Time to remember the ‘Christian Vikings’

Martyn and Hannah Whittock – a father-daughter author team – have written five books together while Martyn has written a total of 46 books. What impressive accomplishments! The Vikings: From Odin to Christ is their latest collaboration. In it they explore the impact of the Vikings on Christianity from the British Isles to Russia as well as the impact of Christianity on the Viking invaders.

Time to remember the ‘Christian Vikings’ by Martyn and Hannah Whittock

When we began the work on this book we knew that most people have a very clear mental image of ‘the Vikings’. They know them as fierce pagan warriors, worshipping northern gods such as Odin and Thor, burning coastal settlements, taking men and women as slaves, trashing Christian monasteries, and sacrificing victims in the terrible rite of the ‘Blood Eagle’. This mental image is clear if one enters ‘Viking’ as an internet Images search (on a ‘Safe Search’ setting). Almost all the images are of men armed with swords and axes, and wearing horned helmets, despite the total absence of such items from archaeological excavations. Dragon-prowed long ships abound. If the occasional woman appears, they are usually dressed as Valkyries, the mythical warrior-women who chose the best of the slain to serve in the army of Odin in Valhalla

The raids of these pagan warriors – who originated in Scandinavia – spread terror from Ireland to Russia, from France to North Africa, in the ninth and tenth centuries. They certainly travelled far. They were the first Europeans to settle, albeit unsuccessfully, in North America. And they turned up in Baghdad, riding camels! And in most of these places their northern beliefs were noted by those who suffered their attacks. Christian contemporaries of the Viking raids in the British Isles often simply referred to them as “the pagans” and “the heathens”. Islamic writers, who recorded their attacks on Muslim Spain, described them as “al-Majus” (fire-worshippers, pagans) and stated, “may Allah curse them”. So, the image of Vikings as marauding pagans was well established – then as now.

From our previous joint collaborations (such as Norse Myths & Legends, published by Robinson in 2017) we were familiar with this image of the Vikings. However, from Hannah’s studies at Cambridge University (she has a ‘First’ and also an MPhil in ‘Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Studies’) and from our joint work on the Viking Wars in Britain and Ireland, we knew that the matter was far more complex and that many of these warriors and their communities rapidly converted to Christianity. In our book, The Viking Blitzkrieg, AD789-1098(published by The History Press in 2013) we had traced how, in the Kingdom of York, they had adopted Christian beliefs, even at times minting coins with both the raven of Odin and the cross of Christ on them.  And we knew that this change had happened right across the Viking diaspora, even if the northern homelands themselves were some of the last places in Europe to convert to Christianity. Despite this, most people’s mental image is fixed on the first wave of attacks, as if the Vikings only existed at one point in time. We wanted to change that. As a result, we decided to introduce the ‘Christian Vikings’ to readers who only knew them as ‘terrible pagan warriors’ rampaging across Europe. And we wanted women to feature, as well as men.

The result is our recently published book, The Vikings: From Odin to Christ (published by Lion Hudson). In order to accomplish our goal we decided that we needed to start by explaining the pagan beliefs of the original Vikings. This was both to anchor our exploration in what most people already knew of these people, and also to provide a platform from which we could go on to explore what happened ‘next’; the bit that is usually ignored. Since the Vikings travelled so widely it made sense to then focus on distinct geographical areas in order to explore what this ‘next’ looked like. So we examine their settlements in Britain, Ireland, Normandy, Russia, the Northern and Western Isles, Iceland, Greenland and even North America. In each place we examine what happened after the initial phase of raiding turned to settlement. In most of these places conversion to Christianity occurred within one generation. In England, the children of Vikings who had martyred King Edmund of East Anglia minted coins celebrating Saint Edmund; in Ireland, Christian Scandinavians fought on both sides at the battle of Clontarf in 1014; in the East, they rapidly converted to Orthodox Christianity and founded the first Russian state, based in Kiev; in Normandy, they became enthusiastic supporters of the Catholic Church. It took longer to happen in Iceland, but even there it had occurred by the year 1000. We then explore how this flowed back into the emerging kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden under kings such as Harald Bluetooth (from whom ‘Bluetooth Technology’ is named). Fascinating evidence opens up windows on this ancient world and we wanted readers to see the individual men and women, as well as the big events: ‘Her-story’ and ‘His-story’. In Sweden, rune-stones record women expressing their new faith but using something of the language and mindset of the pagan past; in northern England stone masons carved pagan myths on stone crosses but employed them to communicate Christian beliefs; in the East a Byzantine princess reluctantly went north to cement an alliance with Russian Vikings.

As we conclude of one of the last places to convert and where the medieval recording of the pagan past continues to influence modern views: “memories of the Viking past still influenced the outlook and culture of Iceland and Greenland and, indeed, there was a resurgence of interest in the Viking past on Iceland in the thirteenth century that led to the compilation of sagas and other collections which preserved and communicated the myths, legends and “histories” of the Viking past (particularly those connected to Norway). But these were pagan pasts remembered or imagined within the context of Christian communities; for even the transitional conversion of Iceland had now produced a community that was solidly Christian, even if its imagination was still affected by pagan dreams.”

Memorably, in 1030, the army of King Olaf Haraldson of Norway advanced with the battle cry of “Onward, Christ’s men, cross men, king’s men all!” They and their Christian faith deserve to be better remembered and understood. We hope that our book will have gone some way towards doing that.

Many thanks, Martyn and Hannah. Your book promises to be an intriguing read and one that will change widespread assumptions.

The Vikings: From Odin to Christ by Martyn and Hannah Whittock – The forgotten story of the ‘Christian Vikings’.

We are all familiar with the fierce pagan warriors that burst out of Scandinavia during the eighth century, plundering, ravaging and shedding blood wherever they went. A lesser-known fact about these infamous pillagers is that the majority converted to Christianity in the centuries that followed. In England, children of the Vikings who had martyred the Christian king of East Anglia minted coins extolling his holiness. In Normandy the pagans became loyal supporters of the Catholic Church. In the east the former raiders founded the first Russian state and converted to Orthodox Christianity.

Martyn and Hannah Whittock suggest that the Vikings had as much impact as converts as they did as deadly marauders. So how and why did this radical transformation happen, and what is their legacy today?

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Meet M.K.Tod

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The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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5 Responses

  1. A great commentary, and all true. Thank you Martyn and Hanna, for this interview, and thank you, Mary, for having them on your site. These were all things I discovered in my own research based in 10th century Ireland, and hope to convey in my novels. Looking forward to adding The Vikings from Odin to Christ on my reading list.

    1. So glad you found the Guest Blog helpful. We hope that you enjoy the book and find it helpful in your further work. We definitely feel that this aspect of Viking history deserves more ‘air time’! Best wishes, Martyn & Hannah.

    1. It can be found on Amazon and local bookshops should be able to order it in. Hope you enjoy it when you get a copy.

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