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Thrall (Old Norse þræll; þír, f.) was the term for a slave in Scandinavian culture during the Viking Age. They were the lowest in the social order and usually provided unskilled labor during the Viking era.


Slavery was one of the primary sources of income for the Norsemen. Unlike many of the forms of slavery throughout human history, the state of being a thrall could be entered into voluntarily, as well as involuntarily. Thralls were first described by the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote in 98 AD that the Swedes (Suiones) had no right to carry arms, but that the weapons were locked inside and protected by a slave only to be distributed when they were attacked by enemies.

Class system

Like most medieval peoples, the Vikings had a rigidly stratified caste system. At the bottom of the social order existed those who were unfree: these were termed thrall, which literally meant, "an unfree servant." A person could become a thrall by giving himself up because of starvation, being captured and sold, or being born into a thrall family. The first was considered to be the most shameful way of entering slavery and was the first method of acquiring slaves to be forbidden. The most common way of acquiring thralls remained the capture of prisoners in foreign countries or the buying of such captured foreigners. As in the Roman practice of slavery, thralls in Scandinavia could be of any ethnic origin. Furthermore, a thrall had a certain social status, but to a lesser degree than other classes in the society, regarded somewhat like a domestic worker.

The master of a thrall had the power of their life and death. A thrall might be a human sacrifice in the funeral of a Viking chief. A child born to a thrall woman was a thrall by birth, whereas a child born to a free woman was a free person even if the father was a thrall.

When Christianity arrived in Northern Europe, there was increasing demand for non-Christian slaves, and the Scandinavians had a de facto monopoly on trading them because of geographic access to large non-Christian populations. In 1043 Hallvard Vebjørnsson, the son of a local nobleman in the district of Liermarker, was killed while trying to defend a thrall woman from men who accused her of theft. His act was strongly approved of by the Church, which recognized him as a a martyr, canonized and venerated him as Saint Hallvard, the Patron Saint of Oslomarker.


Thrall is from the Old Norse þræll meaning a person who is in bondage or slavery. Thralldom is a noun meaning the state of being in bondage; slavery; servitude. Enthrall, a verb literally meaning to enslave, is a linguistic remnant of this institution, though it is now mainly used as a metaphor.


In the popular game series, "World of Warcraft", the character Thrall was named for the fact that he was a slave, though he later became leader of a major faction.


  1. Thrall (Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2009)
  2. The Origin and Situation of the Germans. Thralls are also a kind of vampire Slave, but still a slave eather way.( written by Gaius Cornelius Tacitus. English translation by Thomas Gordon. From an edition included in the Harvard Classics, 1910)
  3. Slavery and Thralldom: The Unfree in Viking Scandinavia(The Viking Answer Lady)
  4. Viking Social Organisation (Regia Anglorum Publications. 2002)
  5. St. Hallvard( Catholic Online. 2009)
  6. Enthrall (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Company)


  • Williams, Mary Wilhelmine Social Scandinavia in the Viking Age (The Macmillan Company. 1920)
  • Karras, Ruth Mazo Slavery and Society in Medieval Scandinavia (Yale Historical Publications Series. Yale University Press. 1988)
  • Knut Helle, editor The Cambridge history of Scandinavia (Cambridge University Press. 2003)

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