Three social classes existed in Norse society. The classes were nowhere near as rigid as they were in other parts of Europe at the time. Mechanisms existed such that a person could move himself from one class to another.
The vast majority of Norsemen belonged to the middle class, the karls. These people were freemen and land owners. They were the farmers, the smiths, and the just plain folks. Families of karls usually lived in clusters of two or more buildings, typically longhouses supplemented by barns and workshops.
Above them were the jarls, the noble class. The stories indicate that jarls lived in fine halls and led refined lives filled with a myriad of activities. But archaeological evidence to back up these details is lacking.
Jarls were distinguished by their wealth, measured in terms of followers, treasure, ships, and estates. The eldest son of the jarl was on the fast track to becoming the next jarl. But, by gaining enough fame and wealth, a karl could become a jarl. The power of a jarl depended upon the goodwill of his supporters. The jarl's essential task was to uphold the security, prosperity, and honor of his followers.
Below both of these classes were the þræll. These included the slaves (usually booty from a raid) and bondsmen. If a Norseman of any class could not pay his debts, he was obliged to become a bondsman and to work for another man until the debt was paid. Icelandic law (Grágás K229) allowed for someone convicted of theft to be handed over as a slave to the victim of the theft. The þrælar must have led very hard lives.
The actual social structure, not surprisingly, was more complex than this simple explanation would indicate.
On one hand, the three class system in Norse society dates from ancient times and is described in an old mythological poem, Rígsþula. In the poem, a god called Rígr (who is thought to be Heimdall) is shown to be the progenitor of each of the three classes. The poem is thought to express the Norse view of the "right" ordering of society.
But, on the other hand, the reality of the time was really quite different. There were many gradations in position, as well as substantial variations in class structure from one Norse land to another.
Because of Iceland's rich literary tradition, we probably know more about social structure in Viking era Iceland than in any of the other lands. The surviving law books describe in detail the rights and responsibilities of the various classes.
Iceland did not have kings or earls (jarls), as did the other Norse countries. Kings and earls in Norse lands were regional (rather than national) rulers in the beginning of the Viking era. But by the end of that era, individual kings had consolidated their power over most of the Scandinavian lands. The title of king or earl could be inherited, or it could be conferred by prominent supporters or the leader of military forces.
Kings were not viewed as sacred, or special. Instead, they were viewed as exceptionally able and imperious men. The concept of a regal king was foreign to Norsemen. Dudo of St. Quentin records an encounter between a party of Danes and King Charles of the Frankish kingdom. In the presence of the king, the Danes were ordered to show their submission by kissing the foot of the king. The leader of the Danes refused. One of his followers complied. But, rather than kneeling to kiss the foot of King Charles, the Dane stood, grabbed the king's foot, and lifted it up to the level of the Dane's own head, dragging the king out of his seat and onto the floor. With the king held upside-down, the Dane kissed the foot.
While Icelanders had no use for kings or earls at home, many young Icelanders traveled abroad and became a hirðmaðr, a follower of a king or earl. These were the inner circle of men who surrounded the king and supported him in all his endeavors. A man might join this inner circle for the honor it conferred upon him.
The king was expected to be generous not only with food and drink, but with clothes and weapons and gifts. He was expected to maintain his own and his followers' honor against outsiders. He had to lead. He was required to be a strong fighter, daring, crafty, and hard, since he fought hand to hand beside his men. He had to be a good public speaker, cheerful and inspirational, able to inspire and buoy his men.
Poets were held in similar stature to royalty. Norse culture was oral, rather than written. Poets were the means by which the culture was passed from one generation to the next. Accordingly, they were held in high esteem.
Next in order was the entire class of free men. The highest of these was the goði, who was the local chieftain who carried the legal and administrative responsibilities in Iceland. In addition, he may have been the priest for the Norse pagan religion, and thus was held to have a special relationship with the gods. Every freeman was required to choose a goði to support. The office was called a goðorð and was mostly hereditary. Allegiance to a particular goði was voluntary, so a goði who neglected to look after the people under his authority would find himself without any supporters and his goðorð up for grabs.
Next in prominence to the goði were the land-owning farmers in a region. They supported the goði and counted on the goði for support when needed. Not unexpectedly, some farmers were more prominent than others, because of the family ties with other powerful farmers, or because the size of their farms and their wealth, or because of the number of their supporters.
These freemen enjoyed freedom of speech and liberty that was unknown outside the Norse lands at this time. They had the right to bear arms, to have a voice in public affairs, and to enjoy the full benefit of the law. The end of the Norse era saw the end of these privileges, as the same feudalizing forces that burdened continental Europe also burdened the Norse lands.
Merchants, although they might not own land, were also held in similar regard as the land owners.
One aspect of being "legal" in Icelandic society was having a residence. Domicile was essential because in order to bring a charge against a person, one needed to summon him to appear at the Þing (assembly) for his region. Icelandic law permitted one to change his legal residence only during a single four day period each year, called fardagar (Moving Days).
Yet, there were far more people than there was arable land for them to own. Many freemen were not land owners. In this class were farmhands, who worked for the farm owner in exchange for room and board. Similarly, servant-women performed the farm chores required of women. Fishermen were also in this category. In Norse lands outside of Iceland, some families were tenants, who ran the farm for an absentee owner and who paid an annual rent. The rent was typically set at 10% of the value of the land per year.
Slaves who had been freed were nominally freemen, but their status was low. If a freed slave died without an heir, the inheritance would revert to the slave's original owner. Once tainted by slavery, no man's honor could ever be completely clean. However, the children of freed slaves were completely free in Iceland. In Norway, four generations had to pass before the offspring of a freed slave was considered free.
Although still free men, paupers and vagrants were classed even below freed slaves, in part because they had no residence, and thus could not be charged. The poor were not allowed to marry. The medieval Icelandic law book Grágás states that anyone was free to take the property of a vagrant without penalty [K131] and that it was lawful to castrate a vagrant, even if death ensued [K254].
Slaves were the bottom of Norse society. They had hardly any rights at all.
They were chattel. They could inherit nothing, leave nothing.
They could take no part in any business transaction. A slave's only relation with the rest of society was through his master.
Slaves were put to death when they were no longer capable of working, due to old
age, disease, or injury. However, slaves had a few rights. Slaves could
accumulate property, and with care, could save enough to buy their freedom.
Slaves could marry, and were permitted to take vengeance for interference with
their wives. In general, slaves were considered cowards who were easily panicked, unreliable, stupid and foul.
A person depicted in the sagas who exemplifies these qualities is Glaumur from Grettis saga. Near the end of the saga, Grettir, his brother Illugi, and their servant Glaumur took refuge on the island Drangey (right). Because of the sheer cliff walls from the sea to the top of the island, the only route to the top was via ladders. By pulling the ladders up at night, the three were safe from the repeated attacks of Þorbjörn öngull (hook) and his men.
Þorbjörn's magic caused a grievous leg wound to Grettir. While Illugi sat with Grettir, Glaumur was ordered to go out and pull up the ladders that would keep the island safe from attack. Unreliable Glaumur not only failed to pull up the ladder, but also fell asleep.
That was the night that Þorbjörn and his men attacked. They found Glaumur asleep at the top of the ladder. Þorbjörn woke him with a blow from the hilt of his sword, saying, "Any man whose life depends on your loyalty is certainly in a poor position." Glaumur was at first too stupid to recognize that enemies had arrived. When he did, he screamed in fear. Þorbjörn reminded Glaumur of the saying that a slave makes a poor friend.
Þorbjörn and his men overwhelmed Grettir and Illugi, and ultimately
them both. They took Glaumur back to the mainland in their boat. But he cried
and complained so much that they killed him the moment they made land.
Slaves may have made up a large proportion of trade in the Norse era (although that conclusion has been disputed recently). Many were booty from raids. They came from Baltic countries, to the east, and from lands to the west where the Norse commonly raided. Norsemen even took slaves from other Norse lands.
Slaves were necessary for running a farm. The practice was probably widespread, on both large and small farms. Chapter 1 of Gunnars saga Keldugnúpsfífls says that Geir, his wife, and their daughter lived at their farm Geirland in south Iceland with ten slaves. In Norway, three slaves were considered the minimum for running a farm with twelve cows and two horses. Yet slaves could not be permitted any advantage in number, especially on isolated settlements. Slaves did revolt, with fatal results. As is told in Landnámabók (H6-8) and summarized below, Hjörleif’s ten slaves killed the ten men on the farm in order to escape.
A large, plantation-like slave economy did not exist in Norse society. Slaves generally worked alongside hired workers on family farms, although the harder and less desirable work frequently fell on the backs of the slaves. Slavery existed throughout all the Norse lands in the Viking age, ending during the 12th and 13th centuries.
Men bought slaves as concubines. Chapter 12 of Laxdæla saga describes how Höskuldur bought the slave Melkorka in Norway and brought her back to his home in Iceland. The normal price for a male slave was 12 ounces of silver, and for a female slave, 8 ounces. Melkorka's price was set three times that, at 3 marks (24 ounces). The exchange rate varied during the Viking age and between the Viking lands, but Melkorka's sale price was roughly the equivalent of 3 milk-cows.
While most of the references to slaves in the stories depict them as cowardly and base, at least one story suggests otherwise. In chapter 1 of Gísla saga Súrssonar, Ingibjörg told Gísli, her brother-in-law, to ask her slave Kolur to lend his sword to Gísli for an upcoming duel. The slave lent the valuable weapon reluctantly. After Gísli won the duel with the sword, Kolur asked for his weapon back, but Gísli refused to part with it. Kolur attacked Gísli, and they both died in the fight.
The plight of the first settlers in Iceland illustrates the Norsemen's view of slavery.
Two sworn brothers, Ingólfr Arnarson and Hjörleifr Hróðmarsson had to leave Norway,
leaving behind all of their possessions as wergild. They decided to explore Iceland,
which was known, but unsettled, in the hopes of finding a place to settle there.
They stopped at Ireland and captured slaves to take with them. On arriving at Iceland,
Hjörleifr settled on the south coast, and Ingólfr further west.
During the first winter, Hjörleifr decided to settle permanently where he had landed, by the headland called Hjörleifshöfði (right), where he built two houses. In the spring, he hitched two slaves to the plow in order to till the field. The slaves took their revenge for this abuse by enticing Hjörleifr and his men, one at a time, out of sight of the buildings, and killing them. Once the entire household had been dispatched, the slaves took a boat and rowed to a nearby island.
Meanwhile, Ingólfr settled in a temporary location for winter. He had dropped
his high-seat pillars overboard when he sighted Iceland in the hopes that the
gods would direct the pillars to a spot favorable for settlement. When spring arrived,
Ingólfr sent his slaves to look for the where the high-seat pillars had washed
ashore so that he could settle there.
The slaves came upon the bodies of Hjörleifr and his party. They returned to Ingólfr
with the news. Ingólfr returned to Hjörleif's farm. He saw that the boat was missing,
that the slaves were missing, and that there was an island just a short distance off the
coast. He quickly surmised what had happened on the site. Ingólfr rowed out the island,
found the slaves, and killed them.
The island is called Vestmannaeyjar (Islands of the West Men), because the Irish
slaves were "west men", coming from a place to the west of Norway.
Ingólfr believed the Hjörleifr's bad luck was due to his failure to consult the gods before choosing a place to settle. Ingólfr eventually found his pillars washed ashore at a spot now occupied by Reykjavík, which is where he built his farm. The photo shows a statue of Ingólfr in Reykjavík.
There was a portion of the population that did not fall into any of the three classes
of society. That is because they were outside of society, either by their own choice,
or by punishment imposed by law. In this category were: beggars and tramps; magicians, witches,
and seeresses; and outlaws. An outlaw was literally outside the law, little better
than an animal, who could be killed without penalty, and who was treated, according
to Danish law, "as if he were dead".
©1996-2013 William R. Short