Viking Society

Viking society was organised around communities. Isolated from the rest of Europe, the structure of society was more democratic in some ways. The social structure was simpler than many of the other structures we have learned about.

There were three classes:
  • Aristocracy - this included the kings, chieftains and the nobleman, known as jarls
  • Free man and women - known as karls
  • Slaves - known as thralls
Each community convened an assembly of karls and jarls. This was called a thing. At the thing, the community elected its king or chieftain. 

The king or chieftain was responsible for the safety of the community, defending it against invaders and maintaining the wellbeing of the people. They were also responsible for some religious ceremonies. They depended on the community for their power. They did not inherit their position and had to prove themselves capable of performing their duties.

The jarls were the aristocracy, made up of wealthy landowners and warriors. It was the younger members of this class who would organise ships, and the freemen to crew them, to trade and raid overseas.

The karls were the free men and women. They mostly owned land and were independent of the aristocracy. They could also be craftspeople, and often were traders and warriors, going with the jarls to raid and trade in other lands. They voted in the thing, and had the right to carry weapons.

The thralls had no rights, and could not vote. They were the lowest level in society. They were slaves who had been captured in raids, were born into slavery or had committed a crime. Most of the thralls work would have been hard manual labour. They could gain their freedom and were allowed to marry into the Viking community.

The Thing

The thing was made up of all free peoples (karls) and the nobles (jarls) in a community. Each district had its own thing. All Vikings belonged to a clan, and the clan made up a community. All discussions about laws, religion or politics were brought to the thing to have decisions made. This assembly was also the Vikings' court of law. 

Women in Viking Society

Viking women could own land and ships. They may not have had the same rights as their men, but they could lead trading expeditions, and managed businesses and farms while their men were away. They were in charge of the household and the education of their children. This differed from many societies in the Middle Ages.

A woman could divorce her husband for being cruel, becoming bankrupt, being unfaithful or showing his chest in public!

A man could divorce his wife if she was a bad housekeeper, could not have children, was unfaithful or wore trousers like a man!