The Germanic peoples around the North Sea had similar systems of societal structuring that can be simplified into three tiers. At the bottom are the thralls (Old Norse þrælar, Old English þēowas), followed by the churls (Old Norse karlar, Old English ċeorlas), and with the jarls (Old Norse jarlar, Old English eorlas) at the top.
Rígsþula and Viking society
One of our most important sources on the structure of Viking Age society comes from the Eddic poem, Rígsþula. Written somewhere between the tenth and thirteenth centuries CE, Rígsþula deals with the wanderings of the god Rígr through the mortal world and is valuable for understanding the distinctions between the differing Norse classes.
The poem sees Rígr father the three social classes of mankind, named appropriately as Þræll, Karl, and Jarl. Rígr is most understood to be another name for the god Heimdall, and his creation of the three-tiered society aligns with his description in another Eddic poem, Völuspá:
"I ask for a hearing / of all the holy races / Greater and lesser / kinsmen of Heimdall."
However, Rígr also has certain characteristics that have led some scholars to suggest that he is Odin instead, making his actual identity obscure. Nevertheless, Rígsþula is useful for understanding how the Norse perceived their own society and the divisions present within it.
We must be careful not to take it as gospel, though, as it is ultimately a work of fiction and contains many stereotypes about the different classes.
Despite this, we can still use it to provide a reasonable outline of Viking society, alongside other sources such as runestones and written documents.
The Rígsþula poem is useful for understanding how the Norse perceived their own society. Photo: iobard / Shutterstock
At the bottom of society were the thralls, who were enslaved and forced into servitude in the holdings of the upper ranks. People could become thralls in multiple ways, such as being forcibly enslaved through war or raiding, by being born to thrall parents, or because of excessive debt.
Thralls had very limited rights, but there was still a monetary penalty or wergild for unlawfully killing a slave. It was most common for families to own one or two slaves, but there are estimates that some families had upwards of thirty thralls (according to P.H. Sawyer's 2002 work Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe AD).
Thralls could get freed and become leysingi, who could own property but were still of lesser status than karls.
A karl or churl was basically a non-servile peasant who could own land but was still subservient to a jarl. They had less status than a retainer or húskarl, who were directly in the service of the elites.
Karls worked their own lands and would occasionally be recruited into armies for raiding or other military purposes. Húskarlar or housecarls could be drawn from this rank as well as thegns who had a similar role. The word "thegn" is often found upon runestones from the Viking Age.
The title of jarl seems to be an ancient one, with Elder Futhark runestones from the 6th century referencing the word "erilaz," which has been hypothesized to be the ancestor of the Old Norse word jarl.
In the early Viking Age, jarls were the highest level of society, at least in Norway and Sweden, which were more divided than Denmark because of their more difficult geography.
Denmark would have a "king" long before either of them, with its last jarl dying in the 11th century CE. In Norway through to the 12th and 13th centuries CE, jarls acted as sovereigns over their own territories and controlled the housecarls, the karlar, and the thralls.
One of the most famous jarls were the Jarls of Lade, who controlled almost all of Norway as governors for the kings of Denmark and independently in the interregnum between Norwegian kings. In the late Viking Age, jarls became more secondary to kings and were slowly phased out in favor of more ducal titles as the Scandinavian kingdoms became more Christianized.
What we can see in this three-tiered system highlighted by Rígsþula is a highly regimented society with clear demarcations between classes.
Whilst it is useful to simplify the system as we have done above, it cannot tell us everything about Viking society. There were certainly individuals who lived outside of this system, such as court poets or skalds, who enjoyed different rights to regular courtiers.
There were also those who ventured outside of Scandinavian society in raiding warbands who would not see themselves as part of hierarchical Viking society.
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