Anders WINROTH. The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants and Missionaries in the Remaking of Northern Europe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012. xiii + 238 pages. $38.00 hc. ISBN 978-0-300-17026-9.
Reviewed by Robert P. RUSSO, Lourdes University, Sylvania, OH 43560

Anders Winroth, professor of history at Yale University, has previously authored a volume dedicated to Gratian’s Decretum. His latest publication is an attempt to portray the internal and external forces (e.g. financial, political, etc.) that led to the conversion of the Viking hordes of Scandinavia, starting in the tenth Century. Winroth presents a marvelous synthesis, in spite of the fact that prior research has been scattered across “many fields and published sometimes in obscure places” (p. x). What remains most fascinating about this work is the archeological evidence which, as the author admits, “is immense, and constantly growing. But…remains silent until put into an interpretive context” (p. 7).

The thesis of this book concerns an alternate interpretation of the “Christianization and Europeanization” of Scandinavia. Winroth tries to overcome two major misconceptions of early Scandinavian history: “the image of the Viking raids as great adventures and the depiction of Scandinavian Christianization and state formation as a kind of colonization” (p. 6). We learn that, although the Viking raiders were indeed violent, they plundered vast treasures to give as gifts to their warriors in order to ensure greater tribal loyalty. Their ultimate conversion to Christianity was not due to their conquest, but was a gradual process occurring over several centuries, encompassing many mitigating factors.

Winroth’s latest work is organized into twelve chapters, with units dedicated to Viking raids, the acquisition of power, trading networks, and their conversion to Christianity. In the chapter entitled “The Dynamic Eighth Century: Scandinavia Comes of Age,” Winroth relates that chieftain halls were constructed and used as seats of geographical power. Their archeological remains reveal that they were “[l]arge buildings with a spacious interior, they had high ceilings and few inside posts supporting the roof” (p. 17). The center of power was the highly ornate seat of the chieftain, who sat “looking out over his guests and followers, whom he led in feasting, mead drinking, and sacrifices inside the hall, and in war outside it” (p. 17). In “The Power of Gifts,” the author examines the notion of gift giving as a reason for the Viking’s plunder of gold and silver. He explains that the chieftains “assured the loyalty of those retainers [usually fierce warriors, but sometimes fellow chieftains] by giving them gifts of valuables and desirable objects, thereby creating an ongoing relationship between themselves and their warriors, a relationship in which the chieftains owed valuable and prestigious gifts and their followers owed support and loyalty” (p. 42).

The final five chapters are devoted to Scandinavia’s “conversion,” of which Winroth cautions could have multiple meanings. He advocates that, “[o]n the one hand, conversion might refer to how Christian ideas and practices slowly infiltrated Scandinavia” (p. 103). To support this view, Winroth points to archeological evidence which shows the gradual usage of Christian burial practices and religious symbolism. An alternate meaning of conversion is institutional, or the process by which “Scandinavian kings destroyed pagan temples, built churches, established dioceses, and introduced Christian kingship” (p. 104). The institutional process began with churches built by Ansgar in the 830s, and ended when bishops first crowned Scandinavian kings, from 1163 to 1210.

Winroth’s latest publication is extremely organized and well-written. It is highly recommended for students of the Middle Ages, those interested in Viking culture or the power of conversion. This work would also be an excellent secondary source on an undergraduate syllabus relating to Church history. It is well-researched and sourced, containing over twenty pages of bibliographic material for further study. Suggestions for improvement would entail the use of footnotes, as opposed to endnotes. There are nearly forty pages of endnotes, which can be quite cumbersome at times. Also, on too numerous occasions, Winroth tells the reader that the Vikings used gifts to ensure greater loyalty. This repetition may cause some to question the depth of Winroth’s thesis, which is effective enough to stand on its own.

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