‘The Conversion of Scandinavia,’ by Anders Winroth

The Conversion of Scandinavia

It’s a little disappointing, after my glowing review of Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings (reviewed a few inches south of here), to deliver a less than enthusiastic review of his earlier work, The Conversion of Scandinavia. Of course it’s ridiculous for me, an amateur historian and fantasy novelist, to challenge a scholar of Winroth’s stature. But this is my area of interest, blast it, and I’m going to defend it with whatever flimsy weapons I’ve got.

The thesis of The Conversion of Scandinavia is fairly easily stated. In Winroth’s view, the conversion essentially never happened – not in the way we’ve been taught. All those cultural clashes and crusader atrocities are just the fancies of Icelandic storytellers. What actually happened (in this view) is that various chieftains and kings realized that Christianity offered both prestige and (in the Church) a bureaucratic model that could be expanded and adapted to solidify their own power. The kings were baptized, and their kingdoms declared officially Christian. Other than that, the changes were few, but the people gradually adapted to the new religious order.

One thing that immediately struck me was that Winroth completely bypasses the institution of the Things, the Viking democratic assemblies that balanced and limited royal power. He writes of the Scandinavian kings as if they were autocrats, ruling by decree. Although he doesn’t explain this omission, I imagine he considers the idea of the Thing another invention of Icelandic saga writers – and in his view (apparently) the very fact that a saga writer says it is conclusive proof of falsehood. He does not recognize the recent work of scholars in the field of folklore studies, who argue that useful information can be preserved in pre-literate societies for three centuries or more through traditional mnemonic devices, before being written down.

I was interested to note that Winroth does not cite Bishop Fridtjof Birkeli’s book, Tolv År Hadde Kristendommen Vært i Norge. Perhaps that was because Birkeli was a churchman. Perhaps it was because Birkeli’s book centers on the famous Kuli Stone, whose runic inscription has traditionally been interpreted to read “Twelve years had Christianity been in Norway.” Winroth rejects that reading. Nevertheless, Birkeli’s thesis is compatible with Winroth’s in certain respects. Both think the traditional tales of violent conversion have been exaggerated. The major difference seems to be that Birkeli takes conversion (of the heart) seriously, while Winroth considers it, if not unimportant, outside the purview of the historian and a matter to be avoided in historical works.

I was disappointed by The Conversion of Scandinavia in particular because Winroth – whose scholarly prestige is well deserved – exhibits what look to me like Marxist tendencies here. In The Age of the Vikings he laudably rejected the old Marxist thesis that the Viking Age was caused by overpopulation. But here he takes what looks like a materialist view of conversion – that conversion was purely a matter of achieving profit and power.

The bottom line is that I felt somewhat let down by The Conversion of Scandinavia. Which is not to say that I didn’t profit from reading it. There’s valuable stuff here. I learned one detail, as a matter of fact, that saved me from making a mistake in my work in progress. But I recommend this book only for serious historians who are equipped to evaluate the author’s preconceptions.

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