Thrall

Last updated

A thrall was a slave [1] or serf in Scandinavian lands during the Viking Age. The status of slave (þræll, þēow) contrasts with that of the freeman (karl, ceorl ) and the nobleman ( jarl , eorl).

Contents

Etymology

Pronunciation of the term in US English

Thrall is from the Old Norse þræll , meaning a person who is in bondage or serfdom. The Old Norse term was lent into late Old English, as þræl. The term is from a Common Germanic þragilaz ("runner", from a root þreh- "to run"). Old High German had a cognate, dregil, meaning "servant, runner". The English derivation thraldom is of High Medieval date. The verb "to enthrall" is of Early Modern origin (metaphorical use from the 1570s, literal use from 1610). [2]

The corresponding term in Old English was þēow (plural þēowas). The corresponding native term in Anglo-Saxon society was þeow (from Germanic þewa- , perhaps from a PIE root tekʷ- , "to run") A related Old English term is esne "labourer, hireling" (from Germanic asniz , cognate with Gothic asneis "hireling", a derivation from asunz "reward", from the same root as English earn ).

The term was borrowed into Irish as thráill, where it is used interchangeably with sclábhaí which is a cognate of the English slave (likewise for Slav is disputed).

Thrall was known by similar words in other old languages (Old Norse : þræll, Icelandic : þræll, Faroese : trælur, Norwegian : trell, træl, Danish : træl, Swedish : träl). [3] The Middle Latin rendition of the term in early Germanic law is servus.

Early Germanic law

The thrall represents the lowest of the three-tiered social order of the Germanic peoples, noblemen, freemen and slaves, in Old Norse jarl , karl and þræll (c.f. Rígsþula ), in Old English corresponding to eorl , ceorl and þēow, in Old Frisian etheling, friling, lēt, etc. The division is of importance in the Germanic law codes, which make special provisions for slaves, who were property and could be bought and sold, but they also enjoyed some degree of protection under the law. [4]

The death of a freeman was compensated by a weregild, usually calculated at 200 solidi (shillings) for a freeman, whereas the death of a slave was treated as loss of property to his owner and compensated depending on the value of the worker. [5]

Society

Thralls were the lowest class of workers in Scandinavian society. They were Europeans who were enslaved by being prisoners of war, incurring debt or being born into the class via their parents. The living conditions of thralls in Scandinavia varied depending on the master. The thrall trade as the prize of plunder was a key part of the Viking economy. While there are some estimates of as many as thirty slaves per household, most families owned only one or two slaves. [6]

In 1043, Hallvard Vebjørnsson, the son of a local nobleman in the district of greater Lier, was killed while he was trying to defend a thrall woman from men who accused her of theft. The Church strongly approved of his action, recognised him as a martyr and canonized him as Saint Hallvard, the patron saint of Oslo. [7]

Despite the existence of a caste system, thralls could experience a level of social fluidity. They could be freed by their masters at any time, be freed in a will or even buy their own freedom. Once a thrall man was freed, he became a "freedman", or leysingi, a member of an intermediary group between slaves and freemen. He still owed allegiance to his former master and had to vote according to his former master's wishes. It took at least two generations for freedmen to lose the allegiance to their former masters and become full freemen. [8] If a freedman had no descendants, his former master inherited his land and property. [9]

While thralls and freedmen did not have much economic or political power in Scandinavia, they were still given a wergeld, or a man's price: there was a monetary penalty for unlawfully killing a slave. [10]

The era of Viking raids resulting in the capture of slaves slowly started to end in the 11th century. In the following centuries, more thralls obtained their freedom, either by purchasing it or on the initiative of their masters, the Church or the secular authority. [3] [11]

See also

Further reading

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Old Norse</span> North Germanic language

Old Norse, Old Nordic, or Old Scandinavian is a stage of development of North Germanic dialects before their final divergence into separate Nordic languages. Old Norse was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and their overseas settlements and chronologically coincides with the Viking Age, the Christianization of Scandinavia and the consolidation of Scandinavian kingdoms from about the 8th to the 15th centuries.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Scandinavia</span> Subregion of Northern Europe

Scandinavia is a subregion of Northern Europe, with strong historical, cultural, and linguistic ties between its constituent peoples. Scandinavia most commonly refers to Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. It can sometimes also refer to the Scandinavian Peninsula. In English usage, Scandinavia is sometimes used as a synonym for Nordic countries. Iceland and the Faroe Islands are sometimes included in Scandinavia for their ethnolinguistic relations with Sweden, Norway and Denmark. While Finland differs from other Nordic countries in this respect, some authors call it Scandinavian due to its economic and cultural similarities.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Vikings</span> Norse seafarers, merchants and raiders

Vikings were seafaring people originally from Scandinavia, who from the late 8th to the late 11th centuries raided, pirated, traded, and settled throughout parts of Europe. They also voyaged as far as the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East, Greenland, and Vinland. In their countries of origin, and some of the countries they raided and settled in, this period is popularly known as the Viking Age, and the term "Viking" also commonly includes the inhabitants of the Scandinavian homelands as a whole. The Vikings had a profound impact on the early medieval history of Scandinavia, the British Isles, France, Estonia, and Kievan Rus'.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Weregild</span> Paid in atonement for blood guilt

Weregild, also known as man price, was a precept in some historical legal codes whereby a monetary value was established for a person's life, to be paid as a fine or as compensatory damages to the person's family if that person was killed or injured by another.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Danelaw</span> Part of England ruled by Danes (878–954)

The Danelaw was the part of England in which the laws of the Danes held sway and dominated those of the Anglo-Saxons. The Danelaw contrasts with the West Saxon law and the Mercian law. The term is first recorded in the early 11th century as Dena lage. The areas that constituted the Danelaw lie in northern and eastern England, long occupied by Danes and other Norsemen.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Churl</span> A non-servile peasant

A churl, in its earliest Old English (Anglo-Saxon) meaning, was simply "a man" or more particularly a "free man", but the word soon came to mean "a non-servile peasant", still spelled ċeorl(e), and denoting the lowest rank of freemen. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it later came to mean the opposite of nobility and royalty, "a common person". Says Chadwick:

we find that the distinction between thegn and ceorl is from the time of Aethelstan the broad line of demarcation between the classes of society.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Norsemen</span> Historical linguistic group of people originating in Scandinavia

The Norsemen were a North Germanic linguistic group of the Early Middle Ages, during which they spoke the Old Norse language. The language belongs to the North Germanic branch of the Indo-European languages and is the predecessor of the modern Germanic languages of Scandinavia. During the late eighth century, Scandinavians embarked on a large-scale expansion in all directions, giving rise to the Viking Age. In English-language scholarship since the 19th century, Norse seafaring traders, settlers and warriors have commonly been referred to as Vikings. Historians of Anglo-Saxon England distinguish between Norse Vikings (Norsemen) from Norway, who mainly invaded and occupied the islands north and north-west of Britain, as well as Ireland and western Britain, and Danish Vikings, who principally invaded and occupied eastern Britain.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geats</span> Northern Germanic people

The Geats, sometimes called Goths, were a large North Germanic tribe who inhabited Götaland in modern southern Sweden from antiquity until the Late Middle Ages. They are one of the progenitor groups of modern Swedes, along with Swedes and Gutes. The name of the Geats also lives on in the Swedish provinces of Västergötland and Östergötland, the western and eastern lands of the Geats, and in many other toponyms.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thing (assembly)</span> Type of governing assembly

A thing, also known as a folkmoot, assembly, tribal council, and by other names, was a governing assembly in early Germanic society, made up of the free people of the community presided over by a lawspeaker. Things took place at regular intervals, usually at prominent places that were accessible by travel. They provided legislative functions, as well as being social events and opportunities for trade. In modern usage, the meaning of this word in English and other languages has shifted to mean not just an assemblage of some sort but simply an object of any sort.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thegn</span> Medieval British and Scandinavian noble title

In later Anglo-Saxon England, 10th to 11th centuries, a thegn or thane was an aristocrat who owned substantial land in one or more counties. Thanes ranked at the third level in lay society, below the king and ealdormen. Thanage refers to the tenure by which lands were held by a thane as well as the rank.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Housecarl</span> Medieval Northern European social rank

A housecarl was a non-servile manservant or household bodyguard in medieval Northern Europe.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Swedish slave trade</span> Trading of slaves in Sweden

The Swedish slave trade mainly occurred in the early history of Sweden when the trade of thralls was one of the pillars of the Norse economy. During the raids, the Vikings often captured and enslaved militarily weaker peoples they encountered, but took the most slaves in raids of the British Isles, and Slavs in Eastern Europe. This practice lasted from the 6th through 11th centuries until formally abolished in 1335. A smaller trade of African slaves happened during the 17th and 18th centuries, around the time Swedish overseas colonies were established in North America (1638) and in Africa (1650). It remained legal until 1878.

<i>Rígsþula</i> Poem from the Poetic Edda

Rígsþula or Rígsmál is an Eddic poem, preserved in the manuscript, in which a Norse god named Ríg or Rígr, described as "old and wise, mighty and strong", fathers the social classes of mankind. The prose introduction states that Rígr is another name for Heimdall, who is also called the father of mankind in Völuspá. However, there seems to be some confusion of Heimdall and Odinn, see below.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Anglo-Saxon law</span> Pre-conquest law in England

Anglo-Saxon law is a body of written rules and customs that were in place during the Anglo-Saxon period in England, before the Norman conquest. This body of law, along with early Medieval Scandinavian law and Germanic law, descended from a family of ancient Germanic custom and legal thought. However, Anglo-Saxon law codes are distinct from other early Germanic legal statements—known as the leges barbarorum, in part because they were written in Old English instead of in Latin. The laws of the Anglo-Saxons were the second in medieval Western Europe after those of the Irish to be expressed in a language other than Latin.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Norse funeral</span> Burial customs of ancient North Germanic Norsemen

Norse funerals, or the burial customs of Viking Age North Germanic Norsemen, are known both from archaeology and from historical accounts such as the Icelandic sagas and Old Norse poetry.

Óslác is a theophoric Anglo-Saxon given name, cognate to Old Norse Ásleikr/Áslákr and to Old High German Ansleh. It is composed of ós "god" and lác "play, sport; offering, sacrifice".

Tormod Kark was a slave in Viking Age Norway. He appears in the saga Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">North Germanic peoples</span> Linguistic group

North Germanic peoples, Nordic peoples and in a medieval context Norsemen, were a Germanic linguistic group originating from the Scandinavian Peninsula. They are identified by their cultural similarities, common ancestry and common use of the Proto-Norse language from around 200 AD, a language that around 800 AD became the Old Norse language, which in turn later became the North Germanic languages of today.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sacred trees and groves in Germanic paganism and mythology</span> Arboreal worship in pre-medieval north central Europe

Trees hold a particular role in Germanic paganism and Germanic mythology, both as individuals and in groups. The central role of trees in Germanic religion is noted in the earliest written reports about the Germanic peoples, with the Roman historian Tacitus stating that Germanic cult practices took place exclusively in groves rather than temples. Scholars consider that reverence for and rites performed at individual trees are derived from the mythological role of the world tree, Yggdrasil; onomastic and some historical evidence also connects individual deities to both groves and individual trees. After Christianisation, trees continue to play a significant role in the folk beliefs of the Germanic peoples.

Old Norse philosophy was the philosophy of the early Scandinavians.

References

  1. Thrall Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2009
  2. OED
  3. 1 2 Junius P Rodriguez, Ph.D. (1997). The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery. vol 1. A–K. ABC-CLIO. p. 674. ISBN   9780874368857.
  4. In Alemannic law, slaves could not be sold outside of one's own province (37.1). A slave's owner was entitled to pass judgement on him but only within the law (37.2). Slaves were not allowed to work on Sundays.(38)
  5. Thus, in Alemannic law, the death of an (unfree) blacksmith was to be compensated by 40 shillings and the death of a goldsmith by 50 shillings. If either a blacksmith or a goldsmith was maimed (losing their ability to do skilled work), the compensation was 15 shillings (Leges Alamannorum 41).
  6. P.H. Sawyer (2002). Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe AD 700–1100. Routledge. p. 39. ISBN   978-0-203-40782-0.
  7. St. Hallvard in Catholic Online. (2009)
  8. P.H. Sawyer (2002). Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe AD 700–1100. Routledge. ISBN   978-0-203-40782-0.
  9. Eyrbyggja Saga, Chapter 37.
  10. P.H. Sawyer (2002). Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe AD 700–1100. Routledge. p. 43. ISBN   978-0-203-40782-0.
  11. Niels Skyum-Nielsen, "Nordic Slavery in an International Context," Medieval Scandinavia 11 (1978–79) 126-48