A thrall (Old Norse: þræll) was a slave or serf in Scandinavian lands during the Viking Age beginning in c. 793. Norsemen and Vikings raided across Europe. They often captured and enslaved militarily weaker peoples they encountered, but took the most slaves in raids of the British Isles. The thralls were mostly from Western Europe, among them many Franks, Anglo-Saxons, and Celts. Many Irish slaves were used in expeditions for the colonization of Iceland. The Norse also took German, Baltic, Slavic, and Latin slaves.
The Vikings kept some slaves as servants and sold most captives in the Byzantine or Islamic markets. The slave trade was one of the pillars of the Norse economy during the 6th through 11th centuries.
Thralls were the lowest class in the Scandinavian social order and usually provided unskilled labor. The Viking slave trade slowly ended in the 11th century, as the Vikings settled in the European territories they had once raided. They converted serfs to Christianity and merged with the local populace. The thrall system was finally abolished in the mid-14th century in Scandinavia.
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Thrall is from the Old Norse þræll, meaning a person who is in bondage or serfdom. The Old Norse term was lent into late Old English, as þræl. The corresponding native term in Anglo-Saxon society was þeow (from Germanic *þewa-, "servant", from PIE *tek-, "to run") or esne (from Germanic *asniz, "reward", from PIE *osn- "harvest").
The English derivation thraldom is of High Medieval date. The verb "to enthrall" is of Early Modern origin (metaphorical use from the 1570s, literal use from 1610).
Thralls were the lowest-class of workers in Scandinavian society. They were Northern Europeans brought into slavery due to debt, the losers of wars, and the children of previous thralls. Thralls in Scandinavia had no rights and their living conditions were variable depending on the master. The thrall trade as the prize of plunder was a key part of the Viking economy. While there are some estimates of as many as thirty slaves per household, most families only owned one or two slaves.
The thrall trade was transformed with the coming of Christianity. While the enslavement of "heathens" was sanctioned by the Catholic Church, the enslavement of Christians was not and was considered a sin, so that with the Christianization of Scandinavia, the demand shifted to non-Christian thralls. By the end of the Viking Age in c. 1100 AD, the thrall population consisted of few Christians and mostly Slavic and Scandinavian pagans. The Christian Scandinavians had a de facto monopoly on the thrall trade because Scandinavia continued to have a large pagan population.
In 1043 Hallvard Vebjørnsson, the son of a local nobleman in the district of greater Lier, was killed while trying to defend a thrall woman from men who accused her of theft. The Church strongly approved of his action, recognizing him as a martyr and canonizing him as Saint Hallvard, the patron saint of Oslo.
Despite the existence of a caste system, thralls could experience a level of fluidity not seen in other ethnic groups. Thralls could be freed by their masters at any time, be freed in a will, or even buy their own freedom. Once a thrall was freed he became a "freedman"—a member of an intermediary group between slaves and freemen. He still owed allegiance to his former master and would have to vote according to his former master's wishes. It took at least two generations for freedmen to lose the allegiance to their former masters and become full freemen. If a freedman had no descendants, his former master inherited his land and property.
While thralls and freedmen did not have much economic or political power in Scandinavia, they were still given a wergeld, or a man's price, which is to say, there was a monetary penalty for unlawfully killing a slave.
References and notes
- Junius P Rodriguez, Ph.D. (1997). The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery. vol 1. A - K. ABC-CLIO. p. 674.
- Thrall Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2009
- See Iceland History
- Niels Skyum-Nielsen, "Nordic Slavery in an International Context," Medieval Scandinavia 11 (1978–79) 126-48
- P.H. Sawyer (2002). Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe AD 700–1100. Routledge. p. 39. ISBN 978-0-203-40782-0.
- St. Hallvard in Catholic Online. (2009)
- P.H. Sawyer (2002). Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe AD 700–1100. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-203-40782-0.
- Eyrbyggja Saga, Chapter 37.
- P.H. Sawyer (2002). Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe AD 700–1100. Routledge. p. 43. ISBN 978-0-203-40782-0.