Monday, 30 July 2012

Christianity and Some Vikings

This is a really sweet story:

A Viking longship has returned to the banks of the River Tyne to say thank you to the north-east of England for bringing Christianity to Norway 1,000 years ago.
Hundreds of young Norwegians arrived in Newcastle on Sunday, as part of a community project working alongside more than 70 churches in the region.
The last time the Vikings were in the region in the 1400s it was to invade and pillage. This time, they are saying thank you for their Christian Heritage, birthed and enabled from the city.
Kay Morten Aarskog, from the organisation Youth With a Mission in Norway, sailed on the ship into the river.
He said: "When the Vikings came here back in the old days, they brought with them the Christian Gospel when they came back to Norway.
"We are giving a formal thank you on behalf of the Norwegian people to your ancestors and the people living in the North East now."
During the Olympics, about 300 Christians aged between 15 and 70 will be serving in churches around the North East, hosting events, children's clubs and social action projects.
Mr Aarskog said: "I have been interested in looking at what did happen when the Christian Gospel came to Norway, how did it change our nation and how did it change the people living in Norway?
"So we set out with this Viking ship project, coming over here with lots of young people to say thank you and as a way also to explore the history and the heritage we share together.
"It is [faith] declining in churches everywhere really, but at the same time we see a young generation that is interested in truth and really seeking to believe in and something to put their hopes in.
"This is why we believe that looking at what gave Europe hope 1,000 years ago, just might be what can give Europe hope today."

The initiative is thoroughly admirable, and it's impressive to see that these young people value the role England played in the conversion of Scandinavia. The relationship between the English and Norwegian churches is a long and interesting story, and it wasn't only the north-east which contributed to the evangelisation of Norway ("birthed and enabled from the city" is the BBC reporter's error; Newcastle itself had nothing to do with this). The conversion of Scandinavia was a long process and apparently a long-term aim of English kings and churchmen, which took well over a hundred years to come to fruition. It started roughly around the time of the English king Athelstan, who provided support to the conversion efforts of Hakon, Norway's first Christian king - but they weren't very successful, and it was only under Olaf Tryggvason, around the turn of the first millennium, that Christianity made much progress in Norway.

Olaf Tryggvason had been converted and baptised in England, and took English priests with him to Norway to Christianise the country. King Ethelred the Unready deserves a fair bit of credit for this (in fact, it's arguably the most successful project poor Ethelred was ever involved in) - when Olaf was baptised in England in 994, Ethelred was his baptismal sponsor. The cleric who baptised Olaf was the future St Ælfheah, which I always think makes Ælfheah's ultimate fate (death at the hands of Vikings) more poignant.

Olaf and the English priests had a reasonable amount of success in Christianising Norway, partly because Olaf believed in the 'conversion at sword-point' model of evangelisation (not, I imagine, what those nice young Norwegian Christians in Newcastle are planning to emulate!).

So, anyway, all good stuff and worthy of being remembered. Unfortunately, the BBC's contribution to this is to get the date of the Viking Age wrong - by a whole 500 years. That's quite impressive! "The last time the Vikings were in the region in the 1400s it was to invade and pillage" - well, no, but nice try. The very, very last time was in 1151 (a mini-occupation of the Farne islands by the Norwegian king, not a big deal except that they ate too many of the inhabitants' sheep); there was a little at the end of the twelfth century; and there was the attempted invasion of Harald Hardrada in 1066. But the period of 'invasion and pillage' in Northumbria and longships striking fear into hearts, etc., is earlier: 800s-900s.

(Also, of course, there were plenty of Norwegians in the region throughout the medieval period, since they came to trade and settle in England, just like people from neighbouring countries have done throughout history, and there was lots of contact between the Norwegian and English churches, too.)

I suppose it would be a bit much to expect our national news reporter to employ someone who knows the general shape of English history, but it would be nice if they could manage to locate events within the correct half-millennium.

The Independent's report is much better, though this opening paragraph is a little iffy:

It has been nearly 1,000 years since the last Viking longship made its way up the River Tyne. In those days the sight of the dreaded Norse was enough to strike fear in the hearts of anyone who witnessed them, their arrival the sure prelude to another bout of rape, pillage and fire.

I'm only being picky when I say it's actually nearer 1200 years since a Viking ship went up the Tyne; Harald Hardrada and all subsequent Vikings arrived further south, in the Humber. But I can forgive that ;) They also provide this summary of Viking activity in England:

772 AD Charlemagne's Saxon wars begin; these are often cited as the cause of Viking expansion by peoples inhabiting areas of Scandanavia that now cover Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
793 A raid on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne leads to monks being killed and the sacking of the monastery. Northumbrian scholar Alcuin wrote: "The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets."
866 Vikings from Denmark launch their invasion of England.
986 Leif Ericson reaches Greenland, becoming the first European to colonise North America. Other Viking leaders conquered parts of France and Russia, as well as trading in Spain and Turkey.
1030 Battle of Stikestad signifies end of the Viking Age in Norway with the death of King Olaf II, who was later made a Saint by Pope Alexander III.
1066 Vikings led by Harald Hardrada defeated at Stamford Bridge in East Yorkshire.

All true enough - but don't you think that in a summary of Vikings in England, you might want to make mention of the two decades when the whole of England was ruled by a Viking king? You know, Cnut - the one with the waves? More relevant to the point than Leif Ericson, I should have thought. But hey, they didn't get the dates wrong by four centuries, so that's a massive plus.

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