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Bridges to Eternity: A Re-Examination of the Adoption of Christianity in Viking-Age Sweden



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A multidisciplinary journal devoted to the study of medieval Scandinavia stretching
geographically from Russia to North America and chronologically from the Viking Age
to the end of the medieval period.
Russell Poole, e University of Western Ontario
Stefan Brink, University of Aberdeen
John Hines, Cardi University
Carolyne Larrington, University of Oxford
Judy uinn, University of Cambridge
Editorial Board
Lesley Abrams, University of Oxford
Sverre Bagge, Universitetet i Bergen
Anne-Soe Gräslund, Uppsala universitet
Stefanie Gropper, Universität Tübingen
Guðrún Nordal, Háskóli Íslands (University of Iceland)
Helgi Þorláksson, Háskóli Íslands (University of Iceland)
Pernille Hermann, Århus Universitet
Kate Heslop, Universität Zürich
Judith Jesch, University of Nottingham
Stephen Mitchell, Harvard University
Neil Price, University of Aberdeen
Contributions are invited for future issues of the journal. Please contact one of the editors
for publication deadlines. Information on the journal and its styleguide can be found at:
Russell Poole (, Stefan Brink (, John Hines
(hines@cardi, Carolyne Larrington (,
andJudy uinn (
V  M S
Edited by
Russell Poole, Stefan Brink, John Hines,
Carolyne Larrington, and Judy uinn
© 2016, Brepols Publishers n.v., Turnhout, Belgium
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
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ISBN: 978-2-503-55997-1
ISSN: 1782-7183
DOI: 10.1484/J.VMS.5.112415
Printed in the EU on acid-free paper
List of Illustrations vii
e Illuminated Þjófabálkr in Fourteenth-Century Icelandic
Jónsbók Manuscripts
Þórr the War God:
Polemicizing Myth in Eilífr Goðrúnarson’s Þórsdrápa
e Argument from Design in the Prologue to the Prose Edda
Bridges to Eternity: A Re-Examination of the Adoption of
Christianity in Viking-Age Sweden
Salt and the Earliest Scandinavian Raids in France:
Was there a Connection?
Continuity and Change: Forms of Liminality in the Sacred
Social Spaces of the Pre-Christian Nordic World
Óðinn Visiting Christian Kings: Storytelling and the
Construction of Royal Authority in Medieval Norway
Words in Wood and Stone:
Uses of Runic Writing in Medieval Norwegian Churches
L  I
Figure 1, p. 8. GKS 3269a 4o fol.79vb: Þjófabálkr (Jónsbók). 1350. Reykjavík,
Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi.
Figure 2, p. 9. AM 127 4o fol. 87rb: Þjófabálkr (Jónsbók). 1350. Reykjavík,
Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi.
Figure 3, p. 11. AM 350fol. Skarðsbók fol.67va: Þjófabálkr (Jónsbók). 1363.
Reykjavík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi.
Figure 4, p. 12. AM 347 fol. Belgsdalsbók fol. 60va: Þjófabálkr (Jónsbók).
1350–70. Reykjavík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi.
Figure 5, p. 13. AM 343 fol. Svalbarðsbók fol. 84rb: Þjófabálkr (Jónsbók).
1330–40. Reykjavík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi.
Figure 6, p. 14. GKS 3269 b 4o fol.55vb: Þjófabálkr (Jónsbók). 1330–40. Reykjavík ,
Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi.
Figure 7, p. 15. GKS 1154 fol. Codex Hardenbergianus fol. 57r: Þjófabálkr
(Mag nús lagabætis landslo˛g). 1350–60. Copenhagen, Det Kongelige Bib-
Figure 8, p. 17. AM 168 a–b 4o fol.54v: Þjófabálkr (Jónsbók). 1360. Reykjavík,
Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi.
Figure 9, p. 20. GKS 3270 4 to fol.97ra: Þjófabálkr (Jónsbók). 1350. Reykjavík,
Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi.
Figure 10, p. 21. AM 139 4o fol. 68v: Þjófabálkr (Jónsbók). 1400. Reykjavík,
Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi.
viii List of Illustrations
Figure 11, p. 22. ott 1280fol.54rb: Þjófabálkr (Jónsbók). 1400. Copenhagen,
Det Kongelige Bibliotek.
Figure 12, p. 25. Cambridge, St John’s College, MS A.4 Brewes-Norwich
Commentaries fol.61ra: Liber sextus decretalium. 1335–50. Cambridge, St
John’s College.
Figure 13, p. 104. Salt gardens (salines) in Guérande.
Figure 14, p. 105. An early map of the bay of Bourgneuf showing the islands
of Noirmoutier and Bouin and the portus of the villa of Beauvoir called La
Figure 15, p. 108. Abbey of Saint-Philbert-de-Grand-Lieu as it was before 1860.
‘Église de Saint-Philbert-de-Grandlieu, (Loire-Inférieure) avant 1860’, in
Maître 1898, 128.
Figure 16, p. 112. Salt harvest on Noirmoutier.
Figure 17, p. 121. A paludier (salt-marsh worker) on the Île de Ré.
Figure 18, p. 125. Postcard of the empty sarcophagus of Philibert in the crypt
of Saint Philbert’s church in Noirmoutier-en-l’Île.
Figure 19, p. 127. A nineteenth-century lithograph depicting the harvesting
and loading of salt on Noirmoutier.
Figure 20, p. 144. A model for the physical changes of location undergone by
sacral places during the Iron Age.
Figure 21, p. 207. Lom stave church, N 43: hic uærsum scribo.
Figure 22, p. 211. Lom stave church, N 46: stat : i friþi · kuþs · osa and N 47:
List of Illustrations ix
Tab les
Table 1, p. 4. Jónsbók manuscripts containing a historiated initial of the Þjófabálkr.
Table 2, p. 32. Philological and pictorial relations in fourteenth-century nsbók
manuscripts containing Þjófabálkr initials.
Table 3, p. 49. Expressions for ‘giant’ in Þórsdrápa.
Table 4, p. 51. Incidence of agentive nouns in Þórsdrápa.
Table 5, p. 93. Women in bridge stone inscriptions.
Table 6, p. 95. Women in prayer inscriptions.
Table 7, p. 140. Topographical place name elements sometimes associated with
heathen religion.
Table 8, p. 180. A summary of important elements in the Óðinn stories.
B  E:
A R-E   A 
C  V-A S
Sara Ann Knutson
hroughout the rst millennium  and into the Middle Ages, Europeans
separated themselves from their counterparts in Scandinavia by identifying
with the new Christian religion. Over the centuries, the European laity had
come to understand the Christian mission directed at the Germanic peoples as
a civilizing process, especially suited for the elites of such tribes. Symptomatic of
this attitude is the Vita Anskarii, documenting Anskar’s ninth-century mission
to Birka. Anskar experiences a vision of an unknown land ahead that he identies
as Sweden, located extremum terrae, at the end of the world (Waitz 1884,
chap.25). In other episodes, Anskar’s friends urge him in vain not to journey
north and preach to these ‘unknown barbarians’ (ignotis barbaris) (Waitz 1884,
chap.7, 27 cf.Wood 2001). Adam of Bremen’s infamous account (c.1073) of the
temple of Uppsala imparts images of human sacrices and further underscores
the impression in readers’ minds of the Scandinavian pagans as uncivilized and
certainly unsophisticated in their religious practices (Pertz 1846, .26,200–01).
Sara Ann Knutson ( is a graduate student in the Department of Archae-
ology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.
Abstract: is paper reconsiders the traditional model of Christian conversion in Viking-
Age Sweden, which places Viking and medieval Scandinavia on the periphery of Christian
Europe. Notions of Scandinavians as barbarians lingered and tainted outsiders’ perception
of them even aer conversion, as seen in early medieval texts which portray Scandinavians’
Christian beliefs and practices as trivial or unsophisticated. Swedish Viking-Age runestones
provide evidence that challenges the assumption that Christianity was passively appropriated
to Scandinavia from Europe. Instead, the runic material helps demonstrate the Scandinavians’
originality and sophisticated understanding of the new religion by pointing to how they
adopted and incorporated Christian beliefs and practices into their uniquely Scandinavian
context. Scandinavian adoptions and applications of Christian concepts, such as the association
of Purgatory with bridges and Christian deeds, are particularly examined.
Keywords: Christian conversion, religion, runestones, bridges, women, Christianization,
Viking Age.
Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 12 (2016), 87–101 BREPOLS PUBLISHERS10.1484/J.VMS.5.112419
88 Sara Ann Knutson
Neil Price has recently proposed that underlying these fears of barbarism was a
disconcerting familiarity:
e Anglo-Saxons, for example, knew that [the] Viking world-view was not so
far removed from what theirs had been not so long before, and maybe, under the
surface, still was — and I think that realization frightened them. e Vikings were
not only conventionally terrifying, they were also a dark mirror held up to the
image of what the English needed to believe themselves to be. e same probably
applied to the Franks and other continental peoples. (Price 2015,7)
is widely held understanding of Christianity as a cultural marker was thus
rmly entrenched when it reached Northern Europe. It appealed to converted
social elites, who discovered they could integrate their new Christian faith into an
aristocratic identity and distinguish themselves from lower social strata (Fletcher
1998; Russell 1994). And yet the distinction created between Northern pagans
and the converted Christian elites in Scandinavia mattered little to outsiders. At
the Council of Clermont in 1095, Pope UrbanII purportedly condemned the
religious practices of the Viking-Age Swedes, declaring, ‘For all those barbarous
peoples who in far-distant islands frequent the ice-bound ocean, living as they
do like beasts — who could call them Christians?’ (Mynors, omson, and
Winterbottom 1998,600). To the medieval mind, Europeans resided at the heart
of Latin Christendom, Scandinavians on the periphery.1
is centre-periphery model continues to inuence scholarly interpretations
of Christian religious practice in Viking-Age Scandinavia today.2 There is a
prevalent belief that the understanding of Christianity achieved by Scandinavians
was less sophisticated than that of the Europeans they received it from. For
instance, historians have argued that the conversion of the Scandinavian
kings was chiey motivated by an interest in appropriating the power of their
European counterparts (cf.Cusack 1999,136; Abrams 1998,123). Countering
these tendencies, Sverre Bagge (2004) has recently drawn new attention to the
signicance of contacts and exchange, so as to suggest that Scandinavian elites
exhibited a certain degree of originality in their adaptation of European culture.
In taking up this idea my focus in this paper will be the inscriptions of the
eleventh- and twelfth-century Swedish runestone corpus. By the time Pope
UrbanII delivered his speech, Swedes had raised numerous such monuments,
many of which reveal an explicit understanding of key Christian concepts. is
1 For greater discussion of this model, see Blomkvist 2005.
2 For recent studies that have similarly re-examined pagan beliefs and practices, see
Gräslund 1996a, Price 2007, Sanmark 2002, Andrén 2005.
   89
material, a uniquely Scandinavian development, is the product of the mentalities
and intentions of the first generations of Christians in Sweden. It can offer
testimony to the priorities of patrons and show how these people incorporated
their new religion into their lives and deaths. Henrik Williams (2012) has
appealed to religious historians to give the Christian content in runestone texts
the same quality of attention as is given to its counterpart in manuscript texts.
For my part, I will investigate the proportion of women mentioned in particular
runestone contexts, namely the subset of the corpus which concerns the building
of bridges and petitioning for prayers. A statistical analysis of these contexts
reveals patterns of some female involvement, especially when the presence of
women in these inscriptions as sponsors is compared to instances when they are
mentioned among the commemorated on these monuments.3
e Emergence of Purgatory in the North
Before doing so it is rst necessary to consider the basis in Christian thinking
and (subsequently) doctrine for these classes of inscriptions. From its early begin-
nings, soteriological thought has stimulated Christian doctrine. Already in the
sixth century, Pope GregoryI insisted that the soul required a ‘purging’ re
to prepare the dead who were destined for salvation and an aerlife in heaven
(Brown 1996,162). ree centuries later, in 829, Anskar travelled to convert
pagans at Birka. e Vita Anskarii records his vision of entering the transitional
re of Purgatory:
Pervenissent ad locum quondam, quem ipse ignem purgatorium esse nemine nar-
rante certissime sciebat, ibi eum dimiserunt. Ubi cum multa passus esset, praeci pue
tamen tenebras densissimas pressurasque inmanissimas et suocationes visus est
tolerasse; atque omni memoria ablata, hoc solum vix cogitare suciebat, quomodo
tam immanis posset aliqua existere poena. (Waitz 1884, chap.3, 22)
(ey came to a certain place, which, without anyone telling him, he knew to be
the re of Purgatory, and there they le him. ere, although he had suered many
things, he nevertheless seemed to have tolerated especially well the densest darkness
and the most enormous pressures and choking. And having forgotten completely
about all these previous suerings, now he was only able to think this: how could a
punishment so immense even exist?) (My translation)
3 For previous studies of women in the runic material, see Sawyer 1988, Gräslund 1996b
and 2003, Jesch 1991.
90 Sara Ann Knutson
is quotation shows Purgatory as spatialized, mapped onto a geography of the
Christian aerlife, in a manner that is typical of Christian thinking through
the Middle Ages and nds its most celebrated expression in Dante’s Divine
Comedy. In 1274, purgatorium became ocial doctrine thanks to a decree by
Pope GregoryX at the Second Council of Lyons. e souls of repentant sinners,
the council concluded, are puried aer death by a purgatorial or cleansing
suering, punishment that can be ‘lightened by the prayers of the living’ (as
quoted in Binski 1996,186). By this time, and indeed long before it became
dogma, Christians throughout Europe and Scandinavia had acknowledged and
thoroughly internalized the notion of ‘Purgatory. Gregory’s Dialogues, in which
he describes ignis purgatoris (purgatorial/purging re), was translated into Old
Norse in the late twelh century (Salvucci 2006,866).4 e word for ‘purgatorial
re’, hreinsanareldr, is a calque upon the Latin that is attested in medieval texts
such as the Icelandic Homily Book (Ordbog for Nordisk Prosa s. hreinsanareldr).
e linkage between Purgatory and bridges can be found as early as the sixth
century when Gregory of Tours recorded a vision from the abbot Sunniulf,
revealing Purgatory as a bridge from which anyone who lacks ‘good discipline’
will be hurled headlong (Gregory of Tours, History of Franks, .33, cited in Le
Go 1984,111). e eleventh-century abbot Alberic of Cîteaux evoked a scene
of a bridge and river, both termed ‘purgatories’, in which the souls of sinners are
purged in the water until they may cross the bridge (Le Go 1984,188). e
bridge motif would have found decided resonance in Scandinavia. Before the
coming of Christianity, the bridge featured in Viking cosmology in the shape of
Bifro˛st, a rainbow bridge that stretched from the world, Miðgarðr, to the realm
of the gods, Ásgarðr (Faulkes 1982,17; cf.Young 1964,39–40). e runestones
provide ample evidence, as we will see, that Christianized Scandinavians came
to understand the religious signicance of bridges in the aerlife and actively
incorporated them into their existing world view.
Complementarily, Christianized Scandinavians assimilated the genre of
vision ary literature that was becoming popular in Europe and was much later
to reach its apex in the Divine Comedy. e outstanding Scandinavian example
of this genre is Norwegian ballad Draumkvæde, which narrates Olav Aasteson’s
dream journey through the Christian aerlife. e path to the aerlife is depicted
as a treacherous bridge, which Olav recalls:
4 See Salvucci 2006 for further analysis of the development of Purgatory, especially in
Scandinavian texts.
   91
Eg hev gjengji Gjaddarbrui,
ho æ både bratt å lei;
vassa so hev eg dei Våsemyran,
no æ eg kvitt’e dei. (Moe 1927,202)
(I have passed the Brigg of Dread
Both steep it is and high;
I have reached the dismal bog;
NowI have passed thereby.) (Ruud 1922,54)
While the dating of this ballad to c.1300 remains controversial, especially given
the changeability and conation of the orally transmitted texts over time, Jonas
Wellendorf has argued (2008) that elements within it could date back to the late
Middle Ages. We may reasonably suggest that such recorded visions, preserved in
oral and textual transmissions, are based on the religious mentalities of medieval
e Patronage of Bridges
e Church took advantage of the association between bridges and salvation to
encourage the development of infrastructure and networks, especially roads and
bridges, to promote communication and religious activities such as pilgrimages,
missionary work, and sacramental participation. e patronage of bridges and
roads was regarded as part of the work of hospitality. To donate money towards
infrastructure was a good Christian deed, one that earned adherents divine
favour on the journey across their own bridge in the aerlife. e association
of bridges and other transport infrastructure with religious goals can be seen in
medieval narratives. According to hagiographic tradition, in the twelh century
the shepherd boy Bénézet experienced a vision that directed him to build a bridge
over the Rhone River at Avignon. Despite the opposition of local authorities, he
brought a huge stone to serve as its foundation. is marvel inspired spectators
to complete the bridge, the site of later miracles (Butler 1833,468). Like many
others throughout Europe, Bénézet’s bridge later featured its own chapel.
Bridge building also appealed to women. e early medieval German saint
Hadeloga was responsible for the construction of a stone bridge over the river
Main at Kitzingen, a work that took thirty-two years (Schulenburg 1998,79). Far
from being conned to hagiographies, bridge building is widely attested among
the laity as well. Christiana, a widow from Lincolnshire, le an endowment for
no fewer than three bridges in her will of 1283 (Foster 1914,1–19). In medieval
92 Sara Ann Knutson
England, leaving money for maintaining roads was likewise a common pious
bequest in wills.
Christians in Scandinavia began building bridges out of parallel motivations.
Approximately 141 Swedish runestones feature inscriptions that mention
bridge building and are therefore termed ‘bridge stones’ by archaeologists.5 e
inscriptions on bridge stones reveal gendered patterns in the ways in which men
and women engaged Christian salvation. For example, women, either alone or
together with men, sponsored 33 per cent of bridge stones, whereas they are
commemorated in only 16 per cent of these inscriptions. Table 5 compares the
inscriptions of bridge stones as a subset of the entire runestone corpus, revealing
that womens involvement in bridge stones (and therefore bridges) was more
pronounced than their general involvement in runestones. Women also found
greater involvement as sponsors than as beneciaries of such structures. Birgit
Sawyer has suggested that the role of Scandinavian women as bridge builders
is an indication of their willingness to invest in their faith and support various
church purposes (1992,83; see also Sawyer 1989).
In the Mälar Valley (Uppland and Södermanland), women’s participation
becomes even more pronounced. In the early twelh century, a woman living in
this region sponsored both a bridge and a runestone, probably placed in proximity
to one another, in honour of her husband. e inscription reads, ‘Sigríðr gerði
brú þessa, móðir Alríks, dóttir Orms, fyrir sálu Holmgeirs, fo˛ður Sigrøðar, bónda
síns’ (Sigriðr, Alrikr’s mother, Ormr’s daughter, made this bridge for the soul of
Holmgeirr, father of Sigrøðr, her husband) (Samnordisk Runtextdatabas, Sö 101).
Of the ninety bridge stone inscriptions in the Mälar Valley region, 47 per cent cite
female sponsors, alone or together with men. is nding compares to the 53 per
cent of bridge stones in the Mälar Valley that feature men alone as sponsors. us,
women, alone or alongside men, sponsored roughly the same number of bridge
stones in this region as did men alone. Across all regions, Swedish bridge stones
mention women as sponsors or the commemorated in 55 per cent of inscriptions.
Women’s patronage of bridge stones thus suggests a degree of agency: when they
are mentioned in these inscriptions, women are quite oen the active sponsors.
5 Archaeologists have similarly used the terms ‘prayer stones’ and ‘traveller’s stones. ese
labels are problematic, however, in that they suggest that prayer stones and bridge stones are
distinct from the greater runic corpus and give the false impression that prayer stones cannot
also mention bridge building, or conversely that bridge stones cannot also include prayers.
For simplicity, I will continue to use the term ‘bridge stone’ but on the understanding that
considerable overlaps exist in runic inscriptions. See Sawyer 2000, Herschend 1994.
   93
Table 5: Women in bridge stone inscriptions.6
Women as
Sponsors Wo m en
Women Mentioned
as Sponsors or
Swedish Runestones
Featuring Bridge
(i.e. Bridge Stones)
37% 18% 55%
All Swedish Runic
Inscriptions 29% 7% 36%
Runestones in
the Mälar Valley
Featuring Bridge
(i.e. Bridge Stones)
47% 20% 67%
All Runic
Inscriptions in the
Mälar Valley
34% 6% 40%
is evidence enables us to gain a better sense of the opportunities that reli gion
gave women to attain various levels of visibility in lay society. A woman’s options
for active participation in pre-Christian religious practice, for example as a cult
leader or a  o˛  l v a , on at least a local level, perhaps paved the way toward their con-
spicuous involvement in religious activities in the Christian era. is involve ment
exceeded the level enjoyed by European women, whose opportunities for visi-
bility and inuence were structured around, and more restricted to, formal eccle -
siastical contexts, such as nuns, abbesses, and pious queens (Schulenburg 1998).
Prayer Inscriptions
In addition to their function as records of pious deeds, runic inscriptions
served to meet the need for individual Christians to be remembered by their
communities and prayed for long aer their death (Brown 1996,164). In her
work on social economic thought in medieval Christianity, Abigail Firey explains
the development of Purgatory in terms of a ‘divine economy’. As a temporal
state in the afterlife, Purgatory was open to the influence of the actions of
6 ese gures are based on women featured either alone or together with men.
94 Sara Ann Knutson
the Christian community on earth: ‘To lessen the time a soul might spend in
Purgatory, penitent donors gave to ecclesiastical foundations and persons who,
in prayerful eorts, might intercede on their behalf ’ (Firey 1998,360–61; my
emphasis). In the absence of the extensive ecclesiastical foundations that their
European counterparts could avail themselves of, runestones lled this gap for
An inscription in the Mälar Valley provides a useful example of the Scan-
dinavian preoccupation with Christian memory. e runestone reads, ‘Kristin lét
gera merki eptir son sinn. Hverr sem rúnum ráðr ha bœnir fyrir Alla sál. Soni var
faðir Alla’ (Kristin had the landmark made in memory of her son. Whoever reads
the runes have prayers for Alli’s soul. Soni was the father of Alli) (Samnordisk
Runtextdatabas, U Fb1959;196). Kristin acknowledges her readers and solicits
their prayers on the assumption that the more prayers travellers passing the
runestone could oer, the less time her deceased son would spend in Purgatory
before entering Paradise.
Whereas European women endowed bridges mainly to aid their own journey
through the aerlife, their Scandinavian counterparts did so particularly to help
departed family or relatives. e inscriptions on almost four hundred runestones
show the sponsors commemorating their deceased relatives with a prayer and,
frequently, an invocation of divine intercession.7 Carved sometime aer 1100
 at the earliest, the medieval runestone Ög 39 proclaims, ‘Hér liggr Broddi í
Hringsto˛ðum ok Gillaug. Biðjum vára Pater noster þeira sál til ró ok til náða ok
o˛llum kristnum sálum’ (Here lies Broddi in Hringstaðir, and Gillaug. May we
pray our Paternoster for the peace and mercy of their souls and of all Christian
souls) (Samnordisk Runtextdatabas, Ög 39 M). Kristel Zilmer concluded in her
study of medieval runic inscriptions that the Paternoster constituted an essential
part of religious life, playing a signicant role on a daily basis in both liturgical
prayers and private devotions (2013,149–50). Accordingly, the inscription in Ög
39 speaks to a fundamental Christian practice that Scandinavians appropriated
and reinterpreted in the context of carving runes. Given that runic inscriptions
tend to reect Christian practices that were introduced earlier, it is possible that
Scandinavians were aware of the Paternoster earlier than the high Middle Ages.
7 ese prayer inscriptions remain a fraction of the runic corpus and I do not suggest that a
preoccupation with Purgatory constitutes the only reason for sponsorship of these monuments
in Sweden.
   95
Table 6: Women in prayer inscriptions.8
Women as Sponsors Wo me n
Women Mentioned
as Sponsors or
Runestones Featuring
Prayer Inscriptions 32% 8% 40%
Total Runic
Inscriptions 29% 7% 36%
Runestones in
the Mälar Valley
Featuring Prayer
36% 7% 43%
Total Runic
Inscriptions in the
Mälar Valley
34% 6% 40%
The prayer inscriptions reflect the mindset of their sponsors — not least
women — and exhibit developing understandings of and support for Christian
belief. Swedish women are mentioned either as the sponsors or as the person
commemorated in 40 per cent of prayer inscriptions, as compared to the total
runic corpus, in which women are mentioned in 36 per cent of the inscriptions
(see Table 6). As was the case for bridge stones, women’s presence on the
runestones becomes more pronounced when their role as sponsors is singled out.
Whereas women sponsored 29 per cent of all Swedish runestones, 32 per cent
of all prayer inscriptions feature female sponsors. e inscriptions in the Mälar
Valley provide similar statistics. While not dramatic, these distinctions between
the sponsorship of prayer inscriptions and of the total runic corpus indicate that
women were consistently more involved with inscriptions containing explicit
religious content than with the runestone material as a whole (see Williams 1999).
In contrast to their roles as sponsors, a quantitative analysis reveals that
runestones that feature women among the commemorated dead are, in fact, the
minority within the prayer inscription corpus. Of all the runic prayer inscriptions
that mention women, an astounding 82 per cent feature women as the sponsors,
whereas women as the commemorated gure only in the remaining 18 per cent.
We can therefore conclude that when women are present in runic prayers, they
are most oen the active agents of religious involvement. In the eastern Swedish
8 ese gures are based on women featured either alone or together with men.
96 Sara Ann Knutson
province of Södermanland, a woman named Guðrún was sole sponsor of a
runestone in memory of a man named Heðinn. eir familial relationship is
ambiguous from the inscription but she states that he ‘var ne Sveins […] Kristr
hjalp o˛ nd! Krist unni æ!’ (was Sveinns nephew […] Christ help the spirit! Christ
he loved ever!) (Samnordisk Runtextdatabas, Sö 165). Guðrún found two items
worth emphasizing in her message: rst, the invocation of divine intercession on
behalf of Heðinn’s soul and second, the declaration of Heðinn’s status as a devout
Christian. Guðrun took advantage of the opportunity as the sole runestone
sponsor for religious involvement and used this inuence to ensure the spiritual
wellbeing of the deceased. Women’s concerns were not — or at least not primarily
— to promote themselves but to ease their kin’s journeys on the road to paradise
e act of praying and oering prayers on behalf of others, as exhibited in the
runestones, was already quite sophisticated in the Viking Age.People displayed
remarkable religious sophistication, as demonstrated by the invocation on prayer
inscriptions. On the island of Gotland, the brothers Bótmundr, Bótreifr, and
Gunnvarr sponsored a runestone in memory of their father. The inscription
reads, ‘Bótmundr ok Bótreifr ok Gunnvarr [þeir reis]tu stein þ[enna] […]
fo˛ður sinn. Guð hjalpi sálu hans ok Guðs móðir betr en vér biðja kunnim’ (May
God and God’s mother help his soul better than we could pray) (Samnordisk
Runtextdatabas, G 208). Upplandic runestones U 457 and U 947, to take two
further examples, bear similar appeals for divine intercession, imploring ‘Guð
hjalpi o˛nd hans ok o˛llum kristnum’ (May God help his soul and all Christians)
and ‘Nú er sál sagt svá: hjalpi Guð’ (is is now said for his soul: may God help)
(Samnordisk Runtextdatabas, U 457, U 947). Runic prayer invocations oen
feature the Virgin Mary, as seen for instance on runestone U 956. Here, a woman
named Steinhildr honours her husband Viðbjo˛ rn and prays that ‘Guð hjalpi hans
sálu ok Guðs […] móðir’ (May God and God’s mother help his soul) (Samnordisk
Runtextdatabas, U 956). Like Steinhildr, some women could take an active role
as runestone sponsor, oen dedicating prayers to the Virgin Mary on behalf of
the dead.
Of inscriptions on Viking-Age runestones that cite the Virgin Mary, typically
as ‘God’s mother’ or ‘Maria’, 70 per cent are located in the Mälar Valley.9 ese
‘Maria’ inscriptions remain a small subset of the runic corpus in Sweden and I
will therefore focus on the Mälar Valley region for greatest statistical signicance
in my analysis. Women, either alone or together with men, are mentioned on
9 e following statistics are based on runestones for which the relationship between the
sponsor and the commemorated can be determined.
   97
no fewer than half the runestones in the Mälar Valley whose inscriptions cite
the Virgin Mary. As with the bridge stones, we see a relative overrepresentation
of female agency in comparison to the total runic material. Of the Virgin Mary
inscriptions in the Mälar Valley that mention women, 80 per cent feature women
as the sponsors. e high number of women as patrons or co-patrons of these
inscriptions indicates that women actively participated in formulating the
language of the inscriptions, in which they focused on deceased family members
and the divine, intervening gure that could aid the dead.
e statistics cited above are approximately replicated in the eleventh- and
twelh-century runic material, where, as observed by Zilmer (2013), the Ave
Maria gures more commonly in requests for prayers than the Paternoster. e
Virgin Mary’s growing appeal to women, as well as men, was part of a deep,
underlying movement through medieval Christian Europe that culminated in
the eleventh and twelh centuries. As Caroline Walker Bynum explains, in the
early Middle Ages Christians considered Mary an important mediator between
souls and Christ. ey considered her the majestic queen of heaven, whereas
the saints maintained more intimate contact with people on earth. But by the
twelfth century the Virgin Mary’s role transformed within popular religion;
Christians began to envisage her as a human mother and an intimate intervening
gure. She became so central in this role that her mediation became ‘automatic’
and the Cistercians were particularly devoted to her ‘as the gateway by which
salvation entered the world’ (Bynum 1982,137). e eleventh-century cardinal
Peter Damian of Ravenna, in noting the importance of ‘communities of prayer’,10
gives an account of a woman who saw her dead godmother during the Feast of
the Assumption of Mary. She asks her godmother if she is indeed dead and, if
so, how could she be present. e dead woman explains that during her youth
she had committed indecent, lustful, and shameful acts for which she failed to
repent. ‘But today the queen of the world has poured forth prayers for us and
liberated me from the places of punishment [de locis poenalibus] and by her
intervention a multitude greater than the population of Rome has been plucked
from torment’ (Damian, De diversis apparitionibus et miraculis, cited in Le Go
1984,178). e story illustrates that the dead must atone for their sins through
purgatorial punishment until the Virgin Mary intervenes on their behalf. e
Virgin Mary’s prevalence as an intermediary on the late Viking-Age runestones
indicates that the women who had them erected clearly understood sophisticated
10 Damian spoke as a leading proponent of Italian eremitism but his understanding of
communal prayer has implications for devotional practices on the part of the laity.
98 Sara Ann Knutson
and current Christian teachings concerning the Virgin Mary. Christian beliefs
and practices formulated on the European continent had circulated and reached
Scandinavia, where Swedish women adapted them to their own cultural context,
social concerns, and religious priorities.
Concluding Remarks
In the foregoing, I have explored some instances in which the runestone evidence
sheds light on developing Christian beliefs that circulated between continental
Europe and Scandinavia during the Viking Age and early medieval period. I have
shown how these beliefs were adapted specically to a Scandinavian context
without becoming simplied. Women were inuential within the entire Christian
runestone corpus but certain ideas such as bridge building and appeals to the Virgin
Mary were especially attractive to them, as evidenced by their overrepresentation in
inscriptions mentioning these activities. ese inscriptions also reveal that women
shied the focus from continental concerns about the fate of the adherent’s own
soul so as to include those of family members. is is not to disregard Christian
men in Scandinavia who prayed to the Virgin Mary or sponsored bridges,
but rather to better appreciate the prevalence of women as active sponsors in
certain contexts as well as their sophisticated engagement with Christianity.
e research presented in this article has been funded by the Swedish Women’s
Educational Association (SWEA), the Donald and June Brown Fund from
the Residential College, University of Michigan, and a fellowship from the
Honors College, University of Michigan. I would like to extend my gratitude
to Maria Gull (Scandinavian Studies, University of Michigan) and Katherine
French (History, University of Michigan) for oering valuable assistance and
advice on multiple dras of the manuscript. My research beneted from the
assistance of Birgit Sawyer and her generous permission to use and contribute
new updated information to a version of her database. I would also like to thank
Frands Herschend (Uppsala University) for supervising my early research on
runic inscriptions; Sigrid Cordell, Neil Robinson, and Nicole Schultz for their
help with accessing research materials; Donka Markus and Jonas Wellendorf for
their respective assistance with my translations; William Ian Miller, Brian Porter-
Szücs, Martha Jones, Johanna Eriksson, and Timothy McKay and the 2013 and
2014 Honors Summer Fellowship cohorts for their support or comments on
   99
various stages of my research; Bill Christian, Deirdre de la Cruz, and those who
oered comments on my research at an interdisciplinary religious studies seminar
at the University of Michigan in October 2014; and an anonymous referee for
helpful comments on the manuscript.
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... Second, Northern and Eastern Europe did not strictly follow Continental European developments. For instance, Scandinavians converted to Christianity considerably later than Continental Europeans and they appropriated Christian practices to their own cultural context, sometimes in ways that the Church did not always acknowledge (Knutson 2016). The substantial scholarship on Scandinavian pagan beliefs and conversion to Christianity may find broad thematic parallels with research on the adoption of Islam among non-Arabs (mawāli) in the Islamic World and their complex status within their new, broad religious community (Simonsohn 2013;Fierro 2010). ...
Full-text available
In recent years, the influence of Muslims and Islam on developments in medieval Europe has captured the attention of scholars and the general public alike. Nevertheless, ‘conversion’ to Islam remains a challenging subject for historical research and demands more transdisciplinary collaborations. This article examines early medieval interactions between Muslim Arabs and Northern and Eastern Europeans as a case study for whether some individuals in Northern Eurasia ‘converted’ to Islam. More importantly, we address some key examples and lines of evidence that demonstrate why the process of ‘conversion’ to Islam is not more visible in the historical and archaeological records of Northern Eurasia. We find that, despite the well-established evidence for economic exchanges between the Islamic World and Northern Eurasia, the historical and material records are much more complex, but not entirely silent, on the issue of religious change. We also conclude that religious connectivity and exchanges, including with Islam, were common in early medieval Northern Eurasia, even if it is difficult in most cases to identify conclusive instances of ‘conversion’ to Islam.
Practical literacy and Christian identity are two sides of the same coin when dealing with late Viking age rune stones. Reading the inscriptions on these monuments are by necessity not a straight-forward process for us today. The printed word we are familiar with is different in so many ways when compared to the usually very short and sometimes enigmatic messages we encounter in the form of runic carvings on rocks and cliffs throughout Scandinavia. The difficulties which we expect and take into account are not, however, primarily the main obstacles to our complete understanding of the rune stone texts. In one respect, these problems are superficial, dealing with formal restrictions of the media and the writing system. As is well known, the Viking age runic characters only numbered 16 (with the addition of three optional variants. Since the language(s) contained quite a few speech signs more than that, most runes could be use with more than one value and it is up to the reader to determine exactly which. Further complications include that long consonants and sometimes even the separation of word was omitted. Since these writing imperfections involve a thousand-year old language continuum, the interpretation of any single inscription can be a quite hard task. 1 But, these difficulties are, as I have already said, expected. More devious, perhaps, is the difference between the world then and now. We simply do not have the same points of reference with which to orient ourselves to create the proper understanding of background and context.
Thesis (doctoral)--Uppsala universitet, 2002. Includes bibliographical references (p. 399-435).
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Compiled from Original Monuments, and Other Authentic Records
  • Alban Butler
Butler, Alban. 1833. The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Compiled from Original Monuments, and Other Authentic Records, 26 vols, Dublin: Royal College of St Patrick Maynooth Elmevik, Lennart, and Lena Peterson, ed. 2014. Samnordisk Runtextdatabas. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet
The Draumkvaede: A Norwegian Vision Poem of the Thirteenth Century
  • R A B Mynors
  • M Rodney
  • Michael Thomson
  • Winterbottom
Mynors, R. A. B., Rodney M. Thomson, and Michael Winterbottom, trans. 1998. William of Malmesbury. Gesta regum Anglorum, the History of the English Kings, Oxford Medieval texts 1, Oxford: Clarendon Pertz, Georg Heinrich, ed. 1846. Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum ex recensione Lappenbergii, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum 12, Hanover: Hahn Ruud, Martin R., trans. 1922. 'The Draumkvaede: A Norwegian Vision Poem of the Thirteenth Century', Scandinavian Studies 7.2, 52-57
History and Archaeology: The Conversion of Scandinavia
  • Lesley Abrams
Abrams, Lesley. 1998. 'History and Archaeology: The Conversion of Scandinavia', in Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World, ed. Barbara Crawford, St Andrews: University of St Andrews, 109-28
The Discovery of the Baltic: The Reception of a Catholic World-System in the European North (AD 1075-1225)
  • Paul Binski
Binski, Paul. 1996. Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation, Ithaca: Cornell University Press Blomkvist, Nils. 2005. The Discovery of the Baltic: The Reception of a Catholic World-System in the European North (AD 1075-1225), The Northern World 15, Leiden: Brill Brown, Peter. 1996. The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, ad 200-1000, Cambridge: Blackwell Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1982. 'Jesus as Mother and Abbot as Mother: Some Themes in twelfth-Century Cistercian Writing', in Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, Berkeley: University of California Press, 110-69