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A thrall (Old Norse/Icelandic: þræll, Faroese: trælur, Norwegian: trell, Danish: træl, Swedish: träl) was a slave or serf in Scandinavian lands during the Viking Age. The corresponding term in Old English was þēow. The status of slave (þræll, þēow) contrasts with that of the freeman (karl, ceorl) and the nobleman (jarl, eorl). The Middle Latin rendition of the term in early Germanic law is servus.
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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 term is from a Common Germanic þragilaz ("runner", from a root *þreh- "to run"). Old High German had a cognate, dregil, meaning "servant, runner". 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).
The corresponding native term in Anglo-Saxon society was þeow (from Germanic *þewa-, perhaps from a PIE root *tekw-, "to run") A related Old English term is esne "labourer, hireling" (from Germanic *asniz, cognate with Gothic asneis "hireling", a derivation from *asunz "reward", from the same root as English earn).
Early Germanic law
The thrall represents the lowest of the three-tiered social order of the Germanic peoples, noblemen, freemen and slaves, in Old Norse jarl, karl and þræll (c.f. Rígsþula), in Old English corresponding to eorl, ceorl and þēow, in Old Frisian etheling, friling, lēt, etc. The division is of importance in the Germanic law codes, which make special provisions for slaves, who were property and could be bought and sold, but they also enjoyed some degree of protection under the law.
The death of a freeman was compensated by a weregild, usually calculated at 200 solidi (shillings) for a freeman, the death of a slave was treated as loss of property to his owner and compensated depending on the value of the worker.
Thralls were the lowest class of workers in Scandinavian society. They were Northern and Eastern Europeans who were enslaved by being prisoners of war, incurring debt or being born into the class via their parents. The living conditions of thralls in Scandinavia varied 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 owned only one or two slaves.
In 1043, Hallvard Vebjørnsson, the son of a local nobleman in the district of greater Lier, was killed while he was trying to defend a thrall woman from men who accused her of theft. The Church strongly approved of his action, recognised him as a martyr and canonized him as Saint Hallvard, the patron saint of Oslo.
Despite the existence of a caste system, thralls could experience a level of social fluidity. They 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 had 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: there was a monetary penalty for unlawfully killing a slave.
The era of Viking raids resulting in the capture of slaves slowly ended in the 11th century. In the following centuries, more thralls obtained their freedom, either by purchasing it or on the initiative of their masters, the church or the secular authority. The thrall system was finally abolished in Scandinavia in the mid-14th century.
- Ben Raffield (2019) "The slave markets of the Viking world: comparative perspectives on an ‘invisible archaeology’." Slavery & Abolition, 40:4, 682-705
- Thomas K. Heebøll-Holm (2020) "Piratical slave-raiding – the demise of a Viking practice in high medieval Denmark" Scandinavian Journal of History
- 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
- In Alemannic law, slaves could not be sold outside of one's own province (37.1). A slave's owner was entitled to pass judgement on him but only within the law (37.2). Slaves were not allowed to work on Sundays.(38)
- Thus, in Alemannic law, the death of an (unfree) blacksmith was to be compensated by 40 shillings and the death of a goldsmith by 50 shillings. If either a blacksmith or a goldsmith was maimed (losing their ability to do skilled work), the compensation was 15 shillings (Leges Alamannorum 41).
- 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.
- Niels Skyum-Nielsen, "Nordic Slavery in an International Context," Medieval Scandinavia 11 (1978–79) 126-48