Iron shackles from the Black Earth of Birka. Found 1872 by Hjalmar Stolpe

A History of Slavery in the Viking Age

Viking slavery was not primarily about acquiring slaves for the Nordic countries. Rather, it was a valuable commodity sold on the large slave-markets

Thraldom. A History of Slavery in the Viking Age
by Stefan Brink
Oxford University Press, September 2021


Viking slavery is an elusive phenomenon, with few similarities to the systematic exploitation of slaves in households, mines, and amphitheaters in the ancient Mediterranean or the widespread slavery at American plantations during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Scandinavians in the early Middle Ages lived in a society foreign to us, characterized by different and shifting social statuses. A person could be at once socially respected and unfree. It was possible to hand oneself over as a slave to someone else in exchange for protection and food. One could be sentenced temporarily to enslavement for some offense but later purchase his manumission. Young men could enter into a kind of “contract” with a king or chieftain to join his retinue, accepting his authority, patronage, and jurisdiction, while at the same time making a quick social elevation.

Slavery was widespread all over Europe during the early Middle Ages and Scandinavians, as Stefan Brink illustrates in this book, became a major player in the northern slave trade. However, the Vikings were not particularly interested in taking slaves to Scandinavia; instead, their “business model” seems to have been to raid, abduct, and then sell captured people at major slave markets. The goal of Viking slavery was not people but silver. Using a wide variety of source materials, including archaeology, runes, Icelandic sagas, early law, place names, personal names, and not least etymological and semantic analyses of the terminology of slaves, Thraldom provides the most thorough survey of slavery in the Viking Age.

Using a variety of sources including archaeology, runes, comparison with other related cultures, toponymy, anthroponymy, and DNA analysis, this book explores the history and cultural practice of Viking slavery. The book is based on thorough research and guides through the terminology and old Scandinavian laws.


Foreword and Acknowledgements
1. Slavery in Europe during antiquity and the first millennium
2. Scandinavian slavery
3. Where did the slaves come from?
4. Thralls in Old Norse poetry and sagas
5. Thralls in runic inscriptions
6. Terms for thralls and their meanings
7. How were thralls used?
8. Evidence for thralls in Scandinavian place-names
9. How were thralls identified?
10. Thralls’ names in Scandinavia
11. The special case of Älmeboda parish in southern Småland
12. Thralls in the archaeological material – Can we excavate slavery?
13. The rise and fall of Scandinavian thraldom – when did slavery appear in Scandinavia?
14. The status of slaves in Prehistoric Scandinavian society
15. Excursus Trelleborg
Appendix 1- Historical and Archaeological Periods in Europe
Appendix 2- Development of Indo-European languages


Stefan Brink, Honorary Research Associate, Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic at the University of Cambridge

Stefan Brink is Professor of Scandinavian Studies at the Institute of Nordic Studies at the University of Highlands and Islands, and Professor and Researcher at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala University, Sweden. He is an Honorary Research Associate at the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge, and formerly the Sixth Century Chair of Scandinavian Studies at University of Aberdeen. He is also a Member of the Royal Swedish and the Royal Scottish Science Academies. His previous books include Namenwelten (2004), The Viking World (2008), Sacred Sites and Holy Places. Exploring the Sacralization of Landscape Through Time and Space (2013) New Approaches to Early Law in Scandinavia (2014), and Theorizing Old Norse Myth (2017).


Iron shackles from the Black Earth of Birka. Found 1872 by Hjalmar Stolpe





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