Scandinavian society operated a caste system which was basically divided into three:
- The bottom caste - the thralls or slaves
- The middle caste - karls or freemen
- The top caste - the aristocratic rulers, the Jarls
This system was in place prior to the Viking Age, but must have been totally energised once raids on Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe commenced, with multitudes of new slaves being brought back to Scandinavia and the trade in people flourishing at home and abroad.
No Rights as a Slave
People captured in raids in north and west Europe could find themselves being sold into slavery as far away as Byzantium and Arabia. The caste system could also mean that men of the karl class could have difficulty in obtaining wives, so added impetus to the need to bring home female slaves.
A slave was seen as the property of his master, no different from a cow or sheep, and had little protection under the law. If he was killed or injured it was only necessary to make good the loss to the owner, and even burial wasn’t necessary as the body could be left as animal feed. Female slaves could be concubines as well as performing menial domestic chores such as cooking, milking and grinding corn. Male slaves would tend the animals, dung the fields and build walls, as well as man the oars on his master’s ship.
Sacrafice or Freedom
Slaves could be sacrificed when their master died – as described by the Arab chronicler Ibn Fadlan when he watched a Norse funeral ceremony, conducted by a company of Rus, on the Volga river in 922 – to be buried or immolated alongside him. But it was also possible for a slave to gain his freedom if his master so willed it. If a Norwegian slave fought off invaders alongside his master and killed an enemy then the law directed that freedom should result.
The agricultural economy of Viking lands was almost wholly dependent on slave labour, and the production of wool for sails and garments even more so. Female slaves were in great demand for newly colonised land such as Iceland and Greenland, with the genetic roots of a large proportion of the population being traced back to Scotland and Ireland.