What does this tell us about the early beginnings of the Christianization of Viking societies in the early medieval period?

From little things, big things grow…

Christianity emerged in the 1st century CE, in the Roman province of Judea, as a microscopic following of the teachings of Jesus Christ. It was just one of the many religions that the subjects of Rome worshipped. However, a belief in just one God – was in stark contrast to the polytheism of Roman civilization. Furthermore, their disapproval of polytheism, along with the worship of the Roman Emperor as a semi-divine God, proved to undermine the Pax Romana.

In the following centuries, Christians saw their number increase whilst Roman authorities quite literally threw them to the lions. This persecution, perhaps, had the opposite effect of that desired, and soon Christians became a sizable minority within the Roman Empire.

It was under the leadership of Emperor Constantine the Great (272 – 337 CE) that Rome's relationship with Christianity saw a paradigm shift. The facts surrounding his conversion are steeped in legend and lore, but academics generally agree he was baptized in 312 CE. His "Edit of Milan," a year later, saw Christian worship decriminalized, ending centuries of cruel persecution. 

Under the auspices of Constantine's successor, Theodosius I, the Catholic orthodoxy of the Christian Church became the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE. What had started out as a few dozen followers in Judea had become, in less than four centuries, the official state religion of Europe's most powerful polity.

It was also during this time of religious tumult and change that Rome saw its relationship with various Germanic tribes enter a new relationship too.

Germanic tribes and the Völkerwanderung

Germanic tribes, originating in Scandinavia, started the long process of migrating south from approximately 1000 BCE. By the early 1st century CE, these tribes had reached the Rhine and the Danube Rivers, both bordering the Roman Empire. 

Here these Germanic tribes soon came into close contact with the Romans. They were exposed not only to the "benefits" of Roman civilization (to paraphrase Monty Python – straight roads, medicine, and aqueducts, to name but a few) but also to spiritual beliefs, practices, and ideas, namely the burgeoning religion of Christianity. 

By the time Theodosius I had made Christianity the state religion of Rome, Europe had entered the so-called Völkerwanderung (Migration Period). This saw large-scale migrations of peoples into the Roman Empire, which played a part in the Empire's collapse in Western Europe. Amongst these peoples were the Angles, Franks, Goths, Vandals, Huns, Gaels, and the Saxons.

A photograph of the interior of the Borgund stave church in Norway. Photo: Grisha Bruev / Shutterstock

Who were the Saxons?

According to the Romans, the Saxons were a Germanic people from a large area of northern Germania, that bordered the North Sea. By the last years of the Western Roman Empire, the term "Saxon" was not an ethnicity but an adjective – it meant something like a Germanic coastal raider. This would foreshadow their predecessors, the Vikings – whose name should be thought of as more of a job description (an early medieval period raider or pirate) than a specific ethnic group.

From their base in northern Europe, they had, by the 7th century CE, spread to what is now the French region of Normandy. Here they came into contact with the Frankish peoples who had, since the 5th century, been united under one leader, Clovis I, who spawned the Merovingian Dynasty and has been called "the first King of France."

It was Clovis's marriage, in 493 CE, to a Burgundian Princess, who was Catholic, that would change the future of Germanic peoples, including the Saxons. With constant marital pressure (dare we say nagging), Clovis would eventually be baptized as a Catholic at a time when most other Germanic peoples were either pagan or Arian Christian. As Clovis soon took over much of Western Europe, he ensured that Catholicism, and not Arianism, would be the dominant variant of Christianity.

Following Clovis's baptism, all future rulers of the Frankish realms would be Catholic and spread their religion, often at the pointy end of a sword, to the various peoples they fought with and subjugated, including the Saxons.

Mixing Jesus with Thor?

Throughout the 8th and 9th centuries, the Frankish Empire (which was now run by the Carolingian Dynasty) had come into conflict with the Saxons. Aside from winning on the battlefield, Frankish rulers were also interested in the winning of souls. 

To create converts of the Saxons – who often still believed in old Germanic and Norse paganism – there was a need for the adaptation of Jesus Christ to a local context. This was a religion, after all, where one of the key tenants was to "turn the other cheek," i.e., by responding to injury, harm, or slander not with violence or revenge but meekly allowing more injury. This was something that the Saxons, whose whole culture was steeped in martial skill, violence, and battle, could not comprehend.

During the early 9th century, missionaries had tried to win converts amongst the Saxons, using language and poetry. The Church had to tell the message of the "Prince of Peace" and repackaged Jesus in a way that local Saxons could better understand. 

An excerpt (from Fragment P) of the Heliand from the German Historical Museum. Photo: German Historical Museum / Public Domain

The result of this was the epic poem Heiland (Old Saxon for "savior"), which is the largest known work of Old Saxon yet discovered. Clocking in at over 6,000 lines, it was believed to have been commissioned during the period 814 – 876 CE under the reigns of Frankish rulers Louis the Pious or his successor Louis the German. The poem retold the story of Jesus Christ but with a few differences: Jesus became a chieftain, a Viking warrior chief, prayers became runes, and during the "Last Supper," mead, not wine, was consumed in a great feasting hall.

This poem proved to be widely popular as it was a synthesis between Christian ideals and Germanic martial ethos. This synthesis of Germanic and Christian ideals had been going on for some time – in fact, despite Clovis's conversion to Catholicism, he still went about splitting skulls. 

For the majority of the Frankish rulers – and the Saxons – Christianity was more of a tool to be used to gain power or subjugate a population rather than a daily creed to live by. The success of the Heiland saw other biblical stories that would be widely popular with these warlike Saxons be translated, including the Book of Genesis, the destruction of Sodom, and the "complicated" sibling rivalry of Cain and Abel.

Some of the more memorable retellings of aspects of Jesus's life include the announcement of Jesus' coming to "Middelgard," "Christ the Chieftain" being baptized by "his loyal thane, John," and Christ calling "twelve to be his men…His first warrior companions".

Later history of the Saxons

By the time the Heiland was commissioned, the Saxons had, more or less, been either persuaded or forced to convert to Christianity. Campaigns by the Frankish ruler (and first Holy Roman Emperor) Charlemagne over a 30-year period, from 772 to 804, finally subjugated the Saxons and brought them into the orbit of the Frankish realms.

The Saxons had, for a long time, resisted the urge to convert to Christianity, but Charlemagne's military battles eventually forced their hand. Over the course of the 9th century, they became baptized, leading to a synthesis of Christianity with Germanic features.

From the 6th century onwards, many Saxons had also taken to the seas and sailed across to migrate to the British Isles. Missionaries sent from Ireland (an important source of Christianity during the early medieval period, perhaps only second to Rome) went to convert these pagans and "heathens" to Christianity. These Saxons overran the local Romano-Britons and established what would become four separate Saxon realms (the Kingdoms of Essex, Middlesex, Sussex, and Wessex).

The Heiland offers a fascinating insight into just how flexible the early Catholic Church was. The synthesis of Jesus and Germanic pagan beliefs would win many converts, and the Heiland remained widely popular amongst Saxon populations. For those interested in how Jesus became Thor, look no further than the Heiland.

For more on the translation of the Heiland, visit the British Library website here.

And for more on the Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity, visit a BBC History Extra website here.

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