Of Thralls and Freemen – Norse Social Structure During the Viking Age

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Much like most societies throughout history, the Norse of the Viking Age practiced a hierarchical society consisting of multiple class levels. At the top was the ruling class of kings, jarls, and landsmen who oversaw their own lands. The middle class included freemen; these were the landowners, skilled workers, and farmers. The lowest social class was that of the thralls and slaves, these people were the major source of hard labor in Norse society. In this article a number of the various roles and rules involving the social structure of the Norse during the Viking Age will be discussed.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing social classes during the Viking Age is that of the thralls and slaves. These were the men and women who did the hardest labor and the most unpleasant jobs. The majority of slaves were acquired through war, piracy, and trade. They also could be born into slavery or become a slave as punishment for a crime. If a man was caught stealing from another, he would become slave to the victim of the crime as a consequence for his actions. Also, a debtor could become thrall to their creditor until his debt was repaid.

Life wasn’t particularly pleasant for the thrall, for the slave born and bred life was exceptionally hard. For a freeborn warrior taken in the wars, or a well-nurtured girl who was ravished from her burned home it could be hell itself. He could be bought and sold just like any other chattel. Occasionally the thrall might be put down like a horse or a dog once his usefulness was past. He also might be sacrificed or executed to follow a dead owner into the afterlife. The mutineer or runaway thrall could expect no quarter. The owning class would as soon tolerate a wolf on the fold wall as a slave on the run, and his end was a wolf’s end, quick and bloody.

Thralls had few rights and couldn’t own land, if they broke the law they were beaten, maimed, or killed as consequence; however, life wasn’t all bad for the thrall, and he did have some legal advantages to his status. For example, if a freeman and a slave committed theft together, the freeman was the one to be charged with the crime and the slave was not considered an accomplice. A slave also had the right to kill for his wife even though she was a bondmaid, but a freeman could not kill for a bondmaid even though she was considered his woman.

If a man’s slave was murdered, there was no need for a leveling oath to be sworn. The thrall was considered chattel, and avenged as such; with money paid instead of blood shed as repayment for his life. In England, a thrall would be repaid with the gift of eight cows; in Iceland it was eight ounces of silver; and in Scandinavia, the killer must make amends according to the slave’s value naked. If his master was the killer, he was not considered liable before the law unless he killed him/her during a legally ordained festival, or during Lent. If he killed the thrall during these times, the consequence of such actions was banishment.

Thralls did have the right to own some possessions, hold money, and have time to work for themselves. They were allowed to do business at public markets and make their own private transactions if the value involved less than one ortug (1/3 ounce of silver, or 20 pence). He also had the right to marry (although any resulting children would also be slaves), and the ability to purchase, earn, or be rewarded with his freedom. Also, the ill treatment of thralls was regarded as an undesirable quality in norse culture, and masters seemed to have treated their slaves quite well. The slave did not bear arms unless he was defending the stead, or fighting off invaders. If he were to kill such an invader, he could expect to be rewarded with his freedom.

Once a slave was released from servitude, he was considered a freedman (leysingi). Although he was now free, and no longer a slave, his position in society was still limited. He was still dependent upon his master and family for multiple generations, this also made it so the freedman could not conduct legal proceedings against his former master. He needed someone to protect his new freedom and often looked to his old master to defend it. A freedman could gain his full freedom by purchasing it with an even larger payment than would normally be required to be freed from the binds of slavery.

Above the freedman were the bondi and the karls – these were the truly free – the land holding farmers, sailors, hunters, merchants, and other skilled workers. They varied from poor peasants to those with great wealth and localized authority. All these people were still essentially considered farmers; even if their absence required other people to work their land, either free or thrall.

Theoretically, the bondi had a farm of his own, but oftentimes most young men lived with their parents, or farmed the lands of a large and/or absent landowner. These men still retained their social status. They would till the land, raise stock, bear witness, and produce verdicts, vote on matters of public concern at the Thing; these matters could be as important as the election of a new king, a change of religion or simple verdicts on legal cases. The freeman would attend religious and lay ceremonies, forge and bare weapons, man ships, serve in levies, be aware of their worth and what they owed. The bondi impressed upon others such traits and rights as these that they stood as a class of their own in Europe as a free peasantry.

Above the bondi were the landowners that held hereditary rights to their own land. “In Orkney, Shetland, and the Western Isles, these were known as odalsbondi, In Norway as hauldr, and in England as holdas.” (Regia Anglorum) Odal rights were ferociously defended because they distinguished a family claim that could not be usurped by jarls, or even the crown.

The upper levels of Viking society were composed of various forms of nobility and kings. The lowest rank of the ruling class was that of the landsmenn (approximately the equivalent of a medieval ‘baron’). These men were also known in Denmark as straesmen. They originated as ship commanders, but later included men who could field and maintain approximately 40 armed men. Their positions were not hereditary and were gained positions through an oath of loyalty to the king, on whose behalf they held their authority.

More common was the jarl. He was either a partial or fully independent lordship. Some of these men inherited their lands by odal right, while others fought their way into power. In the early period there was little clear difference between some of the more powerful jarls and the many petty kings of Denmark and Norway. Later these men were defeated making the Viking captain and his fleet and hirð a thing of the past. The new successors for these positions were chieftains, landed men who wished for stability and peace. They were the members of a bondi aristocracy who supported a centralized kingship.

At the top of the social ladder was the King. He was the one who ruled – the one that the jarls and landsmen reported to. A king’s revenues derived in large measure from royal estates. He also received a share of the confiscated property of outlaws and felons. His outgoing expenses would also be great. He could make a number of limited demands on his subjects for national works and instruments of defense. When his kingdom was at war, he took command of his fighting forces.

With the king traveled his hirð or bodyguard, which was composed of retainers who had pledged loyalty to him and if need be their lives. In war these were the core of his army, in peace the ones who enforced his authority. The hirdmen were the kings elect – or their lord’s elect. He would give his men swords, helms, arm-rings, torques, clothes, food, drink, axes inlaid with silver, and women if his men so desired. In exchange, the king expected them to claim what was due to him, service at home and overseas, during war and peace, difficult tasks and sometimes even their lives.

A king’s revenues derived in large measure from royal estates. He also received a share of the confiscated property of outlaws and felons. His outgoing expenses would also be great. He could make a number of limited demands on his subjects for national works and instruments of defense. When his kingdom was at war, he took command of his fighting forces.

In this article a number of the various roles and rules involving the social structure of Norse society during the Viking Age were discussed. It consisted of numerous social classes ranging from the ruling class down to the classes of the free and unfree, all of which had a number of roles and rules that allowed for a very successful society to thrive during the Viking Age.

Sources:

Jones, Gwyn. A history of the Vikings (revised edition). Oxford University Press; New York, New York. 1984.

Regia Anglorum. Viking Social Organization. http://www.regia.org/history/viking2.htm

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About KD Williams

Kára Agnarsdóttir (aka Kirstina D. Williams) hails from Seattle, WA. She is very passionate about a number of topics including archaeology, costuming, spinning, nålbinding, knitting, crochet, travel, history, and photography. She has been a member of the Glamfolk since 2002 and is currently in school working towards bachelor's degrees in both Scandinavian Studies and Anthropology.

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