The Viking society comprised of a clear hierarchy of social classes. The population was divided along these social lines. The majority of the Viking people were karls, who were freedmen and usually skilled in various jobs such as farming and smithing.
Above the karls were the jarls who were the Viking noblemen and warriors. The jarls enjoyed the greatest wealth and esteem in the Viking society.
At the bottom of the social ladder were thralls. Thralls were slaves, often owned in large numbers by the jarls and who had to live a life of hard labour. Many of the slaves came from Viking raids into other territories where the captives were brought to Scandinavia and kept as slaves.
Jarls were the most powerful people in the Viking society. They typically owned large Viking houses, had a number of slaves and could afford to own a variety of weapons.
Jarls expanded their influence and increased their wealth most often through raiding and warfare. The power of a jarl was estimated by the number of houses and ships he owned as well as the number of his followers, who were typically karls.
The eldest son of a jarl traditionally acquired the family wealth and the title of a jarl upon the death of his father. Wealthier karls who were able to improve their social standing through successful trading could ultimately become one of the jarls. This meant that not only was the Viking nobility hereditary but could also be acquired by someone from the lower social classes.
Karls formed the bulk of the Viking society. They were freemen who could engage in any trade, own houses and have a family. Typically, karls associated themselves with an influential jarl and offered their services to him.
The jarl, in return, would award the karls under him with food, drink and other things. Most karls were skilled at farming land although many of them specialised in other skills as well such as smithing and trading.
Like jarls, karls could own one or more slaves if they had the resources to acquire them. These slaves helped jarls in their tasks such as the farming of the land.
Thralls were the lowest class in the Viking society. They were slaves owned by the jarls or the karls and had to live a life of hard labour. The higher Viking social classes acquired thralls in many different ways. They could acquire them as captives from a raid or buy them from another person owning the slave.
If a person committed a theft, the victim was usually allowed to keep the offender as a slave and make him work until the damage was fulfilled. The children of a thrall in turn also became slaves in the Viking society.
In some cases, when a major nobleman died, his thralls were killed and buried with him in his grave. In rarer cases, thralls could be freed by their owners. However, even when freed, thralls didn’t immediately ascend to the social status of a regular freeman.