The Northern Way

History of the Vikings

Chapter 4


command; for within the space of the ever-memorable half-century that began about A.D. 970 three great princes stood forth determined there and then to enrol their countries among the Christian nations of the world. It was King Harald Gormsson (died 986) 'who made the Danes Christian', as he declares of himself on the Jellinge stone (p. 100); it was King Olaf Tryggvason who in the five amazing years before the tenth century closed bullied his Norwegian subjects into accepting the new faith, and saw to it, moreover, that the Norse colonists of the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland, likewise accepted Christianity; it was King Olof Skotkonung (995-1022) who no less energetically, though much less successfully, sought to convert the Swedes.
       It may well be that each prince was impelled to the surprising task of turning his people into Christians as much by the hope of immediate political gain as by a pure and disinterested evangelical zeal. Harald Gormsson, though his own conversion preceded Otto II's Danish war in A.D. 974, must have realized after his defeat by the emperor that the success of his efforts to create a united state of Denmark largely depended on Otto's friendship and that only as the head of a Christian state could he hope to remain in the emperor's favour. (1) Olaf Tryggvason was a returned exile with at first only a precarious hold upon his throne; but he was a much-travelled man, converted during a viking expedition in the west; he had been a companion of the Christian prince Svein of Denmark; he knew that the lordly Vladimir of Kiev, with whom he had spent his boyhood, was now a Christian and was compelling all his Russian subjects to follow his example; therefore because Olaf knew that as a Christian country his new-won realm of Norway would have powerful friends abroad and that the tenure of his throne depended upon her prosperity, he forthwith turned with all his magnificent energy to the task of converting his subjects. Olof Skotkonung, baptized about A.D. 1008 at Husaby in Västergötland by English missionaries who had come to the north in the followings of Svein and Cnut, was watching jealously the growing strength of Denmark and Norway; he dare not run the risk of isolation at the head of a still heathen folk and therefore he too bade his people change their faith.
       Against this formidable campaign of three anxious and

1. Adam of Bremen certainly implies that Harald, in making Denmark a Christian state, was acting according to the terms of a promise made to Otto the Great; but cf. L. Weibull, Nordens hist. o. år 1000, Lund, 1911, p. 37 ff.


determined kings only the Uppland Swedes offered a serious resistance, for they, when Olof Skotkonung burnt the great heathen temple at Uppsala, so bitterly resented the desecration of this ancient and beloved fane that the king, knowing that they would otherwise renounce their allegiance to him, abandoned them to their heathen ways and took up his residence in Västergötland where the English missionaries had better prepared the ground for his so unpopular task. Yet even in Uppland it was not long, as the rune-stones prove, before the aristocracy surrendered to the inexorable advance of the new religion.
       Up to this point the conversion of the Northmen had been for the most part an affair of social expediency and a result of a salutary respect for the king's personal authority; for the king's much-vaunted God had been matched against the old gods and by the king's strong arm it had been effectively demonstrated to all who doubted that Jesus Christ was indeed a more powerful deity than Thor or Odin. But of Christian doctrine the Northmen, as yet unprovided with sufficient priests and without any proper ecclesiastical organization, knew next to nothing. It was the work of a new generation of leaders, in particular of Saint Olaf of Norway (p. 123) and Bishop Odinkar of Denmark, to found national churches that were able in a small measure to control popular opinion according to the precepts of Christ, and this second phase in the conversion of the north, the years wherein a respect for Christian conduct gradually replaced the lawless spiritual freedom of pagan life, began about A.D. 1020 and lasted far into the Middle Ages. But in the very first century that Christian precept began to influence public thought the Viking Period came to an end.
       It is not true, of course, that Christian teaching was in itself sufficient to put a stop to bloodthirsty and unnecessary adventures overseas. Yet unquestionably some allowance must be made for the effect of the preaching of the newly imported clergy inasmuch as the preachers were for the most part drawn from countries, England and Germany in particular, that had had sore experience of viking attacks; therefore when the character of northern warfare changes, when expeditions abroad are only undertaken as affairs of grave national import, the possible influence of the holy fathers of the Church must count for something. But it can only have been very slowly that their influence made itself felt, and as a factor directly contributing to the surrender of viking habits the Church acted imperceptibly rather than noticeably; for it is not until the


twelfth century, when the Viking Period was past and the Middle Ages begun, that there are momentous signs of Christian piety governing the warlike inclinations of a viking chief. Then it was that King Sigurd of Norway sailed forth not to harry his neighbours but to seek adventures as a crusader in the Holy Land, and that the mettlesome patron saint of Sweden, Eric, sought his beloved fighting not in the territories of his fellow-Christians, but instead found outlet for his martial zeal in war against the heathen Finns, leading his armies to battle under the banner of Christ Militant.


      The usurpation of viking trade by the Hanseatic League of German merchants demands a short notice here inasmuch as it has a bearing upon the fate of the viking colonies in the north and west. For it will be related in subsequent chapters how, after the Viking Period was ended, Iceland fared miserably, how the Norsemen of Greenland starved and died in shameful neglect, how the Ostmen of the Norse towns in Ireland received no succour against the English, and how Norway surrendered to Scotland her faithful subjects in the Orkneys, the Hebrides, and Man. Various causes contributed to this downfall of the colonial system; the increasing strength of Scottish and English arms, the Black Death that most cruelly ravaged Norway in 1349, the unsympathetic government of Norway by foreign kings after the Kalmar union in 1397, all these play their part in the story of distress and poverty in the mother-country that ended either in the cession or ruin of her colonies in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Yet most of all was the Hansa responsible, for these foreign merchants wrecked utterly the busy viking trade that had for so long nourished and sustained the distant settlements of the viking peoples.
       In the days of the great king Sverre of Norway (1184-1202) the Germans who, together with Danes, Swedes, and English, frequented Bergen, were the least popular of the foreign traders who thronged the wharves of this prosperous centre of Norwegian commerce; but with the growing importance and riches of the towns whence they came, the numbers of these Germans steadily increased and within a hundred years of Sverre's death they had unmistakably become a power in the land, both the merchants of Lübeck and of Bremen having received charters from Magnus Lagaböter and assurances of the special friendship of the king. With the whole wealth and the formidable organization of the Hanseatic League to support them they soon aimed at securing


as the maximum benefit of the royal patronage a complete control of Norwegian sea-trade and it was not long before they were able to give a startling demonstration of their power; for in the reign of King Eric Magnusson (1280-1299) it was suddenly revealed that the newly established Hansa held Norway in its grasp. It happened that a Norwegian noble of these days, turned pirate, had begun most persistently to assail the German shipping and the principal north German towns of the League thereupon united in equipping a fleet that in retaliation undertook a stringent commercial blockade of Eric's realm; Norway, whose discouraged and indigent merchants with their few obsolete boats found themselves shut helpless in their harbours, was speedily faced with a calamitous and complete economic ruin so that the king had no other course than to submit himself to the will of the League. He was made to pay a huge indemnity for the piratical outrages and to grant the Germans increased trading-privileges; shortly afterwards he was even compelled to suppress the little native guilds that had unwisely attempted to compete with the Hanseatic merchants. His successor, Haakon V (1299-1319), still further strengthened the power of the Hansa in his country by his foolhardy policy of discouraging trade with England; it was not long, therefore, before the allpowerful Germans found themselves without competitors and thereat the busy Norwegian merchant-town of Bergen was delivered into their hands.
       Among the most profitable commercial enterprises in the north, and equal in importance to the cod-fisheries of the Norwegian coast, was the herring-trade of the Baltic, for it was in this sea that the herring used to spawn; therefore the chief anxiety of the German merchants was to control the fisheries in these waters in order that it might be they, and they alone, who supplied northern Europe with the huge quantities of herrings for which the fasts prescribed by the Church had now created a voracious market. In the middle of the thirteenth century the Swedes under Jarl Birger and the German traders managed to come to terms, and it was Denmark who was most affected when the merchants of Lübeck began to divert the wealth of Scania, chiefly acquired by this fishing, from the coffers of the Danish king to the German counting-houses; but under the bold government of two great kings, and inspired by hatred of Sweden no less than by jealousy of the Germans, Denmark was for a while successful in thwarting the ambitious merchants of north Germany who so much coveted the monopoly of trade in the Baltic. The struggle began as early as the reign of Valdemar


the Great (1157-1182), who openly opposed the activities of the Germans and who, in the year 1203, captured Lübeck, a town which the Danes then held for twelve years. Subsequently the fortunes of Denmark declined; Scania of her own accord surrendered herself to Sweden (1333),who remained an enemy and tolerated the Hansa; but success and prosperity returned temporarily in the fourteenth century when Valdemar Atterdag (1340-1375), after recovering Scania from the Swedes, went on his conquering way to Gotland and there, in 1361, captured the Hanseatic town of Visby. Yet in the end the strength of the League, supported in this contest both by Norway and by Sweden, prevailed over that of Denmark, and before the '6os closed the united fleets of the German towns gained a decisive victory of which the Treaty of Stralsund was the outcome. This gave vastly increased privileges to those members of the League who traded along the coasts of Denmark and Scania, recognized the temporary possession by the Hansa of fortified towns like Helsingborg and Malmö that controlled the Sound between Zealand and Scania, and accorded to the Council of the League a deciding vote in the appointment of Valdemar's successor. There followed four years of peace wherein the Hansa developed its Baltic and Norwegian trade in comfortable security, and although in the tumultuous days after Valdemar's death and before the union of the three kingdoms (1397) the League was compelled to defend its merchants against more than one attempt by Norwegians and Danes to break loose from the economic stranglehold of the Germans, the astute diplomatists of the Hansa saw to it that the League remained established in its northern harbours with augmented prestige and undiminished security throughout the twenty years of swift and astonishing political changes that ended in the election of a woman as the regent over all three countries.
       Queen Margaret had been at first an enemy of the Hansa, though she had courted the friendship of Lübeck, and there was no doubt of her intention to recover the portions of Scania held as security by the League after the war with Valdemar. But upon the fall of Albert of Mecklenberg, Stockholm, garrisoned by his German adherents, held aloof from her dominion and became a terror to all the traders of the north, Germans, Danes and Scandinavians alike. This was the doing of the so-called ' Victual Brothers', pirate-gangs of these Stockholm Germans, who in the space of six years almost succeeded in bringing Baltic commerce to a standstill; they took possession of Gotland, established themselves in the coastal towns of Mecklenberg,


attacked Denmark, and on two occasions, once in 1393 and again in 1395, even sailed up the Norwegian coast and sacked Bergen. The safety not only of Hanseatic trade but of the northern government itself was threatened, and in consequence Margaret and the Hansa, in the face of this unexpected and paralysing assault upon law and order, at last took council together and agreed to act in concert. Through the mediation of the German Hanseatic towns a treaty (1395) was arranged between Margaret and her sworn foe, Albert of Mecklenberg, whereby it was agreed that Stockholm should be surrendered to the Hansa for a term of three years and that after this period it was to be handed over to the Queen. And when this bond had been made the Hanseatic and Scandinavian fleets together set about the task of hunting down the Victual Brothers and driving them off the seas; Gotland was reconquered in 1398 and in that same year Stockholm was restored to Margaret's triple realm.
       Thus the Victual Brothers by their lawless raiding provided the Hansa with an opportunity of interfering in the politics of the north, of re-affirming the rights of the League, and of earning the gratitude of the Queen. But it was in Norway that the pirates had served the Hansa best; for during the reign of Haakon VI Magnusson (1355-1380) the hold of the League upon the Norwegian ports had become much less secure than in the days of his predecessors, and the two sacks of Bergen by the Victual Brothers, crowned by a third outrage against this unhappy town in 1428 that was the doing of the League's own agents, wrecked totally the forlorn revival of native Norwegian commerce that Haakon had encouraged and that would have meant so much to the starving viking colonies. Henceforth, for the space of well-nigh a hundred years, the Hanseatic towns possessed an almost exclusive control over Norwegian shipping, and so it came about that in this dark century Iceland came dangerously near to ruin and the miserable colony of Greenland was left to perish utterly.

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