Conversion and Identity in the Viking Age.
This volume brings together ten essays that consider Scandinavia's adoption of Christianity, with a particular focus on its effect on identity. Ildar Garipzanov's introduction interrogates what is meant by 'conversion', discussing 'top-down' and 'bottom-up' models (Cusack, The Rise of Christianity in Northern Europe, 300--1000, Cassell, 1999) and the distinction between 'conversion period' and 'conversion moment' made by Foote (in Faulkes and Perkins, Viking Revaluations, Viking Society, 1993). Garipzanov points out these models are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but suggests that 'official' conversion moments have been overemphasized in previous scholarship. Taken together, the essays in this book are intended, then, to depict conversion as a 'long process of cultural and societal transformation' which was 'of crucial importance for the changing world of multiple identities in the Viking Age' (p. 19).
Christopher Abram's essay mobilizes theories of religion put forward by anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse. Whitehouse polarizes two 'modes of religiosity': the doctrinal and the imagistic. While Christianity is a doctrinal system 'par excellence' (p. 29), Abram finds paganism not quite to conform to the a priori assumption that it, then, is imagistic. Abram's acknowledged reliance on problematic textual sources to assess the 'mode' of Norse pre-Christian religion(s) makes for a thought-provoking but not entirely convincing application of Whitehouse's theory.
Haki Antonsson provides a 'critical review' of recent scholarship in the area. This is an extremely useful contribution which might have been better placed first, for the lucid, nuanced and wide-ranging overview it provides of the state-of-play. Haki concludes by warning that the plurality of approaches to the concept of 'Christianization' puts at risk the meaningfulness of the term, but suggests that nuance is already emerging and that self-conscious examination of the 'borderlands' between terms such as 'acculturation, official conversion, and Christianization' (p. 73) will be illuminating.
Orri Vesteinsson revisits the perennial fascination with medieval Iceland's remarkable literary output, rejecting as insufficient 'the preferred explanation--that we Icelanders are amazing' (p. 75). Instead he tackles the issue via the exploration of the North Atlantic colonies' relatively homogenous adoption of Norse identity and relatively rapid adoption of Christianity. Rather than viewing conversion as an 'individual [...] problem of conscience' (p. 77), he considers archaeological evidence for 'the social acceptance of Christian materiality' (p. 77). Whereas symbols of 'Norseness' provided cohesion in the colonies, Christianity provided distinctiveness (p. 90), and the combination allowed for a continuing 'Norse project' (p. 91). Of the North Atlantic colonies, Rosalind Bonte's welcome contribution considers the case of the Faroe Islands specifically, examining both textual and material evidence. She argues for a much more complex and long-term 'bottom-up' conversion than Faereyinga saga suggests, but speculates that the text's insistence on Olafr Tryggvason's importance may reflect an intervention that led to Christianity's officially-recognized status in the islands.
David M. Wilson reviews burials and memorials on the Isle of Man. The use of Christian symbols appears within a generation of the likely arrival of 'Viking' settlers on Man, alongside Scandinavian ornamentation and language, and one quarter of names in runic inscriptions are Celtic, pointing to complex interactions between inhabitants. Garipzanov's paradigm-busting second contribution turns to social psychology and sociology to theorize identity as role-based. He argues that the adoption of Christian identity was not a radical replacement of a previous identity, but a 'new dimension' (p. 140) to pre-existing categories of identity such as gender and status that enhanced particular social roles and interactions. The emergence of Christianity as a dominant identity-marker was a long process, he argues.
Soren M. Sindbaek looks diachronically at imagery on oval brooches. He suggests that 'the Carolingian mission in the ninth century did not propagate a new religion to a monolithically pagan north, but rather interrupted a process of cultural reception that had been ongoing for some time' (p. 192), and that the brooches took on the primary role of 'cultural boundary' markers at this time. Anne Pedersen, continuing the discussion into the tenth and eleventh centuries, also problematizes the straightforward interpretation of imagery as primarily expressions of religious identity: 'the hammer and the cross, rather than being two distinct religious symbols worn openly in opposition, may instead reflect a general need for personal reassurance, assistance, and protection' (pp. 221--22).
Finally, Jon Vioar Sigurosson provides some 'afterthoughts' which both review the preceding chapters and introduce some of his own observations. I really like the idea of such a concluding chapter and hope it may be adopted in more thematic collections. Although it is undoubtedly an extra pressure on publication, attempts to pull threads together and present the new state-of-play would be very valuable following collections of essays. This volume perhaps confirms rather than challenges Lesley Abrams's 2010 observation with which it opens--'Conversion is a problematic concept'--but the essays brought together here add further nuanced, if not always fully cohesive, perspectives on this period of transformation.
HANNAH BURROWS, University of Aberdeen
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2017|
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