Viking Social Structure

Class Systems and the Norse in Scandinavia and Beyond

Small viking boat on display at Aurlandsfjorden, Norway
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Viking social structure was highly stratified, with three ranks or classes which were written directly into Scandinavian mythology, as slaves (called thrall in Old Norse), farmers or peasants (karl), and the aristocracy (jarl or earl). Mobility was theoretically possible across the three strata—but in general, slaves were an exchange commodity, traded with the Arab caliphate as early as the 8th century CE, along with furs and swords, and to leave slavery was rare indeed. 

That social structure was the result of several changes within Scandinavian society during the Viking age.

Key Takeaways: Viking Social Structure

  • The Vikings in and outside of Scandinavia had a three-tier social structure of slaves, peasants, and elites, established and confirmed by their origin myth.
  • The earliest rulers were military warlords called drotten, who were selected from warriors based on merit, only in power during wartime, and subject to assassination if they gained too much power. 
  • Peacetime kings were selected from the elite class and they traveled throughout the region and met people in halls built in part for that purpose. Most provinces were largely autonomous of the kings, and the kings were also subject to regicide.

Pre-Viking Social Structure

According to archaeologist T.L. Thurston, Viking social structure had its origins with the warlords, called drott, which had become established figures in Scandinavian society by the late 2nd century. The drott was primarily a social institution, resulting in a pattern of behavior in which warriors selected the most adept leader and pledged fealty to him.

The drott was an ascribed (earned) title of respect, not an inherited one; and these roles were separate from the regional chieftains or petty kings. They had limited powers during peacetime. Other members of the drott's retinue included:

  • drang or dreng—a young warrior (plural droengiar) 
  • thegn—a mature warrior (plural thegnar) 
  • skeppare—captain of a chiefly vessel
  • himthiki—housekarls or the lowest rank of elite soldiers
  • folc—the population of a settlement

Viking Warlords to Kings

Power struggles among Scandinavian warlords and petty kings developed in the early 9th-century and these conflicts resulted in the creation of dynastic regional kings and a secondary elite class which competed directly with the drotts.

By the 11th century, Late Viking societies were led by powerful, aristocratic dynastic leaders with hierarchical networks including lesser religious and secular leaders. The title given to such a leader was that of respect rather: old kings were "frea," meaning respected and wise; younger ones were drotten, "vigorous and warlike." If an overlord became too permanent or ambitious, he could be assassinated, a pattern of regicide which continued in Viking society for a long time. 

An early important Scandinavian warlord was the Danish Godfred (also spelled Gottrick or Gudfred), who by 800 CE had a capital at Hedeby, inherited his status from his father and an army set to attack his neighbors. Godfred, probably overlord over the federated south Scandinavia, faced a powerful enemy, the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. But a year after victory over the Franks, Godfred was assassinated by his own son and other relations in 811.

Viking Kings

Most Viking kings were, like warlords, chosen based on merit from the earl class. The kings, sometimes called chieftains, were primarily itinerant political leaders, who never had any permanent role over the whole realm. The provinces were almost entirely autonomous, at least until the reign of Gustav Vasa (Gustav I of Sweden) in the 1550s. 

Each community had a hall where political, legal and perhaps religious matters were dealt with, and banquets were held. The leader met his people in the halls, established or reestablished bonds of friendship, his people swore oaths of allegiance and gave the leader gifts, and proposals of marriage were made and settled. He may have held a high priest role in cultic rituals. 

Norse Halls 

Archaeological evidence concerning the roles of jarl, karl, and thrall is limited, but medieval historian Stefan Brink suggests that separate halls were constructed for the use of the different social classes. There was the house of the thrall, the banqueting hall of the peasant, and the banqueting hall of the nobleman. 

Brink notes that in addition to being places where the itinerant king held court, halls were used for trade, legal, and cultic purposes. Some were used to house specialized craftsman in high-quality forging and skilled handicrafts or to present cult performances, attendance by specific warriors and housecarls, etc. 

Archaeological Halls

The foundations of large rectangular buildings interpreted as halls have been identified in numerous sites through Scandinavia and into the Norse diaspora. Banqueting halls ranged between 160–180 feet (50–85 meters) long, and 30–50 ft (9–15 m).  Some examples are:

  • Gudme on Fyn, Denmark, dated to 200–300 CE, 47x10 m, with ceiling beams 80 cm in width and equipped with a double doorway, located east of the Gudme hamlet. 
  • Lejre on Zealand, Denmark, 48x11, thought to represent a guild hall; Lejre was the seat of Viking age kings of Zealand
  • Gamla Uppsala in Uppland, central Sweden, 60 m long built on a man-made platform of clay, dated to the Vendel period CE 600–800, located near a medieval royal estate
  • Borg on Vetvagoy, Lofoten in northern Norway, 85x15 m with cultic thin gold plates and imports of Carolingian glass. Its foundations built over an older, slightly smaller (55x8 m) hall dated to the Migration Period 400–600
  • Hogom in Medelpad, 40x7–5 m, includes a "high seat" in the house, an elevated base in the middle of the building, thought to have had several purposes, high seat, banqueting hall room and assembly hall 

Mythic Origins of Classes 

According to the Rigspula, a mythic-ethnologic poem collected by Saemund Sigfusson at the end of the 11th or beginning of the 12th century CE, Heimdal, the sun god sometimes called Rigr, created the social classes at the beginning of time, when the earth was lightly populated. In the tale, Rigr visits three houses and engenders the three classes in order. 

Rigr first visits Ai (Great Grandfather) and Edda (Great Grandmother) who live in a hut and feed him husk-filled bread and broth. After his visit, the child Thrall is born. The children and grandchildren of Thrall are described as having black hair and an unsightly countenance, thick ankles, coarse fingers, and of being a low and deformed stature. Historian Hilda Radzin believes this is a direct reference to the Lapps, who were reduced to a state of vassalage by their Scandinavian conquerors.

Next, Rigr visits Afi (Grandfather) and Amma (Grandmother), who live in a well-built house where the Afi is making a loom and his wife is spinning. They feed him stewed calf and good food, and their child is called Karl ("freeman"). Karl's offspring have red hair and florid complexions. 

Finally, Rigr visits Fadir (Father) and Modir (Mother) living in a mansion, where he is served roast pork and game birds in silver dishes. Their child is Jarl ("Noble"). The noble's children and grandchildren have blond hair, bright cheeks, and eyes "as fierce as a young serpent."

Sources

  • Brink, Stefan. "Political and Social Structures in Early Scandinavia: A Settlement-Historical Pre-Study of the Central Place." TOR 28 (1996): 235–82. Print.
  • Cormack, W. F. "Drengs and Drings." Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. Eds. Williams, James and W. F. Cormack, 2000. 61–68. Print.
  • Lund, Niels. "Scandinavia, c. 700–1066." The New Cambridge Medieval History c.700–c.900. Ed. McKitterick, Rosamond. Vol. 2. The New Cambridge Medieval History. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 202–27. Print.
  • Radzin, Hilda. "Names in the Mythological Lay 'Rigspula.'" Literary Onomastics Studies 9.14 (1982). Print.
  • Thurston, Tina L. "Social Classes in the Viking Age: Contentious Relations." C. Ed. Thurston, Tina L. Fundamental Issues in Archaeology. London: Springer, 2001. 113–30. Print.