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Year 960-965 – Baptismal Token

One hypothesis is that the Curmsun Disc has something to do with the baptism of Harald Bluetooth in the early 960´.

King Harald (c. 958-c. 986/87) was baptized around 963 after being converted by the German missionary Poppo. Adam of Bremen claims that Harald had become interested in Christianity already during Archbishop Unni of Hamburg-Bremen’s visit to the court of his father, Gorm the Old, c. 935/36. However, a main theme in Adam’s chronicle was the glorification of Hamburg-Bremen’s role as a missionary see. The fact that Harald’s conversion did not take place until a quarter-century later suggests that Adam magnified Unni’s success.

Although the earliest sources for Harald Bluetooth’s conversion are almost contemporary with the event, it has caused considerable scholarly debate, notably about its date and Poppo’s identity. The two earliest sources are Ruotger’s life of Archbishop Bruno of Cologne and Widukind’s History of the Saxons, both written c. 967/68. Widukind’s is the more detailed of the two accounts; he gives the missionary’s name as Poppa or Poppo and relates that the king and his court were converted as a result of Poppo’s successful passing of the ordeal of red-hot iron. Widukind also gives the interesting piece of information that the Danes already previously worshipped Christ, but alongside a number of other deities. Ruotger does not mention the missionary’s name, but he seems to imply that the mission was Bruno’s initiative. Widukind provides one additional piece of information on Poppo’s identity, saying that he was a bishop at the time of Widukind’s writing. Seen in connection with the Life of Archbishop Bruno, this makes it virtually certain that Poppo should be identified with Folkmar/Poppo, Archbishop Bruno’s right hand, and soon to be Bruno’s successor in the archiepiscopal dignity. Widukind tells of Harald’s conversion in connection with events c. 963, when the rebellious Saxon count Wichmann tried to enlist Harald’s support for his revolt. According to Widukind, Harald’s response was lukewarm. At this time, Bruno of Cologne was regent of Germany while his brother, Emperor Otto I, was occupied in Italy. This makes it likely that Folkmar/Poppo was sent to Harald by Bruno as a diplomatic envoy in order to negotiate some kind of peace settlement. The conversion is usually dated slightly later, c. 965, on the basis of Otto I’s charter of that year in favour of the Danish bishops of Schleswig, Ribe and Århus; however, Otto did not return from Italy until the beginning of 965, and the charter should rather be interpreted as part of his ratification of Bruno’s dealings with Denmark during his absence.

This course of events explains why Adam of Bremen chose to dissociate Poppo’s miracle altogether from Harald’s conversion. The archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen considered Denmark as their exclusive missionary field, and Harald’s conversion at the hands of a cleric from Cologne must have been seen as a severe blow to Hamburg’s prestige. Moreover, it raised an indirect threat to Hamburg’s material basis, since the diocese of Bremen had been detached from the metropolitan province of Cologne in the ninth century in order to provide a more secure basis for St Ansgar’s mission. The archbishops of Cologne tended to see this as a temporary arrangement, and the conversion of Denmark through an initiative from Cologne might easily become a pretext for reviving Cologne’s claims to Bremen. Thus Adam was at pains to gloss over Poppo’s role. According to Adam, Poppo by his ordeal converted not Harald but the Swedish king Eric the Victorious (Erik Sejrsæl), who had temporarily driven Harald’s son Sven Forkbeard from power. The event would thus have to be dated roughly to the 990s, which enabled Adam to identify Poppo with a late tenth-century bishop of Schleswig of that name. According to Adam, Harald was baptized by the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen as a consequence of military defeat in a war against Emperor Otto I. Adam’s account is impossible for several reasons. A Swedish conquest of Denmark during Sven Forkbeard’s reign is not substantiated by any other sources; Otto I’s victory over Harald seems to be a deliberate transposition of Otto II’s war against Denmark in 974, which is not mentioned by Adam; and the identification of Poppo with the bishop of Schleswig is contradicted by Widukind, who claims that Poppo had already become a bishop at the time of his writing. In Trier, the missionary was later identified with Archbishop Poppo of Trier (1015-1047), but this is manifestly impossible. The story of the miracle itself was gradually embellished. In its later versions, Poppo is supposed to have carried a red-hot iron glove; this is the version that is depicted on the gilded plates from a lost altar or reliquary of c. 1200 from the church of Tamdrup in Jutland.

Harald being baptized by Poppo
Photo: Anagoria, Wikipedia

Harald’s conversion receives independent confirmation from his own commemorative inscription on the larger Jelling rune-stone, raised by Harald in memory of his father Gorm and his mother Thyra. In this inscription he characterises himself as “that Harald who …. made the Danes Christian”, and the stone includes a majestic representation of the crucified Christ.

Jellingsten_stor_1Larger Jelling rune-stone
Photo: Roberto Fortuna, Wikipedia

Dutch numismatic Peter Kraneveld would rather link the Curmsun Disc to a marriage as the text is 100% political (Peter Kraneveld, World of coins, November 28, 2014).