Thrall

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A thrall (Old Norse/Icelandic: þræll, Faroese: trælur, Norwegian: trell, Danish: træl, Swedish: träl) [1] was a slave [2] or serf in Scandinavian lands during the Viking Age. The corresponding term in Old English was þēow. The status of slave (þræll, þēow) contrasts with that of the freeman (karl, ceorl) and the nobleman ( jarl , eorl ). The Middle Latin rendition of the term in early Germanic law is servus.

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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). [3]

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 ).

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, 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 Northern and Eastern 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 was freed, he became a "freedman", 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 ended 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. [1] The thrall system was finally abolished in Scandinavia in the mid-14th century. [11]

See also

Further reading

Related Research Articles

Scandinavia A subregion of Northern Europe

Scandinavia is a subregion in Northern Europe, with strong historical, cultural, and linguistic ties. The term Scandinavia in local usage covers the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The majority national languages of these three belong to the Scandinavian dialect continuum, and are mutually intelligible North Germanic languages.

Viking Age Period of European history from the 8th to the 11th century dealing with the Scandinavian expansion

The Viking Age was the period during the Middle Ages when Norsemen known as Vikings undertook large-scale raiding, colonizing, conquest and trading throughout Europe, and reached North America. It followed the Migration Period and the Germanic Iron Age. The Viking Age applies not only to their homeland of Scandinavia, but to any place significantly settled by Scandinavians during the period. The Scandinavians of the Viking Age are often referred to as Vikings as well as Norsemen, although few of them were Vikings in the technical sense.

Vikings Norse explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates

Vikings were the seafaring Norse people from southern Scandinavia who from the late 8th to late 11th centuries pirated, raided and traded from their Northern European homelands across wide areas of Europe, and explored westward to Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland. In modern English and other vernaculars, the term also commonly includes the inhabitants of Norse home communities during this period. This period of Nordic military, mercantile and demographic expansion had a profound impact on the early medieval history of Scandinavia, the British Isles, France, Estonia, Kievan Rus' and Sicily.

Weregild, also known as man price, was established on a person's life, paid as a fine or compensatory damages to the family when that person's life is taken or is otherwise injured.

Danelaw Historical name given to part of England ruled by the Danes

The Danelaw, as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is a historical name given to the part of England in which the laws of the Danes held sway and dominated those of the Anglo-Saxons. Danelaw contrasts with West Saxon law and Mercian law. The term is first recorded in the early 11th century as Dena lage. Modern historians have extended the term to a geographical designation. The areas that constituted the Danelaw lie in northern and eastern England, long occupied by Danes and other Norsemen.

Churl

A churl, in its earliest Old English (Anglo-Saxon) meaning, was simply "a man" or more particularly a "husband", 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.

North Germanic languages Branch of Germanic languages spoken predominantly in the Nordic countries

The North Germanic languages make up one of the three branches of the Germanic languages—a sub-family of the Indo-European languages—along with the West Germanic languages and the extinct East Germanic languages. The language group is also referred to as the "Nordic languages", a direct translation of the most common term used among Danish, Faroese, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish scholars and laypeople.

Norsemen Historical ethnolinguistic group of people originating in Scandinavia

The Norsemen were a North Germanic ethnolinguistic 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 8th century, Norsemen 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. The identity of Norsemen derived into their modern descendants, the Danes, Icelanders, Faroe Islanders, Norwegians, and Swedes, who are now generally referred to as 'Scandinavians' rather than Norsemen.

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The Swedes (Swedish: svear; Old Norse: svíar / suar were a North Germanic tribe who inhabited Svealand in central Sweden and one of the progenitor groups of modern Swedes, along with Geats and Gutes.

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Runes Ancient Germanic alphabet

Runes are the letters in a set of related alphabets known as runic alphabets, which were used to write various Germanic languages before the adoption of the Latin alphabet and for specialised purposes thereafter. The Scandinavian variants are also known as futhark or fuþark ; the Anglo-Saxon variant is futhorc or fuþorc.

Swedish slave trade

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, Ireland and Slavs in Eastern Europe. This practice lasted in 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 1813.

<i>Rígsþula</i>

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 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.

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 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 Anglo-Saxon 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.

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.

Viking expansion Exploration, settlement, and raids performed by Norse population

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North Germanic peoples

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Danish slave trade Commerce of slaves by Danes during the Viking Age and the Modern Age

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References

  1. 1 2 Junius P Rodriguez, Ph.D. (1997). The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery. vol 1. A–K. ABC-CLIO. p. 674.
  2. Thrall Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2009
  3. OED
  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