A little reel of our living history activity at Repton Festival last weekend!
We presented a load of crafts at the weekend and made use of the fantastic clear skies! Our carpenters Beigan and Bjarni made planks and wood-nails for clinker-construction, while our blacksmith Yngvar made ships nails and roves to rivet them together. Solveig the Viking (aka Lucy the Tudor), Hrefna and Ðorunn spun and weaved, and did nalbinding.
Throst made a “Traveller’s Porridge” based on “An Early Meal” by Daniel Serra, while Loðinn talked brewing. Members of the public worked hard grinding barley into flour.
Steinar, Kenelm and Snorri showed off arms and armour, Hrothgar talked about trade and showed off goods from around the Viking world. Kael cast jewellery, Hermish helped members of the public strike their own Viking coin, and Lofthaena made paint from red ochre and egg yolk. And there’s probably more we’ve forgotten!
Also at Repton Festival we did 5 combat displays, including weapons demonstrations, historical and for entertainment! We talked about the phases of a battle, how men were organised, our thoughts on “shield walls” and how dane axes could be used in a battle.
Textiles were an essential part of living in the Viking-Age. Every Viking household would need to be able to spin fleece, weave cloth and sew together their own clothing. There were no clothes stores as we have today, and even the very rich made the the most of ‘homespun.’ This article explores what the Vikings wore, and what clothes were worn by who.
This content was written to compliment Key Stage 2 history topic ‘The Viking and Anglo-Saxon struggle for the Kingdom of England to the time of Edward the Confessor.’
What do we know about Viking Clothes?
Textiles seldom survive in the earth when buried for a 1000 years. Archaeologists find small fragments of textiles though, sometimes adhered to metal items like brooches or buckles. Rarely, complete or almost complete garments are found where the soil is favourable to the longevity of the fibres, such as in bogs. These fragments help us piece together what the clothes looked like, what they were made of and how fine they were. Occasionally we can even find out what colour they were dyed.
We can also get an idea about what clothes looked like from art work. Painted manuscripts, engravings, carvings and embroideries can give clues to the fit and finish of a garment. Some people in the Viking-Age also wrote about what they wore in stories such as the Viking Sagas. We can find out information from wills and legal documents where precious clothing has been passed down after a death in the family. However, we have to be careful when looking at art or in literature as the artists and authors could be exaggerating or making things up to impress their audience, or they may be telling a story a long time after the event.
What were Viking clothes made from?
People of the Viking Age wore simple, well-fitted clothes. In the cold climates of Northern Europe, clothes were usually made out of wool. Fleece was spun and woven at home or bought from a weaver in budding market-towns. Many people kept livestock such as sheep and traded their fleeces. White sheep were the most prized as their fleeces could be dyed with natural pigments extracted from plants, herbs and mosses, such as madder, woad and lichen. Some dyes were very expensive but make bright colours. Crushed Kermes insects could produce a deep crimson for example, but access would be restricted to the wealthiest people.
Clothes could also be made from linen grown and then woven from the fibres of flax, and occasionally hemp. Linen is a hard-wearing but quite soft fabric. It’s best used for under-clothes, bedding, or as a lining to a more elaborate garment. Most linens would have been plain and undyed (as it’s much more difficult to get colour fastness with linen than wool), but perhaps bleached with wood ash (lye) and boiling water.
Silk textiles have also been found from the Viking-Age. Silk would have been a precious commodity. It was almost as expensive gram for gram as silver as it was imported from the east, usually via the powerful Byzantine Empire. One of the most common uses of silk was for decoration in braid or trim. Silk garments such as head coverings have been discovered, as well as fragments that possibly belonged to coats. Silks have been discovered woven with intricate patterns, and with brocade textures.
Who made clothes?
The women of a household were responsible for spinning the yarn from fibres, weaving the fabric (perhaps on a ‘warp-weighted loom’) and then sewing the garment. Most families would make their own clothes in this way. Spindle whorls are a common find in archaeological excavations, indicating the importance of spinning yarn from fleece at home. Spindles are made from bone, wood and clay. They’re mounted on a wooden rod and the fleece is drawn into thin strands as it’s spun.
Once the yarn is made, it can be dyed straight away, or woven into fabric on a loom. Yarn is secured in two directions: warp and weft. The weft thread is woven under and over the warp thread with a shuttle, and the yarn is then beaten to keep it straight and neat. For large fabrics like sail-cloth, beaters were sword-sized pieces of iron! Sewing needles look very similar to the kind you can buy today, but they were often much thicker and made of materials such as fish bones, iron or copper.
While home dying may have occurred, the amount of dyestuff required to get a solid colour may have been too costly for most folk to dye a whole garment, but they may have dyed yarns used in decorative braid. Most dyed garments were probably ‘washed out’ with pale earthy shades. In larger urban centres such as Jorvik (modern-day York), dying would have been a professional occupation. Yarns would be dyed with a variety of natural dyes and fixed with expensive mordants. Madder, which produces red and woad which produces blue was reasonably common in Anglo-Scandinavian dye-works.
What were other uses for textiles?
In addition to making decorative braids (with techniques such as tablet weaving), and embroideries, Viking-Age people also made domestic items. Textiles were used for sacking for grain and other commodities, and sails for ships. Linen can been used to transport food, herbs and spices in small bags and pouches. Waxed linen can be used to cover storage jars.
Leather and Skins
Leather was also an important material in the Viking-Age since it was both tough and, if properly treated, fairly waterproof. It was used for all sorts of everyday items such as shoes, belts and pouches, scabbards for swords and knives, and possibly clothing. Leather items, and evidence of leather workshops, have been found in the excavations of a number of Viking-Age towns. Animal skin and fur may have been used to line garments such as hats to provide an extra comfortable layer. Animal-fibre pelts has been found in graves in Cumbria ands associated with clothing.
It may also have been used as a cheaper and lighter alternative to metal armour. Soaking leather in hot melted beeswax and then drying it makes the leather extremely hard, and able to resist glancing blows from weapons. Although there is no firm evidence for the use of this sort of leather armour by the Vikings, the technique was used both before and after this period, and some archaeologists and historians now think it likely that the Vikings used it as well.
Leather items were often plain and functional, but they could also be highly decorated. An attractive raised effect could be obtained by carving a design into wet leather with a sharp knife, then working round the knife marks with punches. Among other uses, animal hides could be used to write on (parchment), or to strengthen shields (rawhide).
Male Viking Clothing
Male clothing consisted of a simple knee-length woollen dress called a kyrtle. This garment would be brought in at the waist with a leather belt. The belt could be used to hang useful items such as a knife or pouch. Men wore a pair of short woollen breeches (shorts) worn with hoses (leggings), or longer trousers that were tightly fitted at the calf and ankle so they could be worn with leg wraps. Leg wraps, or winingas, would protect the bottom of the trousers whilst travelling or working in the fields.
Shoes and ankle boots have also been discovered. They’re often made from one piece of leather with a separate sole stitched on (turnshoes), and fastened with a toggle. In cold weather, a long, thick woollen cloak or mantle would be worn, fastened with a pin or brooch. Unlike today’s clothes, a hood was a separate item — again made in wool. These would be very tight around the head so that they wouldn’t blow down in the wind. In the summer, it is possible people wore smaller hats of wool, or even a wide-brimmed hat made of straw.
Richer people would wear similar clothes, but they may have been dyed a bright colour and made of finer fabrics with complex weaving patterns. Some kyrtles would have panels or gores in the skirt to make it much wider, showing off the extra fabric and colours that they could afford. In art, the king and his advisors are depicted wearing long gowns of bright colours, decorated with braid or embroidery at the sleeves and hems.
Jewellery made from copper-alloy, silver and occasionally gold was also worn. Pendants, elaborate belt fittings, bracelets, twisted-wire arm rings and finger-rings have all been discovered. Poorer people seem to have copied the fashions of the rich using less expensive materials. Clay, wood and bone rather than precious metals and stones.
Female Viking Clothing
Female clothing included a close-fitting, long woollen gown that would hang to the ankles. Unlike male clothing, it is rare to find evidence of a belt, so it is suggested that either women simply didn’t wear one, that it may have been a simple woven band, or that they wore a shoulder bag. Just like their male contemporaries, leather shoes were worn, as was head gear.
A simple head scarf, hood or wimple made of linen seemed to be common, especially amongst Christian women. Occasionally, the wimple would be fastened with a fillet — a woven band — or with pins. There are several finds of silk hoods, especially in Dublin, which alludes to the importance of this item of clothing. It’s quite likely that women wore their hair long, or in braids. There’s also some evidence of married women tying their hair into a knot, anchored with a pin.
Apron Dress, Hangerok, Smokkr
Some Scandinavian women wore a unique dress called a ‘smokkr’, ‘hangerok’ or apron dress. There is much discussion between academics about what this garment looked like. Was it a decorative overdress? Or was it an important accessory like an apron? What is clear is that two oval brooches were fixed at the shoulders, where hung a string which could hang useful items such as a chatelaine set (often with a tooth pick, tweezers and ear spoon), knife or shears. Richer finds see glass beads and silver pendants.
Pagan grave finds in Scandinavia see a plethora of jewellery and accessories, far more so than in male graves. Glass beads, amber and other precious stones and silver all appear in one form or another. In one grave in Birka (Sweden) there was 136 beads, mostly on one necklace!
It is likely that women wore similar travel cloaks as men. But, there are depictions in art of large cowls which may have been worn as an alternative. Like male clothing, wool was the predominate fabric, but richer people would show off their wealth with silks and colours made from expensive dyestuffs.
Viking Kids Clothing
Tablet Weaving: one way of decorating Viking Clothing
Tablet weaving is one of the oldest known weaving techniques, traceable back to at least the early Iron Age. The woven braid produced was used to decorate clothing as a trim, or to cover seams. It’s also possible that braid was used as belts or girdles for women.
The tablets are small flat squares, usually made of wood but bone and metal tablets have also been found. They have a hole in each corner through which yarn — wool, linen or silk — known as the warp is threaded.
The tablets are held in the hand similar to a pack of cards, laying parallel to the warp threads, and are then turned backward or forward by half or quarter turns. This action twists the four threads on each ‘tablet’ into a single strand, which is then held in place by the weft thread. The weft thread is then passed between the warp as it turns. By varying what colour the warp yarn is and the directions in which the tablets are turned, intricate warp patterns can be created. These patterns are called ‘threaded in’ patterns.
We don’t know exactly how the Vikings kept the warp threads under tension, but they may have fastened them to a frame. One such frame was found in the Oseburg ship burial.
A technique called ‘brocading’ could further be used to enhance tablet weaving. This was achieved by using a second weft thread, which runs over some or all of the warp threads, creating a pattern on the surface of the braid. Brocaded tablet-weaves were usually of silk, using gold or silver foil for the brocaded pattern. This type of tablet-weave was very expensive. It was used to decorate expensive garments worn by the rich.
A further method of tablet weaving that could be used was the double face technique. With this method the cards are threaded with only two colours. This method is used to produce lettering and patterns which are the same on each side, but with the colours reversed.
Further Reading about Viking Clothing and Jewellery
Articles on this site are predominately aimed at children and teachers reading for their Key Stage 2 ‘the Viking and Anglo-Saxon struggle for the Kingdom of England to the time of Edward the Confessor’ syllabus. However, we aim to make sure our articles are accurate and up to date. Below is a list of reading for any budding expert on the subject. If there are any queries about, or possible corrections, for any of our articles please contact email@example.com.
Bender Jørgensen, L (1993). North European Textiles until AD 1000 Cameron, E. Carlisle, I. Mould Q (1997). Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Leather and Leatherworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York Ewing, T (2006). Viking Clothing Heckett, E (2003). Viking Age Head-Coverings From Dublin Larsson, A (2008) Viking Age Textiles in Brink, S eds (2008) The Viking World Ostergaard, E (2004). Woven into the Earth: Textile Finds in Norse Greenland Owen-Crocker, G (2010). Dress in Anglo Saxon England Oye, I (2009). Textile-production Equipment in Skre, D eds (2009) Things from the Town: Artefacts and Inhabitants in Viking-Age Kaupang Rabiega, K (2019). Viking Dress Code: Textile and leather clothing in Scandinavia Walton-Rogers, P (1997). Textiles, Cordage and Raw Fibre from 16-22 Coppergate Walton-Rogers, P (1997). Textile Production at 16-22 Coppergate
Part of the fun of belonging to a community of Viking Reenactors is bringing the family along! That means making our 5-year old Viking kids clothes. In fact, we’re up to his third Viking costume. We know precious little about children’s’ clothing in the Viking Age, so really we are just scaling down the little we really know about adult viking clothing!
Excavated remains of textile fragments belonging to garments are staggeringly rare, so it’s hard to drawn solid conclusions about the tailoring. But, we do have significant hints from places like Skjoldeham, Guddal, and Hedeby, where pieced fragments show the general shape and seam treatments. Some things we can glean from contemporary artwork – manuscripts, jewellery etc.
We wanted to approach “Hikke’s” Viking kids clothes in the same way we approach Viking adult clothing, so we read the last costume works (such as Viking Dress Code by Kamil Rabiega), chose the materials carefully, and hand sewed all of his clothes.
Hikke’s first costume was when he was just a few months old. A friend, and member of the group, made a simple t-tunic of linen, and a woollen outer garment based on the shirt from Skjoldeham, Norway, complete with decorative front-neck panel and collar. It’s worth mentioning here that throughout history, children (male and female) wore simple shifts or gowns, with no legwear. This is likely also the case in the Viking-age. Before a child is toilet trained, there may have been a ‘napkin’ worn to collect waste. Again, there’s no evidence in the Viking-age, but we have to collect the poo somehow! 😬 For pragmatic reasons, we did make some wool trousers to cover his modern nappie.
A year later, and growing at pace, he still mostly fit into the woollen clothes as we left significant seam allowed and large hems, but the shirt needed to be replaced. So into the stockpile of clothing hand-me-downs we went! In the hot summer we found a simple linen kyrtle in club kit. It’s a wide-skirted and knee-length tunic. This silhouette is seen in many early medieval manuscripts (on adult figures).
The next year was the pandemic, so with an 18 month break, he needed an entirely new outfit! This time we went for a simple woolen kyrtle and again raided the club-kit for a shabby looking linen undershirt.
The bonus of being in an established group that it has had many families over the years. That means there is an abundance of Viking kids clothing! (Though some would be gently retired from excessive wear, or just because they were made with a different understanding of Viking clothing).
We made legwear, also in wool, based on the cut of the Thorsberg trousers. This cut is very practical, with a large crotch and butt panel, and gussets in the legs. These proved to be remarkably hard wearing, coming through the hardest of pre-schooler trials! We also started to accessorise. We made a hood, again based on a find from Skjoldeham, Norway, and bought a superb belt buckle (which I’ll talk about later).
In 2023, Hikke has once again had a growth spurt so we made him a whole new set of viking kids clothes. This one was a little more well thought out, now that he has properly proportioned limbs. 😅
We made a linen undershirt in a t-tunic style, and a Kyrtle made of a 2/2 twill wool with a bead neck-fastener. We also made with mittens from the same material. The Kyrtle and tunic are patterned with a simple poncho-cut with the neck hole cut into the length of fabric. Sleeves and side gores are then added in. This is a simple cut that creates the look of the silhouette seen in period artwork. Gores are seen from extant garments and fragments.
The Kyrtle doesn’t have the close fitting tailoring (rounded shoulders, separate skirt etc.,) or front and rear gores seen on other period garments. This is mainly for practical reasons. He still needs to be able to grow into it for the rest of the year! The Kytrle is completely hand-sewn using period stitches and seam treatments. Parts are sewn with thread made from the same yarn as the fabric itself!
Once again, we made leg wear. A pair of Thorsberg-style trousers (of course!) and breeches or ‘braes’ – shorts basically. But Hikki often goes around without anything underneath!
The mittens are patterned from a couple of finds. That of the child’s mittens from Heynes, Iceland. These were kept together with a sewn-on lace that could be threaded through their sleeves to stop them from losing them. Second was a mitten from the Lendbreen glacier in Norway and the cut of the pattern is based on it.
The bead is based on the blue bead of the man in grave 511 at Repton. It was worn on a necklace with another bead and a Thor’s Hammer. In this case we’ve used the bead for a neck fastening. It’s a simplified version of the silver-bead fastener and braided loop on the shirt from Skjoldehamn, Norway. The bead was made by Tillerman Beads.
The antler buckle which we bought last year is based on a find at the excavations of Fishamble Street in Dublin (NM E190:6273). It’s decorated with ring and dot incision and the tongue is held in with a metal pin. It was made by Gear and Graith.
Making Viking kids clothes isn’t a daunting task, and with help from a family oriented group, it’s easy to keep your children involved. (Even if sometimes they just need some peace and quiet in a tent with a tablet!) If you are looking for a new family adventure, want to get started in re-enactment, then check out our website for more information, catch us at our weekly training in Leicester, or drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
In the spirit of the Icelandic Christmas Book Flood, or Jólabókaflóð, and our efforts last year, here’s another list of 10 books about Vikings and Saxons to fill you full of Christmas cheer!
In no particular order, here are our favourite books about Vikings and the Early Middle Ages that will be a great addition to your 2023 reading list. So, grab a horn of mead, sit next to a warm hearth, and enjoy!
1. The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec
In last year’s list we strayed away from Norse-inspired fiction. Instead, we battered the romantic heart with facts, figures and research. It’s all important stuff, but so is inspiration, joy and storytelling. So this is a strong contender – a yarn spun from the rich tapestry of Norse mythology. It asks “what will happen if you fall in love with Loki?” The answer comes from the perspective of Angrboda, recast from villainous mother of monsters to devoted mother, lover and friend.
2. Men of Terror by William R. Short and Reynir A Óskarson
We did a whole review on this book this year. It’s a good attempt at trying to get to the heart and head of the real Viking warriors who fought in terrible battles. It explores the culture and mindset of a far more alien and brutal life than a modern person can fathom. Does it succeed? It requires more thought and evaluation, but it’s a fantastic start.
3. Wild: Tales from Early Medieval Britain by Amy Jeffs
This book is incredible, and one of my favourite books of the year. Part fiction inspired by Early Medieval poetry, part exploration of the sources. If I were to imagine a family of Vikings or Saxons huddled around their hearth-fire at Christmas; or a monk deep in contemplation about their place in the universe, I would see them telling these stories. Wild explores our ancestors’ connection to the wild places – the forests, seas and fens – and through the analysis and reflection of the sources we get a taste of their reality.
4. Fodder & Drincan: Anglo-Saxon Culinary History by Emma Kay
Our list wouldn’t be complete without a book about food! And this one is excellent. The book offers a thorough review of the latest thinking about what Early Medieval people in britain ate: from what they grew to how they used it. While survival was the top priority in an age where famine was common, it explores the many culinary possibilities, based on literary and physical evidence that remains. It may be aimed more at the academic reader, but it’s also accessible for the person with casual interest.
5. The Hunger of the Gods (Book Two of the Bloodsworn Saga) by John Gwynne
Following up on last year’s The Shadow of the Gods the Bloodsworn saga continues in beautifully written Norse-mythology-inspired fiction. The series doesn’t as overtly reimagine actual Viking sagas, or add fantasy elements to otherwise historical fiction, but create a whole new world in stunning definition. It’s action packed, heartfelt and epic!
6. The Word Hord: Daily Life in Old English by Hana Videen
Word Hord – literally treasure of words – definitely lives up to its name. It’s a fun romp through the origins of the English language, from how multitudes of languages smushed themselves together to give us something similar, but not similar enough to really ‘get’ as modern English speakers (and readers) today. And it’s often quite amusing, and sad. We get to see this rich gamut of words that we have forgotten, or have replaced. It’s a bit like ranging through a dense forest and finding a forgotten monument, still standing tall.
7. The Wolf Age: The Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons and the Battle for the North Sea Empire by Tore Skeie
(At last, a book about Vikings and Saxons!) This is the kind of popular history book I like. One that forges a direct, compelling narrative with an appropriate amount of drama, but with a clear sense of the evidence. Not many popular history books do this well – they are either too much story, or end up being a lightly re-edited thesis. Skeie understands this tension well, weaving between these two strands expertly. This is his first book in English, and it has me hankering to learn Norwegian to read the rest…
8. Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England by Sally Crawford
I read the first edition of this book over 10 years ago, and it was an essential read for Viking-age enthusiasts to really understand the daily life of Early Medieval people in Britain. Well there’s now a second edition, and it’s been updated with 10 years of further research and new interpretations. Besides the new material and interdisciplinary approaches, it’s also laid out better with a proper table of contents and index, so it’ll be a great reference in the living history community, for instance.
9. The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada by Don Holloway.
If we’re going to talk about Books about Vikings and Saxons, we should start with the most famous of all Vikings! This nearly landed on last year’s list. It was between this and Never Greater Slaughter for an honorable mention. Anyway, this book is another great page turner. it explores the extraordinary, and extraordinarily violent life of ‘the last Viking’ Harald Hardrada. From his exile after surviving the Battle of Stiklestad, to his exploits as a mercenary with the legendary Varangian Guard, to his accession to the throne of Norway. It’s a great tale, well told. One for the Christmas stocking!
10. Winters in the World: A Journey through the Anglo-Saxon Year by Eleanor Parker
The last entry on the list is about something we all experience: time. It navigates the calendar from the perspective of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors. How they viewed the seasons, the festivals and their lives are woven into the poetry of the time. Parker brings it all to life, allowing us to connect to the minds of the people who experienced it. And that’s amongst the best kind of book for living history enthusiasts like us.
Books about Vikings and Saxons – Honorable Mention
Unearthing Hedeby, edited by Kurt Schietzel. This is not a book for casual interest. It’s a hardcore archaeology book. Actually, it’s an absolute beast – a 648 page hardback that weighs somewhere in the region of a Volkswagen polo. But, it’s a newly released English translation of the book ‘Spurensuche Haithabu.’ Which means for the first time I get to gawp at all the technical information about thousands of Viking-age objects found at hedeby in my native tongue. (I may have ‘whooped’ when it turned up last week…)
Basilisks and Beowulf: Monsters in the Anglo-Saxon World by Tim Flight. It’s been on my wishlist since last year and I still haven’t gotten around to reading it. Perhaps someone who has read it can give me a review!?
One of our most popular displays at our viking reenactment events is our coin-strike, where you can make your own replica Viking coins. But what was money to an early-medieval person? What did they buy with it, and who did they pay?
A Bullion Economy
Before coinage was introduced, people often traded using the value of the material or goods they wanted to sell or buy. The value of a good milking cow, or an amount of butter or grain may have been their point of reference when bartering. However, if you wanted to trade your cow for some grain, but couldn’t find anyone who wanted a cow, then you’d need something else. In the Viking-age, valuable precious metals, usually silver but occasionally gold, could be used as a third unit of payment.
Unlike today’s money which represents an agreed face-value, coinage in the Viking-age was itself valuable. Silver coinage from far flung places such as Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey) could easily be used in places such as Dublin, Ireland, or in York, England. In fact, several Viking hoards in Britain have been found containing Islamic Dirhams, English Pennies and Frankish Deniers amongst other currencies made from precious metal.
Coins weren’t the only valuable silver trade good however. Many hoards contain silver bands of ‘hack silver’ where slivers of metal were cut from a bracelet to make the silver-weight value of a trade, and there are many examples of ingots – trade weighted bars – in Viking hoards. Similarly, silver and gold jewellery fragments have found to be deliberately broken for this reason, as have coins which are sometimes cut into halves, or quarters.
Silver was very valuable, so it’s unlikely that it was used to buy mundane things where a barter culture better served. A single coin of silver would be too much to buy a single loaf of bread for example – change would be an issue! It’s more likely that silver currency would be used for large purchases of animals, grain, weapons and land. And for paying taxes to the King, or tribute to a warlord for protection.
The primary precious metal found in Viking hoards is silver. Many items, particularly coins, bare marks of testing processes used by traders. Without the aid of modern science traders relied on knowing the feel of good silver, just in case an opportunistic criminal tried to counterfeit them. Cuts into the edge of coins called ‘nicks,’ and ‘pecks’ onto the surface of the coin test to see if the coin is merely gilded (plated) over a base metal such as lead. Bending the coin would also show if it was made from silver as it is considerably harder to do so than if the coin was made of an alloy of lead or tin.
Coins and the Law
One way the kingdoms of Europe tried to control money, and it’s silver-purity, was by licencing coin making to only a few mints. In Britain during the time of Alfred the Great there were few mints, mainly located in large population centres, or places of royal power like Winchester. The Vikings were getting in on the action too – the Scandinavian ruled city of Jorvik (York) were minting their own Viking coins in the 10th Century.
By the time Alfred’s grandson Athelstan became ‘Rex Totius Brittanae’ (King of all Britain) in 927AD there were numerous mints around the country, usually in fortified towns called burhs. There were eight mints in London alone! By the reign of Aethelred II (978 AD) there were around 90 mints in England. This shows just how the Wessex power base had spread into what became England and how much wealth was being generated in trade with the Viking settlers that had raided and stayed over the last hundred years, and with traders from the other parts of Europe. For matters concerning payments to the crown, this line of Anglo-Saxon kings had enough power to refuse foreign currency in internal affairs.
Making Coins: Ingots were heated up and beaten into thin sheets with a hammer. Coins were cut from it with tin snips, or perhaps with a specially made chisel (though none survive for us to know for definite). The coin dies were made of iron with the pattern punched into it. The coin is placed between the two dies and the pressure exerted by hammer blow causes enough friction to melt the silver for enough time to dip into the punched pattern and create a relief effect.
As well as showing the extent of kingly or national power, especially in the control of wealth generation and taxation, coins can show how money travelled. Certainly in the case of Islamic coins found in Britain and Scandinavia, they show how the trade routes through Russia and Eastern Europe reached Britain and Ireland, especially in the tenth century when Viking power was building.
The English silver penny was introduced around 765 AD and persisted until the 13th century. During the late 9th century, until the mid-late 10th century there was a round half-penny, but after currency reform by King Edgar in 973 AD people were required to cut the coin in half or quarters (usually following the design of a cross on the reverse). During King Edgar’s reign, the number of mints stabilised and the die patterns were controlled centrally at a master die cutting workshop. The last Viking coins minted at York disappeared with Eric Bloodaxe and Scandinavian rule in 954.
Minting official coins was heavily regulated. Coin dies were issued to the mints, and often replaced with new designs to stay current and project the power of the king. ater there were five such workshops. The Domesday Book mentions that owners of a Mint would have to travel to London and pay a Monetagium (tax), as well as buy new dies quando moneta vertebatur (‘when the coinage was changed’). And there were severe punishments for forgery, and clipping (stealing excess silver by reducing the size of a coin). A law by King Athelstan in the early 10th Century prescribes mutilation as punishment for this crime: the hand being cut off.
Some coins, such as those minted at York, (Viking kings Ragnald, Sihtric and Eric Bloodaxe etc.) show how the Vikings were embracing Christianity. Several Viking coins bare the symbol of St. Peter who was the patron saint of York Minster. Some even bear the inscription ‘SCIPE TRIIO’ which is abbreviated Latin for Sancti Petrus Moneta, Saint Peter’s Money. Included on the face of a few issues of ‘St. Peter’s Money’ is also the hammer of Thor, the Viking God of Thunder. Linking St. Peter to such a popular god in the Scandinavian pantheon was a sensible move in the conversion and assimilation of Vikings into Christian Europe.
Further Reading about Viking Coins and Trade
Ager, B & Williams, G (2010). Objects in Focus: The Vale of York Hoard
Graham-Campbell, J (2011). The Cuerdale Hoard and Related Viking-age Silver and Gold from Britain and Ireland in the British Museum
Graham-Campbell, J. Sindbæk, S.M. & Williams, G eds (2011). Silver Economies, Monetisation & Society in Scandinavia, AD 800-1100
Graham-Campbell, J & Williams, G eds (2006). Silver Economy in the Viking Age
Grierson, P (1986). Domesday Book, the Geld de Moneta and Monetagium: a Forgotten Minting Reform
Gullbekk, S.H. (2008). Coinage and Monetary Economies in Brink, S eds (2008) The Viking World
Mainman, A.J & Rogers, N.S.H (2000). Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Finds from Anglo-Scandinavian York
Malmer, B (1972). King Canute’s Coinage in the Northern Countries
Naismith, R (2005). Islamic Coins from Early Medieval England
Skre, D (2009). Means of Exchange: Dealing with Silver in the Viking Age
Williams, G (2008). Shire Archaeology: Early Anglo-Saxon Coins
There’s few books on the Early Medieval world, and especially the ‘Vikings,’ that engage with my re-enactors brain (we’re rarely a target audience). Popular history books present the facts: what happened? when? who was involved? and why? But the ‘why’ is often focused on the political machinations of ‘great men’ and those lone characters who we tend to focus on in history. Archaeology books show the things, and where they were discovered: excellent for for reproducing artefacts, and gaining the geographic context, but they often lack a certain humanity when dealing with the people who used these objects a thousand years ago. Reading translated literature like Beowulf, The Prose Edda, The Saga of the Icelanders etc., allows us to connect with the people (or people far closer in time than us), but sometimes it’s hard to join the dots to the history and the things.
As a re-enactor, I want to give an audience an impression of the people of the past, their lives, their personalities and motives. Our performances are informed by the historical events, and the things they used, and the stories they left behind – so it’s exciting when a book comes along that examines and contextualises these three things.
Men of Terror, by William R. Short and Reynir A. Óskarson , examines the mindset of the ‘Viking’ and how the tools, the stories and points in history reflect and inform it. The authors pull in a vast wealth of sources, plus data from their own tests to build a holistic picture of early medieval Scandinavian society (and Germanic society more broadly in some cases).
The text starts from first principles, stating the scientific methodology, and working their way through the weapons found in archaeology, linking to testing from reconstructed historical martial arts, literary references, language use, and more. They never stray from the purpose of trying to work out what makes a ‘Viking’ tick.
The book asks the why and how of living in a society that seems so alien to us. The different mindset of violent actions that are seen as acceptable or not seemingly on a whim, but wrapped up in complex societal rules and laws that hardly make sense to a modern reader, but is beautifully explained in plain language in the book.
This is essential for re-enactors trying to get to the bottom of the warrior impression – it should inform why weapons are designed that way, and how they are likely to be used and why. The idea of early medieval masculinity is examined, and how it interacts with the institutions of the ages, whether they are familial ties, or loyalties owed to lords and masters, vagabonds or brigands. The latter is a lot of fun – when is it acceptable steal? (Hint: when you confront them!)
So, this is a good book, with great discussion and scholarly discipline. I can’t recommend it enough.
One of the most exciting things about ‘Living History’ is exploring the methods of making something using the tools and materials of the people we’re trying to represent. One of the most fulfilling things to do – mainly because it’s yummy – is cooking.
While there’s no surviving written recipes from the early medieval period, we do get information from remains of things like bread, and the cereal that was used to make it. Coupled with the finds of domestic ware like pots and pans, mill stones and threshing tools, we can build a picture, and make our own experiments.
For example, cereal husks have survived in the archaeological record, so we know that some breads were made of wheat, barley, rye and spelt, and some from pulses (peas and beans) mixed with oat flour. Bread has been found in the Viking world, such as in burials at Birka, Sweden. There’s a small biscuit-like bread full of protein that was found in a cremation burial in Jämtland, Sweden, and may have been mixed with blood (the protein) to make something akin to black-pudding.
Some breads were leavened (like modern fluffy bread that rises), but probably using a sourdough starter as domestically grown yeast hadn’t yet been adopted. Sourdough is made from a culture of flour, water, and wild yeast that lives on the flour or is blown around by the wind in the environment.
Leavened breads would require a large clay bread-oven to get an even heat for the loaf to raise. Ovens such as these are passively described in an 8th Century biography of the abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow called the Life of Ceolfrith.
Much simpler is a flat bread, or cake – kaka in Old Norse, and what Old English speakers would call cycel (pronounced ‘kytchel’) which is where we get the word ‘cake’ and ‘kitchen.’ It’s suggested in Sally Crawford’s Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England that these can be cooked on hot stones, the hot ash of a fire, or on a frying pan or skillet.
For our experiment, we used wheat, which needed to be ground into flour. There’s evidence of small hand-turned quern stones throughout the early medieval world, which suggests that grinding flour was a part of the daily routine of bread-making.
One thing to note here is that reproducing historical food is often full of ‘ifs.’ While we know certain ingredients existed, they certainly weren’t distributed evenly – it’s not like they could pop to Tesco. Without modern techniques, farmers in the north of England would have a tough time growing wheat, whereas the south has the perfect soil and weather conditions for that crop. People in areas of poor soil, or urban areas might make flour from garden crops such as beans and peas, or oats. Trading towns may have had access to a larger variety of grains with which to make bread, as well as ingredients to add to it. Contaminants might also be a factor in geography. There’s a fair bit of evidence that weeds such as corncockle got into the flour, so there may well have been plenty of upset tummies! So, with that in mind, ‘if they had access to wheat, they may have made…’
Viking Flat Bread – The Recipe
Start with flour and add a little water until you form a dough that isn’t super sticky. If you over do it, add more flour. Water is a interesting resource here – there’s plenty of myths surrounding potable water (that is, water that is safe to drink). Water precured from flowing streams or rivers that aren’t downstream from waste or latrines would be fine to use in cooking. Salt water could potentially be used to flavour the dough (there’s an experiment!)
Knead the dough until everything is mixed and you can form it into cakes. If you are cooking on an open fire, let it burn down to the embers – you don’t want ash and grit in your bread.
Use an iron pan or skillet. The pan is dry – not oiled – put it on the fire for a few minutes to warm up, then place to one side. The pan can’t be too hot else you’ll burn them or have them fire-welded onto the pan!
Pans like the one pictured have been found at Winchester and York (or bits of them anyway), but there’s loads of flat skillet-type pans from around the Viking world. The above isn’t too dissimilar from a wok.
The flatbreads take a couple of minutes on each side. Enjoy with butter, cheese, or salt. The Saxon Forager has a gorgeous recipe with oats and butter.
Banham, D. Faith, R. (2014). Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming.
Crawford, S (2009). Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England. p101-107
Hansson, A. (2002). Pre- and protohistoric bread in Sweden: a definition and a review. In Civilisations Vol 49.
Karg, S. (2007). Food:The Rest of Europe in Graham-Campbell, J. Valor, M eds (2007) The Archaeology of Medieval Europe Vol. 1.
Serra, D. (2013). An Early Meal-A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey.
Nothing says Christmas like being given a glut of books to keep you occupied during the long nights of winter. Taking a lovely, pristine book, gently curling back the first page while sitting in front of the warm glow of a wood fire, snow pitter-pattering outside… Ah bliss.
Ok, not many people actually get to curl up in front of a roaring fire in their houses these days, and we barely have snow in England, but we get points for trying right? Luckily, there are many great books about Vikings and Saxons to keep us occupied, many which only came out in the last couple of years. So even without the idyllic setting, there’s still plenty to read.
In no particular order, here are our favourite current books about Vikings and the Early Middle Ages in general that will be a great addition to your 2022 reading list.
1. River Kings: The Vikings from Scandinavia to the SilkRoads by Cat Jarman. Now a Sunday Times best seller, this book manages to tread the fine line between being a well-written, easy to digest popular history book, and a book about modern archaeology. It explores the Viking world through the lens of an object found in Britain that can trace its origin across the North Sea, along the great rivers of Russia, up to the shores of the Black Sea and beyond. It forges a wonderfully detailed narrative, while supporting it with up to date thinking about trade networks, daily life and behaviour.
2. The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price. This is basically the bible on the state of ‘Viking’ stuides within popular history. It takes everything we know about the world of Early-Medieval Europe and filters the guff. It tackles all the problematic projections of modern culture that has piled on the legend of the ‘Vikings’ and distils it into a neat, enjoyable volume that even well-read history enthusiasts will find illuminating.
3. Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World by Jóhanna Karín Friðriksdóttir. Since the incredible re-examination of a grave at Birka, Sweden with the possible burial of a female warrior, the Viking-nerds of the world have cried out for a serious look at the evidence and Jóhanna has done a great job. Not since Judith Jesch’s amazing ‘Viking Women’ book back in the early 90s has a clearer picture of early-medieval women’s lives from birth to death been so clearly illustrated. It does what it says on the cover – this is one of the best books about Viking women.
4. The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England by Marc Morris. Ok, it’s not all books about Vikings. We can’t have Vikings without Anglo-Saxons! Or should we say terms like ‘Viking’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ makes things easier to understand for us, but in reality the complexity of the relationships between people, lords, kings, the church and the invading Dane means that neither of those terms actually apply to the age? Thankfully, Marc Morris sweeps aside all the inventions of our Victorian ancestors where our ideas of Englishness tend to come from, and embelishes our understanding of the period in a fantastic tome that covers the retreat of the Romans, to the era of England brought by the Norman conquest.
5. The Viking Great Army and the Making of England by Dawn M. Hadley and Julian D. Richards. There’s been a few books about the ‘making of England’ in the last few years (including the excellent ‘Never Greater Slaughter’ by Michael Livingstone which narrowly avoided this list). Perhaps it’s an identity crisis in our post-Brexit psyche or a reaction against groups that seek to co-opt Early Medieval iconography to forward their own hateful purposes. Or, hopefully, it’s just bloody good scholary publishing, like this book, that explores the formative epoch of early-English history – the invasion of the Great Heathen Army, and the fight back that, while affecting the ordinary people of the British Isles greatly, was really a dynastic struggle between powerful families.
6. DK Findout Vikings by Phillip Steele. Full disclosure, we’re in this one, including adorable pictures of our (now not so little) Viking baby! It’s a wonderfully assembled book for children full of pictures of real and reproduction objects (not all of them our ours, but the ones that are are georgiously presented!) It focuses on many different aspects of the era: daily life, religion, warfare and so on, and it’s all very accessible for 5-7 year old readers, and still relevant for older kids.
7. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. Even word for word translations as well written, researched and presented as Jackson Crawford’s ‘The Poetic Edda’ are difficult for casual readers to digest. That’s where this comes in. Those same mythological stories from Norse literature are filtered through the imaginative brain of Neil Gaiman, and coerced (as they are living, breathing things, and thus must be convinced) into a beautifully realised compilation of stories. I love this book.
8. Eat like a Viking! Volume 2: A Guide to Anglo Saxon & Viking Age Food & Drink by Craig Brooks. We loved the first book by the Saxon-Forager Craig Brooks and we are so glad that he wrote a second one! Step into the culinary world of the Viking age with this new volume. Created as a book of ideas for using the ingredients that were available to our ancestors for cooking at re-enactment events (like the ones we do), it has loads of amazing recipes that are just down-right delicious for any table.
9. Thraldom: A History of Slavery in the Viking Age by Stefan Brink. A little more at the scholarly end of things, this book covers something that is often avoided when talking about Vikings, or at best, sped over: slavery. The taking of men, women and children by force, then relocating them and selling them. This book demystifies the Viking-age practice throughout Europe, which has always been somewhat ambiguous to us as modern people, as our idea of slavery comes from the horrific exploitation of African peoples and the societal implications still felt today.
10. Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England by Annie Whitehead. Well, it wasn’t just Scandinavian women who were using every opportunity afforded to them by a patriachal society to better the lives of themselves and their families. In Britain, women such as Æthelflæd and Emma of Normandy were forging incredible paths worthy of the chronicles they were mostly edited out of… This excellent book explores the lives of women who are oft forgotten and had to fight for eery scrap in the power-dynamics of early medieval Britain.
It is very difficult for people in the 21st Century to fully comprehend the rudimentary state of medicine and healing of a thousand years ago. Steeped in ancient superstition, people then believed that ill-health had more to do with God (or Gods) and worship than any other factor. In an age where the existence of germs was unknown and the circulation of the blood as yet undiscovered, many so-called ‘cures’ and remedies belonged to the world of quackery, old wives’ tales and a gullible populace.
The Anglo-Saxon word for doctor was Lach, from whence derives the word leech; hence the common title of collections of remedies – ‘A Booke of Leechdoms.’ That universal panacea for all ills, the humble leech, so beloved of the Middle Ages and ‘Blackadder’ alike, takes its name from this early word rather than the other way round. There are those, however, who, quite cruelly suggest that this epithet, as applied to modern private practitioners of the art, is not entirely inappropriate! Many early lachs were monks, and other learned people.
Despite the perceived wisdom of these ‘doctors’, our ancestors knew little of the workings of the human body. Indeed, in the few remaining texts dealing with Anglo-Saxon medical procedure, magical remedies and charms are used as treatments, often in conjunction with holy days and solar or luna events on the calendar – but not on one of the ‘Egyptian Days’ where a healer must not let neither man’s nor beast’s blood be diminished.
One such charm used to remove a fever is unbelievable to modern eyes and would act as a placebo at best:
“For fever: One shall take several little wafers such as are offered [at the Mass], and write these names on each wafer: Maximianus, Malchus, Iohannes, Martinianus, Dionisius, Canstantinus, Serafion. Then afterwards one shall sing the charm which is named hereafter, first in the left ear, then in the right ear, then over the top of the man’s head; and then let a virgin go up to him and hang it on his neck, and let this be done thus for three days. He will soon be better.“
Here came stalking in an (inspiden) creature, Had his (haman) in his hand, Said that you were his steed. I Lay for thee his (teage) on the neck. They began to move from the land. As soon as they came for the land. Then his limbs began to cool. then came stalking in the animal’s sister. Then she made an end and swore oaths That never this should do harm to the sick one Nor to the one who might get this charm Or who knew how to sing this charm. Amen, so be it.
Despite these superstitions, there were still practical procedures to deal with ailments. Much of our understanding of Anglo-Saxon medicine comes from only a few texts, and extrapolations from the earlier Roman period. While there is the odd bit of evidence of surgery performed on a broken bone, there has been no archaeological discoveries of tools, or salves, or medicine. However, we can build a picture of a number of procedures and cures from the combined texts of the Venerable Bede, Bald’s Leechbook, the Lacnunga, latin texts translated into Old English and others such as the Roman Celsus. The Viking Sagas also occasionally describe cures and techniques for healing. It is likely that many remedies were simply passed down through the generations; but as we know from the game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ this is hardly going to lead to the consistent application of medicine!
Some Anglo-Saxon remedies could work, even if their effectiveness is questionable when put up against modern medicine, or the severity of the ailment.
A compound of leek and garlic (antibiotics) mixed with wine in a brass or copper container released cytotoxic properties – literally salt in the wounds. It would be painful, but useful against infection. Bald’s Leechbook describes this for a remedy against a stye on the eyelid.
Honey was also used as an antiseptic – it’s high sugar content draws out water from bacteria cells, dehydrating and killing them. While the Viking Age Lachs’ would not know this, the effects could be seen as a wound heals rather than festers, turns septic or gangrenous.
The use of the herb marrubium vulgare, or horehound, as a treatment for a cough is still used today in lozenges – the Roman, Celsus and the author of Bald’s Leechbook certainly knew that it worked:
“For a cough: boil a good deal of horehound in water, sweeten and give the man a cupful to drink.”
Bald’s Leechbook, Volume III
While they didn’t know the roots of families of plants (sometimes using a plant because its name sounds like it should work on a body part, or against an affliction), experimentation and results were at least noteworthy. It is clear that an awful lot of trial and error led to workable cures.
Just as today, the Viking Age doctors could perform operations on wounded men and women. The tools are broadly the same as today, but larger and less precise: scalpels, knives, tweezers, pincers, saws. It’s unlikely that a surgeon’s tools would belong to a specialised kit. It’s more likely that should a limb need to be amputated, the surgeon would call on the carpenter for his saw; or a seamstress for her needles and silk thread to suture a cut. Other tools might include irons to cauterise a wound, the preferred method of closing a wound, and probably the most devastating to the patient – although he might not have to worry about infection from a dirty needle!
The irons are placed into a fire until red hot, the wound is held closed with pincers and the hot iron is placed upon the wound, searing the flesh shut. Without anaesthetic, the pain would be unbearable. The patient may have been given strong alcoholic drinks, or small amounts of the poisonous hemlock or belladonna – both methods dangerous during surgery as they thin the blood. Simply knocking him unconscious wouldn’t be without risk either with one wrong move inadvertently ending his life. The screams emanating from the lach’s ‘surgery’ must have sounded absolutely horrendous. Perhaps the patient was given something to clench between his teeth, but more often than not, mercifully, he probably passed out.
Even with the risks, these surgeries must have had a degree of success. A simple procedure, like draining an abscess is described by Bede:
…the physician Cynifrid, who was present at both her death and exhumation. Cynifrid used to relate that during her last illness she had a large tumour under the jaw. “I was asked,” he said, “to open the tumour and drain away the poisonous matter in it. I did this, and for two days she seemed somewhat easier…
Ecclesiastical History of the English People
There are also much more dangerous procedures. A stomach wound, perhaps from battle, comes up in many texts.
If someone’s bowels be out […] put the bowel back into the man, sew it together with silk
Celsus also describes the treatment of a stomach wound where the intestines have fallen out, and a similar procedure seems to have been used on Thormod after the Battle of Stiklestad, described in Heimskringla, a saga about the Kings of Norway.
Sometimes the abdomen is penetrated by a stab of some sort, and it follows that intestines roll out. When this happens we must first examine whether they are uninjured, and then whether their proper colour persists. If the smaller intestine has been penetrated, no good can be done, as I have already said. The larger intestine can be sutured, not with any certain assurance, but because a doubtful hope is preferable to certain despair; for occasionally it heals up. Then if either intestine is livid or pallid or black, in which case there is necessarily no sensation, all medical aid is vain. But if intestines have still their proper colour, aid should be given with all speed, for they undergo change from moment to moment when exposed to the external air, to which they are unaccustomed. The patient is to be laid on his back with his hips raised; and if the wound is too narrow for the intestines to be easily replaced, it is to be cut until sufficiently wide. If the intestines have already become too dry, they are to be bathed with water to which a small quantity of oil has been added. Next the assistant should gently separate the margins of the wound by means of his hands, or even by two hooks inserted into the inner membrane: the surgeon always returns first the intestines which have prolapsed the later, in such a way as to preserve the order of the several coils. When all have been returned, the patient is to be shaken gently: so that of their own accord the various coils are brought into their proper places and settle there. This done, the omentum too must be examined, and any part that is black is to be cut away with shears; what is sound is returned gently into place in front of the intestines. Now stitching of the surface skin only or of the inner membrane only is not enough, but both must be stitched…
..The signs when the small intestine and the stomach have been wounded are the same; for food and drink come out through the wound;
Celsus, De Medicina
In Heimskringla the wound is diagnosed by ingesting a soup with a strong odour:
The girl said, “Let me see thy wound, and I will bind it.” Thereupon Thormod sat down, cast off his clothes, and the girl saw his wounds, and examined that which was in his side, and felt that a piece of iron was in it, but could not find where the iron had gone in. In a stone pot she had stirred together leeks and other herbs, and boiled them, and gave the wounded men of it to eat, by which she discovered if the wounds had penetrated into the belly; for if the wound had gone so deep, it would smell of leek.
The probing, diagnosis, surgical procedure are what you would expect in today’s hospitals; a learned doctor with years of evidence using the best tools he or she has at their disposal. As a patient, you’d probably just hope the ‘magic’ would work.