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A Viking offers a slave girl to a Persian merchant.

Ruthless Perception of Vikings Returns as Evidence of the Use of Slaves During the Viking Age Comes into Focus Yet Again

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Over the last few years the perception of Vikings has been ever sliding on the scale from less to more brutish. Things are getting closer to the “ruthless” end of the scale yet again, as researchers are once more examining evidence that slavery was an essential element to life during the Viking age.

“This was a slave economy. [Viking Age] slavery has received hardly any attention in the past 30 years, but now we have opportunities using archaeological tools to change this.” Neil Price, an archaeologist at Sweden’s Uppsala University, told National Geographic.

Price has a research interest in slavery in the Viking Age economy, and recently discussed the topic at a meeting of archaeologists who share his interest in slavery and colonization. Another researcher who has taken an interest in this theme is David Wyatt.

Wyatt, of Cardiff University, spoke of the Viking use of slaves in a lecture during a series of seminars entitled The Dark Ages’ Dirty Secret? Medieval slavery from the British Isles to the Eurasian steppes and the Mediterranean world. These seminars were held in Oxford from April-June this year. Wyatt’s seminar provided a great deal of evidence of the Vikings use of slavery from historical sources, such as Sagas.

However, the idea of thralls (the word for slave in Old Norse) being a part of the Viking lifestyle is not completely new information to archaeologists. As Ancient Origins reported in 2013: “a number of Viking graves have included the remains of slaves as “grave goods.””

The 2013 burial discovered in Flakstad, Norway, contained several bodies of decapitated thralls buried with their masters. The identity of the decapitated individuals as slaves was made by an analysis of the diets of the dead. The individuals without their heads had simpler diets of seafood, and were named as the thralls of those who were buried with their heads intact and diets that contained milk and beef.

‘Slaves and thralls in the Viking Age.’

‘Slaves and thralls in the Viking Age.’ (National Museum of Denmark)

Although the topic remains controversial, in 2013, Elise Naumann, an archaeologist at the University of Oslo in Norway, explained that the thralls could have been sacrificed to be placed in the graves of their masters: "We propose that the people buried in double and triple burials might have come from very different strata of society, and that slaves could have been offered as grave gifts in these burials." The sacrifice of thralls as “grave goods” would further demonstrate their importance to the lives and afterlives of Norsemen.

Researchers have not only shown interest in the role of thralls as sacrificial victims, but also the way that they were obtained by the Vikings. Price says that a desire to increase the number of thralls “was a very significant motivator in raiding.”

As the National Museum of Denmark notes: slaves were primarily acquired on Viking expeditions to Eastern Europe and the British Isles. However, this was not the only source for thralls, as “they could also obtain Viking slaves at home, as crimes like murder and thievery were punished with slavery.”

One of the main reasons suggested for the use of thralls by the Vikings was the need for a larger workforce The principal product could have been textile work (especially wool for ship sails). Nevertheless, slave trading was also an important aspect to the Viking economy, and it has been argued that the term slave arose from the heavy targeting of Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe by the Vikings (and other European slave traders.) Major slave trading centers for the Vikings have been identified at Hedeby and Bolghar on the Volga.

‘Trade negotiations in the country of Eastern Slavs.’ (1909) By Sergei Vasilyevich Ivanov.

‘Trade negotiations in the country of Eastern Slavs.’ (1909) By Sergei Vasilyevich Ivanov. (Public Domain)

Researchers have also suggested that the women abducted during Viking raids were taken as concubines, domestic workers, cooks, and perhaps even as brides. This last proposition arises from a belief that Vikings were a polygamous society – which would have made it more difficult for non-elite men to acquire a bride.

The Annals of Ulster, with entries spanning 431- 1540, provides textual evidence of “a great number of women” being taken captive by “the heathens” (which some scholars suggest refers to Vikings) in Étar (near Dublin, Ireland) in 821 AD. These annals of Medieval Ireland also provide several other examples of the Viking “heathens” attacking, plundering, and abducting people from the area.

‘Les pirates normands au IXe siècle’ (Norman pirates in the 9th century) by Évariste-Vital Luminais (1894).

‘Les pirates normands au IXe siècle’ (Norman pirates in the 9th century) by Évariste-Vital Luminais (1894). (Public Domain)

The renewed interest in literary and other material evidence of the Viking use of slaves over in recent years suggests that the perception of Vikings may be changing more heavily towards the ruthless perspective yet again…however, for some scholars it is probable that the view of a gentle Viking never existed, and for others it will not change.

Featured Image: A Viking offers a slave girl to a Persian merchant. Source: Tom Lovell/National Geographic

By: Alicia McDermott



Why 'ruthless' and 'shameful'? That was how the world operated back then. It's very silly and pointless to hold the past world against the niceties of the current one. People should not get their feelings hurt about archaeological discovery or refinement of knowledge.

Ancient Greek society ran on slave labour and does anyone describe them as “ruthless”? 


Very true. And ruthless? Compared to what - the sweetness and light Christians who forced conversions? The Muslims, who also effectively forced conversions [at various times, though they did have laws about treating the various People of the Book differently at various times] Compared to the type of Christians who would murder 20 000 different Christians and comment "Kill them all, God will know his own"?

It was a coarser and more violent time, and as you say, everybody else had slavery so why not them.

Virtually every society prior to the 19th Century had slaves. Why would the Vikings be any different?

Alicia McDermott's picture


Alicia McDermott holds degrees in Anthropology, Psychology, and International Development Studies and has worked in various fields such as education, anthropology, and tourism. Traveling throughout Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, Alicia has focused much of her research on Andean cultures... Read More

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