Micel Folcland’s portrayal of slavery in the Viking Age is a portrayal of what was common at the time. It is not, in any way, an endorsement of the practice!
You can find the concept and practice of slavery throughout history, in nearly every culture and religion, from ancient times to the present. However the social, economic, and legal position of slaves and Klein and Vinson in, African Slavery in Latin America and the. Caribbean, noted that slavery was also vastly different in different times and places. Most folk in the United States—and other present-day nations as well—can only think of slavery in terms of the American pre-bellum ideal, based on race and rationalized by claims that the African natives were being converted to Christian belief.
Both the Englisc and the Norse peoples had slaves. The Englisc referred to a slave as a þeow or a þræl (bondsman or slave), while the Norse referred to a þrall or þræll (a wretch or a scoundrel). A female Norse slave was sometimes known as an ambátt, although this may have exclusively referred to sex slaves. Many concubines—frillur—were ambátts at least in the heathen times.
Slaves were routinely bought and sold. Running away was also common and slavery was never a major economic factor in the British Isles during the Viking Ages, though Ireland and Denmark provided ready markets for captured Anglo-Saxon and Celtic slaves. Slavery was so ubiquitous in Europe in the early middle ages that Pope Gregory I reputedly made the pun, Non Angli, sed Angeli (“Not Angles, but Angels”), after a response to his query regarding the identity of a group of fair-haired Angles, slave children whom he had observed in the marketplace. This chance phrase has been asserted as the origin of the term “Angle” and “Anglo-.”
Ruth Johnson in her encyclopedia of medieval subject, All Things Medieval, notes that all homes and businesses had repetitive, unskilled manual duties, and if possible, servants or slaves were engaged to do these tasks. There were few differences, it seems, between servants and slaves for the most part, though there were almost certainly differences that probably had to do with punishment and travel.
In the past few years, a new appreciation of artistic triumphs during what had been erroneously called “the Dark Ages” (and still is by many persons unaware of the actual cultures), have inspired certain people who dislike the idea of revisionist history, and they have written article detailing the thuggery of the time and have attempted to emphasize the inhumanity of slavery to justify their continued use of the term “Dark Ages.” Often, these writers tend to emphasize the worst aspects of slavery practices and to associate it more with what is familiar to them for later slavery.
We do not want to assert the benign nature of slavery by any means, and slavery was indeed the lowest social status for members of the Norse and the Englisc society, but there were few differences between slavery and other lower classes. We certainly cannot use it to tear down the society in general!
Acquisition of Slaves
There were five main ways that slaves were acquired. The first was that the children of a female slave—no matter whether the father was free—was a slave. The child might be manumitted by the owner, but this was not a automatic.
The second was that slaves were the spoils of war, raiding and other violent encounters. An amusing story is given of an Irishman called Murchad, who was captured by Vikings and sold to a nunnery in Northumbria. After seducing all the nuns, he was recaptured by Vikings and sold to a widow in Saxony, whom he also seduced! After many adventures Murchad eventually returned home to be reunited with his family. Not all accounts of slavery were so amusing and so well ended, but they certainly did happen.
The third is the slave trade, where slaves were purchased or even given as tribute. Slaves could also be acquired by the individuals by paying for them. The slaves for the slave market were made available in a number of ways—see the other sources for acquisition—and it is interesting to note that few slave markets or accounts exist in more advanced societies. It has been suggested that captured poisoners from more affluent areas were ransomed instead of being enslaved.
Prices for slaves, of course, varied, but Ben Levick and Roland Williamson gave the average price of a male was 197.5 pence (about $8000) for a male and 131.5 pence (about $5000) for a female.
The fourth way is that slavery was voluntary by people going through hard times. Sometimes this was for relief of debt, where the new owner took over the debts of the slave. Many times, slavery for debts was for a limited time—closer to being indentured than to being enslaved proper, and we can assume that the treatment of these slaves was more amiable than the treatment of other slaves. The fact that people willingly sold them and their family into slavery indicates that slavery at the time was very different than that of later times.
The fifth way was that, like today, slavery was a punishment for breaking laws. It appears that so-called penal slavery was imposed not only on the criminal but upon his or her family.
Trivia to Enslave Your Interest
Slaves were property, just as in most other times. They could be beaten and slain at the owner’s whim, but this was not apparently done often, since they were property and, therefore, money in the owner’s pouch. Ahmed ibn Fadlan tells of how slave girls were sacrificed at the funerals of their owners in heathen times so that they could accompany their lords to the after life. This was not a unilateral decision, apparently, the sacrifice apparently approached it like the sacrifices in some South American cultures, as an honor.
Slaves were often manumitted. Generally for payment of what they were worth. Owners seemed to often help slaves acquire the cost for their freedom.
It appears that slaves wore iron collars when being led to and from slave markets, but seldom wore them when settled into a home. Most people had two or three slaves it seems, and they were often treated as members of the family.
Slaves had knives. This was guaranteed by law; smaller knives were tools, not weapons.
There was a tendency for slaves to have short hair to help distinguish them if they ran away, and to wear tunics—generally made of rough fabric, although many slaves, and particularly ambátts, were given dress of very rich fabric—with no sleeves and high hems for the women’s skirt. Þor Ewing notes: that illustrations of some women—trolls but probably based in reality–were very short indeed!
Slaves who were manumitted became freedmen and not freemen. This was the very lowest status of society, and it seems that freedmen were not given the liberty to travel and may have been the progenitor of serfdom.
If a slave was killed or injured by someone other than his master, the offender had to pay the master the equivalent of the slave’s weregild (man price, the financial recompense given for violation, for injury, for loss of a body part or death). This same philosophy was used in fines for loss of any other property or livestock. No money was given to the slave except by the decision and action of the owner.
On the whole, there were few laws regarding slavery. A slave-owner had the obligation to provide medical care and a living for slave who were injured or crippled in their service. Slaves had to be granted permission by their owners to own real property and become married, though some slaves were given plots of land by their masters to raise and sell produce. The slave’s goal was to accumulate enough money to eventually purchase his own freedom.
The Norse had rituals of manumission, during which the slave was freed. In Iceland, the slave was inducted into the law, (lögleiddr), and functionally given citizenship.
The “End” of Slavery
Christianity saw the end of much slavery in Christian Europe, though the Church did not outlaw it directly and, as noted above, owned slaves themselves. The church did call for better treatment of slaves—for example, owners were forbidden to kill or maim slaves during lent—and they encouraged the manumission of slaves as acts of piety. However, it is worth noting that this was done mainly because the Church disliked the treating of Christians as slaves by other Christian. They were entirely accepting of the treatment of persons from other faiths, such as Moors, as slaves, and this philosophy continued through many later periods and might well be the source of pre-bellum American slavery.
There was an apparent uneasiness about slavery by the eleventh century, and many wealthy folks made certain that their slaves were manumitted in their wills. Slavery, for the most part, was ended in the start of the twelfth century, being replaced by the new concept of serfs and feudalism which was less extreme but in many ways no more permissive than many instances of earlier slavery. The reason was not a matter of morality but rather of economics. Slavery was no longer economical to maintain.
As Robert Lacey and Danny Danzinger note, “in the year 1000 very few people were free in the sense that we understand the word today. Almost everyone was beholden to someone more powerful than themselves, and the men and women who had surrendered themselves into bondage lived in conditions that were little difference to those of any other member of the labouring classes. ‘Slave’ is the only way to describe their servitude, but we should not envision them manacled like a galley slave in ancient times, or living in segregated barracks like eighteenth-century slaves on their cotton plantations—or indeed like the workers in South African mines in our own time.”