Vikings were kings and queens, Vølve and slaves. Here is a run through of the different classes and professions Vikings had.
Viking romances are often about the top of Viking societies—the kings and jarls. I want to start my journey through the classes at the very bottom: the thralls.
Thralls were slaves, but I’m going to use the word “thrall” because that’s what they were called by the Vikings and also because thralls can’t be compared to modern day slaves. They were everything from prisoners of war and indentured servants to people born into slavery. Some died as slaves—often killed in gruesome ways when they couldn’t work anymore, as Scandinavian names like “Thrall’s Cliff” give witness to—but some thralls could work or buy their freedom or were given their freedom when their owner died.
Some thralls followed their owners into their graves, either voluntarily or forced. There are also accounts of thralls being sacrificed to the gods just like cows and horses. And when winter was rough and there wasn’t food for everyone, the thralls were the first ones cast out to fend for themselves in the freezing cold.
People could be taken as thralls during raids and battles, they could be bought and sold like cattle, and they could even sell themselves and their families into thralldom. Most of the thralls came from whichever area the Vikings had raided or been at war with, which means most thralls came from somewhere in Northern Europe.
Vikings didn’t just bring the people they captured home. Vikings also sold thralls abroad, especially on the Byzantine slave markets. Thralls—buying and selling human beings–were an important part of the Viking economy.
We can’t know for sure how many people who were captured and used as thralls, but several accounts have mentioned that around 30% of the Viking population were thralls.
Thralls would usually have shaved heads and wear white (or undyed) clothing, which would separate them from their owners.
Most people think of Vikings as warriors, but they were mainly farmers. Some were both, raiding foreign lands between sowing and reaping.
There’s a lot of debate about why farmers suddenly—or not so suddenly—started raiding foreign lands back in the late 700s. Several historians have claimed that prosperous times and richer farming can explain why Scandinavians started sailing far away to raid and conquer.
1. Richer farming meant more children growing up—not dying from hunger or diseases–which again meant less land to younger sons (and daughters). They needed to find alternative occupations or even land abroad.
2. Richer farmers meant more traders coming to Scandinavia. These traders needed safe travels to bother making the trip north so local piracy moved further away and foreign shores were raided instead of shores closer to home.
3. Richer farmers meant more time and finances for ship building. Ship building had an enormous evolution in the late 700s and forward and the Viking ships were a main reason for the war victories of the Vikings.
The Explorers and Tradesmen
Vikings are mainly known for their raids, but a large part of their travels were about trade, buying and selling goods abroad.
Vikings traveled far and wide. They made it to Greenland, North America, all over Europe and Northern Africa, along the coast to Bjarmaland (today: northern part of Russia), and through the rivers down to Byzantine (today: Turkey and areas around).
They also invited people from far away to visit the local trade markets in Hedeby, Birka, and Kaupang (just to mention some) or to stay and live with them and marry them. There are records of women with North American and Mongolian ancestry who lived and had children in Scandinavia in the Viking age.
The Craftsmen and -women
Shipbuilding became an important craft and the number of ships built during the Viking age must have been enormous. But it wasn’t just the ships that needed building; ships also needed sails. Imagine the amount of wool needed and how long it took to weave 90 square meters of sail.
Blacksmiths were also important. Everything from pots and pans to axes and chainmail were made by blacksmiths. The best swords were Frankish, but Scandinavian blacksmiths tried to copy the swords they’d stolen.
Vølve were women who had a special connection to the gods. They were the local religious interpreters and had a powerful role.
The Vølve had an enormous authority and were handsomely paid for their job. They were said to be great seductresses and men were warned against entering sexual relationships with the Vølve as those rarely ended well.
The Vølve used drums, meditation and hallucinogenic drugs in their practice.
Frille were mistresses of powerful men. They had important roles and were seen as wives of the heart in a time when high ranking men and women had to marry for land and power.
Frille were established, their children were acknowledged and there was no shame if the relationship ended. They were free to go home to their families or to marry someone—they might even go home with renewed honor if the men they’d been frille to was a man of power and the frille brought them children, especially sons.
A frille could also secure protection for her family and was often encouraged to enter the relationship as a frille to gain power.
Kings and Queens, Jarls and Husfruer
Denmark, Sweden and Norway weren’t countries as we know them today before late in the Viking era. They were smaller kingdoms, often divided into even smaller areas governed by jarls and chiefs. These different rulers would be connected to one another through marriage, various agreements and honor.
Many of the names of the early Viking rulers have been lost, or there’s doubt whether the names we do have are myths or real. Gorm the Old and Thyra Danebod are usually recognized as the first king and queen of a unified Denmark. We know of them from a rune stone made by their son Harald Bluetooth (yes, he later gave name to the Bluetooth technology – check out the Bluetooth logo and find Harald Bluetooth’s runes). Harald Bluetooth claimed to also be king of Norway, but Harald Fairhair is usually considered the first Norwegian king. They all lived in the early 900s.
The various rulers didn’t have unlimited power as they had to answer to their local “ting,” which was a gathering of the people in power in that area. They would often gather in circles, heavy rocks being their seats, so that everyone could speak and be heard.
“Ting” is a part of the modern-day democracy in Scandinavia. The parliament of Norway is called Stortinget (The Great Ting) and the parliament of Denmark is called Folketinget (The Peoples’ Ting).
Do you want to read about the proud men and women of the north? Read The Challenge – a short story in this anthology.