Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Convenience of Going Christian (Unless You're a Woman)

Let's talk about religion! Let's talk about the benefits of Christianity!

Of course no one really wants to talk about those things, but in the Medieval world, Christianity was not only a new and thrilling concept, it was rapidly changing Europe from the chaotic and bloody world of barbarians and pirates to the organized and bloody world of knights and lords.

Now, in the Viking world, folks worshiped Thor and Odin, Frey and Freya, but almost in a situational and opportunistic way, not unlike the Vikings themselves. When a battle was to be fought, a sacrifice was given to Thor. Each spring in Sweden a barbaric human and animal sacrifice took place that soaked the earth in blood as a gift to Freya, goddess of fertility. But it wasn't suffocating the way that Christianity was presented. So many rules. Plus, you have to give up having a good time! Thieving, murdering, and drinking was the Viking way of life. But as Christianity persisted and these things ebbed away, one can understand, at least partially, why the Viking Age came to an end.

When you think of medieval Christianity, you think of the powerful institutions. It was the monasteries and the cathedrals that were centers of learning. Christianity was progressive, providing the opportunity to read and write (kinda the opposite of today, AMIRIGHT!?!). But books held little sway over the jarls and kings of Scandinavia. And they had runes enough to get by. What did Christ possess that Thor and Odin could not provide? The Vikings found their answers in the beautiful and wondrous world of Byzantium.

Lying just out of reach of the Roman Empire, Scandinavia never got to experience the organization, the power, the wealth that a government of that magnitude could provide. They saw a small glimmer in the wealthy monasteries that dotted the British coastline. They caught wind of it in Charlemagne's empire until his descendants took a big ol' Frankish shit on it and practically threw away its riches. But it was nothing compared to glory of Constantinople. And from countless raids and stints in the Varangian Guard, the Vikings learned that his Christ could provide two things that Scandinavians sought: wealth and stability.

Of course, there were many who liked the old gods and were forced to convert at sword-point. Harald Bluetooth was one such divine victim. After losing a battle to the German emperor Otto, Harald was baptized and thereafter pushed the Christian religion on Denmark. People were not too keen on this, but it was his taxes that drove people mad. In order to avenge his loss to Otto, King Harald began taxing the people heavily to create militias. This (as well as a lack of land) is what made Iceland attractive to many people.

Now, Christianity and Iceland go together, as I've mentioned before in other posts. Without its conversion, the Icelanders, who had nothing better to do, would not have written down the wonderful oral histories, sagas, and poems that provide us with the rich Scandinavian background we know today. But the conversion itself was more logic than it was passion or bloodshed. When the chieftains were split, half heathen and half Christian, they brought the problem before the law-speaker. At this time in Iceland's history, there was no government, no king, no governing body. There was the law, and everybody was to hold each other accountable. If a law was broken, the offender was brought before the national assembly where they were judged accordingly. So the law-speaker was the most powerful person in the country. He had the final say on punishments or arguments. He was more of a wise man than a king. So the law-speaker, Thorgeir, who was himself a devout pagan, decided the only way to amend the split of religions was to choose one. His fear was that two religions would require two separate sets of laws, and that was a recipe for unrest. To save Iceland and keep the peace, Thorgeir chose Christianity over his own heathen religion.

He could see that the Christians would not be deterred. And perhaps he was wise enough to see what Christians were capable of if they thought their religion was threatened. So he outlawed the public practices of the old religion. Throgeir's shrewd move kept the pagan religion alive, albeit behind doors. This move became incredibly important for the years to come, when writers like Snorri Sturluson would write down the histories and the mythology of the gods and heroes with reverence. Thorgeir was not the only one who took a calculated look at Christianity. Queen Sigrid of Sweden was not approached with a sword but rather a hand of marriage. And her response was just as thought out and as different as the law-speaker's.

Sigrid was a coveted widow. She ruled in Uppsala, a holy and ancient kingdom settled in the isolated lands of Sweden. Many suitors had called on her, but no one was of yet a match for this Viking Queen. She needed a king, not just any man! And someone who match her fiery passion. Finally a suitable match was proposed by Olaf Tryggvsson. He was the king in Norway, and what a power the combined kingdoms would be! His one stipulation: convert to Christianity. Sigrid was a reasonable woman and had nothing against the religion. She kindly passed and said by all means the religion will be allowed in her lands. But she was staying with the old gods. This sent Olaf into such a fury that he slapped Sigrid, a move that would later cost him his life. But Sigrid was no simple-minded woman. She had a very good reason for sticking with Odin. In the old Scandinavian traditions, women have just about as many rights as men. Her property is her own. In the sagas and poems, women are a bit conniving and deceitful, egging men to kill or steal or avenge. One might say they are painted in a bad light. Another might say that a woman held heavy influence over a man.

Had Sigrid married Olaf and converted to Christianity, she would no longer be queen of anything. She would be a king's husband. A docile and powerless common slave. Not to mention that in the old pagan religion, divorce was not only acceptable but fairly easy to attain. Sigrid was not about to let herself get into a situation she couldn't get out of. Perhaps her reasons were more selfish than Throgeir's, but they were no less thought through. The Norway-Sweden combo would be an enormous advantage (one that Canute achieved if only for a handful of months). But the price was too steep. Girl power!

And finally we come to Vladamir. Ruler of the Rus, Swedish Vikings who sailed east into Russia, Vladamir actually went religion shopping. He sent envoys out of Kiev to speak with Muslims, Jews, Roman Christians and Eastern Orthodox. He, like many of us, was looking for a religion that would allow him to continue on his hedonistic escapades. Old Vladdy loved his drink. But he LOVED his women. He immediately said no to Judaism. He had to have his pork. The Roman Christians were alright with his drinking, but he had to let go of his hundreds of concubines. That much sex was surely sinful. So Vlad showed them out. He really liked Islam, thought. The Muslims told him that heaven was filled with sex. You had your pick from a whole horde of virgins! The only downside is that the Koran said no to drinking and thus Vladamir said no to Islam. Finally he took a look at Eastern Orthodox. Something about the priest he met with convinced him. The priest said he would have to zip it up AND cut out the drink. But Vladamir, the sex hound Viking prince, had found his place in the world. He then converted Kiev and the rest of the Russian kingdoms to the Eastern Orthodox, which they still hold to today.

Could this have been then end of innocence for Christianity? Since the time of Christ's death, the religion had been mostly persecuted. Sure Rome had embraced it, but it had only a couple hundred years to ruin everything Jesus had preached before its fall. Was there some good done in the last half of the millennium in Christ's name? As Europe turned the corner, the religion also turned brutal. The fiefdoms, the Crusades, the corrupt popes. Terrors probably existed with the Christian stamp of approval before the year 1000 AD, but it really seems like the love that was preached was snuffed out at the turn of the century. I hope someone can argue, attest, dispute, agree. As the European rulers sized up this powerful religion that was spreading rapidly, were the fruits that Christianity promoted spoiled forever, or had they been already been corrupted long before the fall of Rome?

Place your faith carefully, History Fans. Until next time!

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