In Norway, there is a joke that the women are so beautiful because the Vikings quite literally stole the most beautiful women from all over Europe and the Near East.

Though somewhat crude – as it glosses over the history of rape and forced sexual slavery that Vikings subjected conquered women to – the joke does touch on an often overlooked feature of Viking society: slavery.

A fundamental part of Viking society

Slavery was not only a sad fact of life for many in Viking society but also a vital cog in its functioning.

The Vikings, like so many societies throughout history, from the Romans to the mid-19th century American South, used the acquisition and exploitation of humans to their benefit. 

The Vikings were, first and foremost, interested in slavery. For all their daring raids to pillage and plunder treasures throughout Europe, from the rivers of the Kievan Rus to Dublin and everywhere in between, one of the key resources looted and taken back to Scandinavia were humans.

Thrall: Viking slaves and serfs

One of the key features of Viking societies was the use of a thrall – either a slave or a serf throughout Scandinavian lands.

A thrall was the lowest run on the Viking social ladder and was mostly an enslaved prisoner of war from Viking campaigns.

Some estimates put the number of thralls to be approximately 2-3 per household throughout many Viking communities.

Despite the Viking society having a rather rigid caste system – where only Norse warriors could ever reach levels of power and influence – a thrall could experience some social mobility.

Once a thrall was freed – he (and it was only men that were generally freed) became a leysingi – a freedman. He still owed some allegiance to his master and would only become what we would associate as being totally free after two or three generations!

This system was eventually abolished in Scandinavia in the mid-14th century as many thralls obtained their freedom either through purchase or by the rulings of the Church or other more secular authorities. 

Vikings were seafaring people that raided, traded, and settled everywhere from (what is now) Canada to Constantinople. Photo: Dieterich01 / Pixabay

Female bondage and sexual slavery

One of the more disturbing details of Viking plunder and pillage that has been passed down to us through history is the sexual violence and imprisonment of local female populations.

Though not the first society to place importance on the capture of young girls and women, the Vikings developed a fierce reputation for it – mainly recorded through the eyes of fearing clerical figures throughout early medieval Europe. 

Some scholars have suggested that early Viking societies were polygamous, allowing powerful chiefs and rulers to marry multiple wives – leaving none for the hoi polloi.

This may have forced warriors, when undergoing raids for treasure, to capture women. Enslaved women were often raped repeatedly before being forced into a life of domestic servitude. 

DNA studies in Iceland

Some scholars have suggested that the Viking raids on what is now England, Scotland, and Ireland were solely down to the acquisition of women.

These Norsemen, so the theory goes, were on the way to settling Iceland, but there was an inadequate level of the female population to go along with the settlers. Raids were conducted in the British Isles to "stock up" on women. 

This theory has been backed with the help of modern DNA research.

One study found that whilst 80% of the Icelandic men surveyed had "Norse" (Norwegian, Swedish or Danish) DNA. However, for the Icelandic females surveyed, over 50% of the genes were "Celtic" – meaning they had genes originating in the British Isles. 

The impact of the Christianization of Scandinavia 

The Viking practice of slavery slowly died out as the Scandinavian region slowly began to steer way from pagan beliefs and practices and adopt Christianity.

One of the more interesting stories related to this time period comes from Norway. 

In 1043 CE, the son of a local nobleman came to the defense of a local thrall woman who was pregnant. Three men had accused the pregnant woman of theft, but the son of the local nobleman did not believe them.

Fleeing the three accusers on a boat, both the man and woman were killed by arrows shot by the enraged men. 

Despite trying to sink the man's body with a millstone, it emerged, and the three men were arrested for the murder.

The dead man, named Hallvard Vebjørnsson, then became Saint Hallvard and has been the patron Saint of Oslo since the High Medieval period. A depiction of him is on the seal of the City of Oslo to this day.

As the Scandinavian region fell under the influence of Christianity, slavery became less and less common. Following the population decline as a result of the black death, slavery in what were once Viking societies ceased to exist. Serfdom, however, did not.

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