Norway before Christianity
It’s a common misconception that law and order was introduced in Norway with Christianity and that the pre-Christian period was dominated by a state of lawlessness. It is easy to understand why this view has gained popularity when considering the fact that Vikings have constantly been depicted as pillaging savages in popular culture. It is true that the Vikings gained notoriety for their raids on villages and monasteries in Great Britain and the northern coasts of France, but this was only one small aspect of the their lives and it was certainly not a practice that was only confined to them and the far outposts of northern Europe. Hostilities occurred all over the continent at the time and were perpetrated by numerous tribes and ethnic groups. It is also important to remember that the term Viking encompassed all the people (apart from the Sami) who lived in Scandinavia at the time, and that the majority did not participate in such raids, but that they were ordinary citizens with normal mundane jobs, such as farmers, fishermen and tradespersons.
The Vikings who participated in these raids were brutal and acted with impunity, but things were different in Norway where transgressions of local customs and laws were dealt with by the local courts (Lagting). During the Viking Age, Norway was divided into several miniature kingdoms and the laws that dictated everyday life were decided by all the free citizens (non-slaves) in these regions. The laws were in accordance with ordinary people’s sense of justice and they were not imposed upon the people by the courts, as was the case when Christianity was introduced to the country. It is also worth mentioning that no one was above the law, even the local kings and tribal leaders, who at the time wielded great influence could be punished if they overstepped their authority.
Judicial system in Norway during the Viking Age
The judicial system in Norway during this period was remarkably ahead of its time with a jury based system where the fate of the accused was decided by twelve free men, as is still the case in many countries today. A guilty verdict could, depending on the type of crime, mean having to pay reparations to the victim or the victim’s family, be punished with death or deportation. Disputes could also be resolved in a duel in which the accused and the accuser would fight each other with swords until death (Holmgang). In order to bring someone before the Lagting one had to report the incident, which didn’t always happen, and subsequently many private disputes, including murder were settled outside the judicial system and often went unpunished as they were considered private affairs.
And disputes were plentiful during this time because Viking culture demanded revenge, and unlike Christianity it was a warrior culture. To turn the other cheek was considered unmanly and unacceptable. The prominence of the warrior culture also helps us understand why Vikings went on raids overseas.
The Vikings also had a vast knowledge of navigation and boat building. Their traditional vessels, the longships, were fast and of high quality, and according to maritime experts, were some of the best ships around at the time. And they had to be because the Vikings undertook long voyages. Their ships brought them to America 500 years before Columbus, and all the way down to Constantinople.
In order to travel that far the Vikings had to rely on their navigational skills. On long voyages away from the coast they relied upon sun observations. They used a very basic sextant to determine the angle between the sun and the horizon; they even had almanacs showing the height of the sun on any given day of the year. They also used basic compasses which utilized the sun’s position during sunrise and sunset to indicate true north and south. They were even able to use their compass on overcast days with the aid of a sunstone made of cordierite, which accurately indicated the position of the sun. During nights they would navigate by observing the polar star. And it worked. The hundreds of successful voyages to the new established colonies in Iceland and Greenland, and their countless raids on Great Britain and France are a testament to that.
The Vikings also had their own written language (Runeskrift) which most people were able to read and understand.
Christianity comes to Norway
It has been suggested that Christianity came to Norway at the end of the Viking Age 793 -1066, but this has been contested by several historians. Today it is commonly accepted that there were small Christian communities in Norway as early as year 700 and that these Christians were living side by side with their non-Christian compatriots. Vikings that went overseas came into contact with Christianity on their voyages and some of them adopted the new religion. They also brought home Christian slaves to Norway who spread the faith. The Viking king, Olav Trygvason is often credited for having successfully introduced Christianity to Norway in the late 900’s, and he did so with brute force. Those who refused to convert were killed.
Some historians claim that the motives for introducing the new religion in Norway were political rather than ideological. They believe that the new religion was used as a political instrument to gain power for the newly converted Christian kings. In pre-Christian times kings in Norway had limited powers. The people elected their kings and they could also have them dethroned, and even killed in those circumstances where the kings overstepped their authority. The power of the king and the church were absolute after the introduction of Christianity.
It didn't take long for Christianity to establish itself in Norway, it is estimated that the country was majority Christian as early as 1150. The old ways of the Vikings were scrapped and replaced with Christian laws and customs. The people did no longer have a say in how the laws were created and implemented. New laws were based on the teachings of the bible, and the kings and the priests became the new powerful elite. The proud Viking tradition of not turning the other cheek had no place in this new society and it was replaced with Christian ideals of forgiveness and non-violence, which would have been viewed with utter repulsion in earlier times.
Even though Christianity rapidly managed to get a foothold in the country, the old traditions were so ingrained that many of the old beliefs and customs survived. The old religious holidays were adopted by Christianity and given Christian names and meanings. Christmas Eve (Jul) was an old Viking an old tradition celebrating winter solstice, even today Christmas Eve is called Jul in Norway.
Christianity did however abolish slavery in Norway, as this practice was viewed as immoral, but it is also widely accepted that ordinary people and especially women lost many rights with the introduction of the new religion. One thing however that Christianity did not introduce to Norway was an organized and highly developed culture. It was already in the country and it had been there for hundreds of years before Christianity ever reached its shores.