Slavery with Viking characteristics

This year’s Sir David Wilson Lecture in Medieval Studies (jointly organised by the Institute of Archaeology and the Institute of Historical Research) was given by Stefan Brink of Aberdeen on the topic of Viking slavery. This attempted to use a variety of sources from sagas and laws to personal names and archaeological evidence to analyse slavery in the Scandinavian homelands, but I think it’s fair to say that most people thought there wasn’t enough archaeological evidence in it and that the overall conclusions weren’t particularly novel.

What interested me was how much of what the evidence was revealed had parallels to Carolingian slavery. For example, there are similar patterns of differing terminology used for the unfree, such as the gaefthrall (someone who had given themselves into thralldom, sometimes because of old age) and the fostri, the unfree man who had been ‘raised at the farm’. The varying statuses of slaves, from what sound like pure chattel slaves to unfree bailiffs on royal farms also has Carolingian parallels, as do some of the laws, which allow the killing of slaves by their masters and say that if a thrall and a freeman kill one another fighting, only the freeman is compensated for. (Though a statement in one of the laws that specifically bans thralls from carrying weapons does seem a contrast to Carolingian practice).

There were one or two unusual sources: the Rigsthula, for example, part of the Poetic Edda, has a section on how the disguised Norse god Rig begets an ugly black-skinned son called Thrall, whose many sons and daughters include ones called ‘Bulgingcalves’ and ‘Eaglenose’. But the most distinctive feature of Viking slavery was the evidence for the killing of slaves for burial in their master’s or mistress’ grave.

There’s a certain amount of written evidence for this practice: the Sigurðarkviða hin skamma (short lay of Sigurd) refers to male and female slaves being buried with Brynhildr, and it’s also referred to by the Arab writers Ibn Fadlan and Ibn Rustah. A number of double graves have also been discovered in which one of the bodies may have been deliberately killed: for example, Brink suggested this was true of one of the bodies found in the Oseberg ship burial. A double burial was found at Lejre in Denmark with one of the men on his back and the other with his hands and feet tied together and having been decapitated. (They had been buried at the same time, so this isn’t simply grave re-use). Another double grave from Gerdrup in Denmark had a woman who had been buried with weapons and beside her was a man with his hands and feet tied and his head “torn off”.

Some of the audience were sceptical as to whether such burials were necessarily of a master/mistress and a slave, although I think that’s the most plausible explanation. And it also suggests that in that one respect Viking slaves may have been worse off than contemporary unfree elsewhere in Europe. But as I’ve said, what was most noticeable was how similar the situation was. Brink wanted to stress that this was a fluid society, in which the more or less legally unfree could in practice have socially high status. But, as Alice Rio pointed out to me afterwards, there are also high-status slaves in Roman society, which can hardly be seen as particularly socially fluid.

Indeed, if we want to generalise even more, a range of statuses and roles seems possible for the unfree in most slave-owning societies. One of the most interesting things I learned from the Cape Fear Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina (which we visited earlier this year) was the many different economic roles that black slaves had in the region, including working in the woods collecting pitch alongside free men. The area also had a number of free blacks working as craftsmen. Even in one of the prototypical areas of plantation slavery or the slave method of production, that wasn’t necessarily the only economic form that slavery took.

All this suggests once again that generalisation about “slavery” are very hard to make, even if you restrict yourself just to Old World pre-industrial slavery. What we seem to have is many parallels between societies combined with wide variability within a particular society. It’s even debatable how useful “slavery” is as a distinct analytical category, how distinctive the experience of slaves was as opposed to that of the legally free of very low status. Stefan Brink’s analysis, it seems to me, was most useful as a reminder both of the possibilities for slaves in the period to make some kind of life for themselves, but also of the possible grotesque brutality they could suffer.


3 thoughts on “Slavery with Viking characteristics

  1. For a *totally* non-European perspective on such issues, see the volume edited by Anthony Reid: Slavery, Bondage & Dependency in Southeast Asia (U Queensland Press, 1983). One of my Filipinist colleagues used to claim that the best insight into the pre-Hispanic Philippines was to think of the societies as like the Vikings – maybe he was right!


  2. You draw out some interesting links, and more occur to me. For example, by replacing ‘slave’ with ‘serf’, some of your points are essentially those made by Barthélemy in ‘The Knight, the Serf, and the Historian’, where without trying to prove that the medieval period was all wine and roses (and much more stubtly than I can in a comment), he argues that ‘serfdom’ was lots of things, and could be different things in different places or to different people. Essentially, it seems to me, these are all problems related to the brute force of linguistic categorization shaping thoughts without necessarily providing enlightenment, and I tip my metaphorical hat to Susan Reynolds: “What the concept of [insert concept here] seems to have done… is not to help us recognize the creatures we meet but to tell us that all medieval creatures are the same…”


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