Christianization

By Eva Þuríđardóttir

christian_king.jpg

He was right.

This is a short saga about Iceland, how and why it was christianized. There is so much more to be told about the subject, but I wanted to keep this at a manageable length.

Iceland is said to be the last country in Europe to be christianized and it was done so by an arbitrary political move. When the Norse settlers who migrated from Norway to Iceland in 874 first arrived here, they did encountered Gaelic monks - although the Irish monks somehow disappeared shortly thereafter never to be heard from again. Soon more christian missionaries arrived, from Norway and northern Germany they managed to christianize an increasing number of the population. When the increase in the number of christians was beginning to threaten the peace and unity of the community, the Law speaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði gave a famous speech at Alþingi (the National Assembly which met every summer at Þingvellir), stating that the only way to maintain peace in the country was to have only one religion:

“And now it seems advisable to me that we do not let their will prevail who are most strongly opposed to one another; but so compromise between them that each side may win part if its case, and let us all have one law and one faith. It will prove that if we divide the law we will also divide the peace.”

Back in the day when Ólaf Tryggvason ascended to the throne of Norway (995-1000), the effort to Christianize Iceland intensified. King Ólaf sent an Icelander named Stefnir Þorgilsson back to Iceland to convert his fellow countrymen. Stefnir, however, was not a wise man, and he started  of with images of violently destroyed heathen gods. This behavior made him so unpopular to the Norse that he was eventually declared an outlaw.

Iceland's adoption of Christianity is traditionally ascribed to the year 1000 (although most historians would place it in the year 999). The major sources for the adoption of Christianity in Iceland are Ari Þorgilsson's Book of the Icelanders, the Icelandic family sagas and church writings about the first bishops and preachers.

After Stefnir's failure, Ólaf sent a priest named Þangbrandur. Þangbrandur was an experienced missionary. Þangbrandr's origins are uncertain. According to some sources, Þangbrandur was the son of an otherwise unknown Vilbaldus, count of Saxony. My ancestor Snorri Sturluson describes him thus in King Ólaf Trygvason's Saga.

“There was a Saxon priest in Ólaf's house who was called Þangbrandur/Thangbrand, a passionate, ungovernable man, and a great manslayer; but he was a good scholar, and a clever man.”

His mission in Iceland from c. 997–999 was only partly successful though, and Þangbrandur returned to Norway in 999 and reported his failure to King Ólaf, who immediately adopted a more aggressive stance towards the Icelanders.

He refused Icelandic seafarers access to Norwegian ports and took several Icelanders then dwelling in Norway as hostages. This cut off all trade between Iceland and its main trading partner. Some of the hostages taken by King Ólaf were the sons of prominent Icelandic chieftains, whom he threatened to kill unless the Icelanders accepted christianity. The Icelandic Commonwealth's limited foreign policy consisted almost entirely of maintaining good relations with Norway. The christians in Iceland used the King's pressure to step up efforts at conversion.

Subsequently, the Alþingi decided to proclaim christianity the 24th of June, in the year 1000, or 999 to be correct, as the general religion in the whole country, with some concessions to the heathens. They had to behave like christians outside of their homes but were allowed to continue their own ways in secret such as the eating of horsemeat , infanticide and other customs. Thereafter the christian faith and christian way of thinking slowly but surely permeated our society in many ways. Some people like my grandmother, however, her mother before her and so on, kept to their own ways.  

Although we Icelanders are almost all registered into the national church at birth, and most of us do attend some social services the church handles for us, we are, for the most part, never been particularly traditionally christian people.  For most of us, the Church of Iceland is simply one of those government hierarchy institution that eats our money, and which we are working hard to get rid off.  Further, heathens and atheists vastly outnumber the christians in Iceland, and people are no longer afraid to get burned at the stake if they speak out against christianity. Getting rid of the Church of Iceland will therefore soon happen. 

The Alþingi also decided to contact representatives of the world church in Rome and ask them to bring Iceland and Icelanders under their ecclesiastical rule. In 1056 the first Icelandic bishop Ísleifur Gizurarson, was ordained in the Cathedral in Bremen, Germany. He settled in Skálholt in the south of Iceland. In 1106 another episcopal seat was established in Hólar, in the north of Iceland. Until 1104 the diocese of Skálholt was under the jurisdiction of Bremen-Hamburg. From 1104 to 1152 Iceland was under the Metropolitan at Lund in Denmark (now in Sweden). In 1152 the episcopal seats of Skálholt and Hólar came under the new Archdiocese of Þrándheim in Norway. It is worth mentioning here that, the realms of Scandinavia proper, Denmark, Norway and Sweden did not established their own Archdioceses, responsible directly to the Pope, until 1104, 1154 and 1164, respectively. The conversion to Christianity of the Norse people required more time, since it took time and efforts to establish a network of churches. In Finland the Sámi people remained mostly unconverted until the 18th century, and some are still unconverted to this day. 

We Icelanders are known for being the outlaws of Scandinavia, sometimes even Europe. We are also known for being ballsy and big in all our undertakings, and perhaps a bit fanatic about some things... So in around 1200 we already had 220 churches and 290 priests. (The country's population was ca. 80.000). It can be said that, thanks to all the monks and priests, ancient sagas and laws were recorded, not to mention all the beautiful poetry: The Norse cosmology and mythology. So indeed we did put the christians that migrated and the ones who “converted” to christianity to good use... Right from the start.

I think it is fitting to end this short saga on how Iceland was christianized with more words written down by Snorri, the words spoken by the priest Þangbrandur to king Ólaf in King Ólaf Trygvason's Saga.

“Þangbrandur the priest came back from Iceland to King Olaf, and told the ill success of his journey; namely, that the Icelanders had made lampoons about him; and that some even sought to kill him, and there was little hope of that country ever being made Christian.”

He was right...