Saturday, March 14, 2015

Anders Winroth and the Economics of the Viking Conversion

History Fans! Two posts in one week? What is this madness?! Or should I say: This is being single at 29. . .

Anders Winroth's book, The Conversion of Scandinavia, has been read front to back and MY GOD IT WAS FANTASTIC!

Not only did Winroth support my theories about the conversion (which has been discussed here at length) but he also presented some new and amazing ideas about the Viking Age. Not least of all that Adam of Bremen is a total prick.

Winroth's first revelation is a pretty good explanation for the Viking Age raids. History books contain many theories, such as a population boom in Scandinavia, the inheritance-less younger sibling syndrome, a sudden desire to show off their mad sailing skills. While all of these things may indeed have been true, none of them really satisfactorily answer why the Scandinavians began scooting around the world and taking things from the neighbors. Winroth suggests an explanation of simple economics.

Scandinavian chieftains, even long before the Viking Age, relied on a system of giving gifts to their followers and warriors and receiving loyalty and service in return. This was not simply a military leader paying a soldier. On the contrary, chieftains needed to give their followers and warriors prestigious and often times personal gifts. The chieftains would attempt to tie as many of his retinue to him, by means of marriage or official friendship rituals. But in order to keep warriors that were not related by blood or marriage, a chieftain would have to present his men with those unique and personal gifts, often times taking the form of gold or silver arm band, an artistically inlaid axe, or exotic dishes like walnuts and wine.

Do you think a warrior had to axe for this gift?

You can do the math in your head: If a chieftain wanted his constituents to grow, he needed to produce more gifts, but more importantly more prestigious gifts. And the Scandinavians knew, through their trade routes, that some VERY prestigious gifts lay undefended in the monasteries that dotted the British and Frankish coasts. With their innovations in ship building, the Scandinavian chieftains found themselves in a unique position. Competition for power was always a heated affair in the north, as chieftains controlled people instead of territory. With the Christian European models of kingdoms popping up, competition to create a state must have driven some of the leading chieftains. In order to maintain their current stash of warriors and more importantly to increase the support, the chieftains were driven further and further out, to those undefended coasts, to steal what they needed in order to maintain their power. For instance, Olaf Tryggvason was run out of his country and lived for a while in exile in Novgorod. He then began his life as a raider, amassing treasures and wealth. After getting his cut from a very lucrative campaign against Ethelred, Olaf had enough wealth, prestige, and treasures to produce gifts to his followers and even attract new ones in his face off against Hakon.

Does this solely answer the question of how the Viking raids began? Certainly not. But it does give us a good grasp on how they could have come about. It is my opinion that it was a slow and steady increase and not a sudden onslaught as the dramatic authors of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle would have us believe. Indeed, the fluidity of power exchange in the Scandinavian countries would have pushed less powerful chieftains overseas to find a niche where they could carve out a piece of the POWER PIE.

These chieftains did not just steal gifts and give them away. As the Viking Age continued, many chieftains set up their own towns so that they could gather artisans in one place, either surrounding their hall or at a busy trading spot. We know from the Royal Frankish Annals that King Godfried launched Hedeby as a center of trade in 808. Many of the early Scandinavian trade towns were laid out in regular, organized lots that appeared to have been planned out, not grown organically. Many Vikings would shake take their booty to these towns, melt them down and create new and prestigious gifts for their followers. Viking warriors probably had no real use for a lot of the church treasures they lifted, but if their leader melted them down and turned them into arm rings, well by golly we are sticking with this guy! Here is an interesting question: Did the demand for more prestigious gifts push the artisans to create or modify new and different artistic styles? Could some of the beautiful animal-style designs that we now associate with the Viking Age be simply a byproduct of economic supply and demand?

Viking art on a fat guy

On the other hand, some chieftains wouldn't even bother bringing all that shit home. They would set up a temporary market to sell the stolen goods IN THE SAME KINGDOM WHERE THEY STOLE IT FROM. Good lord, you can just see those poor clergy men just staring across a river at the Vikings selling their property and probably their friends to Arab traders. But, if you think about it, this weird move kinda improved the European economy--an irony that the Vikings appeared to have mastered.

In the early Middle Ages, Europe was dragging itself out of the barter system and into, at least in the large empires (BECAUSE WE SAW CHARLEMAGNE JUST DO THIS), a coin system. However, a lot of the gold and silver that could be used as currency was locked away as static capital in the royal coffers and in the treasuries of the monasteries. So how's this for irony? The Vikings stole a lot of that gold and silver, turned them into goods or sold them for coins into a booming European market. AND the Carolingian and British kings emptied those treasuries to pay the Vikings not to steal their things, in which case the silver and gold were melted down into coins anyway! The Viking raids themselves injected steroids into an already blossoming medieval European economy. Whether they stole the money or were paid off in tribute, the fact remains that the Scandinavians, who had up until the Viking Age had not been part of the European world, had not just joined the modern world: they helped keep it on its feet.

What a wild world!

An interesting side note before we get to the conversion and tearing apart Adam: the actions of the Vikings were nothing new. Plenty of Celtic and British tribes sacked churches and monasteries. Charlemagne raided his neighbors every god damn summer so that he could pay his troops. But Charlemagne was Christian and so were the sources. The Vikings were incredibly more efficient and knew when to strike and when to back out (cough..cough..didn't spendthirtyyearssubduingtheSaxons...cough). That's just the way people paid for things back then. Until the Viking attacks, that is.

Listen: When the Vikings demanded tribute or payment, the fearful rulers of Europe would drain the royal and ecclesiastical treasuries. But when that ran out, they began taxing their subjects so that they could pay off the Northmen. Likewise, Alfred the Great demanded a certain percentage of income (not necessarily in monetary form) from his subjects to build fortifications against the Vikings and to support his troopz. These taxes continued long after the Viking Age and became the woes and miseries of many later Middle Age peasants. Do you guys see yet? Do you see how important and incredible the actions of the Vikings were? They forced Europe to organize! England was a wreck until the Vikings showed up. The subsequent Carolingian kings could not match Charlemagne's zeal or organizational skills and they too fell victim to the Vikings' shrewd attacks. Better administrations, faster armies, stronger fortifications, more organized institutions--a lot of what came to define the Middle Ages were a direct or indirect result of the Viking Attacks.

Charles the Bald liked to call them "FARTIFICATIONS"

I won't go into full detail of Winroth's discussion of the conversion, as we have covered it pretty extensively here on History Books. But Winroth does agree with me in that the benchmarks used to track Christianity's progress throughout Scandinavia are largely obsolete because the conversion was ultimately a political move.

Try this on for size: Christianity was nothing new to Scandinavia. They were not as cut off from the Roman world as we might think. They traded with Europe, stole from Europe, and had plenty of interaction that, especially in Denmark, the religion had already started to seep in. Yet by the 9th century, Christianity was to be associated with the powerful Carolingian Empire, the majestic Byzantine Empire, and the filthy rich English kingdom(s). Christianity was, to the Vikings, a very prestigious religion that produced extremely prestigious treasures. Olaf Tryggvason and St. Olaf were both baptized overseas at the courts of kings and important European players and saw firsthand how they could monopolize this power. When one was baptized in the medieval world, a person was to stand as a sponsor. For instance, Robert of Rouen, brother to Queen Emma (Ethelred's wife), stood as sponsor for St. Olaf and became his godfather. This increased Olaf's status. When he returned to Norway, he stood in as godfather to some of his followers, sharing with them the prestige of having those important ties. The relationship of godfather really mirrored the old marriage and blood ties that kept warriors indebted to their chieftain. In this way, Christianity became gift, one of the most prestigious gifts, that a chieftain could give to his warriors. It became a commodity and was used, just as the inlaid axe or arm ring, to build a political alliance with his followers.

The Scandinavian kings quickly realized the advantages Christianity had over their former pagan ways. The latter was decentralized and easily accessible to anyone. According to archaeology and the tidbits in the written records, there doesn't seem to have been any priests or specific roles within the pagan religion. Some chieftains appeared to have led sacrifices but the roles were not exclusive. On the other hand, Christianity had exclusive roles. Only bishops could anoint priests and deacons.

The kings soon saw their chance: Christianity promoted an ideology of kingship blessed by God. If they could claim the kingship, the bishops would submit to them, with the churches, priests and deacons all following suit. A king could monopolize the church, taking on its full power, organization, and allegiances and used it to carve out their little niche of power in their own country. And, just as Charlemagne ruled as the head of his church, so the Scandinavian kings found themselves at the head of their churches. The Viking kings took advantage of Christianity, the way they took advantage of anything they could get their hands on in order to achieve their goals.


In other words, the Vikings saw THE BENEFITS OF INCLUSION and converted simply as a political move, which is why we cannot trust the traces of Christian archaeology scattered throughout the north. Once the kings began using Christianity in their gift exchange model, the old pagan model stood little chance. The pagan religion was then rooted out not so much because of religious reasons but because it represented political opposition. We get a glimpse of this in the Icelandic conversion when certain pagan rituals were allowed even though they were strictly against canon law. It was all political. Especially for Iceland who used their conversion to circumvent Norway's attempt to plant their bishops there and swallow up the island into a commonwealth.

And at last we come to Adam of fuckin' Bremen. His account is one of the premier primary sources of Viking Age activity. And even though we knew at the time of our first reading that Adam flubbed certain facts, we believed he was innocently mistaken and just did a bad job of making sense of his sources. Winroth, however, provides a darker truth to Adam's mistakes. The pope had placed the Scandinavian missionary efforts in the hands of the church of Bremen (and eventually the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen). The sons of Louis the Pious had broken up the Carolingian Empire in a way that really sapped the church of its power. Angasar lost his funding due to the monastery that helped pay for his missions got separated from the bishopric in the empire's divisions. By the 1070s, when Adam was writing his history, Hamburg-Bremen was clinging on for any sense of importance. The pope had given them the responsibility of Scandinavia; however, as the Scandinavian kings learned to monopolize the religion, they brought in English and Polish bishops to bypass Hamburg-Bremen and essentially keep their position as head of the church.

This really pissed Adam off so HE MADE UP a bunch of shit to try and sneak in a claim for Bremen to still have control over Scandinavian Christianity. For instance, he claims in his history that a certain Emperor Otto of Germany had invaded Denmark and forced Christianity on Harald Bluetooth. This is simply not true. Not only are there no other accounts of Otto's invasion, something that surely would have been celebrated, but by all accounts Harald Bluetooth converted on his own. In fact, he invited bishops and missionaries into Denmark because he saw the BENEFITS OF INCLUSION! Adam paints both Olaf Tryggvason and Svein Forkbeard as Christians who relapsed into paganism. Svein, as far as we know, was baptized at a young age. Olaf, as one of the contributing players in the conversion of Norway, does not appear to relapse in any of our other sources. Adam was angry with these kings because they refused to acknowledge Hamburg-Bremen's authority. One of the most controversial parts of Adam's text is his (second hand) description of a sacrifice ritual at a temple in Uppsala. This, too, seems to be fabricated in resentment! Sweden had brought in Polish bishops instead of German, and Adam threw a god damn hissy fit. No pagan temple has ever been discovered in Uppsala, and the pagan rituals described cannot be satisfactorily verified.

"Uhhh...fuck it, I'll just make it up." - Adam of Bremen

Adam: kiss my ass, you prick!

That will do, History Fans. Let's learn a lesson from Adam. Don't be a diaper baby!

Until our next adventure!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Charlemagne Part Three: Daddy Issues

Welcome back, History Fans!

Today we are going to finish up our study of Charlemagne. So far we've seen how the Carolingian Mayors of the Palace seized royal control (thanks to a scared pope) and how Charlemagne's military victories put him position to be crowned emperor (thanks to a scared pope). This post has less to do with spooked clergy and more to do with Charlemagne's personal life and some of the institutions and policies he set in place.

Charles seemed to have no trouble knocking up his wives and concubines but the royal succession turned into quite a disaster over the span of his life. His first marriage was more or less an old Frankish custom that looked more like our idea of common-law marriage. There was no real ceremony, and it was definitely not approved by the church. Remember the church, though no longer in its infancy, was still fighting to take hold in the West after Rome fell. Einhard calls Charles's first wife a concubine, but this is misleading. The king certainly had his fair share of concubines but he married this woman named Himiltrude. The church, as it grew and planted itself in Frankish policy, eventually decided that those old Frankish marriages were not official and therefore null. This meant that Charles not only had to find a new wife, but the child that Himiltrude bore him, whose name in history is PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK, would never have a legit claim to the throne.

If you remember from our last discussion, Charlemagne had also married the princess of the Lombards. She did not have any children, so any Italian heirs who may have wanted to continue the desperate fight for Lombard independence thankfully did not come into existence. Nevertheless, it is significant that both of his early marriages had pretty intense political consequences. We saw Desiderus early on attempt use his daughter's marriage to Charles to regain his footing and get anointed by the pope. PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK, though gross and disfigured, had been born before the church policy that denied him his birthright had been put into place. As we shall see, this decision by the church to strip his disgusting son of his claim to the throne, will come (hunch) back to haunt him in 792. The HUNCHBACK got mixed up with some folk who urged him to take what was his. Pepin led a rebellion against his father that was quickly stomped out. As punishment, PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK was locked away in a monastery for the rest of his life. A fate worse than death.

Charles then enjoyed a handful of brides for different periods of time. Most famous was Queen Fastrada, who Einhard blames for all of Charles's merciless destruction that his military had been bestowing on Europe since before he married Fastrada. But with a name like that, I'm sure she was no peach! Entering the ninth century, here's what Charles's succession plan looked like. . . with BULLETS!
  • Pepin the Hunchback - doomed for life in a monastery
  • Carloman who later took the name Pepin - kingdoms of Italy and Lombard
  • Louis who later became the Pious - kingdom of Aquitaine
  • Charles Jr - was not given a kingdom but was to replace his father as King of the Franks
 We have seen how the Germanic tradition of splitting up kingdoms totally ruins them. Very few sons have the charisma and leadership skills of their father. A great example that we have studied here on History Books is old King CNUT. His North Sea Empire crumbled as soon as he passed away. Charles, though centuries before CNUT, likewise divvies up his kingdom that he fought so hard for between his remaining sons. When will these Germanic numbskulls learn?!

Yet disaster struck in 810, and the kingdom, for better or worse, was left in the hands of one son. Carloman, who was to take over the Italian portion of the empire, died that year. The following year Charles's pride and joy Charles Jr. died. This was a heavy blow because Charles had been pruning him, letting him take over military operations and diplomatic issues. With PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK locked up with monks and his legitimacy ruined by the damned church anyway, the entire empire was left to the weakest of all Charlemagne's sons: Louis the Pious. Charles, probably still frustrated with how the Pope ruined his own coronation, made sure that Louis was crowned by no one but himself. Possibly Charles knew that his son Louis didn't have the stuff to be an emperor and wanted to make sure that he gave him the best shot at a successful tenure - without the aggravating interruptions of the Pope and silly policies created by the clergy. This way, Louis stood above everyone else. Charles had seen himself as head of the church. Crowning his own son took any question out of the symbolism - Louis was now head of Western Christianity.

Louis the Pious HATED the alphabet

Whether or not Charles actually took such a special interest in Louis is debatable. His special treatment of his daughters, however, caused quite a bit of controversy in the royal court. A typical medieval ruler would have used his children to his advantage--marrying off daughters to strengthen or make new alliances, and setting up sons with land or titles or as successors. There is clear evidence that Charles attempted the latter even though bad luck struck in the early ninth century. Even PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK had a prestigious ecclesiastical position with his name on it until he led the rebellion. The daughters, however, stayed at court, either traveling with Charles or in place at Aachen. He had intended to marry a daughter early on to one of the Constantines in Byzantium, which would have linked the Christian world in an unprecedented way. He backed out at the last minute and kept his daughter near to him.

Nothing ever gross is reported. He didn't sleep with his daughters, you monsters! I know that's what you were thinking. He was just a lonely dude who liked to be surrounded by people who liked him. Maybe he was afraid of solitude or just a really social guy. Maybe he had daddy issues with the first Pepin. But having multiple grown and rich daughters at the court was bound to cause some trouble. With a rotating cast of eligible bachelors coming in and out of Aachen, the daughters had their pickings. One of Charles's daughters got pregnant from a famous poet. Another was rumored to have been sleeping with a trusted military leader. Without proper marriages, the princesses got their kicks and suddenly the palace was filled with illegitimate bastards. Is that redundant? Whatever.

Charlemagne was a man who could adapt, which was part of what made him such an effective ruler. We witnessed two policy shifts in his military aggression. The first was when he realized that he had destroyed the Italian countryside and that families were selling themselves into slavery because they couldn't pay their debt. Charles was quick to act and forgave the Italian debt. After his ruthless and tiresome venture against the Saxons, Charles was willing to change tactics against the Avars and lighten up a little bit. Another policy that shifted under Charlemagne, though not necessarily for the positive, was slavery. The gap between slave and peasant had slowly been growing closer together, and with the church's encouragement to do away with slavery, serfdom was created. They were like slaves, who had no choice but to rely on their patrons or former patrons for survival. Yet they were free! Kinda.

The monetary system also saw a transformation. Charles demanded a standardization of weights and measurements to ensure a balanced economy. He slowly took the old Roman gold coins out of circulation, keeping the old Frankish silver ones and even minting some new currency. It would appear that Charles was obsessed with organizing, something that became clear on the battlefield. His troops were no better equipped or stronger than their adversaries, but Charles knew how to organize his resources. It certainly helped to have a seemingly unending supply of manpower. Standardizing the monetary system created, in Charles's eyes, a real empire, not just different lands under one ruler. 


The most famous of Charles's policies or improvements was that of the church and of education, which at this point in time, went very much hand in hand. The Frankish church under Charles Martel was in shambles. Reforms began under Pepin the Short and Charle's brother Carloman, who wanted to see a bishop in every city. All the clergy in that bishop's diocese must answer to that particular bishop. Charles himself wanted to see the church cleaned up. He began dishing out stiff penalties to bishops, deacons, and monks who disobeyed their ecclesiastical orders. Old ecclesiastical provinces that had fallen in disuse were restored. Charles was getting organized more than anything. And though he demanded better behavior from the clergy, keeping tabs on all the wickedness was nearly impossible. Charles then went further and began updated ancient liturgies and customs in the church. He tested his clergy to see how well they knew the Lord's Prayer and even personally changed how the Catholic Creed was worded.

Charles held education in very high regard. He loved to learn and was very concerned that his kingdom would lose the Frankish language to the Latin of the church. He spearheaded a move to actually create a standard Frankish grammar. In 789, the Admonitio generalis instructed priests to gather up boys of all stations and statuses for educational instructions. Thus began the first Frankish schools. Again, Charles wanted everybody on the same page. Book production increased under Charlemagne who enjoyed reading and being read to, though he could not write.

We can't get ahead of ourselves though. Charlemagne is often attributed with pushing education and cultural change into modern Europe. And this he may have done but his number one concern was the church. As Barbero put it, "culture and education were revived for the express purpose of reforming or rather rectifying the way the church worked and the way that Christian people lived." Charles believed he was put in a position to protect the church. In fact the pope gave him that title! But the Frankish king took this responsibility to heart and tried to get his people organized, educated, and on the same page so that they could serve God efficiently. Educational reforms and cultural betterment were simply byproducts of Charlemagne's ultimate goal: serve the Lord (this included killing tons of pagans).

Charles seemed to have lost his edge during the Viking attacks that preceded his death. Instead of aggressively striding into Denmark and cutting down every pagan in sight, he tried to fortify the borders and come to peaceful terms with Godfried, the king of the Danes. In that devastating year of 810, Godfried died and left the kingdom of Denmark in mad and bloody rush for the throne. Charles figured the threat had disappeared with Godfried and decided not to invade. Boy, was he wrong! And after all that effort to prepare Louis for an easy reign, Charles had left the door wide open for the ultimate villains: THE VIKINGS. The great emperor died in January of 814, and Louis took on the burden of keeping the empire from crumbling. But that story is for another time.

Stay cool, Chuck.

This concludes our look at the life of Charlemagne. Hopefully our guest writers will have their posts ready in the next week or so. Or else it is back to THE VIKINGS!

Until then, History Fans. Don't trust poets with your daughters!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Charlemagne Part Two: A New Pope

Welcome back, History Fans!

When we last left the Carolingians, Pepin had usurped the Merovingian king with the help of a desperate pope. Pepin's jump from Mayor of the Palace to King of the Franks had some serious consequences, not least of all an obligation to protect Rome, a.k.a. fight the pope's battles for him.

Pepin died in 768, leaving his kingdom split, in the Germanic custom, between his two sons, Charles and Carloman. Pepin had expanded the kingdom significantly before handing it off to his sons, but instead of splitting the kingdom down traditional, territorial lines, he created new boundaries. Charles took over the more central kingdom that faced Germany and the Saxons while Carloman was given the more treacherous neighbors - the Lombards and the Arabs. There were rumors of animosity between the two brothers, or at least a coolness. Certainly there would have been competition and maybe a little resentment on the older Carloman's part. The harsh feelings came to an end in 771 when Carloman died suddenly.

Sensing an opportunity, the king of the Lombards, Desiderius, encouraged Carloman's widow to claim her husband's throne before Charles could act. This was significant on a couple levels. First, the Lombards were the continued enemy of the papacy, the defeat of whom was all but promised by Pepin when the pope gave him the crown. Much to the pope's annoyance, however, Charles had married Desiderius's daughter not long before. This tied Desiderius and the Lombards to the Frankish crown and thus to survival. Pope Adrian wrote to Charles to ask for help against the Lombards, who were threatening more than ever. Desiderius wanted anointing just like Pepin and Charles had been. This obviously put Charles in a tight pinch. Being ever the practical diplomat and ruthless, cold-hearted bastard, Charles ditched his Lombard wife, took up his sword and crushed The Lombard threat. The king quickly annexed his brother's lands into his own before anyone else could act. Interestingly, neither brother embarked on any type of military endeavor while they shared the

Charles's rookie card

Charles's Italian campaign was incredibly destructive to the local population. Many farmers, peasants and entire families were forced to sell themselves into slavery in order to survive. This had a profound effect on Charlemagne, and it is one of many contradictory battles that raged on throughout his reign. As a Christian king, it was his duty to eliminate God's enemies--not only the surviving pagan religions but also any threat to Rome. Yet as a Christian, was he not supposed to show mercy? Charles seemed to struggle with this concept throughout his reign, something that his later medieval successors would simply ignore. There was no doubt in his mind that he was God's chosen king, the Franks the new Israelites, and every move completed through a religious paradigm, yet he often seemed at odds with his relationship with the universal church. For the most part, he was a brutal military leader, unafraid of stiff punishment for his enemies and relentless in both legislation and in war. However, these moments of understanding like with the suffering of the Italians, this weird form of compassion, brings Charlemagne out of a legendary status and paints him as a real, complex human being. The Italian catastrophe bothered him so much that he drafted some legislation that gave the Italian people their land back, forgave their debts, and ultimately made him a hero after destroying their property with his army.

Charles believed in a slow and steady takeover. The Frankish kingdom was based on Roman tradition, and the lines were blurred between secular and ecclesiastical offices. When conquering a kingdom or a people, Charles like to maintain the local administration by giving them the Frankish and Christian benefits of being part of their "empire." This helped quell most of the out crying that normally accompanied a takeover that ousted the local leaders. Under Charles, the local leaders were carefully incentivized until the position was vacated when the king would subtly install his more trustworthy Frankish vassals. This method, combined with the sheer number of troops and the masterful organization of the king, worked extremely well in almost every foreign occupation. . .except with the Saxons.

The most notorious of Charles's wars was the thirty-year struggle against the pagan Saxons who would just not fucking die! In the end, it appeared the king had adopted a patient plan to slowly suffocate the Saxons, though I'm sure that he did not intend for the violence to be so prolonged. The Franks chipped away, little by little, taking a fort here, losing a fort there. As they pushed the boundaries, they would set up fortifications--some would stand strong, others they'd lose in one of the many Saxon uprisings. Charles repeatedly pinned the Saxons down, forced them to be baptized and to sign peace agreements, only to have a new rebellion pop up a few years later. This infuriated Charles! If there were two things that guy hated, it was pagans and oath-breakers. The Saxons were both! In 782, he finally loses his shit after another insurgence and decapitates 4,500 Saxons. NO MERCY.

Some Saxons were pretty cross after the beheadings

Charles takes a completely different approach with the Avars, or as they were more commonly and wrongly identified as, the Huns. These warriors ruled the Eastern Steppes, wreaking havoc on the Byzantine Empire who had been paying them off for years. Charles had had enough of the menace and blitzed into the Avar territory and annihilated the entire people. This was the second time the western Christian kingdom had shown up the east. These slights, not to mention the vastness of Frankish kingdom, did not go unnoticed in Rome or Byzantium.

At first an annoyance, Charles and the Franks had grown into a serious threat in the Byzantine Empire's eyes. Charles had expanded the kingdom to include all of France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Austria; Germany up to the Elbe, northern and central Italy; Istria, Bohemia, Slovenia, Hungary up to Danube and even parts of Spain! Sheesh! This put CHARLES IN CHARGE of basically all of Christendom except for the Eternal City (which was relying on the Franks for protection) and Byzantium (which was limping along and growing continuously powerless).

Vikings to the north of me! Arabs to right of me! Moors coming from beneath!

The competition between east and west began with Pope Gregory III's letter to Charles Martel asking for assistance. The papacy was not receiving the help it needed from what was technically the superior emperor. Pope Zacharias followed suit by sending his famous desperate letter to Pepin, saying that, as military leader, he had the right to rule. At some point Rome broke away from all practical submission to Byzantium. Yet the eastern empire still nominally ruled the Christian realm, something the Franks began to resent. They didn't like the stupid sounding Greek language and couldn't understand why they couldn't just speak Latin like everybody else! This resentment was amplified by a major controversy that was raging through the Byzantine Empire. A debate had begun over icons. Was praying to icons considered idolatry? The empire was split down the middle and violence erupted between those who thought it was okay and those who considered it wrong to use the icons. Western Christianity did not utilize icons and thus considered the debate a waste of time and the violence that ensued a blemish and embarrassment to Christianity. Empress Irene was sitting on the throne as regent for her young son, Constantine VI. Mother and child took stances on opposite sides of the icon debate which resulted in Irene poking out her son's eyes, as well as cutting out his tongue. This embarrassment, coupled with the impressive power being showcased under Charles, was enough to drive the pope to switch alliances. But then something happened to the pope that gave him no choice, and once again, history was moved by ANOTHER pope in sheer desperation.

In 799, Pope Leo, successor to the more friendly Adrian, found himself in some hot water. Some pretty hefty charges were brought against him, including perjury and fornication. The pope was sleazin' around! In true Byzantine tradition, the Roman citizens attempted to poke out his eyes and cut out his tongue. This was considered the best insurance against somebody ever taking office again. If they can't see or speak, who the hell would pay any attention to them? Not a bad policy! Leo escaped with his pants around his ankles and ran to the only real protector left to him - Charles. And the door was finally opened for our dear Charlemagne. Both Leo and Constantine VI had been attacked by their own people; both the mighty Byzantine Empire and the infallible pope had been shaken, embarrassed, and plunged deep in sin. Meanwhile, the unstoppable Frankish machine churned onward and Charles saw his opportunity. He rescued Leo, marched him back to Rome, held a ridiculous trial in which the pope was found to be above reproach, and set him back in his comfy office. However, the gesture was not lost on anyone. The pope, the head of the church, had come to the King of the Franks for help. The King of the Franks in turn gave a ruling that put the pope back in his place. Thus a battle for power had begun.

In November of 800, Charlemagne showed up outside of Rome. Leo walked twice as far out of the city to greet him--again, people noticed and understood the symbolism. And on Christmas Day, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor. The symbolism continued at the coronation, much to Charles's dismay. Leo had beaten Charles to the punch, and, seeing no way out of it, Charles had to kneel and allow Leo to crown him. After all his hard work, saving Leo, defeating the Lombards, and basically starting Europe, Charles STILL place himself beneath the pope. You might be thinking to yourself, "But a Church lovin' yahoo like Charles surely didn't mind being one step below the pope!" You'd be wrong! And this is how we know: When his only surviving heir, Louis the Pious, was crowned as emperor, Charles made certain that it was he and not the pope who placed the crown on his son, a very symbolic move that was to be repeated a thousand years later by another French bad-ass, NAPOLEON BLOWMYBONEAPART!

Napoleon, searching for a fuck to give
(Hundred Best)

Charles did not just see himself as head of the church, but as protector and ruler of Christians on Earth. Why else would God have blessed him with victory after victory? The ambiguity of the relationship between the pope and king continued on for centuries. If only our boy Chuck had reached the crown before the ol' sex crazed Pope Leo!

So far we have seen how the Carolingians achieved the Frankish crown, how Pepin pushed himself into global relevance, and how Charlemagne created the new powerhouse in the West. In our next installment, we will look closer at the emperor's personal life, the bizarre and tangled web of his heirs, and how he created through his policies a new Europe. We are also very excited to announce a new post coming about Byzantine and the battle of the iconography by a person who actually knows what he's talking about!

Until next time, History Fans. Keep your hands to yourself!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Charlemagne Part One: Pepin with the Door Open

Greetings, History Fans. I hope you're all exhausted from your Valentine's Day activities. What better way to recover from your weekend of love than with some history?! Today, we are focusing on the Father of Modern Europe, Charlemagne.

Our sources for this particular post comes from The Two Lives of Charlemagne, written by Einhard, who personally knew Charlemagne, and Notker the Stammerer, who wrote a biography years later that mostly consisted of anecdotes and stories from the king's life. A more informative source has been Alessandro Barbera's biography, Charlemagne: Father of a Continent.

There are many things to say about Charlemagne--from his governmental reforms to his military prowess. He was not necessarily a military genius but a brilliant organizer of resources. Yet, expansion through force remains his most memorable legacy. We will touch briefly on his military career, but today we will focus on his and his father's ascension to power.

By the time of Charlemagne's reign, there was no questioning his authority. Yet he was only the second Carolingian king that had just recently usurped the Merovingian dynasty with the pope's blessing! Let's set the stage:

Gaul had been part of the Roman empire that had since crumbled under the weight of the barbarians. Out of the ashes grew smaller kingdoms, including the kingdom of the Franks. The Merovingian dynasty ruled the Franks who, in the eyes of the more sophisticated Roman and Byzantine worlds, were still nothing more than barbarians--or at least a primitive Christian kingdom. Many times, the Merovingian kings were selected by the Byzantine emperor. The emperor was considered the head of the church at this point, so, as part of Christendom, the Franks served the east. The former kingdom of Gaul would occasionally be united by a Merovingian king only to be split up again on his death and at the grasping fingertips of his heirs.

Charlemagne came from a powerful family who made a name for themselves as Mayors of the Palace. A small, administrative council, the Mayors of the Palace assisted the king in ruling, particularly in defense and military endeavors. Charlemagne's great-grandfather, Pepin of Herstal, was the first Mayor of the Palace to extend his rule into more than one of the splintered kingdoms. He continued to monopolize on the position, and by the time of Charlemagne's grandfather, Charles Martel, the Mayors, and in particular Pepin's line, had grown incredibly powerful while the king saw himself reduced to an empty title.

Charles Martel "served" under Childeric III, the last of the Merovingian kings. Of course, neither Martel nor Childeric knew that fact. However, Childeric must have been aware of his lack of power in his own kingdom. Charles Martel had become quite popular in the eyes of the Franks after beating back the Muslim incursion from Spain. He passed on his title and prestige to his sons, Pepin the Short and Carloman. When the latter left the court to pursue a monastic life, Pepin found himself as sole Mayor of the Palace and ruler of the Frankish kingdom in all but official title. In 754, Pepin received that title from Pope Stephen, as Einhard informs us. But why? Obviously the mayors wielded considerable power while Childeric was basically a non-entity. But what could have driven the pope to surpass an established line of kings to crown a new one? The answer lies in the insecurity of Rome and in a people called the Lombards.

Pepin the Short

After Rome fell, the pope saw all power drain out of Italy and east into the Byzantine empire. Even centuries after the collapse, Germanic tribes continued to threaten the great city, worse among these were the Lombards. At first the pope relied upon the Byzantine forces to protect Roman interests, yet continued internal struggles, distance, and a lack of resources resulted in lapse of protection that the popes relied upon. So they started looking elsewhere for the prayers to be answered. The powerful military on the rise in the old lands of Gaul would hardly have escaped the desperate gaze of the pope. In 739, Pope Gregory III wrote a letter not to the Merovingian king but to Charles Martel asking him to intervene on the papacy's behalf and eliminate the Lombard threat. Martel was unable to meet that request but his descendants believed that his military victories gave them the right to rule. When Pepin inherited his position as Mayor of the Palace, he wrote to Pope Zacharias to ask him, essentially, since he and his line did all the work and yielded the military power, shouldn't THEY have the right to rule? Zacharias returned the letter with his full agreement and in 751 Pepin declared himself king.

Zacharias's successor, Stephen, took the matter even further - literally and figuratively! Not only did he travel from Rome to the Frankish kingdom to crown Pepin (a highly symbolic gesture that no one failed to notice) but he also proclaimed that the Frankish kings were the new 'Particans of the Romans," or the protectors of the papal see. The line of Pepin and Charles Martel already had a pretty high opinion of themselves, but this decree from God's own mouth cemented their legacy, not just as the new Roman Empire but as the new Jerusalem. The Franks were, by all accounts and purposes, God's chosen people. Hadn't Charles Martel proven that with his defeat of the evil Arabs? Now the pope declared it so it must be true!

But there's something more to the story. One of the first things Pepin did as king was to take on the Lombards. Could there have been a deal behind the scenes? Or maybe not even behind the scenes! Zacharias and Pepin were in contact. Is it crazy to think that Pepin said, "Look, Pope, I'm pretty much already king. If you give me your blessing, I'll take a swing at the Lombards." Zacharias and later Stephen were in a desperate spot. They weren't getting sufficient help from Byzantium, who surely would have taken offense if they requested some petty Germanic king to fight the pope's battles for him. Yet, Pepin was probably straight wang hanging his longsword in front of the pope. Who would be able to resist?! Plus, Zacharias was consulted in the disposal of Childeric III who, according to Carolingian tradition, probably spent the remainder of his life shut up in a monastery--a policy that Charlemagne would come to really love.

An evil Lombard(i)

Pepin invaded the Lombards and lay siege to Pavia in 754, checked King Aistulf, but did not force submission. Ominous, huh? So of course Aistulf breaks the truce he agreed upon in 756 and shows up at the gates of Rome. Pope Stephen begged Pepin for assistance. Pepin obliged but once again failed to eliminate the threat, a folly that Charlemagne would not repeat--at least when it came to the Lombards. Pepin passed away in 768 but not before he placed the kingdom in the hands of his two sons: Charles (Le Magne) and Carloman (Who Died).

As we will soon see, this would not be the first time that the Carolingians benefited from the pope's desperation. In the next installment, we will look at Charlemagne's personal, military, and intellectual life and contributions--how he became emperor and the father of a continent. We will also be featuring a post from a guest contributor on how the internal strife of the Byzantine Empire left a vacuum that only Charlemagne could fill.

Charlemagne during his growth spurt

Keep your eyes peeled, History Fans. You never know when someone might be just desperate enough to hand you a crown and ordain all your decisions as infallible. I'm crossing my fingers!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Austrveg, or The Truth On Titties

Welcome to 2105, History Fans! Can you believe we've been at this for seven years now? The fruits of our labor are surely rotten to the core but that does not keep us from learning!

We continue on our Viking journey - this time to the east!

The Vikings are probably much most notorious for their activities in the west: their discovery and settlements of Iceland, Greenland and the other Insular island communities; their raids on and eventual assimilation into the English people; the disastrous attacks on the Carolingian Empire; their journey to North America. Yet their activities in the east are no less substantial and have had a real impact on Russia's historiography. In fact, more Viking artifacts have been found in the east than in Western Europe and even in Denmark! Their most famous achievement in the east is their involvement in the Varangian Guard. Serving the Emperor of Byzantium's personal guard was a crowning achievement of wealth and glory for many east-faring Scandinavians. Byzantium, however, was not the initial attraction. Though it came to play an important part in later Viking activity, the Byzantine Empire had to be discovered nearly by chance. The Vikings, or Rus as they were known, left their marks throughout the Baltic and Eastern European world as they found their way to Constantinople, including what would eventually be one of the greatest controversies in Russia's history!

The way east, or austrveg, was traveled mostly be Swedish Vikings, though there is much evidence that their neighbors in Gotland had been active in the Baltic since the second half of the 8th century. Staranga Lodoga is thought to have been a trading center that resembled, and predated, the likes of Hedeby and Birka. Those from the island of Gotland seemed to have closer ties with their Baltic neighbors than the Scandinavian Swedes to the west. Both appeared to have taken part in the trading hub on Lake Ladoga. The Swedes, however, pushed onwards.

The Vikings took two main roads to the east: the most direct route was through the Gulf of Finland while the second was getting onto the Daugava River and passing through what is today Latvia. Constantine VII Porphyorgenitus thought this journey highly impressive and recorded just how the Rus traveled through the Eastern European landscape--braving the rivers, (their slaves) carrying the ships overland to the next waterway. Surprisingly, no permanent Viking settlements have been found along the routes. Scandinavian culture appears to have influential in Latvia while minimal in Estonia, despite the many silver hoards found through its lands. In Latvia, especially at the Salapils Laukskola cemetery, Scandinavian coins and brooches, as well as imitation brooches are found in ample supply. The Swedes, it would seem, were more interested in the destination than the journey, and didn't stop to fraternize much with the local Estonians. They had no choice but to go through the Baltics to get the grand prize: Byzantium!

But wait! I said earlier that Byzantium wasn't the original goal! What lured the Vikings east was that lucrative seductress known as silver. They watched from afar as the Khazars got rich from the Arabic silver that flowed into the high steppes. Being the great opportunists, the Vikings took the wares from home (furs, slaves, furry slaves) and mimicked the Khazars in their commerce, even in their leadership hierarchy. Exactly when the Rus showed up in Eastern Europe is hotly contested--most likely in the 9th century. Arab writer Ibn Khurradadhbeh claimed that the Rus were at the Byzantine court as early as 838. Regardless, they showed up and began shaking things up immediately. The story of how the Rus came to power in the east as told by the Primary Russian Chronicle has led to two different factions that have argued for decades about whether or not the Rus helped form the early Russian state.

The story goes like this: The Slavic tribes were unruly and fighting amongst themselves. They had had some contact with the Rus and thought them impressive and powerful folk. So they invited a great warrior named Rurik to come rule over them. This would have happened around 862. Rurik made his seat at Novgorod and gave a handful of followers rule over other important cities, like Kiev. Around 866, the newly settled Rus led a great attack against Constantinople only to be washed away by a great storm. Rurik died in 879 and left the rule to his kinsman Oleg, who moved the capital to Kiev. Oleg attacked Byzantium again in the early 10th century, which proved to be much more successful. He and his successor, the great Vladamir, put together a wonderful treaty in 911 and 912 that spells out how things are going to work between the Rus and the Greeks.

(Maybe) Rurik (possibly) founding (what could be) the Russian State (kinda)

This legend suggests, and plenty of scholars agree, that the beginning of a Russian state owes its thanks to the Scandinavian Rus. The founding or at least bolstering of Novgorod and Kiev as leading centers are attributed to the Rus. Many scholars, known as antinormanists, disagree with this account and not without good reason. The tale has certain motifs that tips the scales toward folklore. Many of its claims cannot be verified. The archaeological evidence is also inconclusive. Both sides attempt to use the artifacts, silver hoards, and grave sites to prove their point. The antinormanists have probably been much more feverish in their attempts to disprove the legend ever since Hitler let slip that, had it not been for the Vikings, the Russians would still be living underground like rabbits. What is most remarkable about the argument is that the greatest pieces of archaeological evidence are the brooches from the Viking Age. Women wore these brooches on their chests and usually strung a chain between them, on which swung keys the farm and other charms. The brooches are so distinctly Scandinavian that they can be used as a standard. But both normanists and antinormanists are attempting to prove the points of what men did by the findings of jewelery that sat on women's breasts. Titties forever!

Smoochie Broochies!

What is clear is that the Rus showed up on the hills of the eastern steppes in the late 9th century. The land there was not particularly arable, which meant that the Rus probably had their eye on the powerful Byzantine Empire. Sure enough, they wasted little time in assaulting Constantinople. Whether or not Rurik was blasted by a storm on his way or out of the city is unknown. The treaty of 911/912, however, is an extremely telling piece of history. It was written in response to the besieging of Constantinople by the Rus, yet both sides appear well represented. The document presents two very different cultures attempting to come to terms with the other. It covers a variety of circumstances, such as how to respond to a Christian killing a Varangian, or how to return a deceased Varangian's property should he die within the city walls. The reason for all these cultural adjustments is totally economic. The Rus wanted sole trading rights with the empire in the area but lacked the manpower to upend the Khazars or to do more than pester Byzantium. The empire on the hand saw an opportunity to turn enemy to ally. The Byzantine cities were much too fortified for the Rus win more than a handful of significant victories, but their presence was worrisome for the emperor all the same. So a treaty was drawn up and looked like a win-win for both sides. The haughty Byzantine could go on fighting the Bulgars without worrying about their Varangian neighbors, while the latter developed brand new trade routes and began milking their new relationship for all it was worth.

The peace lasted until 941 when Igor, who had taken over the rule of the Rus, attacked Byzantium again but  whose campaign was blown to smithereens by Greek Fire. A treaty was reworked in 944 with some stricter stipulations on how the Rus were to handle themselves if they wanted to go on trading with Byzantium, thank you very much! The treaty also tended to favor and give special attention to any Rus who had converted to Christianity. Igor's son Sviatoslav took over after his father's death, and one would think he would see the signs written in the smoke and quickly convert to gain the emperor's trust. Instead, Sviatoslav made a shaky peace with the empire and went after his true enemy: THE KHAZARS. They thought they were so cool but not for long! Sviatoslav eliminated his rivals on the steppes. Byzantium took notice and paid Sviatoslav a bunch of money to take care of THEIR biggest rivals, the Bulgarians, which he did in 968. Pretending everything was cool, Emperor John I Tziniskis made a surprise attack on Sviatoslav, sending his cavalry toward Preslav, while a fleet fully equipped with Greek Fire headed up the Danube. The Rus were roughed up pretty good by the Greeks but managed to escape to the Dnieper estuary. That winter, weakened by their scuffle with the Byzantine army, Sviatoslav and his men were annihilated by the Pechenegs, who didn't just kill the Rus leader but took his skull home with them to use as a drinking cup!

I can't remember a hippocampus ever tasting so delectable!

Sviatoslav's death left a vacuum in Kiev. With the silver shortages of 970, and the Arabic trading routes dried up, the seat became even more important and drew the eyes of many of the Rus's Nordic neighbors. Yet it was Sviatoslav's son, Vladamir, who returned to seize Novgorod and Kiev in 978. Prince Vladamir is famous for his "faith investigations" and eventual conversion of the Rus. This is highly misleading. Vladamir began his rule by instituting a sort of "counter-cult" of idols and sacrifices. Then, suddenly having a change of heart, I guess, he decided to send out some of his men to investigate which religion seemed like the best one. Everybody hated Islam, Judaism wasn't even considered and western Christianity was BORING. Eastern Orthodox it was! Of course, this story is mostly bogus. Vladamir had struck a deal with the then emperor, Basil II and came to his rescue when Constantinople was besieged by some other foe. Vladamir was rewarded with a marriage to Basil's sister Anna, but, of course, before they got married Old Vlady would have to be baptized. Following his baptism, many of the inhabitants of Kiev were baptized, but it appears that many religions co-existed within and without the city walls.

The separation of cultures between the eastern Rus and the western Vikings was growing ever greater. Yet Vladamir's successor, Iaroslav, kept the Nordic ties going. Even if they were culturally growing apart, the splendor of Byzantium was enough to send the Vikings of the west down the Austrveg. In fact Iaroslav is famous for his assistance of the last Viking king, Harald Hardradi, the poor English king via Denmark who lost his life at Stamford Bridge in the chaos of 1066. Harald had married Iaroslav's daughter at some point in his illustrious career. The prototypical Norsemen serving in the Varangian Guard, Harald arrived in Constantinople in the early to mid 11th century, served as the captain of the Varangians within the Byzantine Empire. According to Snorri Sturluson, he offended Queen Zoe and was thrown into prison only to be rescued by the ghost of his half-brother, Saint Olaf! What a story to tell the grand kids!

The cities of Kiev and Novgorod continued their connection with the Nordic world for years after, but as the Viking Age came to a close, so did the distinct Scandinavian culture. The Viking Age was finally wiped out by that dastardly villain known as the German merchant who supplanted the Vikings as the main movers and shakers of Baltic commerce. It is interesting to note the similarities and differences between the Vikings in the east and their contemporaries in the west. Very little settlement occurred on the west and, aside from the main cities, almost no actual supremacy was established. Their opportunistic nature held true, fighting the monster that was Byzantium when it was weak, attacking when the emperor was elsewhere fighting different enemies. The Christian sources are likewise similar in their doomsday rhetoric. Only the Arabic sources seem to keep a clear head. Obviously annoyed by the Vikings, the Arabs seemed to cut their losses after a Viking raid, regroup and set after them. Maybe the Arab world was more organized or better trained. The writers were surely less panicked, almost indifferent.

The Vikings in the east were truly just as big of players as those in the west, but not indefinitely. There was never quite the assimilation as in England or the complete control obtained in Normandy. The Rus left their mark, however. Sicily, Latvia, Estonia, and Russia all have some sort of Nordic impression left on them. And while we may never get to the bottom of who really started the Russian state, we can be sure that the eastern Rus played SOME part in its rise to prominence. And who knows! Maybe the brooches will one day reveal a clue that will end the settlement once and for all and smother the fire that rages in the the opposing scholars' breasts.

Titties forever.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Uncertainty of Christian Evidence and the Benefits of Inclusion

           The conversion to Christianity is considered one of the most important turning points in Scandinavian history, but tracking the religion’s progression through the north is a tricky task that must be studied delicately using certain methods ascribed to by scholars like Alexandra Sanmark. The main ways by which Christianity is measured are grave and burial customs, church sites, coins, rune stones, written sources and laws. Using these methods, the Christianization of Scandinavia can, to an extent, be measured in degrees of belief, attitudes, values, behavior, and social institutions (Sanmark 2004). However, the conversion can be only nominally traced throughout Scandinavian history. When attempting to measure how “Christian” a country or kingdom was, the results can be murky if not entirely misleading (Shepherd 1996). In order to better understand and follow the conversion process, Sanmark breaks it down into two phases (2004). The first phase consists of the scattered network of independent missionary efforts while the second phase begins when the secular rulers take over the spread of Christianity (Sanmark 2004). Applying the aforementioned methods to both phases of the conversion unearths evidence, and in many cases a lack of evidence or consistency, that dismisses any certainty that Christianity can be measured.

            Contrary to popular belief, the conversion of the Scandinavian kingdoms was relatively peaceful, especially during the second phase (Sanmark 2004). Aside from Norway, the rest of the Viking world converted if not willingly, then mostly, without bloodshed from either an internal decision or at the behest or political threats of contemporary rulers (Roesdahl 2008). Violence in the first phase, according to the few sources available, appears to be minimal (Robinson 1921). One could make an argument suggesting that the missionaries intentionally put themselves in harm’s way owing to how potent a martyr’s cult could be (Brink 2008). Certainly a number of Vikings fought against the oncoming Christian tide, but the resistance that did arise can often be attributed to the political turmoil of the time period. For instance, the bloody interactions in Norway were less about religious change and more about the loss of power during the unification process (Hollander 1964).

            Having raided all over Christendom, the Vikings were familiar at least with some aspects of Christianity (Melnikova 2011). Some of the original Icelandic settlers claimed to be believers (Palsson and Edwards 1972). Birka was home to a diverse community that most likely included a small collection of Christians (Sanmark 2004). The religion may not have embraced but it certainly appears to have been tolerated. Even the proclaimed pagan leader Svein Forkbeard seemed utterly indifferent to Christianity—not promoting but not fighting against it either (Derry 1979).

            This lack of resistance and indeed indifference makes using methods like archaeology and written sources to measure the conversion confusing and difficult. Some of the confusion can be alleviated by understanding how Scandinavia was targeted by missionaries. Pope Gregory had centuries ago instructed missionaries to implant Christian meanings into existing pagan religious and cultural traditions instead of eliminating them (Melnikova 2011). The Vikings may have viewed a religious conversion as a cultural defeat, but through Gregory’s method, they not only held onto their identity but also made Christianity distinctly Scandinavian (Graslund and Lager 2008).
"Uh, yeah, whatever you want - just slap a cross on it and we'll make it Christian."
Pope Gregory's great plan

            The gap between the Norse pagan religion and Christianity may not have been as wide as once believed. In his introduction to Njal’s Saga, Robert Cook suggests that Christianity functioned not as antithetical to pagan values but as complementary (2001). Perhaps the best example comes from the Icelandic hreppr law in which the farmers, in line with Christ’s teachings, worked together to make sure none of their neighbors went hungry (Byock 2001). The meek and suffering Christ, however, would not have registered with the Vikings. They would have picked up instead on his more authoritarian traits that were more in tune with their power and honor driven culture (Melnikova 2011). In fact, Christ was often incorporated into the Norse pantheon right next to Odin and Thor (Melnikova 2011). This acceptance of Christ as a god on par with the traditional deities might have been viewed as a victory for Christian missionaries, but, with no evidence of immediate change, there were no milestones for missionaries to celebrate (Brink 2008). At this point Christianity in Scandinavia was a slow and creeping stream of muddle and mixed cultural preferences, and Christ may have been seen as little more than just another idol.

            This hybrid union of a chaotic paganism and the infant disorganized Christianity left Norse burials in disarray. Even before the Viking Age, burial customs in Norway were at best inconsistent (Saebjorg 2007). Inhumation and cremation graves coexisted in different parts of Norway before and during the conversion period (Saebjorg 2007). While inhumation graves in churchyards eventually won out, certain pagan burial customs continued to thrive in parts of Scandinavia well after the conversion (Shepherd 1996). Even churchyard burials cannot be trusted due to later generations re-burying their unbaptized kin, just as Harald with his father at Jelling (Roesdhal 2008).

            The way a body faced and the goods with which it was buried are two other ways scholars attempt to identify Christian graves (Tolochko 2011). The direction a body was buried can be misleading because many early Christian graves were positioned southwest to northeast instead of the official west to east direction. Every pagan Viking grave found at Luistari holds a body facing southwest to northeast (Shepherd 1996). With such a variety of behaviors and values present in Norse graves, many burials are left to guess work. A more dependable indication of religion in burials is the grave goods (Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998). Traditional Viking graves included tools, weapons, jewelry, and other goods for use in the afterlife (Price 2008). Christian graves included similar dress, food, and containers, but lacked those individualized items that went on to define Viking graves (Graslund 2008). The importance laid upon grave goods may be misplaced. Many Viking graves were empty, while some graves boasted signs of Christianity, as well as traditional grave goods (Shepherd 1996). Even the cross pendants found in the female graves at Birka do not hold concrete evidence that they were in fact Christ-worshippers (Graslund 2008). As an international trading town, Birka would have hosted travelers from every type of background (Sanmark 2004). The crosses could just as realistically been gifts from Christian pilgrims or an aesthetically appealing piece of fashion purchased from a European merchant.

Great model of what Birka may have looked like

            A more flimsy method of measuring Christian beliefs and institutions is the study of church sites, which some scholars believe to have been built upon or near former pagan worship sites (Graslund 2008). Tacitus, however, claimed that the Germanic people worshipped their gods out in the open or in sacred groves (Mattingly 1970). The lack of evidence for pagan structures, such as Adam of Bremen’s extravagant temple in Uppsala, seems to agree with Tacitus. The early church relied heavily upon urban areas the thrive (Shepherd 1996). Outside of hubs like Birka and Hedeby, towns were virtually nonexistent in Scandinavia (Skre 2008). Without the Roman governmental structure, a church would have failed in the vast rural Scandinavian communities and were therefore unlikely to have been built upon pre-existing pagan sites (Shepherd 1996).

            The two religions do merge, however, on coins and on rune stones. In Norway and Sweden, the earliest minted coins coincided with the rise of Christianity (Bragge and Nordeide 2004). The coins that originated from these kingdoms, as well as from Denmark, all seemed to be copied after Anglo-Saxon coins (Geltig 2004). Olaf Skotkonung, almost immediately following his conversion, began minting coins in Sweden (Sanmark 2004). Christianization would not have suddenly boosted Sweden’s economy, nor had any resemblance of an ecclesiastical system been propped up yet, so why would the king immediately begin producing coinage in a kingdom that was not fully converted or unified? Olaf’s reaction is but one of many indications that the Viking leaders were trying to take advantage of the rising power and wealth of Christianity.
Are you really a Christian?

            The mixing of both religions is most evident on rune stones, many of which can be dated to the 11th century or later (Graslund and Lager 2008). They appear to increase in number after the conversion, and many are thought to be public displays of Christian messages (Sanmark 2004). Some stones simultaneously depict biblical scenes and messages alongside mythological images (Shepherd 1996). It would appear that the carvers of the stones saw no reason for Christ and Odin not to coexist side by side. The tapestry of Skog, though not a rune stone, is another example of the two religions blending almost harmoniously (Graslund 2008). Eventually, rune stones were replaced by ink and paper, but even in the written word, measuring the degrees of belief is difficult.

            The written sources that describe the conversion period are few and riddled with problems. Perhaps the most famous is Adam of Bremen’s clumsy history of Angsar’s missions into Scandinavia. Aside from bungling a number of facts, Adam, like his contemporary ecclesiastical authors, buries the truth under exaggerations (Tschan 2002). Snorri Sturluson’s HeimskringlaI may be more organized than Adam’s account but it is no less problematic due to its being written centuries after the conversion period and through the lens of a Christian worldview (Hollander 1964). That is not to say that the sources cannot be useful. On the contrary, texts like the Royal Frankish Annals provide invaluable information regarding the spread of Christianity, in particular Harald Klak’s groundbreaking baptism in 826 (Scholz 1970). It is essential to read these sources carefully as they carry outsider biases, or, as what happens in most hagiographies, are written to make a certain saint look much holier in retrospect (Sanmark 2004).

            The laws, while a more concrete source, also survive in manuscripts that were put together centuries after they were put into effect (Geltig 2004). Christian laws, such as the banning of certain pagan practices, appear to have been implemented almost immediately following a state’s official conversion (Gronlie 2006). The earliest Christian laws started to take hold around 1020 and are concerned with practical issues that did not require a priest’s supervision, such as feast days or burying bodies in churchyards (Sanmark 2005). The Icelandic sagas are the only source that can shed light on how these laws were actually enforced, and even these are inconclusive (Miller 1990).

            To give better context to Scandinavia’s Christianization, Sanmark uses the conversions of Saxony, Frisia, and Anglo-Saxon England as a comparison (2004). Even though there are similarities, like the 150-year conversion time frame, it is an unfair comparison because of the political disadvantages in Scandinavia, which lay outside of the Roman periphery (Shepherd 1996). When the Roman Empire fell, Christianity stepped into the void it left behind. The church then took over the bureaucratic system the Romans had created and developed a strong ecclesiastical network that would define the Catholic Church for centuries to come. At this time to be Roman was to essentially be Christian (Read 1999). The Roman structure that was in place in Britain and Frisia made their conversions much easier—both had been part of the Roman world, and both contained towns to support ecclesiastical centers (Shepherd 1996). This may explain why the top-down conversion method worked in the fragmented Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Saxony, on the other hand, was a forced conversion (Scholz 1970). Against its will, the kingdom was enveloped into the already established Christian Carolingian Empire who wasted no time in setting up diocese to maintain the ecclesiastical order (Roesdahl 2008).

            Without the Roman institution in place, the missionaries, followed by the secular rulers, had to adapt in order to Christianize. For instance, Norway and Sweden lacked sovereign kings and had yet to be unified near the end of the 10th century (Hollander 1964). Churches had become major assets to the Christian rulers of Europe, and they needed towns and cities to thrive (Downham 2012). Inspired, Scandinavian kings developed some of the first urban areas in order for Christianity to flourish (Androshchuk 2011). This may not have been unique, but the Vikings appear in many cases to have converted on their own terms.

Romans were the first Christian punx.

            The Vikings also seemed to take Gregory’s message to heart. The Scandinavian church for centuries took on its own independent nature, especially in Greenland and Iceland (Byock 2001). The geographical isolation surely played a part in Icelandic secular laws influencing the church more effectively than the papacy (Byock 2001). In both island communities, churches were built on private land, in direct opposition of Roman tradition (Arnborg 2008). The mainland Scandinavian churches may have operated more within the European norm, but Christianity existed for many years with the Norse pagan paradigm (Graslund and Lager 2008). For instance, bishops served in the king’s royal hird, rather than in a more ecclesiastical position (Krag 2008). The lack of conformity to the global church begs the same question that inspired Melnikova’s article: just how Christian were the Vikings?

            The blurred lines of Scandinavia’s brand of Christianity and the lack of hard evidence of beliefs and attitudes could be the result of the opportunistic Vikings using Christianity as just another stage on which to operate. When Vladamir raided in Constantinople, he became all too aware of the benefits that accompanied monotheism (Fitzhugh and Ward 2000). Vikings were known to feign Christianity simply to trade with the Muslim Caliphate (Mikkelson 2008). The Rus likewise were baptized in order to serve the Byzantine Emperor (Tolochko 2011). The Vikings appear to be taking advantage of the benefits that Christianity presented, just as they had taken advantage of splintered kingdoms or defenseless monasteries.

            The benefits of inclusion came from an internal desire to convert to Christianity, not because of missionary work, but because the secular leaders acknowledged what they as individuals and their kingdoms stood to gain by joining the Christian community. Political pressure was certainly a factor, particularly in Denmark, but there is more to the conversion than external threats (Sanmark 2004). No evidence of forced baptism has been found in either Denmark or Sweden, and both kingdoms seemed to have been more than willing to allow missionaries to serve within their boundaries (Sanmark 2004). Iceland’s conversion, though tumultuous during the first phase of missionary work, came to a peaceful and pragmatic head at the Althing (Gronlie 2002). Only the Orkneys and Norway showed substantial resistance to Christianity, and in both cases wealthy earls and petty kings found their independence being wiped out by Olaf Tryggvason who was a powerful and Christian warrior (Crawford 2013). Norway, at least on the surface, seems to be the odd one out.

            Norway’s conversion was violent, but the reasons behind the resistance, like in the Orkney Islands, are often misinterpreted (Sanmark 2004). The Norwegian farmers were not fighting against Christ; they were fighting against tyrannical kings who were unabashedly breaking traditional laws and doing away with the local jarls (Hollander 1964). Both Olaf Tryggvason and Saint Olaf had spent time raiding in Christian kingdoms overseas and both were baptized at the courts of different Christian kings (Derry 1979). They would have seen firsthand the wealth and organization that Christianity could bring to a kingdom, not to mention how the religion could bolster and strengthen their own kingships (Somerville and McDonald 2010). The man who fully realized the potential of what Christianity could do for a Viking king was Cnut. He watched his father wring out thousands of pounds from England before eventually taking the throne himself (Lawson 2004). Cnut seemed determined to be a player on the European stage, and in order to act the part, had to fashion himself after the rulers on the continent. He brought the ecclesiastical organization from England to Denmark, attended coronations on the continent, and even made a pilgrimage to Rome (Lawson 2004). Cnut was the ultimate Viking opportunist, carrying on the spirit of the heroes before him but within a new and organized context.

Cnut trying very hard to fit in

            Could the Christianization of Scandinavia be an extension of Viking opportunism? The Rus equated serving in Christian Byzantium with a degree of wealth and prestige (Tolochko 2011). The Scandinavians modeled their coins after the Anglo-Saxon mints, impressed more by their power and wealth than any religious affiliation (Geltig 2004). The lack of opposition to the religion and what appears to be welcoming invitations to missionaries stand in stark contrast to popular depictions of Vikings (Downham 2012). The fact is that Vikings took what they could get wherever they could get it: an outpost in Greenland, a duchy in Normandy, a town in Ireland, an earldom in Orkney. Yet they also knew when to give in. When confronted by the formidable Alfred the Great, the Vikings retreated behind the Danelaw (Garmonsway 1972). The aggressive Native Americans and the intense winters of North America gave the Vikings enough trouble that they abandoned their Vinland camp (Fitzhugh and Ward 2000).

            With a history of preying on pressure points and striking while the iron was hot, there is no reason to think that the Vikings did not see Christianity as one last opportunity to achieve that power, prestige, and wealth they sought throughout the Viking Age. Of course, the riches that could be gained as part of a Christian kingdom outweighed what could be stolen from churches and monasteries and with much less personal risk! In fact, there is evidence that they were well aware of this fact, choosing to take part in pre-baptism rituals but refusing to be actually baptized (Sanmark 2004). By performing these rituals, Vikings, like Harald Klak, were able to leave the door to Christianity open in case they needed it (Robinson 1921). The evidence suggests that Christianity in the north was chaotic and that the Viking rulers seemed to pick and choose what religious customs they would adhere to and made them their own.

            If this was indeed the case, it is no wonder why measuring the Christianization of Scandinavia is so ineffectual. Because of the geography, the lack of towns, and the lack of Roman institutions, the first phase of the conversion was not seen as all that successful (Sanmark 2004). Angsar and Rimbert had to lower their expectations and just try to convey the essentials of Christ as a god rather than embark on any theology (Melnikova 2011). Some Vikings took these teachings gladly and incorporated them into their own existing beliefs. Ambitious contenders dominated the second phase of the conversion, whose goals were not to convert for the sake of Christ but for their own political ends, which culminated in King Cnut shamelessly advertising his desire to be on the same level as his European contemporaries. There can be no doubt that Christianity’s movement throughout Scandinavia can be marked and followed, but the evidence tells us very little about common attitudes and behaviors. The Vikings were aware of Christianity and its beliefs, but how much this actually affected the lives of those brilliant opportunists is impossible to tell.