Arch Stanton Guest Post: Episode 4 of Today I Learned – Viking Thralls

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A recent study mapped the DNA of modern Icelanders and determined the Icelandic men were roughly 80% derivative of Norse/Scandinavian countries, but traits passed down only through females show over half of the population was Celtic. At first look, this a quirk of genealogy, but with a bit of math and good ol’ fashioned logic, this suggests Vikings pillaged their way across the North Sea collecting wives to deposit in a different land. No better way to prove your wife’s faithfulness than kidnapping her and isolating her in a barren land remote from everyone she knows! Vikings were the original pick-up artists.

What you and I would call “slaves”, Vikings called “thralls”, which seems exciting until you really start to come to terms with the concept of “Viking slave”. One of the pros of being a thrall was your master (or jarl) would defend you — basically a knight of the Middle Ages but with rustier armor with all the sea water — and give you cool new Viking names like Stinky, Stumpy and Stupid. That is not a joke. Another pro was you didn’t have to go to into battle — for me, that seems like a pretty healthy positive because I’m coward, but in Norse culture, not fighting is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to man. If you were female, you were often taken as a wife — obviously, this is not ideal in modern culture but… if you were enslaved by a Viking you at least got married and he would be responsible for you and your happiness, compared to slaves, uhhh, anywhere else. Plus, historians now believe Vikings were exceptionally well-groomed and hygienic compared to their Medieval counterparts around the rest of the world. I’m really trying to work in a “Queer Eye for the Straight Eye” joke here but I’m having a hard time.

As you would expect, Vikings didn’t really abide by cultural norms of surrounding nations, and were notorious for kidnapping strangers for ransom or reselling them on the Volga River (modern day eastern Russia) and beyond. At the risk of confusing your sense of historical reference, Vikings frequently sold slaves to the caliphates in Baghdad as well as traders in Syria, Byzantium, north Africa and even as far as China. This has been uncovered by foreign silks and coins being found in Viking hovels and burial sites around Scandinavian. Imagine being an Irishman in your mud hut, complaining eating another meal of GODDAMN POTATOES, when this immaculately clean Viking shows up, murders your neighbor, rapes your wife and ships you to fucking Baghdad. The skin cancer this ginger asshole was to be subjected would be enough to kill him ten times over… assuming the whole “slave” thing didn’t first. Because of the long distance traveled with slaves into Islamic territories, the trade was estimated to be worth BILLIONS of dollars.

On a brighter note, many scholars believe you could earn or buy your freedom, or your jarl would just give it to you (or you could be sacrificed when your jarl dies so you can continue serving him in the afterlife – the toughest of breaks). That, coupled with the notion that Norse women were allowed to vote, operate in politics and largely regarded as the heads of household (hard to pay taxes or feign interest in zoning issues while you are pillaging and burning all the time), presumably means you could be a women kidnapped, enslaved, brought to Scandinavia, wed into Norse culture, and become a political leader. I bet this was unlikely, but hey, a thrall can dream right?

Eventually, after a tumultuous civil war that pitted clans against each other, slavery was outlawed in the late 1800s… JK jarls willfully freed their slaves in the 14th century, folding to both secular and church pressures. Organized Christianity and moral decency compelled the Vikings to disband their slave trade roughly four hundred years before it had to be forcibly torn away from the South. The South – less chill than the fucking Vikings.

The takeaway today is slavery sounds pretty terrible in all regards (apologizes if the tone here reads as ‘it was rad being enslaved by Vikings!’ — reader, I assure it was not), but if you were a Norse thrall, you could at least get to travel to faraway lands and possibly get freed later, unlike you, who will work at your dead-end job until you die of heart disease before retiring or traveling anywhere. Thanks for reading everyone!

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