09 January 2016

Ruthless Perception of Vikings Returns as Evidence of the Use of Slaves During the Viking Age Comes into Focus Yet Again

I continue to be amazed that seemingly intelligent people, archaeologists as well as the author of this interesting article published in Ancient Origins, are surprised that the medieval Vikings did not ascribe to contemporary mores, specifically as regards the keeping of slaves. Attaching the trappings of modern feel good society to a medieval people such as the Norse is absurd. Why do the work yourself when the spoils of war, prisoners of all stripes, will do all the hard work or be killed? Works for me.

The medieval Vikings were a savage people that existed during a savage period of history. It’s called the Dark Ages for a reason, my learned friends – I guess you are learned. It was a period of approximately 800-years of continuous warfare. That’s one of the reasons why it is referred to as the Dark Ages.

As a student of history you should know that the Dark Ages cover the period from the end of the Roman occupation of the English Isles – about 410AD - to approximately the early portion of the 13th century, or about 1215AD, when the Magna Carta came into being. The Viking Age occurred during this period of upheaval. Do they still teach that in Marxist universities? Well, no matter, I digress, the topic is slavery. 

Slavery is still practiced today in many areas of the world. A big surprise for all you limp wristed do-gooders out there, I imagine, but it is a fact of life. Slavery has always been a part of man's history.

Slaves are useful and have been utilized by all the conquerors in all of the recorded history of mankind, clear back to the Sumeria of 5000-years ago. And, that is only the recorded portion of man's history that we know anything about. There were no doubt lots of slaves before man could write down his history. It's a natural process for the utilization of the human spoils of war.

Another case in point: that is also why 13% of the current US population are Negroes. Our ancestors bought their ancestors from Arab slave traders, ancestors of some of the same people that buy and sell slaves today. Then our ancestors shipped their newly acquired property over here as slaves, to do the work that our ancestors did not want to do. Slavery, you see.

So, that’s why the medieval Vikings used all their prisoners of war as slaves. Why not, they were their property, their chattels by right of conquest. Not to mention the intrinsic value they had, as demonstrated by the picture below. (Ed.)

A Viking offers a slave girl to a Persian merchant. Source: Tom Lovell/National Geographic 
Ruthless Perception of Vikings Returns as Evidence of the Use of Slaves During the Viking Age Comes into FocusYet Again

Over the last few years the perception of Vikings has been ever sliding on the scale from less to more brutish. Things are getting closer to the “ruthless” end of the scale yet again, as researchers are once more examining evidence that slavery was an essential element to life during the Viking age.

“This was a slave economy. [Viking Age] slavery has received hardly any attention in the past 30 years, but now we have opportunities using archaeological tools to change this.” Neil Price, an archaeologist at Sweden’s Uppsala University, told National Geographic.

Price has a research interest in slavery in the Viking Age economy, and recently discussed the topic at a meeting of archaeologists who share his interest in slavery and colonization. Another researcher who has taken an interest in this theme is David Wyatt.

Wyatt, of Cardiff University, spoke of the Viking use of slaves in a lecture during a series of seminars entitled The Dark Ages’ Dirty Secret? Medieval slavery from the British Isles to the Eurasian steppes and the Mediterranean world. These seminars were held in Oxford from April-June this year. Wyatt’s seminar provided a great deal of evidence of the Vikings use of slavery from historical sources, such as Sagas.

However, the idea of thralls (the word for slave in Old Norse) being a part of the Viking lifestyle is not completely new information to archaeologists. As Ancient Origins reported in 2013: “a number of Viking graves have included the remains of slaves as “grave goods.””

The 2013 burial discovered in Flakstad, Norway, contained several bodies of decapitated thralls buried with their masters. The identity of the decapitated individuals as slaves was made by an analysis of the diets of the dead. The individuals without their heads had simpler diets of seafood, and were named as the thralls of those who were buried with their heads intact and diets that contained milk and beef.
Slaves and thralls in the Viking Age.’ (National Museum of Denmark)
Although the topic remains controversial, in 2013, Elise Naumann, an archaeologist at the University of Oslo in Norway, explained that the thralls could have been sacrificed to be placed in the graves of their masters: "We propose that the people buried in double and triple burials might have come from very different strata of society, and that slaves could have been offered as grave gifts in these burials." The sacrifice of thralls as “grave goods” would further demonstrate their importance to the lives and afterlives of Norsemen.

Researchers have not only shown interest in the role of thralls as sacrificial victims, but also the way that they were obtained by the Vikings. Price says that a desire to increase the number of thralls “was a very significant motivator in raiding.”

As the National Museum of Denmark notes: slaves were primarily acquired on Viking expeditions to Eastern Europe and the British Isles. However, this was not the only source for thralls, as “they could also obtain Viking slaves at home, as crimes like murder and thievery were punished with slavery.”

One of the main reasons suggested for the use of thralls by the Vikings was the need for a larger workforce The principal product could have been textile work (especially wool for ship sails). Nevertheless, slave trading was also an important aspect to the Viking economy, and it has been argued that the term slave arose from the heavy targeting of Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe by the Vikings (and other European slave traders.) Major slave trading centers for the Vikings have been identified at Hedeby and Bolghar on the Volga.
‘Trade negotiations in the country of Eastern Slavs.’ (1909) By Sergei Vasilyevich Ivanov. (Public Domain)
Researchers have also suggested that the women abducted during Viking raids were taken as concubines, domestic workers, cooks, and perhaps even as brides. This last proposition arises from a belief that Vikings were a polygamous society – which would have made it more difficult for non-elite men to acquire a bride.

The Annals of Ulster, with entries spanning 431- 1540, provides textual evidence of “a great number of women” being taken captive by “the heathens” (which some scholars suggest refers to Vikings) in Étar (near Dublin, Ireland) in 821 AD. These annals of Medieval Ireland also provide several other examples of the Viking “heathens” attacking, plundering, and abducting people from the area.
Les pirates normands au IXe siècle’ (Norman pirates in the 9th century) by Évariste-Vital Luminais (1894). (Public Domain)
The renewed interest in literary and other material evidence of the Viking use of slaves over in recent years suggests that the perception of Vikings may be changing more heavily towards the ruthless perspective yet again…however, for some scholars it is probable that the view of a gentle Viking never existed, and for others it will not change.

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