The Structure of Viking Society

The ancient myths tell us how Norse society was divided into three classes of people. Yet the divisions of society and where a person fit into that society were more complex than this simple ranking.

Viking society had a pecking order. Literary sources give numerous examples of disagreements between people over who held the higher level — disagreements that could escalate to insults, violence, lawsuits, and bloodshed. Disagreements happened both between men and between women.

Where a person fit into Viking society — his ranking — seems to have depended on three factors: class; status; and occupation. The divisions were blurry at times and not clearly defined, nor were they always static. A person's place in society could move up or down, sometimes in an instant.

The first and most clear aspect of Viking-age hierarchy is class. In the Old Norse language, there does not seem to be a word for class. In later writings and in the modern language, stétt is used, but this word does not appear in the ancient literary sources. It is thought to be a loanword from Latin added to the language after the Viking age, perhaps brought over by the church.

Rígsţula is an eddic poem that tells how Rígr created the three classes of Norse society. The prose introduction tells us that Rígr was the god Heimdallr in disguise. He visited three households in turn and received the hospitality of the couple living in each house. Rígr slept with each couple for three nights, lying between husband and wife, and later a boy was born to each couple, the progenitor of each class.

In the first house, a poor house with coarse food, the boy was called Ţrćll (Slave), who was crooked, wrinkled and ugly. He grew up to twist rope and carry brushwood. He married a woman named Ţír (Slave-woman), and their children spread dung on the fields, dug the turf, and worked with swine and goats. From them came the class of slaves.

Rígr in the first house
Rígr visits the first house, after Collingwood

In the second house, a well-furnished house with fine, dainty food, the boy was called Karl (Freeman), a red-haired, rosy lad. He married a woman named Snřr (Daughter-in-law), and they built a farm, trained oxen, made carts, and created a household. From them came the class of free farmers and other free men.

In the third house, furnished with luxury items and a table set with exotic food and drink, the boy was named Jarl (Earl), with blond hair and piercing eyes. He learned how to make bows and wield shields and throw spears and use runes and make war. He was the master of eighteen farms. Jarl married Erna, and their youngest son was named Konr.

The poem has been imperfectly preserved and ends abruptly. Young Konr (Konr ungr) is clearly a king (konungr) in training, and presumably the poem continued telling of his upbringing and his duties.

The portion of the poem that does survive gives a clear picture of the three classes of an ideally arranged Norse society, along with the duties and occupations of each class: a noble, ruling class; a class of free men; and a class of subservient workers. Other sources, including runestones, sagas, histories, and law codes, tend to confirm what is taught in Rígsţula.

King Óláfr gives the gift of a sword
King Óláfr gives the gift of a sword, after Krohg

Kings and earls governed, and made war. A king or earl was expected to be generous with food and drink, as well as with weapons, clothing, and other precious gifts. As the leader in battle, he was expected to be cunning, capable, strong, and the very model of a drengr, a concept discussed in the article on mindset. He needed to be inspirational. Kings were not viewed as sacred, or special. Instead, kings were viewed as exceptionally able and imperious men.

Yet, kings were dependent on their supporters. If the king didn't deliver the prestige gifts and the opportunities needed to gain orđstírr in battle, he was unlikely to attract the best men to his circle of armed supporters: the men who fought for and by the side of the king, such as his earls and his hirđ. Indeed, these armed supporters might look for better opportunities elsewhere if the king didn't deliver.

Likewise, a king unable to protect his kingdom was in jeopardy. There are examples in the literary sources of a weak or elderly king whose lands were threatened. The king's supporters seized the initiative and assassinated their king so that a stronger leader could be installed prior to the expected attack (Fornkonunga saga, ch.7). As discussed in the article on raiding, power raids were a tool often used to destabilize a king, raining destruction on his land and demonstrating to his people their king's weakness at providing the protection they expected from a king.

The concept of a regal king was foreign to Norsemen. Dudo of St. Quentin records an encounter between a party of Danes and King Charles of the Frankish kingdom. In the presence of the king, the Danes were ordered to show their submission by kissing the foot of the king. The leader of the Danes refused. One of his followers complied. But rather than kneeling to kiss the foot of King Charles, the Dane stood, grabbed the king's foot, and lifted it up to the level of the Dane's own head, dragging the king out of his seat and onto the floor. With the king held upside-down, the Dane kissed the foot.

In the early part of the Viking age, kings and earls tended to be regional, rather than national. By the end of the Viking age, the Nordic lands had central kings who ruled (more or less) over the entire land, aided by their earls.

Iceland was the exception. The society in Iceland was more flat than other Viking lands, as described in detail in the article on the settlement of Iceland. The settlers set up a society and government without kings or earls that, by law, had only two classes: free and not-free. Adam of Bremen, a contemporary chronicler wrote, "They have no king, only the law."

The class of karlar was made up of free farmers and other free men who enjoyed freedoms that were not typical in other lands at this time. They could bear arms, participate in the legal system, and have a voice in public affairs and governance. They formed the bulk of Viking society.

farm scene
speculative sketch of Viking farm scene

Althing in session
Alþing in session, after Collingwood

While some of the free farmers were landowners, many were not. Some served as tenant farmers, operating the farm while the landowner was away or occupied with other activities. Some were hired hands, working under the direction of the landowner for wages, or for room and board. Others worked at occupations that required no land. Yet even men who were not landowners enjoyed at least most of these freedoms. They expected to be able to conduct their business affairs without interference and under the protection of the law. They expected to have some say in the governance of the land through participation in the annual ţing assembly, as described in the article on law.

Slaves were at the bottom of Viking society and held few rights. Slaves were chattel, similar to cattle and other livestock. Killing or harming one's own slave was not a crime, merely wasteful of property. A slave's only relation with the rest of society was through his master, according to law. The only business interaction a slave could undertake with someone other than his master was the purchase of his personal knife (Gulaţingslög 56). One of the few rights held by slaves was the ability to enter in to marriage and to take vengeance for interference with their wives. Yet, a slave could accumulate property, and with care, could accumulate enough wealth to buy his freedom from his master (Óláfs saga helga, ch.23, Gulaţingslög 61).

replica belt knife
replica Viking-age knife

Glaumr on Drangey
The slave Glaumr is questioned by Ţorbjörn öngull and his men in a scene from Hurstwic’s film, The Final Battle of Grettir the Strong.

In the literary sources, such as the sagas, slaves are sometimes stock characters: stupid, cowardly, untrustworthy, and easily manipulated. Examples are Glaumr whose carelessness led to the death of Grettir (Grettis saga, ch.82), and Ţórđr, whom Gísli tricked into serving as a patsy leading to his death so Gísli could escape (Gísla saga, ch.20). Sometimes, the term ţrćll was applied to any base fellow, regardless of his actual class, as well as to monsters and other evil paranormal creatures.

Yet at least some slaves are described as being courageous, asking to join their master in battle (Ljósvetninga saga, ch.24) or falling on top of their master who had fallen in battle to protect him from further injuries (Víga-Glúms saga, ch.23). Slaves served in the king's levy army, and a slave who killed an enemy in battle was given his freedom. (Gulaţingslög 312).

The question of whether plantation-like slave economies existed in Viking times has been debated. Some have speculated the existence of substantial enterprises that employed large groups of slaves. Yet the bulk of the evidence suggests that slaves worked alongside other hired workers on the farm. While we can't be certain, it seems likely that slaves performed the more onerous and less desirable tasks, such as spreading manure, as told in Rígsţula and other literary sources, although there are many instances of slaves and free men alike doing these kinds of chores.

The custom regarding children of slaves seemed to vary. In most cases, the children of slaves were also slaves, the property of the slaves' owner. Later laws in Sweden called for the children of slaves to be free under certain circumstances, probably due to the influence of the church.

manure rake
rake for spreading manure

haggling over a slave
Haggling over a slave, after Wikstrom

Some men acquired women slaves (ambáttir) to use as concubines. The price was set by law at twelve ounces (Grágás K112). The standing of the child of an ambátt and her master is not clear. The law-code says that her son was entitled to some compensation should the master be killed (Grágás K113). In the literary sources, there are examples of such children being accepted fully into society, such as Óláfr pái, the son of Höskuldr and Melkorka, his ambátt. Óláfr won great wealth and renown as a young man (Laxdćla saga, ch.22).

Many of the slaves who arrived in Iceland with the first settlers were freed and given land, such as Vífill who arrived with Auđr as an enslaved man (ánauđigr) who had been taken as war booty (Eiríks saga rauđa, ch.1). The law codes describe how slaves were given their freedom (Grágás K.112). A man was fully free when he was led into the law (lögleiđa) and swore his desire to share the laws with other men and keep them well. Children of a freed slave were still maintained by his former owner. The Norwegian law codes give more details about freed slaves including the oaths to be sworn and the rituals to be performed (Gulaţingslög 63-65).

Although nominally a free man, a freed slave's place in society was lower than a man born to that class. He was prohibited from opposing his former master in any matter (Gulaţingslög 66). If a freed slave died without an heir, the inheritance reverted to his former owner. There are many examples in the literary sources suggesting a proposed marriage between the child of a free farmer and the child of a freed slave was demeaning to family of the free farmer (Laxdćla saga, ch.23). In Norway, four generations had to pass before the family of a freed slave was thought to be truly free of the taint of slavery.

Slaves were bought and sold in trading towns throughout the Viking world, as evidenced by examples in the literary sources (Laxdćla saga, ch.12) and by archeological evidence of shackles, collars, and other restraints found in trading towns and elsewhere. Slaves came from all lands, but the Baltic lands to the east are frequently mentioned as a sources of slaves. Icelandic literary sources sometimes mention slaves from the British Isles accompanying the settlers, which is confirmed by mtDNA studies showing a significant percentage of women of Gaelic origin amongst the Icelandic population, probably deriving from slaves taken from the British Isles.

Many slaves were captured in raids, or taken as war-booty. Yet a man could be forced into slavery for other reasons. A man unable to pay his debts was obliged to be a bondsman and work for another man until the debt was paid. The law allowed for a man convicted of theft to be handed over to the victim of the theft as a ţrćll (Grágás K.229).

The practice of slavery was widespread, at least in the earlier part of the Viking age. Slaves were necessary for running a farm. In Norway, three slaves were considered the minimum for running a farm with twelve cows and two horses. By the end of the Viking age, the use of slaves was in decline, ending in the 12th and 13th centuries in most areas of the Viking lands.

Viking-age slave shackles
Viking-age slave restraint found at the trading town of Birka

King Hálfdan svarti hands over the throne to his son, the future King Haraldr hárfagri, depicted in an illumination from the medieval manuscript Flateyjarbók.

The three classes of jarl, karl, and ţrćll seem to have been well defined and rigidly maintained. People were born into a particular class. Yet, on the other hand, there seems to have been a degree of fluidity in the structure. A person could move from one class to another during his lifetime. A prominent karl might be appointed jarl. A karl in debt or captured in a raid might become a ţrćll. A ţrćll might gain his freedom and have many of the benefits of being a karl. On the third hand, there was a sense that people "belonged" in a certain class. Rígsţula describes the appearance of each class, and literary sources tell of people being able to determine which class someone belonged to by appearance. When a slave child was swapped for a noble-born child, Hákon could easily see the infant was a slave (Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar af Oddr Snorrason munk, ch.4). Similarly, when a man's fylgja (his guardian spirit) was glimpsed, it gave a clue to his class by the size and nature of the fylgja. A serpent fylgja was thought to be that of King Ívarr (Fornkonunga saga, ch.2).

While the three classes of jarl, karl, and ţrćll provided broad distinctions of rank, other factors came into play as well. One aspect of a person that affected his place in society was his occupation: what he did to provide the necessities for himself and his family.

Viking society was an agricultural society. It seems likely that virtually everyone had a role in providing food. The literary sources tell us that even kings sometimes worked the farm fields (Óláfs saga helga, ch.33).

It appears that land owners had greater rank in society and more legal rights than non-landowners. Even Hávamál (v.36-37) teaches that it is better for a man to own his homestead, no matter how modest. On the farm, the land-owner was the master (bóndi) of the farm. He made the decisions for the farm and supervised his workers. He hired farm hands (húskarlar) who were not land owners. They worked for room, board, and a salary, living with their families on the farm. The bóndi also hired shepherds, which was a lower grade position. Shepherds received only room and board, and the law prevented a bóndi from assigning shepherd duties to a farm-hand, which was considered demeaning (Grágás K.78).

Some people took on additional roles in addition to their agricultural duties. Some of these roles were seasonal, lasting for only a portion of the year, year after year. Some were year-round, but the roles were held for only a portion of their lives before returning to an agricultural role.

An example of a high-ranking role was the position of gođi in Iceland. Before the conversion, the gođi was both the political leader and the spiritual leader of the people of a district. He was the connection between the local people and the gods, as well as the connection between the local people and the government. Little changed after the conversion. The gođi continued as the political leader, and he continued to hold sway on the spiritual side since he built, maintained, and owned the church for the district. Similar to a king, a gođi had to juggle political favors to maintain a solid base of supporters to keep his position and power. More information about the role of the gođi is in the article on law.

modern gođar offering a blessing
Gođar offering a blessing in modern times at Hurstwic's iron-making festival at Eiríksstađir.

The hirđ was the king's men: his bodyguard of armed warriors that surrounded him and supported him constantly. To be a king's man enhanced a warrior's rank in society immensely, even after the man left the king's service. The orđstírr, the wealth, and the personal connections and friendships that a man accumulated during his good service to the king would serve to elevate him above other men for the remainder of his life.

Likewise, poets had elevated rank, most notably, those poets who were in service to the king, since they were the men who preserved in poetry the heroic activities of the king. Like the hirđmenn, they were often in close proximity to the king and his activities. The poetry they created had value to the king since it disseminated and preserved the memory of the king's heroic activities. Thus poets were held in high esteem in society. More information about poets and their role in Viking society is in the article on poetry.

Smiss picture stone
The Smiss picture stone is thought to depict both Viking duelers (top) and raiders (bottom).

In Viking society, there were professional duelers and raiders: men who gained their wealth by traveling over land and sea to challenge others to fight, with the winner keeping the loser's property. As discussed in the articles on dueling and raiding, the rank of duelers and of raiders depended on just one thing: where they harried. A dueler or raider who harried abroad was a drengr: a man who returned home with wealth and orđstírr. But a man who harried at home was a níđingr.

People involved with magic and spirituality could have either an elevated or a depressed level of rank depending on the circumstances. A völva (a seeress who foretold the future) was often a welcome and honored guest treated with great respect (Eiríks saga rauđa, ch.4).

wand of a völva
An iron rod thought to the the magic wand of a völva

fish hooks
an assortment of fish hooks used by Viking-age fishermen

Many other occupations existed in the Viking age: smith; trader; fisherman; and others. There is little to suggest that the occupations, per se, resulted in a rise or fall in ranking.

Yet there was one category of people whose ranking was very low: those with no fixed abode. One aspect of being "legal" in Icelandic society was having a residence. Domicile was essential because in order to bring a legal charge against a person, one needed to summon him to appear at the ţing (assembly) for his region. One could not bring charges against someone who didn't reside in any fixed district.

Thus, paupers and vagrants were at the bottom of society. The poor were not allowed to marry. The law codes state that anyone was free to take the property of a vagrant without penalty (Grágás K.131) and that it was lawful to castrate a vagrant, even if death ensued (Grágás K.254).

Likewise, outlaws fell into this category, as described in the law article. An outlaw was literally outside the law, little better than an animal, who could be killed without penalty, and who was treated, according to Eidsivatingloven, "as if he were dead".

An exception to this category were people like sćkonungar (sea kings) who held no land but wielded great power from their fleet of war ships.

fleet at sea
Sćkonungar were landless men who ruled from the decks of their warships.

A third aspect that helped to determine a person's ranking in Viking society was his status in that society. The Old Norse word that describes this status is virđing, which translates to worth. A man with more land, more cattle, more treasure was a man of higher status. Yet it was not only his monetary worth that contributed to status, but also his worth to society — his value to the people around him.

A drengr, or other man with orđstírr held high status. As discussed in the article on mindset, a drengr was a man who could be trusted. This was the man you wanted by your side in a battle or dispute of any kind: a man you could trust to stand beside you and fight to the bitter end and beyond. These men were highly valued in society.

A man with many followers, friends, or kinsmen was also a valuable supporter, since he could bring those forces to bear on the opposition to help someone bring a dispute to a favorable conclusion.

King Ađalsteinn gives Egill the gift of a gold ring, proffered over the fire on the tip of his sword.

Men who showed generosity and hospitality were thought to have higher status. Showing or withholding hospitality could mean the difference between life and death in the severe winters of the Nordic lands. Material gifts and fair, generous terms in business deals were welcome, and a magnanimous man was a valuable man to have as an ally.

A man with a distinguished genealogy possessed an elevated status because of that family connection. When a stranger arrived in the king's hall, he introduced himself by recounting his family genealogy, which served to indicate his rank to his host and the other people in the household.

Guests from other Nordic lands were accorded the status that they held in their homelands. However, the law demoted men who were unable to speak the northern language, which was called dönsk tunga (the Danish tongue). In the Viking age, the language was understandable amongst all the Nordic people. Men who could not speak the language had less legal protection, which resulted in lower status (Grágás K.97).

And so, we see that these three factors that determined the ranking of a person in the Viking age: class; occupation; and status. A person's ranking was judged and used to determine the order of that person relative to others in matters both small and large.

A vivid example of this importance can be seen in the seating of people, not only in the grandest king's hall, but also in modest farmhouses. High-ranking guests were seated across from or adjacent to the king, bóndi, or head of the household sitting in the high seat (hásćti). Lower-ranking guests were seated further away, or worse, on one of the cross benches at the ends of the hall, or, the worst seat of all, in the corner seats of the cross benches.

longhouse seating status
A schematic representation of the status of the seating arrangements in the longhouse. Highest status (red) is the highseat, and next highest is across the fire from the highseat (yellow), Status decreases moving away from the center along the two benches on eaither side of the fire. The crossbench (blue) is low status, and the two corner seats (purple) are the lowest.

Bergţórshváll as the farm appears today

An unknown guest seated in a prestigious location might be the cause of intense speculation and jealousy, while a perceived slight when arranging seats was answered aggressively and might lead to bloodshed. When a guest arrived at the house at Bergţórshváll, the mistress of the house Bergţóra asked her rival Hallgerđr to move aside for the new guest. Hallgerđr bristled, saying she would not be a hornkerling (old hag sitting in the corner seat) for anyone (Brennu-Njáls saga, ch.35). The perceived insult fanned the flames of the rivalry between the two women that led to multiple killings.

Many other examples of the importance of ranking can be seen in the workings of society. Some forms of settling the outcome of a legal case might be perfectly acceptable between men of similar ranking, but be insulting when suggested by a lesser man to a greater man (Hrafnkels saga, ch.6). Similarly, a suggestion of marriage between two families of equal ranking might be welcome, but for a lesser family to propose to a greater might be taken as an insult (Eiríks saga rauđa, ch.3).

The evidence when layered together tells us that a rigid ranking system existed in Viking society, and people were prepared to protect their ranking with violence and bloodshed if it were challenged or not respected. While the system was rigid, the ranking was not always fixed, and Viking-age people could move up or down in rank based on their actions.


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