Source: Anonymous, Laxdæla Saga, early 1200s
Laxdæla Saga, one of the greatest romances of medieval Iceland, was written in the early 1200s. It provides unique details on the Viking-Age enslavement of a woman in the mid-900s. This source should be approached with great caution, since the writer’s main purpose was to tell a good story. Nonetheless, the basic story about Melkorka—an Irish woman bought by an Icelandic farmer—is more widely attested, and other important details remain plausible.
The passage below comes from chapter 12, in which the Icelandic adventurer Hoskuld purchases Melkorka from Gilli, a merchant with an Irish name who adopted a Russian nickname. Although the regular price for a slave girl was one mark of silver, Gilli charges three. This would be about 1.5 pounds of silver. Large Viking-Age hoards might weigh as much as 150 pounds, typically dominated by silver coins from the east.
More details can be found in chapter 13, in which Melkorka gives birth to a son, Olaf Peacock, and reveals she can talk. She explains that she was 15 years old when she was taken captive and claims to be the daughter of an Irish king named Myrkjartan. No such king is known from Irish sources, but later in the saga, in chapters 20 and 21, Melkorka arranges for a clandestine marriage and sends Olaf to meet her father. She gave Olaf three tokens—a knife, a belt, and a golden arm ring—to prove he was her son. She would have needed to hide at least the arm ring throughout her captivity. The saga indicates that Myrkjartan accepted these proofs and acknowledged Olaf as his grandson, delivering gifts of his own. Olaf passed on at least the name Kjartan to his own son, who also features prominently in Laxdæla Saga and appears in other early Icelandic sources. Numerous manuscripts of this saga survive from as early as the mid-1200s.
Translated from the Old Norse by Matthew C. Delvaux. Published in Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, ed., Laxdœla saga, Íslenzk fornrit 5 (Reykjavik: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1934), 22–25, c. 12. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
There were tidings as the summer began that the king [Hakon I of Norway, r. 934–961] was going out on a journey to hold an assembly east in the Brännö Islands [near modern Göteborg, Sweden], and that he would make peace in his land, for just as the law prescribed for every third summer, so the assembly was to be held among nobles to settle those affairs in which kings had to pass judgment. It was considered a pleasant journey to go to the gathering, since men came there from almost all lands we have heard of.
Hoskuld set out in his ship. He also wanted go to this gathering because he had not seen the king during the winter. There would also be a merchant fair there.
The gathering was crowded with people. There was great entertainment, drinking, sports, and all sorts of fun. There were no major events. Hoskuld saw many of his friends who had been in Denmark.
One day, when Hoskuld was going out to enjoy himself with some other men, he saw a single colorful tent far off from the other booths. Hoskuld approached the tent and went into it, and a man sat there before him in clothes of rich cloth and he had a Russian hat on his head.
Hoskuld asked the man his name. He answered, “Gilli, but many know me when they hear my nickname. I am called Gilli the Russian.”
Hoskuld said that he had often heard him spoken of; he called him the wealthiest of men who had been in the merchant trade. Then Hoskuld spoke: “You must have something to sell us, that we would like to buy.”
Gilli asked what the group would like to buy.
Hoskuld said that he would like to buy an ambátt [a female slave], “if you have one to sell.”
Gilli answered: “You think you can put in the wrong if you ask me for something that you expect me not to have, although it has not been determined how that will play out.”
Hoskuld saw that across the tent there was a screen. Then Gilli liften the screen and Hoskuld saw that twelve women sat before him in the tent. Then Gilli said that Hoskuld should go over there and see if he wanted to buy any of these women.
Hoskuld did so. They sat all together across the tent. Hoskuld considered these women carefully. He saw that a woman sat out at the side of the tent. She was poorly dressed. He thought the woman seemed beautiful, so far as he could see.
Then Hoskuld spoke: “How expensive would this woman be, if I wanted to buy her?”
Gilli answers: “You’ll pay three marks of silver for her.”
“It seems to me,” says Hoskuld, “that you would make this female slave be rather costly since that is the value of three.”
Then Gilli answers: “You speak the truth, since I value her more than the others. Choose another from these eleven and pay a mark of silver for her, and leave this one in my possession.”
Hoskuld says: “I must first know how much silver is in this purse that I have on my belt,” and asks Gilli to get his scale as he grabs for his purse.
Then Gilli spoke: “This matter should go un-deceitfully from my hand, since there is a great flaw regarding an agreement about the woman. I want you to know it, Hoskuld, before we strike this bargain.”
Hoskuld asks what it might be.
Gilli answers: “The woman is without speech. I have tried many ways to get her to speak, and I have never gotten a word out of her. It is my sure opinion that this woman cannot talk.”
Then Hoskuld says: “Bring out the scale and see what the purse I have here weighs.”
Gilli does so. Then he weighed the silver and it was weighed at three marks.
Then Hoskuld spoke: “So it’s come to pass that our transaction might occur. Take the money for yourself, and I will take this woman. I say that you have acted manfully in this affair, since you surely wanted not to be false to me in this.”
Afterwards, Hoskuld went home to his tent. That same night, Hoskuld went to bed with her. On the morning after, when people got dressed, Hoskuld said: “There is little generosity to you in the clothes which Gilli the Wealthy has given you, though it is also true that it was more of a burden for him to clothe twelve than for me to clothe one.”
Afterwards, Hoskuld opened up a chest and took out good women’s clothing and gave it to her. It was the discussion of all, that good clothes suited her. When the nobles had spoken their business as the law prescribed, the assembly was ended. Afterwards, Hoskuld went to meet King Hakon and called him honorable, as was seemly. The king looked at him and spoke: “We would have received your greeting, Hoskuld, if you had greeted us somewhat sooner, and so shall it still be.”
- Melkorka’s captor bears a Gaelic name combined with a Russian epithet. In which direction was he moving slaves? What are the symbols of his wealth and prosperity? Where do these come from?
- How does Melkorka experience her captivity? Why might she have gone mute? Can we tell if her mutism is caused by psychological trauma or choice? How does Hoskuld alleviate her suffering? How does he intensify it? How does Melkorka’s enslavement impact her son?
- In many societies, slaves are segregated by what they wear or how they’re treated, and these things leave material traces that archaeologists can recover. Imagine that you’re an archaeologist excavating the grave of Melkorka or one of her companions, or perhaps one of the sites that they visited. What indications—if any—might you find to indicate that you’re excavating a place once occupied by a Viking-Age slave?
Related Primary Sources
- Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England
- Burzug ibn Shahriyar on Slave Trading from the East African Coast
- Concerning Sellers of Male and Female Slaves
- The Jingkang Incident
- Life of Saint Findan
- Miracles of Saint Opportuna
- The Stories of Shāriya in the Book of Songs (Kitāb al-Aghānī)
- William of Malmesbury, The Life of Wulfstan
- Kunz, Keneva, trans. The Saga of the People of Laxardal: Laxdæla Saga. In The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, ed. Örnólfur Thorsson and Bernard Scudder, 270-421. New York: Penguin, 2000.
- Kunz, Keneva, trans. The Saga of the People of Laxardal and Bolli Bollason’s Tale, ed. Bergljot S. Kristjansdottir. London: Penguin, 2008.
- Press, Muriel A. C., trans. Laxdæla Saga. London: J. M. Dent, 1899. https://sagadb.org/laxdaela_saga.en
Related Secondary Sources
- Arent Madelung, A. Margaret. The Laxdœla saga: Its Structural Patterns. UNC Studies in the Germanic Languages and Literatures 74. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.
- Clunies Ross, Margaret. The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
- Brink, Stefan. “Slavery in the Viking Age.” In The Viking World, ed. Stefan Brink and Neil Price, 49-56. London: Routledge, 2008.