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Viking Social Structure

Class Systems and the Viking Social Structure

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The Jarl Marches the Streets of Lerwick (Re-enactor, Scotland 2014)

Locals dressed as Vikings march through the streets of Lerwick on January 28, 2014, in the Shetland Islands, Scotland. The traditional festival of fire is known as 'Up Helly Aa'. The spectacular event takes place annually on the last Tuesday of January.

Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images News / Getty Images Harrogate Viking Hoard

Harrogate Viking Hoard

Portable Antiquities Scheme

Viking Social Structure

Viking society is traditionally described as highly stratified, with three classes as written into mythology, slaves (thrall), farmers (karl), and aristocracy (jarl or earl). Mobility was possible across the three strata; although slaves were really an exchange commodity, traded with the Arab caliphate as early as the 8th century, along with furs and swords. That social structure was the result of several changes within Scandinavian society during the Viking age.

  • See the glossary entry on Viking Trade for more information on trading networks

Pre-Viking Social Structure

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

The drott was an ascribed title of respect, not an inherited one; and these roles were separate from the regional chieftains or petty kings. Other members of the drott's retinue included:

  • drang, a young warrior
  • thegn, a mature warrior
  • skeppare, captain of a chiefly vessel
  • himthiki, housekarls or the lowest rank of elite soldiers
  • folc, the population of a settlement

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.

An early important Scandinavian king was the Danish Godfred (also spelled Gottrick or Gudfred), who by 800 AD had a capital at Hedeby, inherited status and an army set to attack his neighbors. Godfred was assassinated by his own son and other relations in 811.

By the 11th century, Late Viking societies were led by powerful, aristocratic dynastic leaders with hierarchical networks including lesser religious and secular leaders.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com Guide to the Viking Age and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

See the Viking bibliography for more research areas.

Lund, Niels 1995 Scandinavia, c. 700-1066. Chapter 8 in The New Cambridge Medieval History c.700-c.900, Rosamond McKitterick, editor. Pp. 202-227. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Thurston, Tina L. 2001 Social Classes in the Viking Age: Contentious relations. Pp. 113-130 in Landscapes of Power, Landscapes of Conflict: State Formation in the South Scandinavian Iron Age. Tina L. Thurston. Springer: London.

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