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Slavery and Thralldom: The Unfree in Viking Scandinavia

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

Is it true that the Vikings had slaves? I can't imagine that such a heroic people would practice such a demeaning custom!

(signed) My Heroes Wouldn't Do That!

Gentle Reader:

The Ranks of Men: jarl, bondi, thrall Like most medieval peoples, the Vikings had a rigidly stratified caste system. At the bottom of the social order existed those who were unfree: these were termed þræll or "thrall", which means literally, "an unfree servant." Slavery or ánauð is a term encountered occasionally, especially in reference to persons enslaved as a consequence of warfare or raids. Hereditary thralls were often known as fostre, or "fosterling," and probably had a more beneficent relationship with their owners. All thralls could be termed "bond-servants" (an anchronistic term when referring to the Viking Age, which arose from the much later custom of indentured service) due to the fact that it was possible for the thrall to purchase his/her freedom or redeem his bond by paying his owner his purchase price or current worth.

Thralls, according to Viking belief, were the first class of mankind created by the god Ríg (another name for Heimdall) as recorded in the 10th century Rígsþula (The Lay of Ríg). In general, among the Viking Scandinavians there were three broad social classes, and the god in his role as Ríg was believed to have created them all. The highest was the jarl: the nobles and kings made up this class. The next was the bondi or free yeoman, whose ranks included farmers, craftsmen, landowners, and other freeborn people. The lowest class was that of the þræll.

The lay tells of how Heimdall, disguised and calling himself "Ríg" wandered through Middle-Earth and supped with three families. At each home, Ríg stayed three nights, sleeping in the bed between husband and wife. The first home, that of Aí and Edda (Grandfather and Grandmother) was a poor one, but like the others, once the god took his leave:

...liðu meir at þat mánuðr níu.

Jóð ól Edda jósu vatni,
hörvi svartan, htu Þræl.

Hann nam at vaxa ok vel dafna;
var þar á höndum hrokkit skinn,
kropnir knúar [-- -- -- -- -- --]
fingr digrir, fúlligt andlit,
lútr hryggr, langir hælar.

Nam han meir at þat megins of kosta,
bast at binda, byrðar gerva,
bar hann heim at þat hrís gerstan dag.

Þar kom at garði gengilbeina
aurr var á iljum, armr sólbrunninn,
[-- -- -- -- -- -- --]
niðrbjúgt var nef, nefndisk Þír.

Miðra fletja meir settisk hón,
sat hjá henni sonr húss,
ræddu ok rndu, rekkju gerðu
Þræll ok Þír þrungin dægr.

Börn ólu þau, - bjuggu ok unðu, -
hygg ek at hti Hreimr ok Fjósnir,
Klúrr ok Kleggi, Kefsir, Fúlnir,
Drumbr, Digraldi, Dröttr ok Hösvir.
Lútr ok Leggjaldi, lögðu garða,
akra töddu, unnu at svínum,
geita gættu, grófu torf.

Dætr váru þær Drumba ok Kumba,
Ökkvinkalfa ok Arinnefja,
Ysja ok Ambátt, Eikintjasna,
Tötrughypja ok Trönubeina.
þaðan eru komnar þræla ættir.

Moons full nine meanwhile went by.

Gave Edda birth to a boy child then,
in clouts she swathed the swarthy-skinned one.
Thrall they called him, and cast on him water.

Dark was his hair and dull his eyes.
On his hand the skin was scraggy and wrinkled,
nasty his nails, his knuckles gnarled,
his fingers thick, his face ugly,
his back hulky, his heels were long.

He got his growth and gained in strength,
at times he undertook to try his thews:
to bind broad ropes, burdens to pack,
to lug logs homeward all day long.

Came to his cottage a crook-legged wench
her soles were dirty and sunburnt her arms,
her nose hooked downwards, and her name was Þír (Drudge).

On middle seat she sate her down,
by her side did sit the son of the house;
whispered and laughed and lay together
Thrall and Þír whole days through.

In their hut, happy, they had a brood:
I ween they were hight Hay-Giver, Howler,
Bastard, Sluggard, Bent-Back and Paunch,
Stumpy, Stinker, Stableboy, Swarthy,
Longshanks and Lout: they laid fences,
put dung on fields, fattened the swine,
herded the goats, and grubbed up peat.

Their daughters were Drudge and Daggle-Tail,
Slattern, Serving-Maid, and Cinder-Wench,
Stout-Leg, Shorty, Stumpy and Dumpy,
Spinkleshanks eke, and Sputterer:
thence are sprung the breed of thralls.

(Hollander pp. 121-122)

The Vikings raided and took captives to be sold as slaves.Slaves were a valuable trade item in the Viking Age. While the mythological background seemed to imply a destiny from time immemorial for a subordinate race of servants descended from Thrall, the reality was that the Vikings' most common trade item was the slave. Raiders brought their prisoners to the block, merchants bartered for sturdy or exotic breeds from as far away as Serkland (the Arabic peoples) or Mikligarðr (Byzantium), while others were sold into slavery to pay unredeemed ransoms. Nor did the Vikings confine their raids and slave taking to peoples outside the Scandinavian countries: at this time, there was no sense of nationality in the North. Icelanders had Danish slaves, the Norse kept Swedes, the Swedes captured Finns. Hereditary slaves were treated no differently in the laws from new captives.

Thralls usually provided unskilled labor in the Viking Age, performing the heaviest and nastiest labor, building walls, spreading manure, pig and goat herding, and peat digging. In time, favored male thralls could become overseers, bailiffs, or personal valets. The female thralls ground corn and salt ( backbreaking tasks when using a hand-quern), milking, churning, and washing, with some seeing occasional service as bed-slaves, nannies, or personal maids. Both sexes also took part in the "lighter" tasks of running a farmstead, including the spring pasturing of livestock, ploughing, planting, harvesting, slaughtering, and spinning (both sexes).

Throughout Scandinavia, the universal sigil of the thrall was the slave collar around the neck, combined with short-cropped hair: in Christian times no female thrall was allowed to wear their hair beneath a kerchief, as this was reserved for the lady of the estate. The usual costume of the thrall was a simple tunic or shift of undyed homespun.

There were few laws regarding slavery. The child of a slave was always a slave, no matter the rank of his father. Wergild was not owing for slaves, although a man who killed another man's slave owed him damages for the value of the thrall, just as he would if he had killed another man's cow or pig. A slave-owner had the obligation to provide medical care and a living for thralls who were injured or crippled in their service. Most slaves could not own property, could not be married, and their children belonged to their owners. The exception to this was in cases where the slave-owner allowed the thrall to work a small portion of land, the proceeds of which were owned by the slave, and thralls could sell any cottage-crafts they produced in their free time. The thrall's goal was to accumulate enough money to eventually purchase his own freedom.

Aside from self-redemption (purchasing one's own freedom), thralls could be freed by their owners as a gift (especially for long and devoted service), or they could be bought free by a third party. The granting of a thrall's freedom was an occasion for much ceremony, as the former thrall had no existence as a human in the eyes of the law until his cash redemption. In most parts of Scandinavia, the freedman was adopted into his master's family, and thus given the rights and duties of any other free person in the law, including testifying or prosecuting cases at law. In Iceland the new freedman was "inducted into the law" (lögleiddr), thus functionally given citizenship into the Icelandic community.

To seal this adoption, whether into an established family or the entire body politic, the thrall was obligated to first pay down one-half of the redemption price in currency at the time he announced his desire to be freed, then paid the remainder during a ritual known as frelsis-öl, literally a "free-neck-ale", which is usually translated as "freedom -ale-drinking" or freedom feast. The law specified that the first payment, the "freedman's ounces" was to be paid over as six ounces of silver, weighed out on scales in the presence of at least six witnesses. The feast itself was required to have "ale brewed from three measures" (a very strong brew, perhaps in excess of 14% alcohol). Upon paying this sum, the thrall would invite his master formally to be his guest at the freedom feast, where he would be provided with a seat of honor. Next, the freedman would ritually slaughter a sheep by cutting its head off and then "his master is to take his neck redemption off its neck". This seems to have been a rite in which the sheep "stands in" for the former slave, with the slave's old collar around its neck at slaughter time. By slaying the sheep, the new freedman symbolically has killed his old unfree social status, and the bloody neck-ring was presented to the master in token of this. The ale and meat thus provided served as the start of a lavish feast, during which the freedman served the master for the last time as a slave.

Freedmen did have a somewhat different status from the free-born. Their wergild was always lower than a free-born man's, ranging from one-half to a full wergild, depending on time and location. Everywhere the freedman had ties of obligation to the former owner, a sort of "honored family retainer" status, "duties of respectfullness in attitude and behavior, socially expected and legally required." Freedmen were expected to request and get their master's approval for business undertakings, marriage, lawsuits etc. A freedman could not move his residence without explicit permission. Any moneys won by the freedman in a lawsuit were to be split evenly with the master as well. The former owner also by law served as the freedman's heir if there were no legitimate children born after the former slave was freed, but always inherited some portion after the freedman's legitimate children as well. Freedmen who failed to observe these restrictions of guardianship could be legally re-enslaved for "lack of gratitude" towards their former owners. In return, the master owed the freedman support, advice, legal protection and maintenance.


  • Karras, Ruth M. Slavery and Society in Medieval Scandinavia. Ann Arbor: Yale Univ. Press. 1988.
    Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

  • Karras, Ruth M. "Concubinage and Slavery in the Viking Age." Scandinavian Studies 62 (1990): 141-162.

  • Peter G. Foote and David M. Wilson. The Viking Achievement. London: Sidgewick & Jackson. 1970.
    Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

  • Lee M. Hollander, trans. The Poetic Edda. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1962.
    Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

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