Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Picture of Providence: Christopher Dawson and the Conversion of Scandinavia

Upon reading Christopher Dawson's lectures on the development of the Christian religion in the early periods of European history, which are compiled in the text Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, I was particularly struck by the beauty of the passages on the conversion of the Scandinavian peoples. The splendour of God's work, in this case the increase of the Church's membership through the evangelization of the Northmen, attaches itself to anything that replicates it (in however diluted form), so it is in this spirit that I humbly submit my reading of Dawson's work.

While the plain logic of what transpired in this episode of Christian history according to Dawson leaves nothing to question, there is nevertheless a distinct providential aura about the series of events depicted. The frigid and most resolutely pagan regions of Europe went from being the most serious threat to the survival of the Christian faith in the British Isles, France, and the Germanies to a thriving Christian society alive with the liturgy of the Mass and informed by the lives of the Saints; they went from being constituted by a divisive array of warring tribes to being united in the form of kingdoms ruled by strengthened executive powers in the persons of their respective kings.

What gives this story another dimension, however, is that these were not defeated peoples succumbing to the religion of a foreign conqueror; the conversion of the Vikings happened more or less internally. The result of their contact with the monks and missionaries of the lands they raided led to an introspective change in the soul of the Northern man while his rule over subjected Christian nations left an indelible mark on his patterns of social and political behaviour. When Canute was recognized as King of England in 1016, 'he dismissed the Viking army and ruled England "under the laws of King Edgar" according to the traditions of Christian kingship' and committed himself to the patronage of Christian institutions. This radical shift is exemplified in his adorning the sepulchre of St. Alphege of Canterbury, whom his fervently pagan father had slain! 

Thus, it was at the height of their power that the Vikings submitted to the God of their enemy. Dawson says that 'the incorporation of Scandinavia into Western Christendom was due, not as in Central Europe to the power and prestige of the Western Empire, but to the conquest of Christian England by the barbarian who brought back Christianity to the North with the other spoils of invasion.' The Northerners did not need a Charlemagne or a Cortes to forcefully initiate them into the Church; it was the work of their own heroic leaders, which included Canute in Denmark, St. Olaf in Norway and St. Vladimir in Russia. 

The relationship between state and Church was hardly one way either; just as the extent of the Church was lengthened and deepened by the inclusion of the Northern converts and their lands, the formerly pagan kings were enabled by the universal power and prestige granted them by the Christian religion to consolidate their authority and attain the support of the provincial territories and their minor lords. 

'In this way,' Dawson says, 'the victory of Christianity coincided with the attainment of national unity and was the culmination of the process of expansion and cultural interchange which had accompanied the Viking movement. The mixed culture of the Christian Viking states across the seas reacted on the culture of the Scandinavian homelands and led to the breaking down of local particularism alike in religion and politics. Indeed it seemed for a time as though the whole of the Nordic culture area from the British Isles to the Baltic would be united in a northern Christian empire under the sovereignty of the Danish king. Ruling from his court at Winchester, surrounded by English ecclesiastics, Scandinavian mercenaries and Icelandic poets, Canute brought the Northern lands for the first time into real contact with the international life of Western Christendom. The North had never before known a king so rich and so powerful. As Toraren the Icelander wrote: Canute rules the land / As Christ, the shepherd of Greece, doth the heavens!’ (p. 95)

It was not Canute, however, 'who became the type and representative of the new ideal of Christian kingship in the Northern lands.' While he was an excellent statesman and a veritable wizard in how he acquired and utilized financial resources, he was not a true hero in the old Northern sense. This role was instead fulfilled by Olaf Haroldson, who 'was an authentic representation of the Northern heroic tradition, like his predecessor Olaf Trygvason (995-1000). He completed the latter’s work of Christianizing Norway, breaking the stubborn resistance of the pagan chiefs and countryfolk with fire and sword, and died like the other Olaf in an heroic battle against hopeless odds. But the battle of Stiklestad (1030) differs from that of Svoldr (1000) in that it was a civil war against the king’s faithless subjects who had been bought by Canute’s English money. Thus it was an historical realization of the dominant motive of the old epic poetry – the tragedy of loyal heroism defeated by treachery and gold.' (pp. 95-96)
There go the prince’s foes Bringing their open purses,Many bid dearly in metalFor the head of our king.  
Every man knows that he who sells His own good lord for goldWill end in black hellAnd of such is he worthy.
~Olaf’s friend, the poet Sighvat 

There has never been a clearer example of the sublime synthesis between the transcendent truth crucified on the Cross and the natural truths belonging to all human order. The primitive, warrior spirit of the natives is elevated into the new context carried by the Gospel; the self-sacrifice of the warrior is universalized into the self-sacrifice of the God-man; the links between Odin and Baldar and Christ are immortalized.  'As Olaf’s retainers kept their faith with their lord, so Olaf himself kept faith with the Lord of Heaven. And thus the new religion became the object of a deeper loyalty than the religion of the old gods had ever evoked.' (p. 96)

What happened next defies the ideals of the kind of 'master morality' espoused by the likes of a Nietzsche or a 'Ragnar Redbeard' as well as those consecrated by the indigenous pagans. Instead of following the victor and celebrating the winner, the Northerners took the fallen St. Olaf for their patron and protector, and throughout Norway there are innumerable accounts of his miracles alongside the telling of his legendary end. The virtues of might and conquest are no longer absolute; there is a higher power in which heroic men like St. Olaf may participate in and share with their people. The glory of the warrior is aligned with Christ's glory. Dawson moreover tells us that 'Even [Olaf's] former enemies acknowledge this power and accepted him as the patron and guardian of the Norwegian monarchy, as we see in the fine poem called “The Song of the Sea Calm” which Canute’s court poet Toraren wrote only a few years later. Although the poem is dedicated to King Swein, the Danish usurper, its real hero is the dead king who still rules the land from his shrine at Nidaros': 

There he lies 
Whole and pure  
The high and praised king
There the bells  
May ring aloud 
Of themselves,  
Above the shrine  
For every day  
The folk to hear  
The clanging bells  
Above the king.  
Hardly had Haroldson  
Got a home  
In the heavenly realm  
Ere he became  
A mighty man of peace.  
A host of men  
Where the holy king doth lie  
Kneel for help,  
Blind and dumb  
Seek the king,  
And home they go  
Their sickness healed.  
Pray thou to Olaf 
The man of God  
That he grant thee 
His holy spirit.  
With God himself  
He seeks 
Success and peace 
For all men. 

Dawson continues:

'Thus the popular canonization of St. Olaf in 1031 is important not only as one of the first and most spontaneous instances of the way in which the new peoples consecrated their nationality by adopting a royal saint as their national patron, but still more because it marks the final reconciliation between the Nordic and the Christian traditions. St. Olaf quickly took the place of Thor as the patron of the farmers, their champion against trolls and witches, and the ideal type of the Northern warrior. The national code of law became known as the laws of St. Olaf, and the kings of Norway were regarded as the heirs and representatives of St. Olaf, almost in the same way as the kings of Sweden in the heathen time had been the successors and representatives of the God Frey. The wholehearted acceptance of Christianity in Norway and Denmark gradually transformed the spirit of Scandinavian culture.' (p. 98)

One of the most profound records of this 'spiritual transformation' is found in the Descriptio Insularum Aquilonis of Adam of Bremen, friend of Denmark's King Sweyn Estrithson, which reads: 

'But after their acceptance of Christianity, they have become imbued with better principles and have now learned to love peace and truth and to be content with their poverty; even to distribute what they have stored up and not as aforetime to gather up what was scattered…. Of all men they are the most temperate in food and in their habits, loving above all things thrift and modesty. Yet so great is their veneration for priests and churches, that there is scarcely a Christian to be found who does not make an offering on every occasion that he hears Mass…. In many places of Norway and Sweden, the keepers of the flocks are men of noble rank, who after the manner of the patriarchs live by the work of their hands. But all who dwell in Norway are most Christian with the exception of those who dwell far off beside the Arctic Seas.' 
Adam later on expounds on the newfound 'charity' of the Northerners: 

'Blessed is the people, say I, of whose poverty no one is envious, and most blessed in this – that they have now all put on Christianity. There is much that is remarkable in their manners, above all Charity, whence it comes that all things are common among them not only for the native population but also for the stranger. They treat their bishop as it were a king, for the whole people pay regard to his will, and whatever he ordains from God, from the scriptures and from the customs of other nations, they hold as law.' 

Finally, Dawson explains the aftermath and the profound contributions of the new Germanic converts to the spiritual and cultural climate of Christendom: 

'With the fall of Anglo-Saxon culture, the Scandinavian world became the great representative of vernacular culture in Northern Europe. And it was, above all, in Iceland that the scholars of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries took up the tradition of King Alfred and founded the great school of vernacular historiography and archaeology to which we owe so much of our knowledge of the past. We are apt to regard medieval culture as intolerant of everything that lay outside the tradition of Latin Christendom. But we must not forget that the Northern Sagas are as much the creation of medieval Christendom as the chansons de geste and that it is to the priests and the schools of Christian Iceland that we are indebted for the preservation of the rich tradition of Northern mythology and poetry and saga.' (P. 100)

Thus a very succinct history of the conversion of the Northmen to the faith of their erstwhile enemies. Even in this abbreviated form, however, the beauty, the mystery, the drama and most of all the providential character of the experience is patently evident, which is why I figured Dawson's rendition of events to be worth copying and sharing. In these dark times may the memory of our historical turning towards God help us return to him again.

As a bit of a post-script, we are reminded by the above of what Hilaire Belloc had to say of the Normans, that famous mingling between the Christian Gauls and their former Viking conquerors. This powerful new race, whose creation was made possible by the imprint of the Christian ethos on the once-marauding Northmen, left a remarkable impression on the structure of European civilization on multiple levels. We leave Belloc's commentary here as a very brief but still sufficient introduction to the character of the Norman race, a kind of parallel if more adventurous and impactful culture to the Danes and the Norwegians:

'These "North-men," the new and striking addition to the province, the Gallo-Romans called, as we have seen "Nordmanni." The Roman province, within the limits of which they were strictly settled, the second Lyonnese, came to be called "Normannia." For a century the slight admixture of new blood worked in the general Gallo-Roman mass of the province and, numerically small though it was, influenced its character, or rather produced a new thing; just as in certain chemical combinations the small admixture of a new element transforms the whole. With the beginning of the eleventh century, as everything was springing into new life, when the great saint who, from the chair of Peter, was to restore the Church was already born, when the advance of the Pyreneans against Islam was beginning to strike its decisive conquering blows, there appeared, a sudden phenomenon, this new thing—French in speech and habit and disposition of body, yet just differentiated from the rest of Frenchmen—the Norman Race.

It possessed these characteristics—a great love of exact order, an alert military temper and a passion for reality which made its building even of ships (though it was not in the main seafaring) excellent, and of churches and of castles the most solid of its time.
All the Normans' characteristics (once the race was formed), led them to advance. They conquered England and organized it; they conquered and organized Sicily and Southern Italy; they made of Normandy itself the model state in a confused time; they surveyed land; they developed a regular tactic for mailed cavalry. Yet they endured for but a hundred years, and after that brief coruscation they are wholly merged again in the mass of European things!

You may take the first adventurous lords of the Cotentin in, say 1030, for the beginning of the Norman thing; you may take the Court of young Henry II. with his Southerners and his high culture in, say 1160, most certainly for the burial of it. During that little space of time the Norman had not only reintroduced exactitude in the government of men, he had also provided the sword of the new Papacy and he had furnished the framework of the crusading host. But before his adventure was done the French language and the writ of Rome ran from the Grampians to the Euphrates.' Hilaire Belloc, Europe and the Faith

All excerpts quoted from Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1991, New York: Doubleday) and Hilaire Belloc, Europe and the Faith (2007, Cosimo)