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The Conversion of the Pagans

I know this is a cliche, but the drama…
*The fury of the northmen

This article is a brief summary of the spread of Christianity through north-west Europe in the early middle ages. Its intended purpose is to put Christianity and paganism into perspective.

The Appeal of Christianity

What made early medieval pagans accept Christianity? We will never know for sure, but a few reasons have come down to us.

When we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter's day. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms: but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came.

This well known extract from Bede's account of the conversion of Northumbria in AD 627 goes some way towards answering the question. Christianity offered a life free from the pain and struggle of the mortal world. "Anyone who believes in the Son has eternal life," it said in the Gospel, and that was all you had to do: believe in the Son. To the warriors, with their promised Valhalla, this land of milk and honey may not have meant much, but to the common man it was everything.

Another possible attraction of Christianity may have been its simplicity. Polytheism was all very well, but there were so many gods! Hundreds of the buggers, and all of them only too ready to crap on you from a great height if you didn't give them their due. And all of them could be bloody-minded and contrary, helping you one minute but ignoring you the next. The Christian god seemed a bit more reliable: he could be cruel, but he was fair. You knew where you stood with a god like that.

Finally, another attraction may have been compassion. In a world where sudden, often violent death was never far away, there was little room for the weak, the poor, or the sick. The Christian notion of a world inherited by the meek, and not the callous, had much to commend it.

Hope, justice, and compassion. No pagan god could give what Christianity offered. Even to a hardened warrior, whose future depended on him blocking the next sword or spear, this must have seemed a desirable alternative.

The Conversion of Britain

As a baseline for the rest of the article, when were the English converted? Despite a few short-lived setbacks, England was effectively a Christian country by the second half of the seventh century. Its neighbours, the Celtic lands to the north and west, had been Christian for generations and, by the end of the eighth century, were also members of the Roman Church.

The Conversion of Denmark

I've chosen to look at Denmark first because of its location: on the doorstep of the Holy Roman Empire. Missionary activity out of Hamburg began in the ninth century and, about 980, the man who carved the famous Jelling rune-stone was able to assert that King Harald Bluetooth "made the Danes Christians". The Danes who settled in the Five Boroughs also seem to have been easy converts, and Archbishop Oda of Canterbury in Kent (941-58) was the son of one of those settlers. Interestingly, the Danish kings of the period appear to have favoured English priests and church practices over German ones.

The Conversion of Norway

Norway was a more difficult proposition. Hakon, son of Harald Finehair and brother of Eirik Bloodaxe, became king in the 930s. His attempts to convert his subjects met with such success that he himself went back to being a pagan! Earl Hakon of Lade, who was king at the end of the tenth century, is recorded as a man who killed his enemies and so swelled Odin's supply of seasoned fighting men.

Earl Hakon was succeeded by Olaf Tryggvason, who had an interesting approach to religion: noted as a destroyer of heathen groves who would have made the Jesuits look tame, he also had a reputation for relying on soothsayers and the auguries. Olaf is credited with converting Norway and Iceland, but although there is little evidence of a widespread return to paganism, it seems to have been a strange, superficial conversion. Even as late as Harald Hardrada's day, the Norwegian Church was not really part of Christendom.

The Conversion of Sweden

The German missionaries who helped convert the Danes also went into Sweden, but this country was the most resistant to change in our period. A bishop was established in the south just after 1000 and all the kings were nominally Christian afterwards, but paganism was still the stronger influence in the rest of the country as late as 1070. The public heathen cult did not fully disappear until 1100, and King Sigurd of Norway led what appears to be a crusade into the north in 1123.


Amongst the people of pagan Scandinavia, there seems to have been varying degrees of interest in and sympathy for the Christian religion, from the readiness of the Danes to the resistance of the Swedes.

We shall never know exactly how or why people converted, and doubtless much "low-level" paganism remained in the form of lucky charms and superstitions (we still 'touch wood' two thousand years after Anglesey was taken by Caesar's legions). Christianity aroused considerable interest amongst our forefathers, and we in Regia should acknowledge that??

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