Slavery in the Clans: an Over-dramatized Image?

I noticed when we arrived at the longhouse kitchen that there were some men tarrying around, eyeing the women at work. I happened to glance and see Clare stirring a pot that hung over a rod in the nearest fireplace. A tall young warrior was standing against the wall, his eyes fixed on Clare. I caught the look in his eyes as he gazed silently at her, rubbing a blade of grass between his fingers. I’d seen that look before.

The woman closest to Clare approached me and my companion, receiving the water we brought, but I saw something that made me tense. That young lad took a couple steps closer until he stood beside Clare. She didn’t seem to notice him there—she simply kept stirring the pot like she was told. Uncertainty gnawed at me like dogs on a bone. I knew what was coming, but something made me stay and watch.

The warrior lifted his hand to Clare’s shoulder and slid it slowly down her back. Clare’s head turned sharply and her eyes widened on him, but she did not cringe. Instead she tried to talk.

If you read last week’s post about female warriors, you’ll remember that the entire concept of the shieldmaiden has always been shrouded in lore—to the point that historians can’t decisively prove or disprove whether or not these women fought alongside men. This gave me the freedom to speculate what life might have looked like for The Exile’s narrator, Delta, if such a woman could have existed in early medieval Scandinavian clans.

Unfortunately, the same uncertainty cannot be said to surround the condition of slaves during that time.

Let me pause here to clarify a couple of things.

First, the exact time during which the novel takes place is intentionally obscure. The prologue mentions that the kingdoms, clans, and wars precede the Viking era, but beyond that no details are given. Essentially this sets the stage for the story without pretending to give a factual account tied to real civilizations and places.

That being said, the description of clan life and warfare is inspired by the known details of Norse clans and culture. I intentionally did not include any of the religious traditions that would have likely been present—mainly because it didn’t serve the purpose of the story—but instead focused heavily on the aspects of slave life. In that regard, I can assure you that the struggle for survival Delta faces is one that any slave (“thrall,” in Old Norse) in a real Norse clan would have faced.

snow covered mountain during sunrise

Slavery in these clans was consistently characterized by brutality and dehumanization.

Andrew Lawler from National Geographic draws attention to recent archaeological findings that suggest thralls were housed and even disposed of alongside animals. The same article describes evidence of slave killings, suspected to result either from a master’s death or as a form of human sacrifice. As for a female slave like Delta, she would have in fact been viewed as a piece of property to be used for both sex and manual labor.

To be honest, this element of the novel was one of the hardest parts to write. Because her past is such an integral part of Delta’s character, I didn’t feel I could skimp on it—but at the same time I found myself struggling with the question of how much was too much. This is still a question I’m grappling.

So I ask you: when it comes to the unsavory stuff in history, how much detail should a writer incorporate?

Is it worse to under-elaborate or to over-elaborate? How does one decide this?

What are some books/movies that would benefit from a more thorough depiction of the era’s brutality? Which ones go too far?

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