Slaves or thralls were amongst the most important commodities traded by the Vikings. They acquired slaves primarily on their expeditions to Eastern Europe and the British Isles. They could also obtain Viking slaves at home, as crimes like murder and thievery were punished with slavery. For example, a woman who stole could be punished by being forced to become her victim’s slave.
Slave trading also existed before the Viking period, but with the numerous territories that the Vikings conquered and their extensive trading networks, slavery could now operate within a system and bring them great wealth. Written sources and legal texts in particular inform us about the slave trade, but the slaves themselves have left few traces behind. However, a few archaeological discoveries have been helpful in this respect, such as burials in which slaves were forced to follow their owners in death.
Written sources tell us that the Vikings sold slaves at trading centres, such as Hedeby, and Bolghar on the Volga. Here slaves were traded and exchanged for other products. The buyers might be Viking farmers, who could use slaves in the household, as well as for the hardest and most unpleasant work in the fields. Significant numbers of slaves probably also provided a proportion of the manpower for the great building projects of the Viking Age.
The Vikings were not the only ones who traded in slaves. Slaves were also traded in Western Europe, but here it was not common practice to sell fellow countrymen. The Church was against Christians being forced into slavery by “the heathen” Vikings. One account describes how a monk was so shocked at seeing Christian slaves for sale in Hedeby in 870, that he sold all his possessions and personally bought the slaves their freedom.
Therefore, the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe were for a long period an obvious target for European and Nordic slave traders. It is from this area that the term “slave” originates.
Slaves could have their freedom bought by others or, in some cases, be set free by their owners. The inscription on the rune stone from Hørning in Jutland reads “Tóki Smith raised the stone in memory of Þorgísl Guðmundr's son, who gave him gold(?) and freedom.” It tells us that Tóki, who was a craftsman, was given his freedom.
The introduction of Christianity led to a decline in slavery, but it was not until later on, during the medieval period, that it was completely abolished. However, the practice was apparently still in existence in 1241, as the civil code Codex Holmiensis from this year contained rules regarding slaves.
Slaves were people without any personal rights. This is reflected, for example, in Norwegian legal language, in which slaves and slave women are referred to using the neuter gender. The masculine gender, on the other hand, is used for free people.
Slaves were seen as “cattle”, or as advanced domestic animals, who typically lived in the darkest end of the longhouse with the other domestic animals. If slaves did not behave properly then they were beaten. An owner could punish his slaves as much as he wanted. The slaves’ bodies were also available for sexual exploitation. This is mentioned in the description from 922 by the Arabic diplomat, Ibn Fadlan, about his encounter with a group of Vikings on the Volga. He describes how the two attractive girls, who were to be sold, were sexually abused by their owners, whilst others watched.
However, especially attractive slave girls and female prisoners of war of a high status could live in good conditions and achieve respect. The same probably also applied to male slaves, who were particularly skilled craftsmen.