Slavery was a common and accepted part of the daily life for the Norsemen, and slaves, called thralls, were amongst the most important commodities traded by the Vikings.
The institution of slavery had long antecedents in Scandinavia, probably going back thousands of years before the time of the Vikings. This horrifying institution rapidly grew during the Viking Age, as Thralls taken during raids were increasing seen as a highly profitable commodity.
Written sources tell us that the Vikings sold slaves at trading centres, such as Hedeby and Bolghar on the Volga, where slaves were traded and exchanged for other products. The buyers ranged from Norse farmers, who could use slaves in the fields and in the household; to other slave traders, who could sell their human cargo as far as the Middle-East.
According to Neil Price, an archaeologist at Sweden’s Uppsala University, commenting on the role of slavery in creating and maintaining the Viking way of life:
“This was a slave economy. Slavery has received hardly any attention in the past 30 years, but now we have opportunities using archaeological tools to change this.”
While a great number of thralls during the Viking Age were taken captive, either in raids undertaken specifically for that purpose or as prisoners of war, there were other ways in which one could become a thrall. A free man or woman could become a thrall in several ways, even voluntarily, as means to clear debts. Certain crimes were also punishable by serving as a thrall for a fixed period of time, in special theft, which was a highly dishonorable crime. Some thralls were born into slavery because both of their parents were enslaved, or a freeborn man who had impregnated their enslaved mother declined to acknowledge the child.
Perhaps only a small minority of the newly enslaved were retained personally by their captors and put to work. The majority entered the wider network of trafficking and were transported to markets and points of sale in settlements across the Viking world and beyond, some even reaching the Middle-East. Over time, slaving become arguably the main element of the trade that developed during the Viking Age along the eastern rivers of European Russia and what is now Ukraine.
The living conditions of thralls in the Norse countries varied greatly depending on the master. While sometimes thralls were considered little better than walking furniture, sleeping with the livestock and eating scraps, they could also be treated significantly better. The Icelandic Saga of Olaf the Fat-saint Haraldson describes the lives of the the thralls of Erling Skjalgsson, a powerful Jarl of South-Western Norway. The saga was written some 200 or 300 years after the time it describes and should be taken with a grain of salt, but it might contain at least a kernel of truth:
"Erling had always at home on his farm thirty slaves, besides other serving-people. He gave his slaves a certain day's work; but after it he gave them leisure, and leave that each should work in the twilight and at night for himself, and as he pleased. He gave them arable land to sow (cereals) in, and let them apply their crops to their own use. He laid upon each a certain quantity of labour to work themselves free by doing it; and there were many who bought their freedom in this way in one year, or in the second year, and all who had any luck could make themselves free within three years. With this money he bought other slaves: and to some of his freed people he showed how to work in the herring-fishery, to others he showed some useful handicraft; and some cleared his outfields and set up houses. He helped all to prosperity."
While there are some estimates of as many as thirty slaves per household, slaves were very valuable, so it was likely that few Norsemen actually had the means to purchase or keep a thrall.
Not all thralls were equal. Similarly to the greek society, there was a special class of thralls, called bryti, usually skilled individuals who were entrusted with much responsibility but lacking liberty nonetheless. In some circumstances, they were allowed to retain a small portion of the proceeds they obtained at market when selling goods for their owners. As a result, it was technically possible, though rare, for a thrall to purchase his or her freedom.
There actually exist at least half-a dozen terms, found both in sagas, and in rune-stones to describe such indentured servants. Some seem to have had a very specific status and might even have been considered stewards and intendants, while others had it rougher. There also were farmers who entered servitude to settle debts, working for a peculiar rich family for a time in order to repay their debts.
While some few thralls managed to buy their freedom, most of the freed thralls received their liberty from their former masters. A freed thrall existed in the ambiguous space between enslavement and complete liberty. All freed thralls remained obligated to their former owners and were expected to support them, and they were never regarded as fully the equal of freeborn folk. Former thralls also had lower rights to compensation in legal codes, but in time, the children and grandchildren of freed thralls would gain the full rights of the freeborn.
There are few archeological findings regarding the Viking-Age slavery, such as the iron shackles have been found in the urban centers of Birka and Hedeby, as well as a handful of other sites connected with commerce. Some of them arguably could have been used to restrain animals but were more likely designed to be placed around a human neck, wrist or ankle.
Shackles from the Viking town of Birka, Sweden (top left); Neu Nieköhr, Germany (bottom left); and Trelleborg, Slagelse, Denmark (right)
Viking slaves were sometimes sacrificed when their masters died, and they ate more poorly during their lives.
Elise Naumann, an archaeologist at the University of Oslo, recently discovered that 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 often mentioned in Viking sagas.
The harsh treatment accorded slaves is amply recorded both in the archaeological and historical record. Sometimes not even death could free the thrall, as they were frequently sacrificed during burials of powerful Vikings to serve them in the afterlife, amply documented by the texts of Ibn Fadlan’s writing, known as the Risala (read our Viking Funeral post here).