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.
- Read more about social inequality and the rise of ranking in general
- 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.
- Read about the chiefly settlement of Hofstaðir, Iceland
- Read about the estate of Erik the Red's sister Freydis, at Garðar, Greenland
By the 11th century, Late Viking societies were led by powerful, aristocratic dynastic leaders with hierarchical networks including lesser religious and secular leaders.
See the Viking bibliography for more research areas.
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.