Born almost at the end of the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1100), in 1050, and far away from the shores of the Viking homeland in Scandinavia, Adam of Bremen seems an unlikely character to be intertwined with the study of the Vikings. 

However, all of us who love early medieval Europe's most fearsome warriors and know our Týr from our Thor are indebted to this medieval monk, believed to have been born in Meissen, in what is now eastern Germany, in the middle of the 11th century. 

Aside from being a Man of God, Adam of Bremen was a meticulous chronicler who helped to write and compile one of the most important sources on Northern European history and culture throughout the entire medieval period, Gesta Hamburgensis ecclesiae pontificum (Deeds of the Bishop of Hamburg). 

This source provided a continuous history of the entire Viking Age, spanning from 788 until the rule of Adalbert in the Bishopric of Hamburg (1043 – 1072). 

Adam was said to have been editing, adding to it, and revising it right up until his death in the early 1080s. 

What, however, did the Bishop of Hamburg have to do with the Vikings? And why were their deeds so worthy of being recorded for posterity? 

The Vikings encountered Christianity during their raids on Europe, as seen in the sacking of Lindisfarne Monastery. This marked a significant moment in the merging of Norse expansion and Christian influence. Photo: givi585 / Shutterstock

The early story of Christianity in the North 

The story of Christianity in Scandinavia can be traced back to that historical estuary between what historians call Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval period. 

We do not know exactly when the first Christians arrived in Scandinavia to preach "the good news," but an Anglo-Saxon priest named Willibord was said to have preached in parts of what is now Denmark during the early 8th century. 

As soon as the Vikings started raiding across the North Sea, they were exposed to Christianity in the British Isles and beyond. 

There had also been tales of Anglo-Saxon priests trying to convert Vikings who plundered and pillaged the shores of the British Isles with very limited results. 

The raid on Lindisfarne – one of the most famous events of the Viking Age (though not the first Viking attack on British soil) – devastated an island monastery that served as a cultural, educational, and religious hub. 

By the turn of the 9th century, Christian Europe turned its eye to Scandinavia as a vast region of untapped potential. 

Here, countless souls had yet to be converted to Christianity and were still stuck sinfully believing in their old pagan Gods. 

The Church (at this point, there was only one Christian church – it would split into Eastern and Western branches during the mid-11th century) needed to be more assertive in winning Scandinavian souls. 

Birka flourished as a prominent trading center during the Viking Age and witnessed the establishment of one of Scandinavia's earliest Christian churches before its eventual decline and abandonment in the 10th century. Photo: Stemp21 / Shutterstock

Gaining a foothold, a bishopric, and a church 

The early 830s, however, marked a watershed moment for Christianity's growing encroachment into Scandinavia. 

The so-called "Apostle of the North," Ansgar, traveled extensively throughout southern Scandinavia and played a crucial role in establishing the Bishopric of Hamburg. 

While the Bishopric aimed to spread Christianity in Scandinavia and its environs, it was not exclusively focused on converting Viking societies. 

The missionary fervor of Ansgar contributed to the construction of the first Christian church in Scandinavia, located in Birka, an important trading center in the Viking world. 

Following Ansgar's tenure, his successor, Rimbert, was involved in baptizing Danish locals during visits to the southern regions of the Viking territories. 

With the establishment of the Bishopric and the inaugural church in Scandinavia, Christianity began to take root in the region, although resistance persisted. 

Supported by Frankish rulers, later the Holy Roman Emperor, and guided by the Pope in Rome, the Bishopric played a crucial role in spreading Christianity by dispatching priests, monks, and missionaries into the northern territories.

This endeavor continued beyond the lifetime of Adam of Bremen, who chronicled much of this history during the 11th century. 

Most likely born in the town of Meissen, Adam of Bremen's scholarly prowess led him to chronicle the Norse, leaving behind invaluable accounts of their culture and customs. Photo: Avda (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The book of Adam 

For such a seminal figure in medieval history, we know frustratingly little about Adam of Bremen's life and exploits. 

What we do know, however, is that he was an important medieval chronicler, ethnographer, and historian. 

It was his seminal tome, Gesta, that gives us insight into what was seen as the frozen north, the harsh and unknown backwaters of the Nordic region. 

The first book describes the geography, history, and customs of the Nordic countries, including Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden

It provides valuable information about the pagan beliefs and practices of people in Viking societies, as well as their political organization and social structures. 

The story of the unification of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden is told, as well as a history of Viking settlements in Iceland, Greenland, and as far away as Vinland (believed to be modern-day Newfoundland, Canada). 

The second book focuses on the missionary activities of the Bishopric of Bremen, which played a crucial role in the Christianization of Northern Europe throughout the early medieval period. 

In it, Adam of Bremen provides detailed accounts of the efforts to convert the pagan populations of Scandinavia and the Baltic region to Christianity, including the missions to Denmark and Sweden. 

The third book contains biographies of the archbishops of Hamburg, starting from the late 8th century all the way until the mid-11th century, whilst the last book largely deals with church matters and its relationship with religious and secular authorities. 

It was this book – which countless scholars, historians, and writers at The Viking Herald have consulted – that won Adam eternal fame and praise for shedding historical light onto a region that had, before this, little historical or cultural analysis. 

This work provided valuable insights into the cultural, political, and societal structure of Viking societies, as well as their spiritual and religious beliefs. 

For lovers of all things Viking-related, this should be your first port of call when raiding the annals of history. 

It should be noted, however, that writing as a Christian monk and scholar, it was in the Church's interests to present Viking societies as perhaps more violent, nasty, and pagan than they possibly were. 

Though a historical document, it should be read with skepticism, as it is, after all, a piece of Christian propaganda. 

As the tallest church in Scandinavia, Uppsala Cathedral, constructed in the 13th century, holds deep significance as a symbol of Christian faith and the enduring legacy of Christianization in the region. Photo: trabantos / Shutterstock

Later life and legacy 

We know little of the life of Adam of Bremen, but we know he was appointed as the director of the Church of Bremen's school in 1069. 

He was said to have journeyed to the court of Sweyn II of Denmark (r. 1042 – 1076), which allowed him to gather information to add to the Gesta

He was said to have completed the mighty tome by 1076 and was believed to have died in the early 1080s, a relatively young man in his late 30s. (Here, the author would like to point out that being in your late 30s is actually VERY young... right?) 

Though the story of Scandinavia began long before Adam of Bremen compiled the Gesta, he was the first to bring color and life to the vibrant culture and history of this cold northern region during the early medieval period, when Vikings roamed. 

For more information on Germany's medieval origins, visit Archaeology Magazine here


One of the most intriguing descriptions in the Gesta was of the grand pagan temple at Uppsala, located in what is now Gamla Uppsala, Sweden.

In it, Adam of Bremen wrote of the sacrifices that were said to have been held at the Golden Temple every nine years.

This bloody ritual included the sacrifice of "nine males of every living creature..." and the corpses were then hung on a grand tree near the temple. 

To discover the sometimes gruesome and always fascinating history of the pagan temple and the town of Gamla Uppsala, STOEX offers small guided daily tours from Stockholm. 

These tours are great for all those wanting to take in the beautiful Swedish countryside, learn more about Sweden's Viking era, and experience culture and history firsthand. 

This branded article was produced in collaboration with STOEX, a partner of The Viking Herald. You can find out more about their Viking and history tours - and book one - here.

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