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About one in five people living in Viking-Age Scandinavia were slaves, but few scholars have examined what their role was in society, in particular what work did they do on farms. A recent article by Janken Myrdal, entitled “Milking and Grinding, Digging and Herding: Slaves and Farmwork 1000-1300,” offers some insights based on archaeological sources, sagas and law texts.
While previous studies have suggested that slaves and freeman probably did most of the same jobs around a medieval farm, Myrdal, an economic historian at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, believes that slaves would have been given particular jobs to do – ones that were considered the hardest and socially degrading “Slave work in general was heavy and dirty,” he writes.
One of the key roles of a male slave was to do the herding – cattle, pigs and sheep could be found in various parts of Scandinavia and Iceland, and sources suggest that being a herder was considered to be a position only suitable for male slaves. Meanwhile, work in the fields was separated – slaves would be the ones who would fertilize the fields with dung, while freemen would be responsible for sowing or ploughing the fields. Slaves and masters would work together during the harvest and collecting hay.
Other jobs reserved for slaves would be to cut pieces of turf from the ground, and a slave was often referred to as carry a spade and rope with him. Some slaves could be found doing forest work, hunting and fishing.
Meanwhile, slave women would have been given jobs such as milking cows, grinding grain at the quern, sitting at the fire and preparing food, and sometimes tending to the children. Myrdal finds that Viking-Age law codes give some interesting definitions of slave women when discussing punishments for freemen who impregnated someone else’s slave:
“According to the Law of Sjaelland, the mark of a simple slave woman was that she milled grain and baked, something that reduced the fine of the seducer. Under the Westrogothic Las, a man who impregnated another man’s slave was responsible for her until she could work again, which is defined as being able to milk and grind grain. In a corresponding provision, the Norwegian Gulathing Law states that a man would be responsible for a slave women he had impregnated until she was strong enough to carry two pails of water from the well.”
Milking was one of the hardest tasks for slave women, and one of the most degrading as well. Some saga accounts have stories about free women who would refuse to even try milking a cow, while men insulted each other by saying they milked cows. But Myrdal also notes how the relationship between women and cows changed as the Middle Ages progressed. After the year 1000, butter became easier to make and store, and was considered a very profitable luxury good in Scandinavia. By the thirteenth-century sources show that women in Sweden and Denmark often owned cows and were making profits from selling butter. It was at this time that word dey changed its meaning – originally it had meant a slave woman who supervised the other slaves in a large household, but it now meant a female dairy manager.
Myrdal’s article appears in Settlement and Lordship in Viking and Early Medieval Scandinavia. Edited by Bjørn Poulsen and Søren Michael Sinbaek, the book contains seventeen papers that deal with agriculture, social history and lordship throughout this part of norther area, and questions the traditional view that Scandinavian aristocrats developed from Viking raiders into Christian landlords.