Mission Before Colonisation: A Reassessment of Religious Contact in Greenland and Sápmi, 1000-1550.

DFG--Projektnummer: HE8476/4-1

Contact between Arctic and Fennoscandic peoples and Christian settlers and traders had occurred several centuries before missionaries became agents of European expansionism. Early contact between the different groups is nevertheless primarily and inevitably interpreted as the beginnings of colonial domination, and rarely as part of a political and religious strategy consciously adopted by Indigenous peoples and analogous to, for example, the Christianisation of Scandinavian kings or the Scandinavian elite. Such an interpretation can be regarded as a projection of later early modern and modern perspectives of accomplished colonisation and structures of power whereby the Indigenous populations are exclusively treated as the strange, powerless and ‘heathen’ Other. As a consequence of this projection, a form of preordained European dominance and superiority is assumed, even at the time of the earliest encounters. It is significant to note that the interpretation of conversion to Christianity as a form of active cultural appropriation is not meant to minimise the destructive and often fatal effects that contact with the European majority religion had on Indigenous societies. Rather, the project highlights the importance of recognising that early contacts with Christianity and the familiarisation and adoption of a new belief system (including fragments of it) may have been the result of a variety of motives, including active Indigenous agency. The aim of the project is therefore to conduct a re-reading of the available written and material sources dating from 1000 to 1550 with the goal of writing a non-lachrymose history of religious contact in Greenland and Sápmi, while avoiding any apologetic descriptions of Northern colonialism as a “kinder” form of domination and exploitation. This will be achieved through a deconstruction of current historiography and a re-evaluation of the archaeological material, jointly anchored in postcolonial research methodologies as a theoretical and ethical backdrop. Through such an approach, more neutral narratives of conversion, as well as Indigenous narratives of agency and power, come into play.

Mission before colonisation is led by Professor Dr. Cordelia Heß (University of Greifswald), and the team consists of research assistant Dr. Solveig Marie Wang (University of Greifswald), a PhD candidate, as well as advisor of Arctic archaeology Dr. Christian Koch Madsen (Greenland National Museum and Archives). The project is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) and will be conducted over a three-year period (01.01.2020-31.12.2023).


Conference "Colonial Entanglements and the Medieval Nordic World: Tensions, Nordic Colonialism and Indigeneity" (2.-3.02.2023)

Location: Konferenzraum, Domstraße 11 (Main University building), 17489 Greifswald

Registration and link for streaming: Zoom-Link 

Programme (pdf)

Thursday, 02 February

09:00-09:30    Introduction and Welcome
Welcome by Prof. Cordelia Heß


09:30-10:30    Indigenous methods (chair: Solveig Marie Wang)

Dr Timothy Bourns (he/them) (Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, Department of Scandinavian Studies, University College London): “Can we access a counter-narrative to the Vínland sagas through Kaladlit okalluktualliait?”

Dr Keith Ruiter (he/them) (Zoom) (Senior Lecturer, Department of History, Language & Global Culture, University of Suffolk): “What do Windigos Have to Do with Vikings?: Seeing Early Scandinavian Legalism with Two Eyes”

10:30-11:00    Coffee break

11:00-12:00    Colonial medievalisms I (Chair: Erik Wolf)

Hannah Armstrong (she/her) (PhD Candidate, English and Related Literatures, University of York): “Beyond ‘Lost’ White Communities: Kalaallit Nunaat, Norse medievalisms, and the Indigenous Turn”

Jay Lalonde (they/them) (PhD Candidate, Department of History, University of New Brunswick):         “‘... there is a strong leaven of the old Norse blood in nearly all of us’; Settler Colonialism and the Vínland Mythology”

12:00-13:00    Colonial medievalisms II (Chair: Marierose von Ledebur)

Dr Gwendolyne Knight (she/her) (Ahlström and Terserus Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of History and Centre for Medieval Studies, Stockholm University): “Magical Stereotypes and Lived Realities in Medieval Sápmi”

Dr Christina Lentz (she/her) (Lecturer, AHR and ISK, Arctic University of Norway): “Colonialism 2.0? Perspectives on medieval history in Norwegian textbooks”

13:00-14:30    Lunch break

14:30-15:30    Crusades (Chair: Clemens Räthel)

Dr Thomas Morcom (he/him) (Zoom) (Postdoctoral Fellow, IFIKK, University of Oslo): “Raider, Crusader, Far-Traveller? The Complexity of Old Norse Depictions of the Expedition of Sigurðr jórsalafari”

Dr Sabine Walther (she/her) (Adjunct Lecturer, Institut für Germanistik, Universität Bonn): “The Baltic crusades in an Icelandic mirror? The case of Yngvar the Far-Travelled”

16:00-17:30    Keynote (Chair: Cordelia Heß)

Dr Laura Gazzoli (she/her) (Postdoctoral researcher, Institut für Mittelalterforschung, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften): “From the beginning? Colonial entanglements in the far north and the Baltic and the formation of Scandinavian identities, c. 800–c. 1100”


Friday, 03 February

10:00-11:00    Spatial dimensions of colonialism (Chair: Paul Kirschstein)

Basil Arnould Price (he/him) (PhD Candidate, Wolfson Scholar, University of York): “The King and His Skattland: A Postcolonial Approach to Post-Commonwealth Iceland”

Prof. Thomas Wallerström (he/him) (Professor emeritus, Department of History and Classical Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology): “The Gulf of Bothnia, 1300–1621, as a ‘third space’”

11:00-12:00    Colonial semantics (Chair: Henriette Hellinger)

Carina Damm (she/her) (PhD Candidate, Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe, Universität Leipzig): “Sámi and Bjarmar as Brokers in the Medieval Fur Trade”

Dr Alexandra Petrulevich (she/her) (Assistant Professor, Department of Scandinavian Languages, University of Uppsala): “The East Norse Echo: Swedish Medieval and Post-medieval Discourse on finnar, kareler and lappar

12:00-14:00    Lunch break

14:00-15:00    Religion (Chair: Erik Wolf)

Dr Christian Koch Madsen (he/him) (Deputy director, Nunatta Katersugaasivia Allagaateqarfialu): “Far from Rome – Religious Beliefs and Otherness of the Medieval Greenland Norse”

Dr Solveig Marie Wang (she/her) (Postdoctoral researcher, Nordische Geschichte, Universität Greifswald): “Christianity, Conversion and the Saami in the Medieval Period”

15:00-16:00    Panel discussion and conclusion (Moderator: Cordelia Heß)


Organisers: Prof. Dr Cordelia Heß, Prof. Dr Clemens Räthel, Dr Solveig Marie Wang, Erik Wolf.

For any enquiries please contact: wangs@uni-greifswald.de or erik.wolf@uni-greifswald.de.

Download programme Colonial Entanglements and the Medieval Nordic World: Tensions, Nordic Colonialism and Indigeneity


The conference is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).