Shrine of St. Olaf from Nidaros © European Cultural Routes

St. Olaf of Norway – Missionary with an “Iron Tongue”

St. Olaf of Norway was  a missionary with an “iron tongue”. He was central to the process of Christianisation of Norway after 1015, concludes Olav Tveito, who describes it as a top-down affair

St. Olaf – missionary with an «iron tongue»
(Olav den Hellige – Misjonær med “jerntunge”)
By Olav Tveito, senior vicar and advisor to the Bishop of Oslo
In: Historisk Tidsskrift Finland 2013, vol. 3
The article is in Swedish: Olav den hellige – misjonær med «jerntunge».


The conversion to Christianity was an important event in early Norwegian history. How did the transformation from paganism to new belief take place?

The Kings’ sagas and other Norse literary sources claim that the process took place within a limited period and by violent methods. Modern scholarship has challenged this view in emphasising other aspects – the shift in belief is assumed to be the result of development during centuries due to cultural contact between Scandinavia and Christian areas.

In this article the role of King Olav Haraldsson. Was his expedition to Norway in 1015 determined by his personal ambitions of political power or by his Christian faith and a responsibility to bring the gospel to his homeland? The fact that Olav was baptised in Rouen in 1013/1014, in close connection with King Aethelred II is emphasised.

This kind of «political baptism» (A. Angenendt) seems to have played a major role as a Christianization strategy in the Middle Ages. The event must have been an important factor behind Olav’s struggle for power in Norway from 1015 onwards.

Missionary projects as joint ventures between bishops and magnates as participants was a preferred strategy due to the cultural context in which attempts to spread the teaching of the Church took place. In Scandinavia, religion and political power were a united complex, Christianization starting with social elites was a convenient method against this background.

This top/bottom strategy, characteristic of what happened in Norway, was probably the only possible way of getting rid of paganism. The rather strict methods used by King Olaf, seemingly not entirely in agreement with biblical ideas, must perhaps be understood as a result of shifts within church laws and canonic ordinances.

Thus, if groups of people reverted to their pagan beliefs, it was allowed to bring them back into the church by using force (Burchard of Worms). Other factors perhaps contributed to this, such as for instance eschatological ideas linked to the turn of the millennium.

The conclusion is that the view of the sagas, i.e. that King Olaf played a central role in the Christianization process, is reliable.


Featured Photo: The frontal of St. Olav from Trondheim Cathedral from the 13th century. Source: Wikipedia



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