DRESS AND JEWELLERY
How did the Vikings dress? We would love to be able to see Viking men and women, observe the cut of their clothes, get a general impression of their clothing, of the fashion or fashions of Viking times. This is not completely impossible. Three types of sources can be used. First, archaeological discoveries, which fall into two separate groups: fragments of Viking dress which afford clues to technique and detail, and Viking representations of themselves, which give the general picture. The second source is provided by European finds outside Scandinavia; and the third comprises descriptions of Viking dress in literature.
The Scandinavian archaeological find which affords the best impression of Viking costume in the ninth century is the ship from Oseberg in south Norway, a splendid treasure brought to light more than fifty years ago and still revealing new features and new details. In this ship was found a tightly packed bundle of textiles which, after years of patient treatment of the badly damaged materials, has revealed its contents: a woven tapestry designed to hang in the great hall. Such wall hangings were common in the Viking Age. The best-known parallel outside Scandinavia is the famous embroidery known as the Bayeux Tapestry (which was created by English women seamstresses in England). In Old Norse a band of tapestry such as that from Oseberg was called refill or tjald. The Oseberg specimen is only eight inches/ 20cm high, a fact which Robert Kloster has explained by saying that it had to be so placed in the hall that people sitting around could see and study it. If it were hung high in a dark and smoky hall it would not be seen at all; if it were hung too low it would be obscured by the heads of the people at the table. There was not much room to play with, hence the narrowness.
The original colours of this Oseberg tapestry were mainly red and yellowish brown. It had numerous figures on it, and a simple decorative frame. Clearly the themes of the tapestry were drawn from myths, tales, and heroic poems. We see warriors in plenty, berserks in chain-mail, Valkyries, horsemen; there are tow-seated open carts and covered wagons, the latter looking like prairie wagons. Between these pictures, as space-fillers, we find birds, zigvag lines, swastikas, knot-like patterns, and so on. The weapons depicted are mainly spears and arrows, but there are also swords and axes. The predominance of the spear striking – it is found everywhere, not only in the warriors’ hands but also standing free. At first glance the horses seem to be in a grove of tall tulip-like flowers; it is not a flower-grove, but a dense forest of deadly spears. The scenes on the Oseberg tapestry undoubtedly represent a land battle – no ships are in sight. They are difficult to interpret, but one of them, a particularly vivid battle scene, with spears, shieldwall, beresrks, and a solitary warrior in a chariot has been explained by Bjorn hougen as an illustration of the battle of Bravalia, with King Hilditonn in the chariot.
The costumes on the Oseberg tapestry are very interesting. Some men wear helmet and coat of mail, and have white oval shields and spears; but some seem to be in civilian clothes, though they too carry the indispensable spear. Their clothes consist of an apparently thick woolen coat reaching half-way down the thigh or a little higher. The sleeves are long, and the coat, though occasionally belted, usually hangs loose. Yet it seems to be tailored: it fits neatly at the waist. This coat or jackets is familiar from other Viking finds in the North; for instance from carved stones from Gotland, a Norwegian stone, and a bronze statuette from Skane. It is the same kind of coat that is shown on the Lindisfarne stone mentioned above.
Two kinds of trousers are depicted in the Oseberg tapestry: they are either long and tight (again as in the Gotland and Lindisfarne stones) or else wide and baggy, rather like pluss-fours – the same type of trousers, though with a rather different cut, as appear on some of the men shown on the Gotland stones. The Arab, Ibn Rustah, in the tenth century, said of the Rus traders that they used very full trousers, gathered at the knees. The two Vikings shown on the Smiss-i-Nar (Gotland) stone are engaged in a duel, and their wide trousers stick out horizontally below the knee to such an extent that one is inclined to believe they are supported on some sort of frame like a crinoline. Trousers of this type of baggy kind, which used so much material, would of course be appropriate to rich and noble persons who liked to display their wealth. It is a common-place that, always and everywhere, fashions are dictated not least by vanity and the desire to flaunt the wearer’s riches.
There is yet a third garment, depicting on the Oseberg tapestry. This is a long cape or cloak ending in two points reaching almost to the ground, and worn either of two ways – with the points at either side or else at back and front. This cloak, again, is well represented on the Gotland stones. We are reminded of Ibn Fadlan’s report that the Rus traders wore their cloaks thrown over one side so as to keep one arm free. This the Gotland carvings confirm. The long cloak hanging freely from the shoulders is a stately garment. Its appearance is not in the least military, but it has a dignity which consorts well with the other civilian clothing of the Viking. Where, as occasionally happens, Sacndinavian leaders are shown in pictures from other lands during the Viking Age, they are wearing this impressive cloak over the long-sleeved knee-length jacket. This is how Cnut the Great appears on an English (illuminated) manuscript, which shows the king and his queen, beneath flying angels, placing a large cross of gold on the altar of the new minster at Winchester.
In the Oseberg tapestry are several women dressed alike in the long costumes which are also to be seen in various Swedish sources – carved stones from Gotland (Tjangvide for instance), and four small central Swedish silver figures. The textile expert, Agnes Giejer, in a painstaking analysis of the cloth fragments from the graves at Birka, has increased our knowledge of the clothing of well-to-do women in Viking times. Next to her skin the Viking woman of standing wore a fine chemise, sometimes pleated; and over this a sleeveless dress with straps which hung from two oval bronze brooches worn on the breast. The dress reached to the ground and even had a train. Over the dress was worn a sleeveless cape which, when thrown back, showed the whiteness of her arms, for which the Nordic woman was much admired. She must have an impressive figure striding along in her flowing dress, adorned with neckless and domed oval brooches from which hung on fine chains her scissors, a container for needles, knife, and keys. We shall be reminded of her appearance when we refer later to Ibn Fadlan’s remarks about the women of the Rus folk. Her hair was worn in a bog knot at the back of her neck, gathered into a hairnet or under a cap. Young girls were evidently permitted a less formal costume, as is shown on one of the Oseberg wagon by the gay young girl wearing a short skirt and long boots.
Not infrequently men are depicted with pointed or round-topped hats. These were made of leather or clot, and might be cut round the temples. women too are sometimes shown with caps or cap-like head-dresses. Also from the Oseberg find are women’s shoes sewn from tanned leather.
The Vikings loved splendour. In their graves, especially those of Birka, remnants of the most exquisitely decorated materials have been found. These include Chinese silk, embroidery in gold thread of extreme fineness and technical skill from Byzantium and the Orient, passementerie, heavy gold brocade, and plaited cords of the finest quality. The silks and many of the other materials were, of course, imported, but sometimes the brocade shows an unmistakably Nordic style. An example of the splendid equipment of a Viking warrior comes from a grave at Mammen in Central Jutland. With the dead man lay his silver-inlaid battle-axe, and under his head was a down pillow; only fragments of his cloak remained, but they showed it to have been adorned with free patterns in embroidery. His two bracelets or cuffs of wool, silk-covered and worked with gold thread were well preserved, and so too were a couple of very finely made, streamer-shaped, silk ribbons, the broad part of which showed delicate gold embroidery in the elaborate tendril pattern. these ribbons were probably the ornament called hlad in the sagas, which the Viking wore on his forehead. even the toughest warriors enjoyed dressing in such finery; according to the saga Skarphedin, the most ruthless of all Njal’s sons, wore his elegant silk hlad when he went to the Thing.
The Vikings loved splendour. In their graves, especially those of Birka, remnants of the most exquisitely decorated materials have been found. These include Chinese silk, embroidery in gold thread of extreme fineness and technical skill from Byzantium and the Orient, passementerie, heavy gold brocade, and plaited cords of the finest quality. The silks and many of the other materials were, of course, imported, but sometimes the brocade shows an unmistakably Nordic style. An example of the splendid equipment of the Viking warrior comes from a grave at Mammen in Central Jutland with the dead man lay his silver-inlaid battle-axe, and under his head was a down pillar; only fragments of his cloak remained, but they showed it to have been adorned with free patterns in embroidery. his two bracelets or cuffs of wool, silk-covered and worked with gold thread were well preserved, and so too were a couple of very finely made, streamer-shaped, silk ribbons, the broad part of which showed delicate gold embroidery in an elaborate tendril pattern. These ribbons were probably the ornament called hlad in the sagas, which the Vikings wore on his forehead. Even the toughest warriors enjoyed dressing in such finery; according to the saga Skarphedin, the most ruthless of all Njal’s sons, wore his elegant silk hlad when he went to the Thing.
In this Jutland grave, as in about sixty of the Birka graves – and in Gotland finds too – are wool and silk ribbons made by the technique called ‘tablet-weaving’, an old method of manufacture in Scandinavia. In the grave of the Oseberg queen was found a ribbon loom, set up ready for work, and containing no fewer than fifty-two tablets. Another weaving technique, sprang, is evidenced in graves at Birka.
It is not east to determine whether the finer textiles found in these graves were imported or home-produced, silk, of course, came from abroad, but it is probable that a great deal of the elaborate material mentioned above was made by Norse experts. An example of an imported material is the extremely fine woollen fabric found at Oseberg and Birka, which resembles a worsted, and is so precisely woven as to suggest mass-production on a scale that could scarcely have been organized within Scandinavia, Agnes Geijer is inclined to think that this material is Frankish and to identify it with the famous ‘Frisian cloth’, called in Frankish texts pallia fresonica, which Charlemagne considered worthy to present to the Caliph Haroun Al Raschid in exchange for a white elephant.
Finally, in connexion with the Viking costume must be mentioned a refill or tapestry from the village of Skog in Northern Sweden, now preserved in Stockholm Museum. It belongs to the last years of the Viking period,and shows a number of figures, some human beings, others clearly gods, dressed in clothes which include wide baggy trousers of much the same kind as those in the Oseberg tapestry. This fashion, it seems, lasted right through the Viking Age, from the ninth century to the eleventh.
how did the Vikings adorn themselves and their women-folk? The man’s only adornment, apart from the hlad mentioned above, was the bracelet, the braided or twisted ring of gold and silver so often mentioned in the sagas as the gift which a king or earl gave to his retainers or skalds. The women had more jewellery – gold and silver rings, like the man’s but often bigger; used for the neck or perhaps the hair, as well as sets of brooches worn on the breast. the composition of these sets of dress-fastenings generally took a standardized form, with a pair of gilt-bronze brooches recalling in their domed, elliptical shape the form of a tortoise-shell, flanking a third brooch of different type. sometimes the central brooch might be round, but often it would be of the three-lobed ‘trefoil’ type, in bronze or silver. Comparative study shows that while one main element of the assembly was of Scandinavian origin, the other was derived from a foreign fashion. The ‘tortoise-brooches’ are native, developed from a well-known Scandinavian prototype. In early Viking times they were of simple shape, decorated with separate animal figures which were clearly drawn and easily distinguished. Later on they assumed a more elaborate form: over a smooth gilt bowl a second plate was added, and complex, rather degenerate, animal-ornament was imposed on a basic network of decorative framing. With the use of openwork and the generally more plastic treatment of the ornament (especially in the development of large bosses, which often bore animal heads or figures so prominent as to dominate the whole design) these late tortoise-brooches took on an almost baroque appearance.
The trefoil-brooch was not Scandinavian, but Frankish in origin, and began as an ornament for men. Frankish male garments used lots of straps – shoulder straps, belt, and sword straps. All these had oblong tags at their ends, decorated with leaf designs, especially of acanthus foliage. where three of these strap ends it was natural to combine them into a three-lobed complex which could then be used as decoration alone wherever three straps crossed; hence the three-lobed shoulder-brooch to be seen in Frankish miniatures. No doubt these were among the loot which the Vikings brought home from their raids. One such three-lobed gold trefoil-brooch, splendidly decorated, was found in a Norwegian hoard dating from the ninth-century. This three-lobed type of brooch, then, embellished with characteristic Carolingian leaf-ornamentation of classical type, found its way to the North, but as the Viking warrior’s costume did not particularly require it he gave the brooch to his wife. Thus the trefoil-brooch came to be worn by Scandinavian women. Before long its foliage decoration, so unusual in Norse design, was replaced by indigenous animals-ornament. Jewellery, too, can have a history all of its own.
Of course there were other types of decorative dress-fittings in the Viking Age. The ‘equal-armed’ bronze brooch had a similar origin to the three-lobbed type, deriving from a combination of two metal strap ends. Probably the simple oblong brooch also developed from a strap end. A common type of the later Viking period is the round silver filigree brooch divided into four sections into which animal-motifs were fitted. The type of ornamentation, of course, indicates the age as well as the origin of these objects. Those with pure Carolingian plant-ornament or with animal-ornament characteristic of the British Isles are clearly imported: but the Viking silversmiths were skilled craftsmen who are often found to have copied Frankish work; the products then show competence and a certain robust force, but do not achieve the finish and elegance of the foreign originals.
However, as early as the year 900, less than half-way through the Viking period, the Scandinavian goldsmiths and silversmiths came into their own. Their apprenticeship in design was over, and from then on they produced independent works in styles which were quite their own. A favourite type, especially in eastern Scandinavian, was the penannular brooch; another was the heavy silver bracelet either deeply-grooved or with the surface-broken up into thick knobs or studs; a third was a spiral bracelet with impressed ornament and heavy, bevelled terminals. All these are probably of Baltic origin.
Certain types of silver ornaments are rarely found in Viking graves, but are common in those deposits that archaeologists call ‘silver hoards’ or ‘treasures; which are particularly abundant on Gotland. These hoards were probably not votive offerings to the gods; accordingly there would seem to have been two main motives for burying them. The first is that the objects were buried because of the common belief that they would be useful in the after-life. A thirteenth century literary source, Snorri’s Ynglinga Saga, observes that what a man buried in the ground he would enjoy in Valhalla. The second is that in time of war or other misfortune people concealed their valuables in the earth and did not survive to reclaim them. Each explanation has some justification, though many scholars rely too much on the second one when they plot the course of warfare.
Silver hoards from the ninth century are fairly rare, but they become more numerous as the Viking Age develops. They consist of three types of object: trinkets, ‘broken sliver’ and coins. Gold objects are very scarce, because during the entire Viking period sliver had replaced gold as the primary metal of value. Silver production, especially from the Arab mines, had ousted late-Roman gold.
The principal type of personal adornment found in the older silver hoards is the spiral bracelet already mentioned, with its characteristic terminals. In the later hoards, however, other types prevail: twisted or braided armlets and neck-rings, round filigree brooches ornamented with spiral and vine patterns (copies of Carolingian or perhaps English originals) and long finely-made chains (showing the influence of textile techniques) ending in animal heads and sometimes carrying amulets in the form of Thor’s hammer. It must be emphasized again that these objects are rarely found in graves, a fact which suggests that definite laws or, at least, traditions must have governed the choice of objects fit and proper for burying with the dead.
‘Broken silver’, the second component of the hoards, especially the later ones, was used for making payments by weight for goods purchased. Sometimes the scales too were buried (they are also found in graves). They are small collapsible balance fitted with pans; and the weights are contained in round bronze boxes. The ‘broken silver’ itself consists of bits of rings and other bars and ingots, and coins which were therefore not used as currency. In many cases fragments of fine oriental metalwork show that when business required it the Viking would not hesitate to cut into pieces the most beautiful art treasures.
The third element in the hoards is coinage, mostly complete and undamaged. This is in general significant for the dating of such deposits. The coins which predominate are those of the east. Not only in the ninth century but throughout most of the tenth as well, the hoards contain masses of Arabic coins – dirhems (1) coming in the main from the Samanide chieftains of Samarkand – but few Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon coins. Not until the large payments of danegeld by England at the end of the tenth century and the first half of the eleventh did Anglo-Saxon coins become plentiful. At the same period, German coins appeared from Saxony and the Rhineland, which confirms the fact that silver mining had began in the Harz about the middle of the tenth century. Byzantine coins are rare throughout the entire Viking period. Arab coins were not imported into Scandinavia after the end of the tenth century. No doubt this due to an Eastern ‘sliver crisis’ which obviously affected the currency – fewer coins were issued and they were of debased metal. The region in which most of these foreign coins are found is Gotland, which shows that this large island was the main trading area of the Baltic and the whole of southern Scandinavia. A count made some years ago of the coins found on Gotland gave the following result: Arabic, 25,000; Anglo-Saxon, 18,000; German, 30,000. For the whole of Denmark the corresponding figures were 3,800, 4,000, 8,900; and for Norway they were smaller than for Denmark.
All this, of course, concerns foreign coins; but the Vikings also minted their own coins, both at home and abroad, and to this matter we shall return.