The Vikings have always been discussed throughout history as vicious people. The Viking Age lasted from the late eighth to eleventh centuries. The ancestors of the Vikings, called the Scandinavian people, traded with the Romans. Scandinavia was made up of five modern day European countries: Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and Sweden. 1 Some items that they traded included ivory, amber, skins, and furs. After the Roman Empire fell, the Scandinavian people living in Scandinavia became closer and stronger. Around the mid seventh century, the Scandinavian people used ships with sails and built large towns.
At the end of the eighth century, the Scandinavian people began raiding parts of pre-modern Europe. During this time, the Scandinavian people began to be known as the Vikings. Most people in pre-modern Europe were afraid of the Viking’s raiding of their society, but the Vikings were really just seeking goods that they could trade for money. The Vikings were known as a range of different people including warriors, pirates, explorers, and merchants. The Vikings started in Scandinavia, but because of increase in population and limited land, they traveled all through Europe looking for new land to expand.
But the question is, with these vicious people just raiding to look for goods to trade with and with limited land space, why did they capture slaves and how did they use and treat these slaves in their society? As you may know, the Vikings went from society to society in pre-modern Europe looking for goods including gold, jewelry, and livestock. However, the Vikings also captured children men and women from these societies and used them as slaves. Because of their limited land space, they traded most of these slaves for money. The Vikings got a majority of their slaves from Ireland.
They began to get involved with a slave trade in Ireland. Slavery existed way before the Vikings came. Slaves made up a large population of trade for the Vikings. Once captured, most of the slaves were sold on the slave trade while others were sent to Scandinavia to become slaves of the Vikings. It has also been recorded that some laves captured from Ireland were sacrificed to heathen gods. The first attack in Ireland was in 795, and attacked approximately once a year for the next thirty to forty years. The Vikings heard of the riches that the Irish held and thought that this region would be the perfect place for the Viking people.
During this attack, the Vikings mainly just raided the societies and only took some slaves, but continued to capture more slaves as time went on. For those whose fate it was to be in the trade were either sent to Iceland, Viking colonies in Britain, Islamic empires, or Byzantine empires. The Islamic and Byzantine empires contained luxury items that the Vikings wanted for the trade of slaves. These items included Byzantine silk and Arabic coins. The Vikings then used the silk and coins in trade for items from North Europe including more slaves and furs.
Once these slaves were traded, they were usually required to do laborious work of the household. The treatment of these sold slaves varied from owner to owner. Some were treaded kindly while others were treated worse than livestock. Even though a majority of the captured slaves were sent to the slave trade, some of the slaves were sent back to Scandinavia to become slaves of the Vikings. The reason that all of these slaves did not go straight to Scandinavia was because of the over population in that area. If all of the slaves were used in this area, than more strain would be on the land and on the resources that it produces.
The Viking society had a social class system. This caste system was separated into three classes. The highest class was called the jarls. This class was known as the noble class, the rich people of the Vikings. They were measured by their mass wealth in terms of followers, treasures, ships, and estates. They lived in fine halls and led refined lives with countless activities. The power of each jarl depends on how many followers he has. The jarl, however, must take care of his followers. The first born of a jarl was also to become a jarl. The middle class in this system was called the karls.
These people were free and owned land. They were considered the plain folks in the Viking society. They could include farmers and blacksmiths. The families of the karls usually lived in cluster homes that had their barns or workshops in the cluster. A karl could become a jarl if he gained enough fame and wealth. The lowest class in this system was called the praell. This class included slaves and bondsmen. If a man owed another man money and could not pay his debt back, he was to work for another man until his debt was paid. This would make him a bondsman, or basically a temporary slave.
Also, the system’s laws stated that if a man was convicted as a theft, he could be handed over as a slave of whom he stole from. A slave could be freed, but would still be considered in the lowest caste system. The slaves at the bottom of this caste system were chattel. They hardly had any rights. They could not inherit anything or leave nothing after their death. They could not participate in any business transaction. The only relation a slave had with society was through his master. There were some branches of the culture that slaves were not allowed to take part in. These privileges of citizenship include military and jury services.
Basically, a slave could not participate in these two services because they are institutions of free men in the Viking society. When a slave was no longer capable of work, due to old age disease or injury, they were put to death. The slaves of the Vikings did however have limited rights. They could accumulate property and save enough money to buy their freedom. Slaves could also marry. Even with these few rights, slaves were still considered to the Vikings as unreliable cowards who were stupid and foul. The Vikings were polytheists. This means that they followed many gods. The father of the gods was Odin, the god of wisdom.
Because of their religion and how the Vikings followed the gods, their slaves were expected to follow the same life and tasks deemed by the gods. Challenging this could mean death of the slave. A master could kill a slave and not be held accountable for it. The slaves of the Vikings had a variety of jobs that they did in the Viking society. Some of their daily work included things such as carrying loads of firewood, tending to the fields, feeding pigs and other farm animals, cutting peat, building fences, fertilizing crops, and making ropes. All of their tasks were mainly the tasks that their masters didn’t want to do.
It was necessary for running a farm to have slaves working it. Slaves were used on both small and large farms. The plantation farm was not practiced with the Vikings. Slaves worked on family farms with hired help, but the slaves did the harder work than the hired help. The women slaves that the Vikings captured who were young and beautiful were kept as servants, sexual trophies, or wives. Others were used, upon the death of their master, as a sacrifice. Female slaves were forced to have sexual advances their masters would place upon them. Slaves were allowed to form family unites, meaning having a wife and children.
However, there was no religious ceremony or wedding that slaves could take part in. they were forced to content themselves with unions that did not have the approval of the church. Children born to female slaves became property of her master and a slave, but are born with some rights. However, there was not allowed to be any sexual relations or legal marriage between a free person and a slave. There was no penalty of a freeman having sexual relations with a slave. Also, a free man was allowed to marry a former slave, meaning that a free Viking could make a women slave his legal wife by giving her freedom.
Illegitimate children were abundant in the slave population of the Vikings. A child born to a slave women and a free man can claim his freedom at birth only if the free father will adopt him. Once adopted, that child could be the heir of the father’s estate. When thinking of the Vikings and how they are discussed in history, people would not think that they were mainly traders. The Vikings have always been thought of as mean and vicious people that destroyed everything in their path. All that the Vikings wanted were riches. They traded many different kinds of goods including slaves. 4 The Vikings captured their slaves form Europe, mostly from Ireland. The slaves they traded were mainly sent to the Islamic and Byzantine empires. No one would think that the Vikings would be trading slaves for luxury items like gold, jewelry, and livestock. Not all of the slaves captured were sold, however. Due to the limited living space, only small portions of these captured slaves were sent back to Scandinavia. There is a caste system in the Viking society with three different classes, with slaves in the lowest class. The slaves that were sent to work for the Vikings were treated better than other slaves around the world.
Yes, they had long hard jobs that their masters did not want to do, but they did have a few rights and opportunities of freedom. Male slaves were meant to tend to the fields and livestock while female slaves were used as sex trophies or wives. 17 Slaves were expected to listen to their masters and follow the lifestyle of their master’s religion. 19 The slaves of the Vikings were even allowed to form family units and have children, but could not have a formal marriage ceremony. 17 Slavery impacted the Viking society not only by aiding their masters in Scandinavia, but also by aiding the Vikings in trade with other societies.
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