Recent research has seen a shift in focus toward the analysis and explanation of the role of slavery in Viking societies.
Slavery was an intrinsic part of the societal fabric of the early medieval Scandinavian and Baltic region, the Viking backyard. Historians have argued that it so underpinned the economics of Viking societies that it was a quest for more pressed flesh that helped spur on Viking expansion and settlement.
The range and scope of roles for enslaved individuals varied widely, from those serving the elites - potentially sleeping under a warm roof - to individuals subjected to sexual exploitation and those compelled to endure harsh labor until their death.
A rigid hierarchy was evident wherever people from Viking societies roamed. There was always a master and always a servant.
The vast supply of cheap slaves - often captured enemies or innocent villagers from Slavic, Baltic, or British coastal communities - enabled even the most modest members of Viking societies to have access to forced labor.
It was not just in the domestic sphere that this master and servant relationship existed. It was also spread to military matters and the battlefield.
A battlefield servant?
The Vikings dominated the early medieval period in Northern Europe, a time so impactful that some have labeled it as the Viking Age, spanning from around 750 CE to 1100 CE.
However, it wasn't merely an era of Vikings but also a period of political insecurity and the evolution of warfare.
The evolution of warfare, transitioning from the vast standing armies of Rome to the beloved knights of the later medieval period, saw a reduction in size and scale during the Viking era.
While the Romans could muster extensive armies with sophisticated logistics, such capabilities had diminished by the late 8th century CE. At that time, a "huge" army may have consisted of only a few hundred individuals equipped with a motley arrangement of armor and weapons.
In military technology and scope, it got worse before it got better.
That isn't to say that there wasn't a level of sophistication. One of the most unique features of Viking and Anglo-Saxon warfare was the presence of huscarls.
Huscarls are believed to have originated from the Old Norse word huskarlar, which linguists have defined as something akin to "house man."
However, these men were very much out of the house as they were chosen to be personal bodyguards of their lord and liege, sometimes a Jarl, sometimes a Viking king.
Elite nobles, elite warriors
Not everyone could become a huscarl, though - one had to have a certain degree of "blue blood."
They were selected from the nobility, and even then, you must have a reputation for both loyalty and martial skill.
Huscarls were selected for their fidelity and were required to swear an oath of loyalty to their master. In the heat of the battle, they would often form an extra layer of defense, bravely defending said lord.
This oath of loyalty was seen as a sacred bond that only death could break.
Should the huscarl not fulfill this fidelity on the battlefield, there were grave consequences ranging from exile to the pain of death.
What separated the huscarls from other warriors that Viking or Anglo-Saxon elites could muster was that they were professional warriors.
Their well-equipped arsenal and armor made them deliberately visible on the battlefield, adding an extra psychological edge.
They were skilled in various battle techniques, from archery to hand-to-hand combat.
- READ MORE: A complete guide to Viking weaponry
The role of Huscarls was pivotal in early medieval Europe's grand battles, such as the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Illustration: The Viking Herald
A pivotal feature of Anglo-Saxon and Viking battles
Huscarls played a significant role in some of early medieval Europe's grandest battles.
Despite linguistic and cultural differences, the Anglo-Saxon and Viking worlds were united, at least in military terms, in their reliance on huscarls in any pitched battle.
Perhaps the earliest example of the use of huscarls was by Wessex King Alfred the Great in Edington (878 CE).
His huscarls helped stave off the marauding and larger Viking force and secured a famous win for the embattled Anglo-Saxon king.
This victory would allow Alfred to fight another day and his kingdom, Wessex, to remain (mostly) free from the clutches of the Vikings.
Hardrada, one of the most feared warriors of his day and a former captain of the Varangian Guard, led a force that landed in Northumbria. His aim was to march on London and seize the English throne from Harold Godwinson.
Godwinson's men rushed northward to meet Hardrada (who was also supported by Harold's brother, Tostig - talk about a familial stab in the back!) and meet at Fulford in 1066 CE.
Harold's huscarls fought bravely but were easily dispatched.
This, perhaps, made Hardrada overconfident when the two sides met again days later at Stamford Bridge – that second most famous of battles that took place in that year.
This time, Hardrada overplayed his hand. Hubris was his downfall, as he was too lightly equipped to deal with the Anglo-Saxon force.
Unlike Fulford, the huscarls that fought at Stamford Bridge were devastatingly effective and ended up killing Hardrada himself, who was bravely defended by his huscarls but to no avail.
Some historians have argued that the great Viking Age died with his death.
Huscarls were prominent and respected members of both Anglo-Saxon and Viking societies. Often playing a crucial and deciding role in battles, their loyalty and martial skill helped provide protection for their lords on the battlefield and the throne.
Inseparable from the liege they served, huscarls left a lasting impact on the societal, cultural, and military histories of the regions they fought in.
For more on how some Anglo-Saxon communities fought back against the Vikings, visit Heritage Daily here.
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