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Thread: Idrottir: The Roots of Social Mobility

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    Lightbulb Idrottir: The Roots of Social Mobility

    by Garfield Sagamester; This Article first appeared in Vol.7, Number 6 Issue of the Valhalla's Svar

    The Norse during the Viking Age were a very mobile society. Now I don't mean that they moved a lot from place to place (even though they did), what I mean is that a person had the ability to move socially. It was possible for a person to be born into slavery, be freed as an adult, and eventually become a very powerful person in the district. The reason that this would be possible is due to something called idrottir.

    Idrottir could be defined as skills. These skills can be academic, athletic, and/or craft. Examples of each would include languages spoken, rune reading and writing, and genealogy under academic; weapons usage (each weapon known would be counted separately), swimming, rock lifting and throwing (counts as two), and climbing cliffs for athletic; carpentry, carving (count individually if you know how to carve on more than one medium, i.e. stone , bone, wood, etc.), blacksmithing, and fishing would be areas under crafts. The more one knows, the more one is worth. This worth is both figurative and literal.

    Each and every person in Scandinavian society had a price fixed to them at birth. This was called a rett, or blood-price. This was the amount of silver that a person was worth based on what social level they belonged to when they were born. This amount was fixed only in that a persons worth could never go below this amount. Thus, if a person was born, say, into the level of a landless freeman, he or she would be worth two marks of silver (this is a arbitrary amount. I have no documentation that lists actual rett for the various social standings). This means two things: one, if the person is killed the family is entitled to two marks of silver from the killer (or the killers family) as long as the death did not occur as part of a battle during war or from a holmgang. Two, and this is the more important to this article, a person could not put themselves into more debt then their rett unless they were in a thriving business. If this freeman borrowed two marks silver and was unable to repay the loan at the specified time, he or she could be made a slave to the lender until such time as the amount of the loan was repaid. This then brings me back to the topic of idrottir.

    Like I said earlier, the more one knows the more one is worth. For example, a boy is born to a family that owns a small farm. The family holds their own but is unable to hire anyone to help work the farm. So as the boy grows he is taught a number of skills that he needs to work the farm. first he is taught to herd geese, next how to cut hay. When he is a bit older he is taught to plow and cast seed. Still later he will be taught the skills to repair farm equipment. Once this is learned he can learn how to make furniture. He will also learn some blacksmithing as part of the need to be able to repair equipment. If he shows skill he will be able to work at creating other items; tools, utensils, etc. When the boy reaches the age of seventeen he will start going to market with his father to learn how to buy and sell the goods needed and grown. Since the market places usually have a number of foreigners in them the boy, if he is quick witted, will start to learn the languages of at least some of the foreign merchants (at least enough to do business). Thus this young man by the time he has reached twenty winters in age can list the following as his idrottir:

    herding geese

    herding cattle

    herding goats (or sheep, or both)

    sowing grain

    plowing, harvesting

    carpentry (possibly carving as well)

    blacksmithing (at least of iron, but possibly

    gold and silver smithing as well)


    languages (list each known separately)

    and because he lives on a farm and needs to clear land, he can usually add the lifting and throwing of rocks. So our young man can list at least twelve idrottir.

    Although my example has been of that of a young man, the same holds true of women. A woman can list all the same farming skills as the young man above. However she most likely would not list carpentry, smithing, or rock lifting and throwing. She would, though, list such skills as weaving (both regular and tablet), sewing, cooking, baking, brewing ( this one was highly prized and could bring a higher bride price), and tanning of hides.

    Now we can get into the "worth" part in more detail. First, all this knowledge gave the person more personal worth. They would be a more confident and likable person (unless they became braggarts). Second, all these skills would make the person more sought after. If a chieftain knew of a young man that could work a farm, be a smith, speak to foreigners, and use a number of weapons, that chieftain would want that person probably as a foreman to look over one, or possibly more, of the chieftains farms. If you throw in that the young man is also a competent poet, he could become sought after by a king. In the case of a young woman, she could be sought after by all the most powerful men in the district, if not the country. Her father can demand high bride-prices, especially if she knows how to brew good beer.

    In the case of men, the offers from chieftains, jarls, and kings can lead to very comfortable lives. These leaders pay their employees well for the knowledge that their foremen hold. Also, if their skills are of a high enough caliber, the leading men of the district would ask to send their children to those with knowledge to be fostered so that the child can become wise and much learned. This applies to female children also. Then there is the possibility for those who know a great deal to attract their own followers. This is how the person born the slave can become a power in the district or country.
    Lík börn leika best.

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    Íþróttir in current use means sports, I'm not sure about the archaic use.
    This site has not been updated for some time..A good source, but I suspect that you already know that.
    We are the Multikultis. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

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