In the Norse culture, slaves were one of the most important and desirable commodities. The Vikings acquired their slaves on their expedition to other lands. And after picking their own slaves, the Vikings would either trade them or keep the Viking slaves as their physical and sexual labor.
Life of Viking Slaves
In English, we have an idiom “in thrall to somebody” meaning under the control of someone. The word “thrall” actually originates in Old Norse meaning “slave”. The Viking slaves had the lowest rank in the Viking social classes.
Many Viking thralls came from other places where the Vikings happened to visit. After plundering the site, the Vikings would keep some alive either to teach these raiders the local culture or to bring them home and enslave them.
Some of the Viking slaves were the criminals in the Viking age. For example, a Viking man who stole something valuable and got caught would be called up in the Viking Thing (a Viking court). The stealer was likely to be deprived of his honor and rights and become a slave for the victim’s family.
The Vikings kept the slaves living inside their house. But usually the slaves would sleep at the end of the longhouse with the livestock. A child slave had to work from their earlier age, for example grinding the flour or cleaning the house. But they could play with other children in the family. As they grew up, they would have to take over harder physical labor.
Some archaeological evidence pointed out that the Vikings sacrificed their slaves in rituals. A source from an Arabian traveller who exposed to the Viking society told that a funeral of a chieftain and a girl slave. When the chieftain (owner of the girl slave as well) passed away, the girl slave sacrificed herself to join him in his afterlife. Granting her wish, the Vikings placed her body along the chieftain and set their ship burial on fire.
Indeed, in the past, slaves were an extremely profitable business. Especially, slave trading in the Viking Age was not illegal. The Vikings would bring their slaves to the trading towns and sell them. Viking major trading centers like Hedeby or Birka were an ideal places for those looking for slaves.
The Vikings would trade their slaves for other valuable products. Many wealthy farmers came to buy slaves. Farmers were most likely to use slaves because of the harsh agricultural activities. The historians also believe that a significant number of Viking slaves played an important role in constructing great buildings and architecture in the Viking Age.
Slave’s status was flexible
According to the Viking material, a Viking slave could change his status into a free man. First, they could be transfered from this owner to another one by trading. Second, they could persuade their owner to set them free in condition that they would provide their owner something.
But what a slave could provide their owner when they didn’t even have their basic rights? What they had left was physical strength and their life. A Viking saga told the story of a Viking slave’s death to free himself. He killed the owner’s enemy only to get killed in return.
If the Viking slave was good at crafting and forging, they could enjoy some basic rights and of course better treatment. Or the beautiful slave girls could have better living condition and respect from others.