S. Brink: Thraldom. A History of Slavery in the Viking Age

Thraldom. A History of Slavery in the Viking Age

Brink, Stefan
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£ 25.99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Alexander Wilson, School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester

The nature of slavery in early medieval Scandinavia has been the subject of significant debate in the last few decades1, especially as regards the number of slaves in Scandinavia; the nature of the work undertaken by slaves and their economic importance; and the relationship between the Vikings, the primarily Scandinavian warrior groups that emerged around the mid eighth century, and the slaves they captured overseas. Attempts to answer these questions have been hampered by the difficult source situation in Scandinavia, with most written sources appearing only from the 12th century, and the ambiguities that affect reading unfreedom in material sources, whether burials, settlements, or hoards.

Stefan Brink’s Thraldom is the most recent attempt to synthesise the extant textual and material evidence for slavery in Scandinavia and Iceland since his 2012 book „Vikingarnas slavar“2 („Slaves of the vikings“). This work is an expanded translation of the Swedish original; the translation is attributed to Karen Bek-Pedersen in the foreword, though it is unclear whether her contribution also includes any of the expanded sections. The subtitle suggests that the work’s focus is on the Viking Age (roughly the mid eighth to late tenth centuries), but it includes sources from earlier centuries and up to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Its geographical scope is not specified in the title, but ranges from Scandinavia to Iceland, with much attention devoted to Sweden.

Brink’s principal aim of this book is to characterise slavery in Scandinavia as distinct from the forms of systematic enslavement in both the ancient Mediterranean and the American South of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At the same time, Brink situates early medieval slavery in Scandinavia in relation to the phenomenon of unfreedom in medieval Europe, North Africa, and the Arabic world, both in a broad comparative sense of its dynamics and, suggestively, as a potential response to economic and political opportunities elsewhere. A major issue of debate, as Brink outlines in chapter 15, has been how many of the slaves captured on Viking raids were brought to Scandinavia. Following Michael McCormick’s work on the extensive trade between Europe and the Abassid caliphate through ports like Venice3, Brink argues that the Vikings were motivated to capture slaves primarily for their trade value, rather than for use in Scandinavia – „more of a commodity than an instrument for production“ (p. 299). The suggestion is intriguing, albeit necessarily speculative, as it stands, for the lack of sources attesting it.

Another important question is what proportion of the population in Scandinavia were enslaved. While previous historians have speculated that the number may have been as high as twenty to thirty percent of the population, Brink views the scanty, ambiguous evidence for slavery in the Scandinavian textual and material record as an indication of slavery being much less common, speculating that perhaps as little as three to four percent of the population was unfree. For Brink, Scandinavian society (though perhaps excluding Iceland) is thus best understood not as a „slave society“, in the sense of being reliant on slavery for economic production, but as a „society with slaves“, where owning slaves was an uncommon practice for all but the most affluent people. Again, this thinking is necessarily speculative, but it is a strength of the book that Brink focuses on the ambiguity of the sources and usefully problematises a number of assumptions along the way. While we cannot answer this question with any certainty, Brink is persuasive in bringing together disparate sources to foreground a repeated „lack“ in our sources – of settlements clearly used for slave labour, of unambiguous terms for enslaved people – that counter the assumption of an economically foundational population of unfree labourers.

As may be expected from a work that deals with so many different kinds of sources, however, the quality is rather inconsistent. Brink is at his strongest when dealing with linguistic matters, especially the etymologies of personal terms (ch. 8) and place names (chs. 10, 13, 17) that have been associated with Scandinavian slavery. His summary of the archaeological material is also reasonable, if perhaps over-confident in some of the interpretations, given the methodological difficulties outlined in earlier sections (ch. 14). The theoretical chapters discussing comparative contexts for Scandinavian slavery contain insightful readings, but are also rather lengthy, and it is not always made clear to the reader how some of these ideas are relevant to the discussion of the same concepts in the early medieval North. For scholars of Old Norse literature, it is unlikely that Brink’s readings of poetry and the sagas will spark too many new ideas (ch. 6). His analysis of the runic material will be useful for those unfamiliar with the epigraphic sources (ch. 7), but much of the discussion is repeated in the following chapter on terms for slaves.

The book’s structure is similarly inconsistent, with chapters varying considerably in length and significance. Chapter 16, which summarises Brink’s findings, is followed by an excursus on the term Trelleborg, a name for the tenth-century ring forts found in Denmark, which is associated with slavery by those who read the first element as referring to thralls (Old Norse þræll). Brink suggests the chapter’s placement is because of the ambiguities surrounding the term’s meaning, but many of the place names discussed in chapter 10 are similarly ambiguous, and it would have made sense for this material to be placed there, rather than following the concluding summary. Some of the chapter headings fail to communicate their content clearly: Chapter 4 has the broad title „Scandinavian slavery“, but focuses mostly on a series of Swedish wills from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, rather than the kind of synthesis implied by the title.

Taken as a whole, „Thraldom“ is a thought-provoking but often frustrating work. It has the potential to become the standard point of reference in the Anglophone world for early medieval slavery in Scandinavia (and likely will, given that Ruth Mazo Karras’ „Slavery and Society in Medieval Scandinavia“ is now approaching forty years old), but the book’s loose structure and its varying levels of quality undermine it in this respect. Brink’s engagement with the vast range of source material and historical studies is commendable, however, and his ideas for how to approach the questions outlined in the first paragraph of this review are insightful and deserve further consideration. At its best, the book stands as a welcome provocation to longstanding assumptions about how slavery worked in medieval Scandinavia, and as a challenge to confront the ambiguities of our sources in creative and diverse ways.

1 For example: Ruth Mazo Karras, Slavery and Society in Medieval Scandinavia, New Haven 1988; Tore Iversen, Trelldommen. Norsk slaveri i middelalderen, Bergen 1997 (transl. by Katharina Freche, Knechtschaft im mittelalterlichen Norwegen, Ebelsbach 2004); Dagfinn Skre, Herredømmet. Bosetning og besittelse på Romerike 200–1350 e.Kr., Oslo 2001; Thomas Lindkvist / Janken Myrdal (eds.), Trälar. Ofria i agrarsamhället från vikingatid til medeltid, Stockholm 2003.
2 Stefan Brink, Vikingarnas Slavar. Den nordiska träldomen under yngre järnålder och äldsta medeltid, Stockholm 2012.
3 Michael McCormick, Origins of the European Economy. Communications and Commerce AD 300–900, Cambridge 2001.

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