Thyra Dane

Author of Romance. Blogs about Scandinavia, Vikings and books.

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.

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.

Making flour out of grain was tedious work and would probably be the work of a slave. The grain was placed between two large rocks, the top rock turned around on the bottom rock. Vikings often had dental damages from the small rocks that came with the flour in their bread.
The picture is from the Botanical garden in Oslo where they showed herbs and plants from the Vikings last summer.

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.

The Farmers

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.

Christian Krogh’s painting named “Leiv Eiriksson discovers America”. Picture taken by me at the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway.

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.

Vikings were craftsmen and -women. Picture from the Ribe Viking Center in Denmark

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.

The Vølve

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.

The Frille

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.

Most people associate the Vikings with a sword and a helmet. The sword may be correct, they’ve found quite a lot of swords in Viking graves, but the helmet is not. Most people know that Vikings didn’t have horns on their helmets, but it’s disputed if helmets were very much in use at all. They’ve only found one real Viking helmet (a copy of it in the picture). If helmets were in use at all, they were probably only used by the very rich, the leaders, the kings and queens.

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).

Viking romance

Do you want to read about the proud men and women of the north? Read The Challenge – a short story in this anthology.

He broke her nose when they were children. Now he’s telling her to be his wife. Telling her, not asking her.

4 thoughts on “Viking Class Structure

  1. Joona Vainio says:

    A very good article, but a bit biased.

    In the time of Charlemagne in the mid 9th century, a map shows Sweden of today ruled almost entirely by Finnish tribes and jarls. Only the very southern tip of Götaland had Goths. Ie. Swedes. There was no such thing as Russia, as almost all of it was Finns. The House of Rurik, founders of Holmgård kingdoms proper (later called Novgorod), were Finns.

    No frakkin’ Slavs around except as primitive vagrants. You could tell it to Panslavists and Putin. Who is of Finnic descent, too. Together we and Vikings heading east for the fame and the gold were Varangians. To southerners all Northmen were Varangians. Most famous of the Miklagård Varangian guard famed for their loyalty and fierceness in Battle.

    Generally, our societies were very similar as you astutely describe, although both genetically and linguistically a whole different world.

    And we made better clinker ships 😉 Olaus Magnus mentions Finns as the best shipbuilders rivalled perhaps only those of Venice.

  2. Joona Vainio says:

    …and our society was even then pretty sexually equal. There are many tales and historical evidence of matriarchy and queens, although the shieldmaiden thing seems to be a romantic fable.

    In the scope of your article, you perhaps hadn’t the space to go to such a detail as a Battle Thrall. Thralls who could earn their freedom and ‘name’ through prowess in combat or other ‘heroics’ like stealing the high ranking maiden as a wife from a neighbouring community.

    Allegedly, we also treated our ‘slaves’ well. Sometimes as family members who ate in the same table and the same food and beer or mead or wine.

    This tradition continued as far as WW2 Russian POWs were allowed to work as stablehands guarded only by a single young lotta with an usually empty rifle. Many true romances happened, some were secretly helped to safety either by a new identity provided by VALPO (now SUPO) or shipped abroad. Why?

    They cried when the war ended in an uneasy Russian technical victory but practical failure to invade and annex. The POWs knew well enough they would be summarily executed at Uncle Joe’s command as traitors and enemies of the state. Sometimes even without torturing them first to death in a gulag. The model for concentration camps their nazi friends happily adopted as their allies in the thirties.

    And Russia had the NERVE to blame us of using POWs as ‘forced labour’.

    1. Thyra Dane says:

      Slaves were treated well or poorly. There were different “classes” of slaves. Some could buy their own freedom or were learned and respected. Some were treated worse than cattle. There are cliffs so many places called “Thrall Cliff” or something like that, where thralls were thrown out when they were no longer useful.

      1. Joona Vainio says:

        I believe you in what you believe to be a fact. It does not mean we necessarily had the exact same ways. Naturally some especially disobeient thralls may have met sorry treatment and death.

        But you have proven to be a good romance writer in these kind of things. How about a co-op job about that Russian POW and young lotta (female auxiliary) with a rifle empty but with brain full of endorphine? We are both professional writers. An very romantic.

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