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Pagans and Christians

James Graham-Campbell looks at the persisting image of the Vikings as pagan raiders striking at isolated Christian settlements. But is this the whole truth? And how and why did the Vikings adopt Christianity?

Soon after the beginning of the Viking Age, a woman was buried at Bjørke, beside a western Norwegian fjord according to contemporary pagan custom: fully clothed, with selected ornaments and possessions indicative of her status. This Bjørke lady was provided with a pair of the characteristic oval brooches that formed a distinctive element of Scandinavian female dress during the ninth and tenth centuries, two bronze arm-rings and an iron weaving- sword, but most prestigious of all – as most exotic – was a lozenge-shaped, gilt-bronze plaque, decorated in an eighth-century Anglo-Saxon style. Stripped from its backing, one of its corner rivet-holes is empty so that it could be suspended as a pendant. Its form and the cruciform nature of its ornament suggest that it was made to embellish the cover of a holy book; its removal had been an act of sacrilege. Here then we are faced with direct evidence of Norse paganism – Viking loot, from an English monastery, ritually deposited in a Norwegian grave.

Monasteries all round Europe were attractive targets for Viking raiders as undefended centres of wealth whose supplies might be consumed, treasures carried off and occupants ransomed or sold into slavery. Those hardest hit never recovered. On the north Yorkshire coast, at Whitby, stood a prosperous Anglo-Saxon double monastery of distinction, until sacked by Vikings in the ninth century. Stone moulds found on the site, for making ingots of a type well-known in Viking-age silver hoards, have suggested to David Wilson 'the work of the plunderers in melting down the treasures of the Abbey'. A T-shaped groove on one, resembling somewhat in outline the shape of a simple hammer, might lend support to this hypothesis, for the hammer was the well-established symbol of the Norse god Thor, often used as a pendant – such as the perfectly miniaturised example deposited in a great silver hoard, about 905, at Cuerdale in Lancashire.

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