History Scotland

How did the Vikings see christianity?

Few medieval cultures are the subject of as many novels, movies, TV series, cartoons, superhero stories, video games and heavy metal songs as the Vikings. Popular culture often depicts them as opportunistic, lawless pagans wearing horned helmets and wreaking havoc in christian Britain. Their arrival is almost invariably portrayed as an assault on, and a threat to, the power structure and religion of their victims. Abbo Cernuus, a benedictine monk present in theViking siege of Paris in 885-86, is said to have portrayed the Viking invasions not as petty piracy but as ‘a war between christians and pagans, between the forces of God and those of darkness’. But was Viking settlement in the British isles a religious battle as much as it was a political one? Were Viking immigrants threatened by the prospect of conversion as much as christians were alarmed by paganism? This article proposes an interpretation in which the christianisation of Viking immigrants in the British isles, especially in Scotland, was very different from that of Scandinavia, prompting us to reconsider how Viking settlers viewed christianity and the agency behind their conversion.

Viking attitudes: an overview

Because written sources from the Scottish region at this time are virtually silent, a comparative, indirect approach must be taken to infer what the situation was in Scotland at the time of the first Viking arrivals. The attitudes Vikings had towards the British isles can be broadly divided in three categories based on the end goal they held at the time: plunder, war and settlement. When the goal was plunder, Vikings had an opportunistic attitude towards the land and people. Starting with the sack of Lindisfarne in 793 and continuing until the arrival of the great heathen army in 865, Viking raiders were generally concerned with picking soft targets and seizing as much wealth as possible. This was also an opportunity for adventurous young Norsemen to acquire fame and make a name for themselves.

Viking hit-and-run attacks seem to have persisted until the arrival of the great heathen army, when their attitudes and shifted. When their business became war, Scandinavians

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