The Vikings were infamous across Europe as fearsome warriors and raiders. Did the Vikings have slaves?
Slavery was common in Viking Age Scandinavia. Estimates place Scandinavia’s slave population at approximately ten percent during the period. During raids, slaves were kidnapped from overseas, often the British Isles or Eastern Europe, and sold, used as labor, or taken as concubines.
For more on what we know about Viking slavery, read on.
The details of daily life in Viking Age Scandinavia are often hard to determine. There was very little evidence left by the Vikings themselves, and most written accounts came from their victims overseas.
From those texts, we know of the Viking raids along the coastlines of Europe, creating a sense of constant fear in those who inhabited the regions. Vikings often killed people who opposed them but there was another horrifying possibility for those who couldn’t fight back.
The Vikings took prisoners, whether man, woman, or child, and sailed away with them. The Old Norse word for a slave was “träl”, or “thrall” as we know it today.
Accurate numbers will always be impossible to find but some estimates place the slave population of Viking Age Scandinavia at about ten percent.
Britain, Ireland, and Eastern Europe, which were easily accessible by sea from Scandinavia, provided many of these slaves. “The Annals of Ulster”, written in the medieval period, mention one such raid in 821 CE in Dublin, Ireland.
The majority of accounts of Viking attacks come from their victims, often written in monasteries, but they aren’t the only mentions of slavery. Ibn Hawqal, an Arab Muslim geographer, described the Viking slave trade in the Mediterranean in 977 CE.
Physical evidence is even harder to come by but there have been some discoveries that point to the existence of the slave trade. Among these are a number of iron collars and shackles which were found in known Viking settlements such as Dublin, Birka in Sweden, and Hedeby in Denmark.
Other possible evidence includes a collection of smaller houses near a large house in Sanda, Sweden. While these aren’t necessarily slave quarters, the layout is similar to known slave plantations in regions such as the United States.
Capturing slaves was one of the goals of Viking raids, and it might have been one of the original motivations for raiders. The Viking presence in Europe depended on their fleet of longships and building them would have required a great deal of labor.
Some historians wonder whether it was possible for the Vikings to build large fleets of ships so quickly without the added manpower of slaves.
Slavery had existed in Scandinavia for centuries before the beginning of the Viking Age. The advancement of the Norsemen as seafaring people enabled them to take prisoners from further away and trade overseas, creating a slave economy.
When taking slaves, Vikings appear to have targeted women and girls more frequently than men and boys. Sexual slavery and forced marriage were likely present in Viking society, and polygamous Vikings might have taken slaves as concubines.
When Iceland’s modern population was mapped, it was discovered that early Icelandic women had predominantly Gaelic origins, from Ireland or Scotland. Men were the opposite, being predominantly from Scandinavia. This suggests that it was common for Viking men to have children with women taken from Ireland or Scotland.
Sexual slavery might not have been the only motivation for preferring female slaves. During the period, women would have been the superior textile workers, a very useful skill while working on items such as sails.
Slavery could, in some cases, be entered into voluntarily. This also occurred in other areas, such as Anglo-Saxon England, where a person could temporarily become somebody else’s slave in order to repay financial debts.
This type of slave had higher status than those who were kidnapped from overseas and taken by force. Temporary slavery could also be punishment for a crime. Even among slaves, there was a sense of social hierarchy.
As elsewhere, slaves of Vikings appear to have suffered frequent abuse. There is evidence that slaves were buried next to their masters, likely serving as human sacrifices. It’s possible that they were expected to continue serving as slaves in the afterlife.
Part of the difficulty in trying to find archaeological evidence for slaves is that they owned nothing. There are no possessions to find, no home of their own, so all that can be discovered are the remains of the people themselves.