Since the untimely death of George Floyd in 2020, sparking the Black Lives Matter protest movement first in the United States and then in many other countries worldwide, many of us have been given crash courses in American history and the experience of slavery. 

Yet American society, from the first beginnings of European settlement until the final surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at a courthouse in Appomattox in 1865, was not the only society in history that was underpinned by slavery. 

Any glance at world history, and you will see that slave societies are not the wicked exception but the norm. 

Wind the clock back almost a millennium from the fields of Gettysburg and cross the mighty Atlantic Ocean, and you will find another economy built upon the foundation of human bondage: Viking societies. 

In fact, many great Viking settlements, from Birka to Bristol (which saw recent anger vented on a statue of a later slave trader, 18th-century merchant Edward Colston) and Dublin to Hedeby, were founded as trading posts for slavery, as economic hubs for the business of selling souls. 

Stefan Brink, in his new book, Thralldom: A History of Slavery in the Viking Age, gives us a timely crash course in the multifaceted nature of slavery in the Viking world. 

Whilst the slaves and their traders have long vanished, this history reveals the critical importance of slavery to Viking societies – not only as a motive for their economic and military expansion but also as an indispensable source of free labor at home and on farms. 

Brink examines slavery during the Viking era, focusing on captivity resulting from warfare and societal structures. He identifies contradictions with Christian beliefs and explores ethical debates around freedom and morality. Illustration: The Viking Herald

The complexities of Viking slavery 

Whilst a prelude to Thralldom links the ancient and modern slave markets of Europe, North Africa, and North America, the focus is on the history of slavery in the Viking era (c. 750 – 1100). 

Despite the spread and proliferation of Christianity throughout Scandinavia during this period, slavery was an integral part of Viking society right up until the end of this era. 

This directly contradicted Christian teachings and the Catholic Church's authority. 

However, we're getting ahead of ourselves. 

Brink first examines the enslavement of captives through warfare and raids but also the various forms of forced servitude that existed within Norse society. 

There are philosophical discussions on what constitutes freedom – and how that has changed since the era of Vikings. 

Brink's philosophical approach also expands to the ethical and moral dimensions of slavery, addressing the questions of agency, resistance, and cultural attitudes towards forced servitude in the Viking world. 

Brink offers a closer look at how Viking communities were intricately connected to the practice of slavery, detailing the economic and social dimensions of this relationship. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Freedom, power, and exploitation 

The majority of the book, however, is dedicated to Brink's contextualization of Viking slavery within broader historical and cultural frameworks, drawing on a wealth of archeological evidence, legal texts, and even scouring the sagas to paint a richly detailed picture of slave life during the Viking Age. 

There is even a chapter devoted to runic inscriptions of slavery, including a runestone from Jutland, Denmark, that details how one lucky smith, Toki, was freed. 

The overwhelming majority of his fellow thralls did not possess his luck. 

Especially noteworthy is Brink's exploration of the economic functions of slavery, such as its role in agricultural production, crafts, and trade. 

Brink also addresses the legacy of Viking slavery and its impact on subsequent historical developments in Scandinavia and beyond. 

What Brink delivers is a thoughtful and insightful exploration of one of the most overlooked aspects of Viking societies. It should contribute to ongoing discussions about freedom, power, exploitation, and human beings. 

Thralldom: A History of Slavery in the Viking Age by Stefan Brink is available for purchase on Amazon here

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