Viking Thralls by Rob Shackleford
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|Vikings at Home||Viking Society|
Viking Society was layered, and at the very bottom were the Thralls or Slaves. These individuals had absolutely no rights under the law and were frequently sold as a form of currency during transactions.
There were three ways to become a slave in the Viking Age:
- Be born to a slave, since the children of slaves were also slaves.
- Be captured in war. According to the ancient way of thinking, anyone who was captured in battle and whose life was spared had been given a tremendous gift, namely his life, which he had to pay back with an equally tremendous gift: his freedom. This reciprocity was the primary justification for slavery.
- Debt – for to become a slave was to go bankrupt. The principle of reciprocity, of giving up one’s freedom in exchange for one’s life, applied here, too. An extremely poor but free person could give up his freedom to a better-off person in exchange for having his material needs taken care of. This was especially common when the poor person had gotten that way due to debts, in which case his freedom was the only thing he had to offer his creditor.
Thrall had hardly any rights at all. They were chattel. They could inherit nothing, leave nothing. They could take no part in any business transaction. A slave’s only relation with the rest of society was through his master. Slaves were put to death when they were no longer capable of working, due to old age, disease, or injury.
Yet slaves could accumulate property, and with care, could save enough to buy their freedom. Slaves could marry, and were permitted to take vengeance for interference with their wives.
In general, Vikings considered slaves as cowards who were easily panicked, unreliable, stupid and foul.
The Vikings existed in a slave economy. Recent finds in Ireland found iron collars, showing that slavery was central in creating and maintaining the Viking way of life.
Scandinavian slavery still echoes in the English language today. The expression “to be held in thrall,” meaning to be under someone’s power, traces back to the Old Norse term for a slave: thrall.
Ancient chronicles long mentioned that people, as well as precious objects, were a target of the Viking raids that began in 793 A.D. at the Scottish monastery of Lindisfarne. The Annals of Ulster record “a great booty of women” taken in a raid near Dublin in 821 A.D., while the same account contends that 3,000 people were captured in a single attack a century later.
Ibn Hawqal, an Arab geographer, described a Viking slave trade in 977 A.D. that extended across the Mediterranean from Spain to Egypt. Others recorded that slaves from northern Europe were funneled from Scandinavia through Russia to Byzantium and Baghdad.
One key factor may have been a dire need for women.
Some scholars believe that the Vikings were a polygamous society that made it hard for non-elites to find brides. That may have driven the raids and ambitious exploration voyages for which Vikings are best known. Some genetic studies suggest that a majority of Icelandic women are related to Scottish and Irish ancestors who likely were raid booty.
As Viking fleets expanded, so did the need for wool to produce the sails necessary to power the ships. This also may have driven the need for slaves. The pressing need for wool production likely led to a plantation-like economy.
Female slaves were concubines, cooks, and domestic workers. Male thralls likely were involved in cutting trees, building ships, and rowing those vessels for their Viking masters.
Other studies suggest that Viking slaves were sometimes sacrificed when their masters died.
Recently discovered decapitated bodies found in several Viking tombs likely were not related to the other remains. This lack of kinship, combined with signs of mistreatment, make it likely that they were slaves sacrificed at the death of their masters, a practice mentioned in Viking sagas and Arab chronicles.
The bones also revealed a diet based heavily on fish, while their masters dined more heartily on meat and dairy products.
-Life for thralls was clearly harsh. A 14th-century poem—the original likely dates from the end of the Viking era—gives an idea of how Vikings saw their slaves. Among their names were Bastard, Sluggard, Stumpy, Stinker, and Lout.
Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, an Arab lawyer and diplomat from Baghdad who encountered the men of Scandinavia in his travels, wrote that Vikings treated their female chattel as sex slaves. If a slave died, he added, “they leave him there as food for the dogs and the birds.”
About the author:
Rob Shackleford is the author of a number of novels, though so far only Traveller Inceptio has been officially published. As Traveller Inceptio looks at the fates of modern historical researchers sent to the early 11th Century Saxon world, Vikings do feature.
I have recently moved Publishers, and are publishing new books over the coming year. Here are the Amazon links for the two novels so far.
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