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Three Norse Customs that Christianity Killed.

Meister Von San Vitale In Ravenna

When Christianity spread across Scandinavia during the Viking Age, it changed many Norse cultural norms. The following are three of the most notable changes that took place as a result of Scandinavia’s Christianization.

1. Grooming.

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Reindeer Antler Comb from Ribe, circa 8th Century

Prior to the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity, Norse culture valued good grooming habits. We know this from several sources, including both Christian and Muslim texts, as well as archeological finds of combs, washbowls, and saunas. Christianity, however, viewed Norse grooming habits as signs of vanity. For example, the writer John of Wallingford, prior of Saint Fridwise, chastised the Norsemen for their weekly ritual of bathing, changing clothes, and daily grooming. In Christendom, it was required of some people, especially clerics, to never bathe. In fact, monks actually thought the dirtier they were, the holier they were because they were rejecting vanity. Said the Medieval writer St. Bernard, “We all stink.” As Christianity spread across Scandinavia, the Scandinavian people joined the rest of Christendom in their smelliness.

2. Religious Tolerance.

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The baptism of Harald-Klak of Denmark.

History has shown time and again that polytheistic religions tend to be more tolerant of other faiths than monotheistic religions. Norse paganism was no different. We should be careful here, however, not to say that Christianity was not seen as a threat by the Pagan Norse. We know with relative certainty that monasteries were specifically targeted across Europe during the early Viking Age, which tells us that the Vikings had already decided that Christianity was their enemy in some way. Nevertheless, we understand from the study of other polytheistic religions that a higher tolerance for other faiths likely existed among the Pagan Norse, a tolerance that was snuffed out after their christianization.

3. Union of Church and State.

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Charlemagne overseeing the massacre of the Saxons on the Elbe.

Prior to Christianization, Norse culture did not separate religion from politics. Religious festivals and observances were the duty of the Jarl or Chieftain of the community to organize and carry out, sometimes aided by other religious figures (with the temple at Uppsala as the main exception). Christianity put an end to this tradition and passed the duty of religious observance to clerics and the Church rather than to the leader of the community. This change took power away from local leaders and gave more power to church leaders. The separation of church and state was originally devised to consolidate power within the church because most governments were unreliable and changed leadership frequently. Not until much later in the medieval period would more powerful, stable monarchs begin to take a more active role in the church, eventually becoming figureheads associated with divinity. It is ironic that separation of church is regarded today as a means to keep religion out of government, when it was once employed by religion to wrestle power away from government.

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This Post Has 11 Comments
  1. I’m trying to learn more on this belief my son believes deeply in this religion I was wondering if you could recommend any books to read up on it thanks

    1. It depends on what you mean by “this religion.” I’m strictly history-centered, but if it’s Norse mythology you’re after, I’d start with Padraic Column’s Norse Myths. They’re easily digestible in that version. Once you have that read you can continue on with the sagas by Snorri.

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