The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants, and Missionaries in the Remaking of Northern Europe

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The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants, and Missionaries in the Remaking of Northern Europe. By Anders Winroth. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012, Pp. xiv, 238. $38.00.)

According to popular sentiment, the ancient Vikings were a pillaging, plundering, and generally violent group of ruffians. They had gained such a reputation in their day, and were so feared that even before the battle-axes came out and the swords were unsheathed, entire towns would surrender and offer a monetary tribute to spare the lives of their inhabitants. So how did such a marauding people convert to Christianity over the course of several centuries circa 1,000 C.E.? Perhaps more importantly, if they could have whatever they wanted by simply taking it, why would they become followers of Jesus Christ?

In this enthralling text, Anders Winroth challenges long-held historical interpretations that Christianity was forced upon northern Europe by missionary expeditions and military force. Instead, Winroth argues that the Scandinavians, who were largely ruled by local chieftains, were not "passive recipients" of some "protocolonial endeavor," but chose to align themselves with Christianity because it advanced the chieftains' interests in aggrandizing power and influence within their own communities (6, 161). In so doing, like any good postmodern historian, the author frees the conversion of Scandinavia from a master narrative that does not fully take into account "the context of the political, economic, and cultural aspirations and needs of Scandinavians" (162).

One of the most formidable challenges of Winroth 's analysis is the ambiguity of the term "conversion." Does conversion happen instantaneously as a direct result of hearing the gospel preached by an eloquent missionary, thus turning pagans into faithful Christians? Or, should one think of conversion as an institutionalization of Christianity whereby kings and the church form an alliance and build an ecclesial infrastructure? While medieval narrators and modern historians opt for the latter view, Winroth devotes two slim chapters in the second half of the book to these important definitional concerns, contending that the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity was a protracted, drawn-out process (i.e., Christianization). …