Some scholars believe that the Vikings were a polygamous society that made it hard for non-elites to find brides. That may have driven the raids and ambitious exploration voyages for which Vikings are best known. Some genetic studies, for example, suggest that a majority of Icelandic women are related to Scottish and Irish ancestors who likely were raid booty.

As Viking fleets expanded, so did the need for wool to produce the sails necessary to power the ships. This also may have driven the need for slaves. “There was a significant shift in agriculture,” said Price. The pressing need for wool production likely led to a plantation-like economy, a topic now being studied by researchers.

The harsh treatment accorded slaves is amply recorded both in the archaeological and historical record. On the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, a wealthy male Viking’s tomb includes the remains of a young female killed by a ferocious blow to the top of her head and mixed in with the ashes of cremated animals. Other such examples can be found across northern Europe.

Life for thralls was clearly harsh. A 14th-century poem—the original likely dates from the end of the Viking era—gives an idea of how Vikings saw their slaves. Among their names were Bastard, Sluggard, Stumpy, Stinker, and Lout.

Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, an Arab lawyer and diplomat from Baghdad who encountered the men of Scandinavia in his travels, wrote that Vikings treated their female chattel as sex slaves. If a slave died, he added, “they leave him there as food for the dogs and the birds.” –Andrew Lawler

Fiction Writing Prompt: Write a story about a Viking slave.

Journaling Prompt: Write about your feelings about slavery and what you know about slavery in the current day. Do you feel called to work against it?

Art Prompt: Vikings

Non-Fiction / Speechwriting Prompt: Tell your audience about Viking culture.

Photo Credit: Katherine on Flickr

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