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Thrall (Old Norse þræll) was the term for a slave or unfree servant in Scandinavian culture during the Viking Age. Thralls were the lowest in the social order and usually provided unskilled labor during the Viking era.[1]


[edit] Etymology

Thrall is from the Old Norse þræll meaning a person who is in bondage or slavery. The Old Norse term was loaned into late Old English, as þræl. The corresponding native term in Anglo-Saxon society was þeow or esne.

The term is from a Common Germanic root *þreh- "to run" and the Old Norse term in origin referred to "a runner". Old High German had a cognate, dregil "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).[2]

[edit] Background

Slavery was one of the primary sources of income for the Norsemen.[3] Unlike many of the forms of slavery throughout human history, the state of being a thrall could be entered into voluntarily, as well as involuntarily. Thralls were first described by the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote in 98 AD that the Swedes (Suiones) had no right to carry arms, but that the weapons were locked inside and protected by a slave only to be distributed when they were attacked by enemies.[4]

[edit] Class system

Like most medieval peoples, the Vikings had a rigidly stratified caste system. At the bottom of the social order existed those who were unfree: these were termed thrall, which literally meant, "an unfree servant." A person could become a thrall by giving himself up because of starvation, being captured and sold, or being born into a thrall family. The first was considered to be the most shameful way of entering slavery and was the first method of acquiring slaves to be forbidden. The most common way of acquiring thralls remained the capture of prisoners in foreign countries or the buying of such captured foreigners. As in the Roman practice of slavery, thralls in Scandinavia could be of any ethnic origin. Furthermore, a thrall had a certain social status, but to a lesser degree than other classes in the society, regarded somewhat like a domestic worker.[5]

The master of a thrall had the power of their life and death. A thrall might be a human sacrifice in the funeral of a Viking chief. A child born to a thrall woman was a thrall by birth, whereas a child born to a free woman was a free person even if the father was a thrall.[6]

When Christianity arrived in Northern Europe, there was increasing demand for non-Christian slaves, and the Scandinavians had a de facto monopoly on trading them because of geographic access to large non-Christian populations. In 1043 Hallvard Vebjørnsson, the son of a local nobleman in the district of Lier, was killed while trying to defend a thrall woman from men who accused her of theft. His act was strongly approved of by the Church, which recognized him as a martyr, canonized and venerated him as Saint Hallvard, the Patron Saint of Oslo.[7]

Despite the existence of this caste system, Thralls were still able to experience a level of fluidity not seen in other forms of slavery. 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' 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.[8] Also if the freedman had no descendants his former master inherited his land and property.[9]

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 were monetary consequences for unlawfully killing a slave.[10]

[edit] Uses of thralls

While there are some estimation of as many as thirty slaves per household, most families only owned one or two slaves.[11]

Considerable labor was needed to maintain a Scandinavian farm, and thralls did the dirtiest and toughest jobs. Women often performed household tasks such as churning butter, cooking, or weaving, as well as providing unlimited sexual gratification for their male masters. Male thralls raked manure, chopped wood, and herded animals.[12] Both sexes toiled in the fields to harvest grain and other crops. In the Viking Age free men were occasionally away raiding, and thralls would take care of the farm in their absence. These jobs were distinguished in the Lay of Rig, a Scandinavian legend that describes the god Rig sleeping with three different couples to produce the three classes, Thralls, Karls, and Jarls. The poem goes on to describe the look, demeanor, and type of labor expected for each class:

Gave Edda birth to a boy child then, the swarthy-skinned one.
Thrall they called him, dark was his hair and dull his eyes.
He began to grow and gain in strength, betimes took him to try his might:
to bind bast ropes, burdens to packs, to bear faggots home the whole day long.
In their hut, happy, they had a brood: I ween they were hight Hay-Giver, Howler, Bastard, Sluggard, Bent-Back and Paunch, Stumpy, Stinker, Stableboy, Swarthy, Longshanks and Lout: they laid fences, put dung on fields, fattened the swine, herded the goats, and grubbed up peat.[13]

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Thrall (Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2009) http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/thrall%27s?r=14
  2. ^ OED
  3. ^ Roesdahl, Else. The Vikings. 2nd Ed. Translated by Susan M. Margeson and Kirsten Williams. Penguin Books: England, 1998. 53.
  4. ^ The Origin and Situation of the Germans. (written by Gaius Cornelius Tacitus. English translation by Thomas Gordon. From an edition included in the Harvard Classics, 1910) http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/tacitus-germanygord.html
  5. ^ Slavery and Thralldom: The Unfree in Viking Scandinavia (The Viking Answer Lady) http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/thralls.shtml
  6. ^ Viking Social Organisation (Regia Anglorum Publications. 2002) http://www.regia.org/viking2.htm
  7. ^ St. Hallvard (Catholic Online. 2009) http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=658
  8. ^ Sawyer, P.H. Kings and Vikings. Methuen: New York, 1982. 39.
  9. ^ Eyrbyggja Saga, Chapter 37.
  10. ^ Sawyer, P.H. Kings and Vikings. Methuen: New York, 1982. 43.
  11. ^ Sawyer, P.H. Kings and Vikings. Methuen: New York, 1982. 39.
  12. ^ Roesdahl, Else. The Vikings. 2nd Ed. Translated by Susan M. Margeson and Kirsten Williams. Penguin Books: England, 1998. 54.
  13. ^ The Lay of Rig, Rigspula[citation needed]

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