christian morals. The country was divided into dioceses and parishes, churches were built, and regular revenues were raised for the sustenance of the clergy. For the most part he employed English monks and priests, but with the consent of the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, under whose authority he placed the Norwegian church. After his death, in the battle of Stiklestad, July 29, 1030, he was canonized and became the patron saint of Norway.

To Norway belonged, at that time, Iceland. From Icelandic tradition as well as from the “De Mensura Orbis” by Dicuilus, an Irish monk in the beginning of the ninth century, it appears that Culdee anchorites used to retire to Iceland as early as the beginning of the eighth century, while the island was still uninhabited. These anchorites, however, seem to have had no influence whatever on the Norwegian settlers who, flying from the tyranny of Harald Haarfagr, came to Iceland in the latter part of the ninth century and began to people the country. The new-comers were heathen, and they looked with amazement at Auda the Rich, the widow of Olaf the White, king of Dublin, who in 892 took up her abode in Iceland and reared a lofty cross in front of her house. But the Icelanders were great travellers, and one of them, Thorvald Kodranson, who in Saxony had embraced Christianity, brought bishop Frederic home to Iceland. Frederic stayed there for four years, and his preaching found easy access among the people. The mission of Thangbrand in the latter part of the tenth century failed, but when Norway, or at least the Norwegian coast, became Christian, the intimate relation between Iceland and Norway soon brought the germs which Frederic had planted, into rapid growth, and in the year 1000 the Icelandic Althing declared Christianity to be the established religion of the country. The first church was built shortly after from timber sent by Olaf the Saint from Norway to the treeless island.


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