The Norse Social Class System of the Viking Age

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The Norse had a social class structure to their society.

They had kings, priests, jarls and lords, freemen and slaves (thralls).

Before the formal organization of the Scandinavian countries, the Norse were considered as a single people consisting of various family clans. Nordic society was set and organized with a deliberate means to the ends.

7cb00484Norse social stratification was layered like most other cultures of the World. The Kings and royal families were at the very top of the class structure. Kings were generally placed and chosen by birth, as being the heirs to current kings in power over petty kingdoms.

images (1)Next down the social layer were the Jarls, whom were the chiefs of the clans. The united family clans were ruled by Jarls until the end of the Viking Age when the separate Scandinavian nations emerged and became ruled by centralized kings. The Jarls were the chieftain landowners and warrior noblemen that pretty much controlled everything within their realms.

In the middle of the social layer cake were the Karls, these were some of the freemen that owned large farms and owned slaves (thralls). Some of the Karls (freemen) worked as fishermen, craftsmen or boat builders as well. The typical Norseman was a Karl or freeman. At the coming of age, a young Karl will usually pledge their allegiance to the local Jarl and receive an arm band.

The lowest on the social layer were the thralls (slaves), whom were considered as property and were often traded for large amounts of silver and gold. In most cases, about the value of a cow. In Norse terminology, “thralls” were male slaves and “ambátt” was the term for a female slave.

9e0a004a117042b2c07cce8432db49c1The mark of a thrall was to have closely cropped hair and they were to wear a white vadmal or kulf (coat) to distinguish themselves from freemen. Thralls and ambátts generally wore used clothing and clothes made from undyed cheap cloth. Colorful garments and embroidery was generally reserved for free Norse and nobility. The best to those whom could afford it.

War captives from expeditions were the chief supply for slaves and they came from places such as: the European mainland, mostly from the various Frankish Kingdoms, Britain, Ireland, Scotland, Spain, and even from the various shores along the Mediterranean. Thralls were acquired from everywhere, the Norse did not discriminate.


However, thralldom wasn’t a permanent placement in life if one could help it. Sometimes a thrall would be fortunate enough to be able to buy their freedom from their master. Those whom belonged to wealthy masters were often allowed to work for themselves and eventually be able to acquire the means to buy their own freedom.

It was more commonplace for a slave to buy their freedom from their masters than to be set or made free. They either paid the full sum and became a freeman at once or paid part of the sum down and the rest owed by working off the debt for their master as an indentured servant. Freedmen enslaved by debt, so to speak.

Kane, Njord. “Norse Law and Government.” The Vikings : The Story of a People. 2nd ed. Yukon: Spangenhelm, 2015. Print. 978-1943066018. <see where available here>

by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing

cat3The Vikings (The Story of a People) by Njord Kane
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Copyright © 2015-2017 Spangenhelm Publishing – All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced in any written, electronic, recording, or photocopying form without written permission of the author, Njord Kane, or the publisher, Spangenhelm Publishing. <visit website
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