Olaf Trygvasson tortured pagans to secure their conversion. Was that worth it?
This is actually a really awesome story:
Raud the Strong was a Norse Seiðr priest and seafaring warrior, who resisted conversion to Christianity in the late 10th century AD.
Olaf Tryggvason was King of Norway from 995 to 1000 AD. He played an important part in the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity. Olaf traveled to the parts of Norway that had been under the rule of the King of Denmark. He demanded that the citizenry be baptized, and most reluctantly agreed. Those that did not were tortured or killed. Despite King Olaf’s persuasive efforts, many of the Vikings were reluctant to renounce their Gods and adopt Christianity. New and increasingly painful tortures and executions were devised by Olaf and his men. One of the most famous incidents of recalcitrance to Olaf’s attempts at coerced conversion to Christianity is that of Raud the Strong.
Raud the Strong was a large landowner, a leader-priest of Seiðr (an Old Norse term for a type of sorcery or witchcraft that was practiced by the pre-Christian Norse), and a sea-farer. Raud was known for his beautiful longship, a boat larger than any of Olaf’s, with a dragon’s head carved into the bow. The ship was called “The Dragon” or “The Serpent.” Raud the Strong, who also had the reputation of being a wizard, was defeated by Olaf in a sea battle. He escaped on his vessel, using the technique of sailing against the wind, which was a sailing technique unusual in northern European waters at that time. Raud outran Olaf and escaped to his settlement in Gylling and Haering, a part of the Godey Isles.
After the weather calmed, Olaf sailed under cover of darkness to Godey and seized Raud from his bed. Then the king told Raud that if he accepted Christian baptism, he could keep his lands and ship and the king would be his friend.
But Raud refused, saying he would never believe in Christ, and mocked Olaf's religion and deity. Olaf became incensed and said Raud should die a horrible death. The king ordered him to be bound to a beam of wood, with his face pointed upward, and a round pin of wood put between his teeth to force his mouth open. The king then ordered a snake to be put into Raud’s mouth, but the snake would not go in. Olaf then ordered a drinking horn to be put into Raud’s mouth, and forced the serpent to go in by holding a red-hot iron at the opening of the horn. As a result, the snake crept into Raud’s mouth and down his throat, and gnawed its way out his side and Raud died.
I think that the proper answer, though, is a bit different than you would think...
King Olaf had just fought a battle against a subversive vassal. He was a powerful guy that apparently had his own navy with vessels larger than his own.
After being defeated, King Olaf offered to totally forgive him and welcome him to be a courtier if he would simply convert. Raud refused and thus, as would be expected, he was treated as a threat to the whole of the stability of Norway and then he was executed by the King.
Considering the way that politics happened and the way that religion existed in that social setting, nothing about this is really counter to the logic of the society. Indeed, it affirms the internal logic of medieval Norway.
But, what is funny, is that King Olaf becomes the bad guy when we appraise him from a context that would not really have existed. I mean, sure, he could have, say, locked up Raud and taken away all of his lands, but this came with a lot of risks and is hardly inspiring to anyone.It also does not provide a sense of vengeance for all of the men who likely died in the process of subduing Raud.
Of course, all of this is still debatable, and it should be debated, but I think that our perspective on it is a bit silly.