Slavery During the Viking Age - An Interview with Ben Raffield
Dr. Ben Raffield is an associate professor and researcher with Uppsala University in Sweden.
(Check out his full credentials and his research here).
His current work with the Viking Phenomenon project centers around slave raiding and trading during the Viking Age. The implications of his research expand far beyond simple facts or data sets; its purpose is to create a scaffolding on which we may assemble the layers of ancient Norse culture and norms.
As you will hear throughout the podcast, properly envisioning Viking Age society involves recognition that the record (literary and archaeological) lacks crucial evidence of the slave trade.
“If you have a class of people who are deemed by society...to be objects...their opportunities to acquire their own material biographies that can be found in the archaeological record - those are severely limited.”
This challenge may seem like a deterrent for research, but it also exists as the motivational force behind Ben’s work. Those that have been intentionally forgotten or removed from the record deserve to have their stories uncovered and shared.
While a slave's existence may prove more difficult to highlight than kingly characters, whose burials were filled with rich material goods, slavery existed during the Early Medieval Period whether we acknowledge it or not. If we fail to address this practice we are found with an incomplete image of Viking Age society.
“What I’d like to do with this work is kind of just redress this imbalance that we have in our knowledge of the Viking Age society - because at the moment it’s a very partial knowledge, it’s highly biased towards the discussion of a single group. And that marginalises a very large proportion of the population, not just in the past but in the present today. If we want to understand the past we need to understand the experience of everyone who lived in the past.”
So what do we know about the enslaved people of the Viking world?
Ben Raffield’s article in Slavery and Abolition titled “The Slave Markets of the Viking World: Comparative perspectives on an ‘invisible archaeology’ ” serves as the baseline for this query. (We highly recommend you read this article yourself; it is open source and available at this link!) 
Literary Evidence (in a nutshell):
While Ben mentions many sources in his publication, we thought it would be worth noting three of the most descriptive accounts cited in his work.
Ahmad ibn Faḍlān’s account of Rūs Slavers on the Volga
Known as one of the more explicit descriptions of slavery during the time period, Ibn Faḍlān’s description of the Rūs slavers (who are said to have been trading furs in addition to captives) brings attention to several less than savory moments of adventure near the Volga. Most notable is the use of women as sexual slaves, and the sacrifice of an enslaved woman who is to accompany her owner (the deceased chieftain) on his journey to the afterlife. 
This saga includes the story of an Irish captive Melkorka, who is placed for sale in a marketplace alongside 11 other women. She is sold for three marks of silver to Hoskuldr. The occasion for the market was a seasonal assembly in which higher class members of Viking Age society had gathered, implying that this type of may have been a common practice during the time period. 
Annals of Fulda
This describes a battle during the year 880CE in which the Franks are defeated by a group of Viking warriors. As a result, a large number of the Franks are taken captive. Ben Raffield discusses how slaving may have been a byproduct of wartime deeds, something he elaborates on in his publication. 
Archaeological Evidence (in an even smaller nutshell):
Something mentioned in the podcast (as well as Ben’s publication) is the fact that the markets in which people were sold into slavery remain difficult to trace. Unlike other slave markets throughout the world, these spaces did not often focus on one commodity, and were utilised for a multitude of functions. This makes it incredibly difficult to uncover archaeological evidence for slaving within a specific location.
That being said, there have been shackles discovered at Hedeby (Haithabu), Birka, and Dublin. At Hedeby, 5 of the 6 shackles know from the settlement were found in the harbour area, suggesting that enslaved people were traded on the ships or the wharves themselves.
Tóki’s Legacy in Runes: From Slavery to Freedom
Perhaps some of the most humanizing moments of archaeology are those in which we hear the voices of the past.
“These were people. They were living a thousand years ago, but they were people. I can try and at least scratch the surface of that - at the very least provide a more clear eyed view of what the past was.”
Depicted in the image above, the Hørning Stone (dated from 1000-1050 CE) can be visited at the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark. It contains a runic inscription written by a previously enslaved man, honouring the freedom given to him by his former owner.
“Tóki the smith raised this stone in memory of Thorgisl, son of Gudmund, who gave him gold(?) and freedom.”
While the evidence of slavery during the Viking Age may be difficult to digest, especially for so many that see it as a time they wish they could experience themselves, it is important to remember that we should remain vigilant in our understanding of the past, even when it reveals unsavory acts.
Without spoiling too much for listeners, we’d like to leave you with a final quote from the podcast in which Ben shares his inspiration to continue this research.
“We live in a world today where millions of people still live in a state of enslavement. We might walk past some of these people every day and have no idea. For me this is my way of trying to understand the lives of people who have this condition forced upon them.”
Thank you so much for sharing your insight with us, Dr. Raffield. Your research is needed, appreciated, and inspiring.
More about Dr. Ben Raffield and his publications HERE
All original artwork for this blog was created by Sean Parry to narrate the lives of those enslaved, and Tóki's story as a real individual from history. The image depicting his carving of the Hørning Stone includes accurate inscription of the runes as they appear. See more of Sean's work HERE.
 Raffield, B. (2019). The slave markets of the Viking world: Comparative perspectives of an 'invisible archaeology'. Slavery & Abolition, 40(4), 682-705. https://doi.org/10.1080/0144039X.2019.1592976
 Ibn Fadlan, Ahmad. (2021, March). The Risala of Ibn Fadlan. (J. E. Montgomery, Trans.) Viking Archaeology. (Original work published ca. 921-922 CE) http://viking.archeurope.com/settlement/russia/ibn-fadlan/risala-of-ibn-fadlan/
 Kristjansdottir, B. S. (Ed.). (2008). The Saga of the People of Laxardal and Bolli Bollason's Tale. (K. Kunz, Trans.). Penguin Classics.
 The Annals of Fulda (2012). (T. Reuter, Trans.). Manchester University Press.