Throughout the history of mankind the Christianization of pagan countries has caused significant bloodshed.
After all, forcing people to convert to another belief has always been a bloody and brutal business.
Not so much in Iceland, though.
In the Middle Ages, approximately 100 years after the settlement of Iceland in the 9th century, the vast majority of Icelanders were still worshipping the Norse gods.
Only a few settlers (mostly slaves of Celtic origin) were Christian.
We still don't know exactly how and when Icelanders abandoned their pagan belief in favor of Christianity so we have to rely on the few written sources we have.
The most extensive sources mentioning these events are the Book of the Icelanders by Ari Thorgilsson, the Icelandic family sagas and Church chronicles about the first preachers and bishops.
Thorgilsson's accounts of the events surrounding the conversion are widely considered reliable.
This is supposedly what happened:
Several missionaries had visited Iceland from 980 AD onwards but were mostly ignored by the pagan islanders.
The game changed when in 995 AD the Norwegian Viking Ólafur Tryggvason became King of Norway and converted to Christianity.
He was determined to establish his faith in all of the Nordic countries and didn't hesitate to use violence or shed blood to achieve his goal.
Therefore King Ólafur I sent out missionary priests, Thorvaldur Konrádsson, a German priest called Friedrich, and later Stefnir Thorgilsson.
They had limited success in their attempts to convert Icelanders.
Allegedly, they were ridiculed and eventually forced to flee the country.
The king was of course not pleased to hear that, so he sent his bishop Thangbrandur to Iceland to spread the word of the Lord.
Thangbrandur boasted some success in baptizing a few chieftains but like his predecessors he was also met with opposition and got into trouble because he killed a few Icelandic skalds who composed lampooning poetry about him.
That's a pretty classy way to insult someone… just saying.
Eventually, Althingi, the Icelandic parliament, outlawed Thangbrandur who then returned to Norway. He complained about the Icelanders and told his king that he had little hope that the country could ever be converted.
In hearing that, King Ólafur I got so furious that he threatened to kill every pagan Icelander in Norway.
Two of the Icelandic chieftains Thangbrandur had converted to Christianity, Gissur hvíti (“the White”) and Hjalti Skeggjason, met up with the king and talked him out of his vendetta by explaining to him that the previous attempts to convert Icelanders had only failed because the missionary priests had proceeded with violence and murders.
They promised the king to spread Christianity by preaching the religion.
In 999 or 1000, when about half the Icelandic population had become Christian, the issue of religion caused harsh disputes at parliament.
The Christian and pagan fractions didn't want to share the same laws and the Christian Icelanders chose a new law speaker, Sídu-Hallur Thorsteinsson.
This law speaker reached an agreement with the pagan law speaker, Thorgeir Thorkelsson Ljósvetningagodi, that the latter would come up with a compromise acceptable to everyone.
Thorgeir gave a famous speech at Althingi, stating that the only way to maintain peace in Iceland was to have only one religion.
Furthermore, he decreed that everyone not already baptized must convert to Christianity.
In the law, three exceptions were made to benefit the pagans:
1. The old laws allowing the exposure of newborn children would remain in force.
2. Eating horse meat would still be allowed.
3. People could continue to make pagan sacrifices but in private.
Thorgeir Ljósvetningagodi's speech marked a turning point in Iceland and Christianity started to make its way into Icelandic society without anyone having to resort to weapons or bloodshed.
Nice and easy.
In fact, the Christianization of Iceland is probably the most peaceful Christianization of all time.
Christianity made it easier for foreign cultures to enter Iceland, as almost all neighboring countries had already adopted Christianity.
With Christianity, the Icelandic literary tradition began with the teaching of reading and writing.
Soon after the proclamation of Christianity the first church was built at Thingvellir, the place where the ancient parliament used to be located.
None other than the ill-tempered Norwegian king donated the timber for the church as well as a bell that was used for parliamentary sessions.
I guess that means that King Ólafur I of Norway was finally happy.
Interestingly, though, the Ásatrú religion, a Neopagan religion worshipping the old Norse gods, is experiencing a revival in Iceland these days...
Katharina Hauptmann – [email protected]