One of the most enduring components of the Viking image is the notion of freedom—the adventure of a far horizon and all that went with it. But for many, this was an unattainable hope. Any true reading of life in the Viking Age first has to come to terms with an aspect of everyday experience that probably represented the most elemental division in societies at the time: the difference between those who were free and those who were not. Beneath the social network, any other distinction of status, class, opportunity and wealth pales beside the most basic fact of liberty and the consequent potential for choice.
The institution of slavery had long antecedents in Scandinavia, probably going back thousands of years before the time of the Vikings. By the eighth century A.D., a considerable population of unfree people lived in the North, their condition largely a hereditary one built up over generations. In the Viking Age, this picture changed dramatically because, for the first time, Scandinavians began to make the active acquisition of human chattel a key part of their economy. This was one of the primary objectives of Viking raids and military campaigns—and the result was a massive increase in the numbers of enslaved people in Scandinavia.
Let it therefore be clearly stated: The Vikings were slavers, and the kidnapping, sale and forced exploitation of human beings was always a central pillar of their culture.
One reason why this reality has made so little public impact is that the conventional vocabularies of enslavement—as employed by academics and others working on, for example, the transatlantic trade of more recent centuries—have rarely been applied to the Viking Age. In particular, there is ambiguity in the terminology because a very different word has always been used in place of “slave”: the Old Norse thræll—giving us the modern English “thrall,” which we now use as in being enthralled by a person, a work of art or an idea.
A judicious combination of archaeological and textual sources can produce a relatively comprehensive picture of Viking slaveholding. One intermediate state of servitude, for instance, was voluntary up to a point, albeit entered into under considerable economic compulsion, such as a means of clearing debts. Certain crimes were also punishable by serving as a thrall for a fixed period of time.
The Norse system of thralldom was not always complete chattel slavery, but most of the enslaved had little agency. As two prominent Viking scholars observed 50 years ago, “The slave could own nothing, inherit nothing, leave nothing.” They were not paid, of course, but in some circumstances, they were allowed to retain a small portion of the proceeds they obtained at market when selling goods for their owners. As a result, it was technically possible, though rare, for a thrall to purchase his or her freedom. They could also be manumitted, or released from slavery, at any time. Based on these parameters, some scholars have argued that the number of actual enslaved people in Viking Age society was relatively low. But as researchers conduct additional analysis of detailed European records of Viking slave-taking raids, the scale of this trade has been revised sharply upward.