Photo: Ørjan B Iversen
Fjord Tours Facts / 22 Oct 2019

Exploring the Social Class System of Vikings

The history of the Vikings is something that draws millions of visitors to Norway every year in order to see things like the Viking Ship Museum. Although it is possible to see fictionalized accounts of Vikings in numerous TV shows and movies, a great opportunities to actually learn about the Vikings is to book a fjord tour in Norway and visit some of the historic sites they once ruled.

Luckily, there is no shortage of Viking history throughout the country and it is possible for visitors to easily become immersed in the world of this ancient race. One of the many things that can be learned through the various educational activities in Norway is the structure of the social class system that they once used. It resembled a lot of the other class systems that existed during the same time period, except, of course, the Vikings put their own unique spin on it.

Photo: © Aurland Photography

Three Class Systems

For most of the Viking age, there were only three societal classes. They consisted of thrall, karl, and jarl. However, later in the second half of the Viking Age, there developed a new social class tier that consisted of kings and queens. Although these classes were fairly concrete with a clear divide throughout society, it was possible for individuals to move up and down between the defined classes. This was usually a direct result of the actions of the individual and whether they were viewed as honorable or not.

Photo: © Aurland Photography

Thrall

The thrall were slaves - the absolute lowest position that someone could have within Viking society. These individuals had absolutely no rights under the law and were frequently sold as a form of currency during transactions. 

The people who belonged to this class could have gained their status in a variety of ways. The most common one was to simply be born as the child of a slave, which automatically put them in this class. However, there was also the possibility of someone becoming a slave due to being captured in war or losing enough wealth that they could essentially no longer fend for themselves.

Karl

Karl sat just above the thrall but shared many similarities in their lifestyles. The main distinction between the two societal classes was that the Karl were considered free and had full protection under Viking law. This allowed them to do things like own farmland and become Viking warriors. In fact, the vast majority of warriors were from the Karl class and worked as farmers when they were not on raids.

Jarl

At the top of the hierarchy was the class known as Jarl, which were essentially earls. These individuals were often quite wealthy and did not need to perform any hard labour throughout their life. They did tend to participate in battles and raids but often did so as chieftains and warlords rather than standard warriors.

Even once the fourth class of kings and queens emerged later in the Viking Age, Jarl still remained very well-respected and wealthy. The only difference was that there were now not the most powerful group in Viking society and were frequently tasked with personally overseeing large sections of land for the King’s use.

Photo: Georg Hansen

Using the three-class system, the Vikings organized every member of their society into one of them and interacted with one another based on their assigned social roles. If you’re interested in learning more about some of the most ruggedly spectacular figures in history, book your Norway adventure today and Go Viking in the Fjords.