Of war and woe

Viking Age society far from egalitarian

A Viking Age set of leg shackles that were used in Viking slavery raids

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Archaeological finds indicate that iron leg shackles were used in the slave trade during the Viking Age.

Laguna Woods, Calif.

The April 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American published a letter to the editor from Mr. David Hofstad that observed that I had only briefly touched on the practice of slavery in my review of Professor Neil Price’s book, A History of the Vikings: Children of Ash and Elm, in the Nov. 13, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. Hofstad rightly pointed out that Price had devoted an entire chapter to this key component of Viking culture and society. In his letter, Hofstad did a good job in summarizing Price’s extensive take on the role of slavery among the Vikings of Scandinavia. 

Motivated by Mr. Hofstad’s letter, the editor-in-chief and I decided that the topic deserved more attention than had been possible in a review of a book about the entirety of Viking history and lifeways. I wanted to place the institution of Viking slavery in a broader context and also dispel some potential misunderstandings about the custom of slavery in Viking Age Scandinavia. Yes, the practice is repellent to us today and makes us wonder why our ancestors enslaved both themselves and other peoples. Why did they do this?

Importantly, Professor Stefan Brink, an expert on the subject and a colleague of Price, urges us to not to jump to the conclusion that the slavery practiced by the Vikings was equivalent to that practiced by the Roman Empire or by 18th- and 19th-century Europeans and Americans. Though the institution of slavery dates back thousands of years in many parts of the world, historians and anthropologists have found there was great variation in the status and treatment of slaves in different societies and time periods.

The one thing that most scholars can agree on is that all slave-owning societies consider a slave as property; an unfree tool of whoever is their master. There are four basic ways that people can become slaves: by birth to slave parents, by capture in war, for failure to pay a debt, and by being convicted of a crime. Most scholars believe that slavery in Scandinavia has deep roots; it dates well back into the Bronze Age (1700 to 500 B.C.) when warrior chieftains were actively engaged in exporting slaves along sophisticated trade routes to the rest of Europe and beyond. In the Bronze Age, these slaves were not foreign people but fellow Scandinavians who had the misfortune of having been captured in local wars. A number of these unfortunate people also were kept at home in Scandinavia where they worked on the farms of their masters.

Around 750 A.D., some 1,250 years after the Bronze Age ended, Scandinavians invented the classic oceangoing longships that are now the symbol of the Viking Age. These fast-sailing ships enabled Scandinavians to expand the range of their raiding and slaving to distant foreign shores and interior rivers. This newfound geographical reach; combined with mobility, speed, and surprise; enabled the Vikings to become the most foremost slave raiders in early medieval Europe. And their extensive trade networks, also made possible by their fast-going ships, allowed them to easily exchange slaves for silver, gold, and luxuries as far away as Baghdad in the Middle East. In fact, the wealthy Arab lands provided a nearly constant demand for slaves; particularly for staffing slave armies and populating harems. It is no accident that tens of thousands of Arab silver dirham coins have been found in Viking Age hoards in Scandinavia. As one researcher, Sarah Haga, has argued, the economic growth and expansion of Viking Age Scandinavia was funded in large part by the slave trade. Slaves were a byproduct of Viking mobility and warfare.

a set of leg old leg shackles from the Viking era

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Archaeological finds indicate that iron leg shackles were used in the slave trade during the Viking Age.

The Vikings may have been the most successful slave raiders and traders in early medieval Europe, but they were not alone in this vile enterprise. Most of the European countries at that time, despite being Christian, had significant slave populations and were engaged in active slave raiding, as well as trading. England was no exception, and it is estimated that between 20% and 30% of Anglo-Saxon England’s population was made up of slaves. One of the great slave ports of the day was Bristol, England. Here, thousands of indigenous Anglo-Saxons were sold to Irish slave traders by their own people. And Vikings who were captured in battle were not immune from becoming slaves; one contemporary observer saw hundreds of Danish prisoners of war sold in a single day in a slave market in Mecklenburg, Germany. The Normans, descendants of the Vikings, ironically, were the first to shut down the export of slaves from England after 1066 A.D. Yet in-country slavery continued to flourish. The Domesday Book, written in 1086 A.D., records that 10% of England’s population was still enslaved at that date. The coming of Christianity had little effect on the practice; slavery of Europeans by Europeans did not fully disappear until the 14th and 15th centuries. Interestingly, Norway banned slavery relatively early in 1274 A.D., but Sweden waited until 1343 A.D. to finally end the practice.

Though the slaves of the Viking Scandinavians were the lowest class of a stratified Viking society, they were not considered nor treated as a separate caste of people. Rather, a “class” is a more porous social entity than a “caste.” It was not easy, but because Viking society was very fluid, there was a chance, with a good dose of luck, to “better oneself” through time as an individual. Viking society was very dynamic, and success in war, trade, and other activities could often get a person to the next notch in the class system. Though they might be slaves, they were generally still considered members of the household; slaves were just the lowest ranked and rewarded members of the household. That they were not a separate caste of people is confirmed by the fact that their descendants are not recognizable as a separate group among today’s Scandinavian population, and they have not been considered as a distinct category of people for nearly 800 years. Those slaves who remained in Scandinavia and were not sold elsewhere eventually escaped their slave status and became our ancestors. Over time, both they and the Vikings became us.

Apparently, there were several kinds of slaves in Viking Age Scandinavia. At the lowest level were the “thralls” who tilled the fields, herded the farm animals, chopped wood, and carried out any other task that required hard daily labor. More fortunate among the slaves were those who engaged in more special functions on behalf of the household. These included house maids, bakers, cooks, concubines, craftsmen, foremen, and personal servants to the master and mistress of the longhouse, or hall, in the case of a chieftain. Old Norse law had a separate name for each of these different categories of slaves. The highest ranked slaves were often called bryti. They served wealthy farmers as stewards and, in one Swedish instance, as the manager of the royal estate at Hovgården. The latter slave, named Tolir, actually raised a large runestone in honor of his master, the king.

Many scholars now believe that large numbers of slaves were involved in chiefly or royal enterprises. These activities may have included craft production, tar making, boat building, weaving (textiles as well as sails), and anything else that brought either wealth or prestige to their masters. Excavation of a former Viking chiefly estate at Sanda in Sweden revealed a large longhouse surrounded by many smaller structures. Based on the findings in these structures, archeologists believe these little satellite buildings were used by slaves who were engaged in weaving textiles for trade on the behalf of the local chief. Most Scandinavian farmers of the period, in contrast to chiefs and kings, had at best only a few slaves to assist them. Nonetheless, it has been estimated that between 10% and 25% of the Scandinavian population during the Viking Age was made up of enslaved people.

If the surviving sagas and other medieval Scandinavian sources are to be believed, slaves were usually treated well by their masters. Norse culture frowned on the gratuitous mistreatment of slaves, at least in the Scandinavian homelands. They might be property, but they were valuable property. According to Kirstina Williams, who has studied early medieval Scandinavian laws, slaves were allowed some minor rights. They had the right to a few possessions (like a small knife) and money of their own, they could do business at public markets if the transaction was less than 1/3 ounce of silver or 20 pence, work for themselves to earn money, and even marry. Unfortunately, a slave’s children remained slaves.

The study of the skeletons from burials that are believed to have held slaves suggests that Scandinavian slaves ate well and were reasonably healthy individuals in life. However, this skeletal sample of slaves is small so far and consists largely of individuals who were the slaves of wealthy masters. Interestingly, strontium isotope studies of their teeth indicate they were both of local and distant origin. Though they may have been given good treatment in life, they all had unfortunate ends. It appears that they were decapitated or otherwise killed to serve as a sacrifice or accompany their masters in death. The Icelandic Sagas suggest that slaves were sometimes subjected to violence by either their masters or their masters’ enemies. Thorstein Egilsson, son of the famous Viking chieftain, Egil Skalagrimsson of Egil’s Saga, once killed two slaves of a neighbor in a dispute. Egil killed two of his own slaves to keep secret where he and the slaves had buried a chest of silver treasure. There was no penalty for killing your own slave, and the compensation paid for killing the slave of another was normally a pittance compared to that of a free person.

Although it was probably more rare than common, it appears that it was possible to escape the yoke of slavery and even attain high status for the lucky few. One way a slave could gain freedom was to pay their master the amount of their worth as property. A second means to win freedom was to show great bravery in battle on behalf of their master. Also, a slave could be liberated by their master. Aud “The Deep Minded,” an Icelandic female chieftain, freed all her Gaelic slaves upon arrival in Iceland, plus she gave them land of their own. Sometimes freed slaves even publicly thanked their liberators. One rich craftsman and former slave raised a runestone in Hørning, Denmark, thanking his former owner for both his freedom and a generous gift of gold.

The institution of Viking Age slavery has only begun to get serious scholarly scrutiny since the turn of the last century. As Brink has noted, slavery among the Vikings is a “complex” subject. Yet, historical and archeological studies of this important topic are still in their infancy. There appears to be clear regional differences in the practice of slavery from west to east and through time in the wider Viking world. Moreover, it is also becoming apparent that slaves did not have one function within Scandinavian society, but many. And according to Sarah Elizabeth Haga, a Canadian researcher, “the function of a slave was dynamic within (this) society; the only constant was that slavery was invaluable to the success of the Scandinavians during the Viking Age.”

Further Reading:

For a good overview of slavery in the Viking Age, read Professor Neil Price’s book, A History of the Vikings: Children of Ash and Elm. If you wish to dive even deeper into this important topic, I recommend Sara Elizabeth Haga’s study, entitled “Slaves in the Viking Age: Functions, Social Roles, and Regional Diversity,” published online by the Department of Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies, University of Oslo, 2019.

This article originally appeared in the June 4, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.