Prof. Dr. Stefan Brink


Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies
Heussallee 18–24
53111 Bonn

Stefan Brink 2.jpg
© S. Brink

Scandinavian Slavery

An early stance in research, emanating from the 19th century, was that Early Scandinavian society was an egalitarian peasant society, with free farmers, kings and chieftains. In the Icelandic sagas and the earliest provincial laws there were, of course, mentions of slaves, most commonly known as þrælar. Hence, the existence of an unfree class was known. Kings could have many þrælar, farmers some. This fact did not alter the view of the prehistoric society; it was still looked upon as fairly homogeneous. When the topic has been under analysis, the two main sources consulted have been the provincial laws and the Icelandic sagas; the former evidencing the last phase of thraldom in Scandinavia with the manumission of thralls, and for the latter sources – the sagas – we always have the creeping suspicion that they describe more the time of the writing of the sagas (thus mainly the thirteenth century) and what these authors thought of or had heard of thraldom in the Viking Age. What we can deduct from the stories is the fact that many of the thralls in Iceland seem to have been seized abroad; very often slaves from Ireland are mentioned.

The provincial laws are the most important sources for us in our study especially of medieval slavery (hence from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries). Here we get a wide range of terms for slaves, and we get an insight into the judicial dependence of the slave in society; I assume there must have been legal rules in these laws, which were based on old customs, hence older than the Middle Ages. In order to understand prehistoric slavery, and to complement what we can learn from the laws, archaeology, onomastics, and especially the semantic and etymological analysis of slave terminology are vital. In my analyses of Scandinavian slavery I am able to show the social, legal and linguistic complexity we had: I can identify what must have been chattel slaves (þræll); female household slaves (ambáttr, deigja); household slaves being part of the (extended) family (fostra, fostre); stewards, even a King’s stewards at a royal manor (bryti). You could be captured and taken as a slave, you could be sentenced (for a time-limited period) into slavery for some criminal offence, or you could voluntarily step, or sell your children, into a slave status, due to handicap, old age or poverty, to be taken care of. This kind of etymological and semantic analyses of terms for slaves proves to one of the best tools for understanding a prehistoric (i.e. pre-c. 1100) slavery, and servitude and dependency in general, in Scandinavia.
In the project I am going to pursue at the Bonn Centre for Dependency and Slavery Studies I will broaden my earlier research, which has been focused on the Viking Age, and analyse the early Scandinavian laws. We have now a new research situation thanks to my project Medieval Nordic Laws (, with new analyses of all the earliest laws in Scandinavia and the ongoing publication of these laws (

I am also going to historically contextualize Scandinavian slavery activities in the light of the new results which has been produce by especially Michael McCormick (Harvard). We are today faced with a new Stand der Forschung in this field, mainly due to three things:

  1. The huge impact of DNA analyses, and especially the cooperation between Humanities (History/Archaeology/Comparative Linguistics) and Science (DNS and Isotope analysis), by teams of scholars lead by e.g. Professors Patrick Geary IAS, Princeton, Michael McCormick, Harvard, Kristian Kristiansen, Gothenburg and others, painting a new and exciting picture of our pre-history, which forces us to revaluate our present stances.
  2. New Archaeological findings in Eastern Europe since the 1990 of Scandinavians penetrating todays Russia, and our knowledge of the trade, settlement and impact of the Scandinavians in the East has dramatically changed the picture. The driving force here seems (again) to have been slave trade with the goal to get hold of silver. To this picture we can today also bring in linguistics and terms for slaves, such as the word kæfsir (see Brink 2019).
  3. The new stance regarding early trade and economy in Europe, going back to Henri Pirenne, via Richard Hodges, to Michael McCormick, where the latter has convincingly been able to show that in the period second half of the first millennium Europe was able to achieve a “positive” trading balance, and this mainly thanks to export of people, slaves, which in his words was the Birth of European Commercial Economy. In this achievement Scandinavian Vikings were a major player, opening up new trading routs in northern Europe, to the west, but more importantly, to the East. The Vikings became a major player in this slave-trade economy.

My contribution to the Bonn Centre for Dependency and Slavery Studies programme will firstly be to develop a ‘Grammar of Dependency’ for Scandinavia, for the period which saw an ‘indigenous’ slavery in society, that is early Scandinavia up to c. 1350. I have already shown, in my book from 2012, that this terminological analysis is probably the best possibility to grasp the extent and the complexities of this slavery and servitude.

I would secondly also like to combine this philological/linguistic research with the new knowledge we have from Archaeology and History, and especially the new insight we are getting thanks to the ongoing cooperation between teams in the Humanities with teams of Science (esp. DNA) scholars. 

  • “Cult sites in northern Sweden”. Old Norse and Finnish religions and cultic place-names. (Scripta instituti Donneriani Aboensis XIII.) Åbo 1990.
  • Hälsinglands äldsta skattelängd. Hjälpskattelängden ”Gärder och hjälper” från år 1535. Med inledning och kommentarer utg. av Stefan Brink. (Skrifter utg. genom Ortnamnsarkivet i Uppsala. Ser. C. Källskrifter 2.) Uppsala 1994.
  • “Home. The term and the concept as seen from a linguistic and settlement-historical point of view”, The Concept of Home : An Interdisciplinary View, ed. C. N. Benjamin & D. Stea. London, New York & Sydney 1995.
  • Jämtlands kristnande [The Christianization of the province of Jämtland], ed. Stefan Brink. (Projektet Sveriges kristnande. Publikationer 4.) Uppsala 1996.
  •  “Political and Social Structures in Early Scandinavia. A Settlement-historical Pre-study of the Central Place”. Tor. Journal of Archaeology 28 (1996).
  • “Forsaringen – Nordens äldsta lagbud”. Femtende tværfaglige Vikingesymposium. Aarhus Universitet 1996, ed. E. Roesdahl & P. Meulengracht Sørensen. Århus 1996.
  •  “Political and social structures in early Scandinavia 2. Aspects of space and territoriality – the settlement district”, Tor. Journal of Archaeology 29 (1997).
  • “Names and Naming of Slaves”. The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery I & II. Gen. ed. J. P. Rodriguez. Santa Barbara: Cal. 1997.
  • “The formation of the Scandinavian parish, with some remarks regarding the English impact on the process”. The Community, the Family and the Saint. Patterns of Power in Early Medieval Europe, ed. J. Hill & M. Swan. (International Medieval Research 4.) Brepols: Turnhout 1998.
  • “Social order in the early Scandinavian landscape”. Settlement and Landscape, ed. Ch. Fabech & J. Ringtved. Århus 1999.
  • “Husby”. Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde 15 (2000) pp. 274–278.
  • “Mythologizing Landscape. Place and Space of Cult and Myth.” Kontinuitäten und Brüche in der Religionsgeschichte. Ed. M. Stausberg. (Ergänzungsbände zum Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde 31.) Berlin & New York: de Gruyter 2001.
  • “Slavery in Scandinavia, as reflected in names, runes and sagas”. New Perspectives on Slavery. Ed. T. Iversen. Trondheim.
  • “Nordic language history and archaeology”. The Nordic Languages. Ed. O. Bandle. (HSK – Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft.) de Gruyter: Berlin & New York 2002.
  • “Sociolinguistic perspectives and language contacts in Proto-Nordic”. The Nordic Languages. Ed. O. Bandle. (HSK – Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft.) de Gruyter: Berlin & New York 2002.
  • “Sociolinguistic perspectives in the transitional period between Proto-Nordic and Old Nordic”. The Nordic Languages. Ed. O. Bandle. (HSK – Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft.) de Gruyter: Berlin & New York 2002.
  • “Law and Legal Customs in Viking Age Scandinavia”. Scandinavians from the  Vendel Period to the Tenth Century, ed. J. Jesch. San Marino: CIRSS 2003.
  • “Legal Assemblies and Judicial Structure in Early Scandinavia.” Political  assemblies in the earlier Middle Ages. Ed. P. Barnwell & M. Mostert. (Studies in the Early Middle Ages.) Turhout: Brepols.
  • Namenwelten. Ed. S. Brink, L. Elmevik & A. van Nahl. (Ergänzungsband zum Reallexikon der germanische Altertumskunde), Berlin & New York: de Gruyter 2004.
  • Mytologiska rum och eskatologiska föreställningar i det vikingatida Norden”. Ordning mot kaos. Studier av nordisk förkristen kosmologi. Ed. A. Andrén et al.  (Vägar till Midgård 4.) Lund: Nordic Academic Press.
  • Some New Perspectives on the Christianization of Scandinavia and the Organisation of the Early Church. Scandinavia and Europe. Ed. K. Holman & E. Adams. (Texts and Cultures in Northern Europe 4.) Turnhout: Brepols.
  • “Legal Assembly Sites in Early Scandinavia”. Assembly places and practices in medieval Europe, ed. Aliki Pantos & Sarah Semple. Dublin: Four Courts Press 2004.
  • “Verba Volant, Scripta Manent? Aspects of the Oral Society in Scandinavia”.  Literacy in medieval and Early Modern Scandinavian culture, ed. P. Hermann.  (Viking Collection 16.) Odense 2005.
  • “Some aspects on the Christianization in Sweden and early Church organization”. Church Centres. Church Centres in Iceland from the 11th to the 13th Century and  their Parallells in other Countries, ed. H. Thorláksson. (Snorrastofa. Rit 2.) Reykjavík.
  • “The Voyages of Othere and Wulfstan. A cultural historical and socio-political background”. Ohthere's voyages : a late 9th-century account of voyages along the coasts of Norway and Denmark and its cultural context, ed. Janet Bately and Anton  Eglert. (Maritime Culture of the North 1.) Roskilde 2007.
  • “Skíringssalr, Kaupang, Tjølling – the Toponymic Evidence”. Kaupang in Skiringssal. Ed. Dagfinn Skre. (Norske Oldfunn 22.) Århus: Århus University Press  2007.
  • “How uniform was the Old Norse religion? ”, Old Norse world. Essays in Honour of Margaret Clunies Ross, ed. J. Quinn et al. (Medieval texts and cultures in northern Europe 18), Turnhout: Brepols 2007.
  • “The Kingdom of Sweden” (together with Nils Blomkvist and Thomas Lindkvist), Christianization and the Rise of Christian Monarchy. Scandinavia, Central Europe  and Rus' c. 900-1200, ed. N. Berend, Cambridge: CUP 2007.
  • “Landskap och plats som mentala konstruktioner”, Facets of Archaeology. Essays in Honour of Lotte Hedeager on her 60th Birthday (Oslo Archaeological Series vol. 10), Oslo: Unipub 2008.
  • “People and land in early Scandinavia”, Franks, Northmen, and Slavs: Identities and State Formation in Early Medieval Europe, ed. P. Geary et al. (Cursor Mundi 5) (Brepols 2008).
  • Lord and Lady – Bryti and Deigja. Some Historical and Etymological Aspects on Family, Patronage and Slavery in Early Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England. (The Dorothea Coke Memorial Lecture in Northern Studies 2005.) London: Viking Society 2008.
  • The Viking World, ed. Stefan Brink (in collaboration with Neil Price), (Routledge World Series), London & New York: Routledge 2008.
  • “Place Names in Scandinavia”, The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Ed. Robert E. Bjork. Oxford: OUP 2010.
  • “Early Ecclesiastical Organization of Scandinavia, especially Sweden”, in England and the Continent in the Tenth Century: Studies in Honour of Wilhelm Levison (1876-1947), edited by David Rollason, Conrad Leyser, and Hannah Williams (Studies in the Early Middle Ages37), Turnhout: Brepols 2010.
  • “Hälsingelagens ställning mellan väst och syd, och mellan kung, kyrka och lokala traditioner”, Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademiens Årsbok 2010.
  • “Oral Fragments in The Earliest Old-Swedish Laws?”, in Medieval Legal Process: Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages, ed. by Marco Mostert & Paul S. Barnwell (Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 19), Turnhout: Brepols 2011.163. “
  • “Gudhem – the toponymic evidence (or rather challenge)”, The Gudme/Gudhem Phenomenon. Papers presented at a workshop organized by the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology (ZBSA), Schleswig, April 26th and 27th, 2010, ed. by Oliver Grimm & Alexandra Pesch (Schriften des Archäologischen Landesmuseums Ergänzungsreihe Band 6), Neumünster: Wachholtz 2011.
  • Review of: David Wyatt, “Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800–1200” (Leiden & Boston: Brill 2009), in Early Medieval Europe 19(3) 2011. RecWyatt.pdf
  • “Mediality and Usage of Medieval Laws: the Case of the Hälsinge Law”, Liber Amicorum Ditlev Tamm. Law, History and Culture, ed. by P. Andersen et al.,Copenhagen: Djöf Publ. 2011. [Note: Mistake in title of the proof - medical for medieval!]
  • Vikingarnas slavar ['Viking Slavery'; book]. Atlantis förlag: Stockholm (2012). Paperback in 2018.
  • ”De nordiska språkens påverkan på ortnamnsskicket i Storbritannien”, in Svenskans beskrivning 32. Förhandlingar vid trettioandra sammankomsten för svenskans beskrivning, ed. by B. Bihl et al. (University of Karlstad: Karlstad 2013), pp. 38-51.
  • “The Creation of a Scandinavian Provincial Law: How was it done?”, Historical Research vol. 86 (nr 233): 432-42.
  • Sacred Sites and Holy Places. Exploring the Sacralization of Landscape Through Time and Space, ed. by S. Walaker Nordeide and S. Brink (Studies in Early Middle Ages 11) (Brepols 2013).
  • “Myth and Ritual in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Landscape”, in Sacred Sites and Holy Places. Exploring the Sacralization of Landscape Through Time and Space,ed. by S. Walaker Nordeide and S. Brink (Studies in Early Middle Ages 11) (Brepols 2013), pp. 33-51.
  • “Early Ecclesiastical Organization of Scandinavia, especially Sweden”, in  Medieval Christianity in the North. New Studies, ed. by K. Salonen, K. Villads Jensen and T. Jørgensen (Acta Scandinavica 1) (Brepols 2013), pp. 23-39.
  • “Die Christianisierung Skandinaviens”, in Credo. Christianisierung Europas in Mittelalter, vol. 1. Ed. by Ch. Stiegemann, M. Kroker & W. Walter (Petersberg: Imhof 2013), pp. 250-60.
    New Approaches to Early Law in Scandinavia, ed. by Stefan Brink and Lisa Collinson (Acta Scandinavica 3) (Brepols 2014).
  • “The Hälsinge Law between South and West, King and Church, and Local Customs”, in New Approaches to Early Law in Scandinavia, ed. by Stefan Brink and Lisa Collinson (Acta Scandinavia 3) (Brepols 2014), pp. 37-56.
  • “Minnunga mæn – The Usage of Old Knowledgeable Men in Legal Cases”, in Minni and Muninn. Memory in Medieval Nordic Culture, ed. by Hermann, Mitchell and Arnorsdottir (Acta Scandinavica 4)(Brepols 2014), pp. 197-210.
  • “Reading Cult and Mythology in Society and Landscape: The Toponymic Evidence”, in Nordic Mythologies: interpretations, intersections, and institutions, ed. T. Tangherlini (Berkeley: North Pinehurst Press 2014), pp. 157-72.
  • “Librum legum terre Hælisingie: the inspection and approval of versions of the law-book of the Hälsingar”, in The power of the book : medial approaches to medieval Nordic legal manuscripts, ed. L. Rohrbach (Berliner Beiträge zur Skandinavistik 19) (Berlin: Humbolt Universität 2014), pp. 157-62.
  • ”Early Law in the North”, Questio Insularis 16 (Cambridge 2015): 1-15.
  • “Transferred Names and Analogy in Name-formation”, in The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming, ed. C. Hough (Oxford UP 2016), pp. 158-66.
  • “Trading Hubs or Political Centres of Power? Maritime Focal Sites in Early Sweden”, in Maritime Societies of the Viking and Medieval World, ed. J. Barrett & S. J. Gibbon (The Society for medieval Archaeology. Monograph 37) (Leeds: Maney 2015), pp. 88-98.
  • ”Gesellschaft und Kultur”, in Wikinger!, ed. M. Helmbrecht (Rosenheim: Koehler im Maximilian Verlag GmbH & Co 2016), pp. 78-89.
  • Stefan Brink (Aberdeen), and John Lindow (Berkeley), ‘Place Names in Eddic Poetry’, in A Handbook in Eddic Poetry. Myths and Legends of Early Scandinavia, ed. C. Larrington et al. (Cambridge University Press 2015) (pp. 173-89).
  • “Avaldsnes, Kormt and Rogaland. A Toponymy and Landscape Survey”, in Avaldsnes  A Sea-King’s Manor in First-Millennium Western Scandinavia, ed. by Dagfinn Skre (Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde. Ergänzungsband 1049 (Berlin & New York: de Gruyter, 2017), pp. 665-86.
  • “Law, Society and Landscape in Early Scandinavia”, in Comparative Law and Anthropology, ed. by James A. R. Nafziger (Research Handbooks in Comparative Law Series) (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2017), pp. 319-37.
  • ”Nationernas och regionernas återkomst”, in Stad och land, ed. by Kurt Almqvist (Stockholm: Axel och Margaret Ax:son Johnsons stiftelse, 2017), pp. 47-53.
  • Theorizing Old Norse Myth, eds S. Brink and L. Collinson (Acta Scandinavica 7), Turnhout: Brepols 2017.
  • “Uppsala – in Myth and Reality”, in Theorizing Old Norse Myth, eds S. Brink and L. Collinson (Acta Scandinavica 7), Turnhout: Brepols 2017, pp. 175–94.
  • “Memory in Law” and “Onomastics”, in Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies. Interdisciplinary Approaches, ed. by J. Glauser, P. Hermann & S. Mitchell, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2018, pp. xx-xx, xx-xx.
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