It should go without saying that there is a scale of accuracy in living-history practices, and it is this scale that I would like to examine today.
If they’da haddit, they woulda used it. The existence of objects—or references in accounts written before the present or modern interpretations or period facts or a desire to believe that fantasy is actually true—is seen by many dabblers in living history as provenance for its existence and use. For example:
• The trousers of Ragnar Lodbrok (Shaggybreeches) were made of fur coated with pitch
• Leather reindeer armor is mentioned in a saga
• Bersarks were a common feature of the Scandinavian culture
• Shields were elaborately detailed
• The so-called “blood eagle” was a common Norse torture
• Viking warriors all wore horned helmets
• The copper Buddha indicated that there was a Buddhist subculture in Sweden
Unfortunately, there is little reason to justify the existence of many such objects. Most if not all of these are reenactorisms. Even the single physical existence of an object—or an interpretation that such an object or action might have existed—does not provide justification for its wide use. Let us look closer at these cases of “provenance” for wide and justified usage.
Fur trousers has no provenance except in the stores of Ragnar, and there it might be a fantasy or might simply be so unusual that it is not only stressed but giv3es him his soubriquet.
While leather trousers might have been worn as work clothing (in one translation, Ælfric indicates that leather breeches were manufactured), they do not appear to have been armor.
Because many of these are so obviously plot devices in sagas, or misinterpretation of earlier writings. The concept of bersarks, for example, certainly seems not to have dated much earlier than the twelfth century (the object in the Lewis chessmen of a warrior biting his shield) and perhaps no earlier than the thirteenth century). The appearance of the bersarks in sagas—tales written down by Christians for a Christian audience—are both late and obviously plot devices. Reindeer leather—not only notoriously thin but enchanted—is obviously not a practical thing. We cannot assume that every warrior went around in leather armor (enchanted or not) because of its appearance in a saga, but it becomes a reason for many reenactors to wear leather armor. Accepting even the appearance of the enchanted reindeer armor in the sagas as true fact is somewhat similar to embracing ghosts, divination and other supernatural events as the gospel truth since they appear in sagas!
Most shields seem to have had simple geometric designs (see the Gokstad shields) and not elaborate motifs. After all, most shields were apparently expected to serve for a single battle so elaborate designs would only have been temporary and had to be repeated for any later shields.
The blood eagle—the lungs of a living person are drawn out through incisions in the back so that they look like wings—was a discreditrf interpretation of a poetic kenning in a poem of Ivar the Boneless in which the poet marked an eagle on the back of Ælla, his enemy. It was probably a poetic kenning, referring to the fact that he was killed and made likely food for carrion birds, but later interpretations changed into a factual appearance and has continued to evolve so that now salt is rubbed into the wounds to increase Ælla’s torment.
Undoubtedly, the idea of Viking helmets with cow horns first appeared in the nineteenth century, although there is some indication that heathen priests of a thousand years before performed rituals while wearing metal protuberances which could be interpreted as horns, and many people wishing to justify their use of horned helmets will spin this as provenance.
There is little doubt that the Buddha actually exists, but that does not mean that it was commonly found. The Buddha was manufactured in India and was apparently passed from merchant to merchant until it ended up in Holgö Sweden. It seems to have been a unique object in the Scandinavia world, perhaps picked up for sentimental reason and not an indication of the proof the Buddhist faith in the culture and certainly not that everyone went out to obtain a Buddha to be part of the in crowd (the so-called Buddha on the bucket is merely an imaginative interpretation in my opinion).
Many people religiously believe the old trope that something would logically exist—using modern logic—even if such an article has not been found. For some people, especially members of fantasy LARPs, a single occurrence or literary reference is all that is needed to adapt these into their appearances, and the multiple appearance of a unique artifact is not only tolerated but encouraged. To have a whole bucketload of supposedly unique things is considered commendable. One such person said that his personal attempts to “recreate” the culture of the past hinges on the appearance of unique and romantic items. They speak the loudest to him, and they represent what sort of an impression that he wishes to present. He seeks to avoid the more usual and conventional objects and to present unusual items as the artifacts that define that earlier time. It is as though he has been most influenced by popular culture, by novels and film about the era.
I call this trying to find an individual occurrence to justify an existing supposition to be retro-research. For me, retro-research is frustrating and causes anyone who does it to grasp at straws: To read something and then to try to interpret it in the manner that best supports the theory the reader wants to prove.
At the other end of the scale from what I choose to call romantic recreation is a more common convention in living history, that reenactors should be trying to recreate the ordinary life of the time. A person must find at least three occurrences of an artifact or three separate literary descriptions before it can be considered factual and routinely used or done. Determining what are three separate descriptions and not merely a duplication of something from an earlier account or source can sometimes be difficult, but this is one reason that extensive research is essential to good living history!
There are people who proclaim that they hate the authenticity police and want to be able to do anything that is not from the present day or at least common in the present day. There are people who say that unless an object or action has at least three proven and separate instances, you should avoid its use even if some object is needed and the proven article is unavailable, too expensive or dangerous. Many people take up a position somewhere in the center, and I suppose that if I was totally honest, I do as well. But I certainly veer toward the more accurate end of the scale!
What about you?
Homosexuality did not exist until 1869, when the German Austrian-born novelist, Karl-Maria Kertbeny, used the term in a pamphlet against Prussian anti-sodomy laws. It did go into popular use until almost twenty years later, when Richard von Krafft-Ebing used the terms homosexual and heterosexual in his book Psychopathia Sexualis, and it did not lead to the creation of a distinct sub-culture until even later.
Before this time, homosexuality was neither a culture nor a description; instead, people were more concerned with physical activities. Therefore, a common description of what we now call a homosexual was sodomite, which referred of course to sodomy—defined as man on man sex—which was decried by a church which was concerned with any sexual activity that did not lead to procreation.
And that brings us to the whole question of homosexuality in the Viking Age. By this time, the Anglo-Saxons had been converted for several centuries, so they probably followed the Church’s prejudices fairly well, at least in public. However, the Norse converted toward the end of the era, and we already know of the various ways in which the Norse went their own way in cases of activities, beliefs and practices. Let us look for a moment at the manner in which the Norse approached sodomy and same-gender affection.
Let’s face it, the Church little cared about same-gender affection; it was the act of sodomy to which they objected. If you look at correspondence and actions later in time, such intimate friendships were criticized only when they involved people of different classes. Norse laws, poetry and folklore were not written down in general until after the Viking Age, when Christianity was already deeply rooted, and much of what is generally thought of as indicative of Norse culture was invented by Christians from Christian viewpoints.
As Christine Ward-Wiedland motes, “myths and legends show that honored gods and heroes were believed to have taken part in homosexual acts, which may indicate that pre-Christian Viking Scandinavia was more tolerant of homosexuality.” The fact that during the Christian era that laws had to be drafted which dealt with and had injunctions against homosexuality is of the same cloth as etiquette rules: Their very existence indicate that people performed these activities.
Wolf notes that “Heterosexuality was the norm in Viking-age Scandinavia, but that homosexual relations between men were recognized as social phenomena were clear from Old Norse-Icelandic literature, especially the sagas.” While on the one hand, there was a general Norse dislike of effeminate men as well as non-effeminate women, this apparently had nothing to do with private sexual practices but instead with public behavior. In fact, the only offense noted in the secular law only prohibited the actions of the passive male.
However, it is interesting to note that “The secular laws of Viking Age Iceland do not mention homosexuality. The only place where homosexuality is documentably prohibited is by the Christian Church.”
From all this, a single decision is inevitable, that the Norse allowed homosexuality so long as the homosexual was not betraying gender stereotypes. Literary evidence is unavailable except when seeing what the Church warns against—suggesting that such activities were being practiced—and since any literary accounts were written down by Christians, and of course adhered to the Christian mythos.
It is interesting to note that lesbianism was not mentioned, but it was pretty well standard. After all, “according to the church sexual desires were evil and sinful…therefore women were not to orgasm or enjoy sex. Many times sex with men was not gentle because it was not meant to please the woman. It seems likely to me that since there were often more men than women in a stead, that they might have turned to each other, like cowboys on the range in a later time, for sexual release. The men did not apparently object to this and, in that manner, they might have been behaving in ways very close to conventional sexist ways seen today!
It seems obvious from these and other references that the Norse were very likely to behave in a manner that was convenient and pleasurable, a freedom that is duplicated in the modern time!
Christine Ward-Wieland’s take on the subject may be found at The Viking Answer Lady.
I have noted many times that living history is an illusion (good living history is a good illusion, and good illusion is an accurate recreation of a past culture). It s not a spotty recreation whose gaps and failures are unseen and unnoticed by the reenactor (I am not castigating the bad reenactor as a bad person, just as very misguided one who cannot see what he is accomplishing; they are to me more the source of disappointment and sympathy).
The subject of this installment is not the spex at events, the modern tattoos, the improper fabrics & colors, the furry mukluks pr the bright red plastic grinder drills. I saw them all at the recent event, but the most disturbing thing was the attempt to break the illusion with modern views on politics and religion.
To a good extent, this was not on the part of the reenactors. Most reenactors—no matter how farby or how accurate—try to avoid modern politics and religion (there are a few exceptions, but these are people with a very loose interpretation of living history to begin with, along with a self-assured belief that their beliefs have ben predominant throughout history). Without exception a good reenactor does not bring up things like the Republican or Democratic or any other political party, about any democracy except that of early Iceland, or Lutheranism or Latter Day Saints or Scientology. You might bring these subjects up as a way of putting the past into perspective but only fleetingly and not for their own sake.
Despite the fact that many MoPs do not understand this and may want to desperately to personalize their religious beliefs to you, it is essential that a good reenactor remains faithful to this behavior. These MoPs seem to want to intrude their personal belief into the past or in fact believe that no one in the past could believe any different from what they believe.
A reenactor represents all living history when he is in costume. This means not only that he must be accurate in his portrayal but that he must take care not to offend the MoPs. There are several ways to be polite when confronted by this…
When they bring up these matters, unless you can very quickly and easily put their views into perspective as what was different from what was believed during the period, you should just ignore it and not say anything either favorably or unfavorably. And then as son as possible, break in and attempt to bring the conversation back to the early middle ages.
Most MoPs will take the hint, but there are certain zealots who want to impress upon you how wrong you are and how right they are. At that time, the only way that you can react is to just smile and nod and not say anything. Listen for them to finish their ranting, then nod and dismiss them, saying, I have to go do this. Thank you for talking to me. At no time do you encourage them to goon…even if you personally agree with what they are saying.
Take care not to argue with them…even if they say things as patently foolish as Jesus told us the world was flat. They are the people to be educated and not belittled, so they must always be treated with care and with respect…even if you might not ordinarily give them that respect!
SEVEN TIPS FOR GAINING MORE FROM YOUR VISIT TO THE PAST THAN YOU MIGHT OTHERWISE
We dress in historic costume. We attempt to do things as accurately to the period as we can without endangering ourselves or you. We are not time travelers or visitors from another time. We do not live in some kind of Amish community. We do not live in the past, and we appreciate the many aspects of modern technology that has made life better and safer and many times more satisfying.
But we like to pretend that we live in a culture that no longer exists, and we stand ready to share information with you how life was lived at that time. We stand ready to educate and to entertain you, and we are so very willing and able to answer your questions about the time, about the culture and about the items that we have on display. Feel free to ask and to interact, and here are a few tips for how to gain the most from speaking with us!
Just remember: There are no foolish questions. The only foolish question is one that is left unsaid!
1 Embrace the Unknown
When you visit our encampment, you are not traveling to your past. You are traveling to another country! For the past is another country. Like any foreign land, you might travel to, it is natural to have some assumptions about what it is like. Your assumptions may come from your high school history class or what you heard from a friend or a novel on historical romance or a film or teevee series. Unfortunately, what you have been told, what you have seen and what you have read is not necessarily all the truth and may even be fantasy or misinterpretation. We encourage you to bring your natural curiosity and be prepared to enlarge or revise your thinking!
2 Put the Screen Down
It is difficult to immerse yourself in the tenth century if there is a screen between you and the encampment and the reenactors. Do not let yourself get distracted taking photos or texting. There will be plenty of opportunities to pull out your phone or camera, but you will have more fun if you set them aside for at least a little bit. Remember, we are not just models for vacation pictures, we want to talk to you.
Do not be afraid to speak in modern English. Do not try to pretend that you are something you are not. Do not think that we can only talk about the time period and culture we portray and cannot put things into focus, talking about things that created this culture and what was later created from it. There is much of the culture that remains today, that is still important or that helped form it. We find it fascinating to put the culture into proper focus for us and you today!
3 Start a Conversation on the Right Foot
Ask difficult questions if that is what you want know, and do not feel bad. If we do not know the Answer—and that will happen, often more frequently than we would like it to happen—we will admit the ignorance, direct you to persons or other things that may answer them and discuss theories and probabilities with you. History is often not a set of dry and unchanging facts. It is often the interpretation of these facts, and it will often change because of perspective, because of new facts and because of reinterpretations of old facts. Some disdain this as revisionist history, and perhaps it is. However, it is not a terrible thing but a part of the evolution of understanding. Remember that what you hear today might well change in the future and is not the end of comment on the matter. Be amendable to change; remember that the objects discovered in the Staffordshire Hoard a few years ago changed much of what we thought and knew about earlier life.
Begin a conversation just like you would with any stranger: exchange small talk. Share some pleasantries. Just say Good Day, ask how they are doing, or where they are from. Comment on the weather. But do not be hesitant to ask questions.
Some guests hesitate, especially in potentially sensitive situations such as slavery or prejudices or massacres or religious intolerance. These are all parts of the past and are important to the construction of how we view the past. Unless it is relevant, we will not speak on modern politics or religion. We are very consciously apolitical and religious.
Just say hello, remember that simply being polite goes a long way.
4 Let Your Guard down
Do not be frightened or intimidated by our costumes or our tools or that sword that is always nearby. Let go of the present and go into the moment—even if that moment is a thousand years ago.
Reenactors sometimes think of themselves as “playful scholars,” people who are deeply committed to conveying their passions to you but find it amusing and entertaining and who hope to pass these feelings on to you. Every reenactor has different interests and expertise, and no single reenactor will know everything. The reenactor will very happily refer you to another reenactor who might be able to answer your question, so you should not feel bad or hesitant. As we said, immerse yourself in the past, and feel free to ask questions of interest.
Play the game by letting us be your guide. Bring your own perspective. We will meet you wherever you want, help you be whomever you want and —hopefully—answer any questions you might have.
5 Ask Us Anything
You do not have to ask us about the fate of Vikings or the Englisc or anything else that is deemed important. Ask us trivial questions about the tools we use. Ask us about how clothing was constructed, how we worshiped our deities, how we made money (literally) and how we made so much of what you see. Ask me how I met our mates, about our children, about our friends (or enemies) and even about our pets and other animals. Ask about anything that might have been important in the culture we seek to recreate.
We are all afraid of feeling dumb sometimes. But remember when your high school teachers insisted there are no dumb questions. Even if you never believed them, you can believe that here.
We know that many of our guests have little frame of reference for a tenth-century world, and that means that sometimes they have to take a risk to make a connection. But we know that you are calling up whatever frame of reference you have and trying to make connections. And we appreciate it! So start with something simple, and work your way toward deeper questions. Do not be afraid to ask hard questions, since they will probably lead to an interesting conversation in any case.
6 Say Yes
We will go out of our way to say hello, to greet you and to draw you in. We might ask if you have any questions— we know you probably will and do not want you to hesitate asking them—and if we offer you a brochure that explains what we are trying to do or ask you a question or ask you to join us in a conversation or in a game or just to hold something, say yes. Trust us, and we promise not ne dangerous or will make you look foolish.
We are not trying to trick anyone, so believe our sincerity in helping you make the leap back in time. We appreciate the effort and will help you all that we can!
When you are watching us, we are watching you at the same time. We will not force you to do something you do not want to do, and we generally know when to leave you alone. In the end, we certainly respect you for choosing to spend your time visiting us.
7 Make Connections
It is not merely acceptable but encouraged to talk to any reenactor more than once during the day. We are not following a script, and we are not so absorbed in our own conversations that we will ignore you. Feel free to speak to us, even interrupt us if we are talking with a mate. You can feel free to come back and see us again, to continue a discussion, to ask a follow-up question, or to get another picture. You might be surprised that we remember you!
As you meet people during the day, try to put some of the historical pieces together. Make connections by figuring out how we relate to each other and how we might have related to the very world at that timer.
Have fun connecting the dots.
Inspired by “How to Talk to a Costumed Interpreter in 7 Easy Steps” by Bill Sullivan, published by Colonial Williamsburg
The most prevalent form of transportation was by foot. This was not only inexpensive, but most people never traveled more than ten miles away from home! Skis and skates (both used with ski poles) were known for balance and propulsion across the snow and ice in the North.
Two-wheeled vehicles were most frequently seen at this time, mainly for poorer people, since they were less expensive. Some define carts as conveyances that are propelled by only human labor, and carried timber, vegetables and other goods. See, for example, the June illustration of the Julius Work Calendar; this cart might well not be human-propelled, since we see oxen waiting nearby as the coach is loaded.
Chariots were popular in many civilizations early than the Viking Age, including the Roman, but had largely fallen out of use and popularity by this time, although once again semantics and definitions are important.
Waggons were heavier duty than carts, with four wheels and always pulled by animals. They were of varying complexity and appearance and were used to transport goods as well as persons.
Instead of wheels, sleighs had runners that enabled transportation across a flat surface, for example stone and, most frequently, snow. They were popular in Northern Europe; see the sleighs found in the Oseberg burial, for example, and were frequently elaborately ornamented. Sleighs, like carts and waggons, could be used to transport both cargo and human passengers, and they were almost invariably propelled by non-human meas. They were not so popular in areas which did not as much snow as other areas which did.
Horses were for the elite. Rarely, they rather than oxen or mules, pulled waggons or ploughs, but that was not their general use. The horses of th period was small, since they had not yet been interbred with the larger Arabian horses, and the smaller (and cunning) Icelandic horse was very similar to the general horses of the time. Sally Crawford notes, “Horse bridel fittings and trappings, and horse burial, are almost exclusively associated with male burial, suggesting that horse riding was an aspect of male, rather than female, elite identity (though it does not necessarily mean that women never rode horses.”
As Kevin Crossley-Holland notes, “sea power was essential to the success of Viking enterprises.” Because the name of the age was derived to a great extent from the Viking ship, the importance of ships and boats cannot be minimized. The importance of the crafts can be seen by such things as earlier inclusion in graves such as the Sutton Hoo burial (it is unknown whether these earlier ships had sails or if this was a Viking ship innovation), and later ships from a number of cultures imitated the Viking ships. They were quick and maneuverable and was replaced only taller ships which enabled extensive sea battles.
There were a number of Viking ships used at the time, including:
Open boat with two pair of oars.
Ocean-going trading ship (the truck of the Viking Age).
Coastal and river-sailing ship, transport ship.
Smallest longship, passenger ship, also known as a Karve..
A smaller longship, also known as a Snekke, Snekke or Snekkja.
A larger longship also known as a Drake, a Busse, a Skeid or a Sud, often used as a warship.
Roland Williamson notes that “I think they might have qualified each type by number of oars. Saexering and Fembering are names that come up. Also the various benches or thwarts on the boats and especially the bigger ones were ‘called’ rooms. So each room was two men in the crew.”
What many people think we know about the Norse religion was written down some two or three-hundred years after the close of the Viking Age by Snorri Sturluson, a Christian writer, for a Christian audience. He adopted many oral tales and wrote new ones that has more to do with Christian than with heathen theology.
The so-called Vulgate Latin translation of the Bible was done in the late fourth century at the direction of Pope Damasus I to revise the Vetus Latina collection of biblical texts in Latin then in use by the Church. The term “Vulgate” refers to the common tongue, which was used to describe the Latin tongue. Although it is called the Saint Jerome translation, it is conceivable that he did not translate it; but it remained the standard Latin translation until the sixteenth century, when strict Church authority over editions lessened, and further editing and interpretations were seen.
Although the translation of the Bible into common tongue from the Vulgate was later forbidden and deem heretical, leading to a great extent to the rise of the protestant faiths, it was commonly done during the Viking age and was routinely known as a gloss. Some editions of the Vulgate had the English translation–or gloss–written upon the page between the lines of the Latin.
Jesus was accepted as a god by many heathen Norse, but he was one deity among many, which irritated the Christian church. We are told in J. Sephton’s 1895 translation The Saga of King Olaf Tryggwason that:
“Helgi the Lean…was a Christian in name, but his faith was a very mixed one; for though he was baptized, and declared his belief in Christ, he made vows to Thor whenever he was engaged in seafaring, or any matter that required hardihood.”
The so-called Fenris cross was a tenth-century cross from Iceland and is probably a sample of what I refer to as a “Hedge Your Bets” cross. It features a Þor’s hammer with a Fenris Wolf at the top and a cross carved into the hammer itself. Some do not accept that interpretation, noting that crosses were used as motifs in heathen times without referring to Christianity.
Vikings did become Christians, but it is altogether possible that they also converted to Islam and to Judaism, though there is only a handful of such incidents recorded.
Early, “local” saints were just recognized as such as people in the area, and a person who was a saint in one area was not necessarily considered a saint in another. Saint Udalric was canonized by Pope John XV in 993 but some maintain that the first papal canonization was Saint Swibert by Pope Leo III in 804. Both local and papal canonization continued until 1153, and in 1170, only papal canonizations were thenceforth permitted.
There were three basic tonsures. These were shaving of the head done for religious purposes, and medieval monasteries even dictated who would use the hottest water for shaving.
With the Oriental method, the whole head was shaved. This was common in the Eastern Churches, though not in the Western Church. For example, Theodore of Tarsus—schooled in Byzantium—allowed his hair to grow out before being tonsured in the Roman style when he was ordained Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Vitalian in 668.
The Celtic style involved shaving the head from ear to ear, but there are no illustrations of the exact shape. The Celtic tonsure was worn in Ireland and Great Britain and was connected to the distinct set of practices known as Celtic Christianity. It was despised by those affiliated with the Roman church, and some sources have also suggested links between this tonsure and that allegedly worn by druids in the Pre-Roman Iron Age. it ended with the Synod of Whitby in 660, where Roman Christianity triumphed over Celtic.
In the predominant Roman tonsure, only the top of the head was shaved, allowing the hair to grow in the form of a crown. This was almost universally see in the Viking age.
The preaching cross is a cross—sometimes wooden and sometimes stone, sometimes surmounting a pulpit—originally erected before the construction of churches to designate a place where a preacher would preach and where worshipers might gather top hear him. Some of the stone crosses have elaborate carving and runes, incorporating heathen as well as Christian motifs, and some still exist today, with a church built around them or perhaps moved to a church.
Chastity often referred to legal sexual relations, and priests were allowed to wed until th eleventh century, although it was frowned upon by the Church itself. In the eleventh century, it was outright forbidden.
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.”