Slaves in the Viking Age: how prevalent were enslaved people in Viking societies?

When the Vikings came raiding from across the sea, they took captives with them as well as plunder. What happened to those enslaved people? Professor Neil Price explains to HistoryExtra content director David Musgrove how far Viking Age society was based on slavery

Illustration of the raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne

“The Vikings were not only slavers, but the kidnapping, sale and forced exploitation of human beings was always a central pillar of their culture.” So says Professor Neil Price in his thought-provoking new book The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings.

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The place of slavery in Viking culture isn’t something that always gets referenced in popular history, so I asked Professor Price why that was when I interviewed him for the HistoryExtra podcast.

“Slavery studies in the Viking Age have been attracting more and more attention over the past 15 years or so. It’s one of those things I think that we’ve always known about. Every description of raids that comes from that time talks about people being taken away into captivity. It’s not like we didn’t know. And even if you look at the later sources, like the famous Icelandic sagas, there are lots of enslaved people in those stories.

“Part of the distancing of our perception of the Vikings from that reality is, I think, that we talk about thralls instead of slaves. And so we’ve somehow managed to convert that into something that’s not really slavery. It’s more like servants or something. It’s not. It is slavery. When we think of Viking raids, we always think in terms of physical loot, taking some church plate or jewellery, but people are one of the main proceeds of all of these attacks.”

What did slaves do in Viking society?

According to Price, this renewed academic focus on slavery in Viking Age society has shown that vast resources and people power would have been needed to allow for the increasing size of Viking fleets over the period.

“By the time you get into the 10th or 11th century, there are fleets of hundreds of ships. And when you start working out how much wool is required to make the sails; how many sheep you need to make those sails; how much timber is required for the planks; how much iron is needed for the rivets; we’re basically talking about a full time occupation for hundreds of people. And we have to ask who those people were.”

Price contends that those people were, of course, slaves. He thinks that we can see evidence for slavery in the settlements of the period as well, “where you get lots of little buildings clustered around big halls. We know who lives in the big halls, but who lives in all the little ones?”

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Slavery and the Viking economy

The need for slaves to fulfil the economic functions that Price has described above went on to fuel itself as the Viking period progressed.

“I think it’s a cycle of activity that we’ve tended to break up into its component parts. We talk about raiding and then we talk about trading and we might talk about slavery as well, but actually it’s part of the same thing, because when you go raiding, you capture people who are then enslaved.

“Then you trade in those slaves and you can use the labour of those enslaved people to build more ships and then you can do even more raiding, and on and on.

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“That’s why I say that unfree people are such a central component of the Viking economy. It’s not that this is something that appears suddenly with the Vikings. As far as we can tell, slavery is a Scandinavian institution that goes back long before the Viking Age.

“But the engagement of that in a larger economic machine, in the expansion of the Viking Age, is what changes. And that’s what also changes the whole market for enslaved human beings because they’re one of the main products of the raids.”

Neil Price is Distinguished Professor of Archaeology at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, and the author of The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings (Allen Lane, 2020).

He was speaking to HistoryExtra content director David Musgrove on an episode of our podcast about the Viking mindset. Listen below, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

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This content was first published on HistoryExtra in November 2020