CategoriesClothingDaily Living and PastimesRe-enactment

How to Make Viking Clothes

This is a quick start guide on how to make Viking clothes. The guide covers the basic patterns and hand-sewing techniques needed to make clothing for most people who lived in north-western Europe in the Viking-age. This is a starting point for simple first impressions in Viking reenactment, or accurate costume for TV and film, cosplay etc.

The typical person in the Viking-age was a subsistence farmer, apprentice or labourer, and this guide reflects that reality. For a more generalised view of Viking-age clothing, see our article on Viking Clothing and Jewellery.

Table of Contents

Hand Sewing Techniques

Even the poor­est peo­ple in the Viking–Age so­ci­eties of North­ern Eu­rope were good tai­lors — they had to be. Most peo­ple lived in rural communities, and even if they lived in an urban area, they might not have the money or surplus goods to trade for com­pleted gar­ments. Be­cause of this, I sug­gest plenty of practice at seam­ing and fitting. We’re not going for a ‘rustic’ look, but a quality garment. Old tea tow­els and bed­sheets are good to prac­tice on.

A picture of Viking-age shears or scissors discovered at the excavations in York.
Iron shears from Viking–Age York
© York Archaeological Trust for Excavation and Research


Viking age people had access to most of the same tools to make clothes as today, albeit somewhat cruder. Delicate fish-bone needles have been found along side chunkier iron and copper-alloy needles; scissors or shears retain the same long straight edges as today, but are made from iron; wooden, bone and copper-alloy pins came in all sorts of sizes; and there’s evidence of woollen and linen thread, alongside silk and metallic foil used in decorative bands and expensive accessories.

What you’ll need:

  • Sewing needles
  • Scissors or shears
  • Dress-making pins
  • Measuring tape
  • Tailors chalk or fabric marker (for drawing out patterns or making adjustments). You might also want to test your patterns on paper – something Viking-age people didn’t have access to, but useful if you don’t want to cut into expensive fabric straightaway, or want to reuse patterns later.
  • Thread: a good rule of thumb is to use linen thread on linen fabric and woollen thread on wool (and silk on silk etc.) One option is to pull threads from your fabric for truly invisible stitches. When you are practising, use a thread of a contrasting colour to the cloth.

Run your thread through a beeswax block to stiffen the thread, pre­vent knots and to help wa­ter­proofing.

Stitches to Master

These are stitches discovered in archaeological excavations that show how viking clothes were made. They will serve as the base for seaming, felling, and hemming. Fully explaining them is beyond the scope of this article, but there are many comprehensive hand-sewing tutorials online.

Illustration of a running-stitch, a common technique used to make viking clothes.

Running Stitch

Running-stitch is a simple and common technique where you pass the needle in and out in a single line. It’s important to use as small a stitch as possible as it’s easy to pull them out.

Back Stitch

Back-stitch is a strong stitch best used on seams that experience a lot of pulling, such as side seams. The back stitch goes back along the line, making a short loop that is difficult to pull out.

An illustration of a whip stitch used in making viking clothes

Whip Stitch

Also called Overcast or Oversewing, whip-stitch is used to close two edges of fabric, either in seam treatments, felling or hemming. The technique makes a loop of diagonal stitches.

An illustration of a blanket stitch used to finish viking clothes

Blanket Stitch

Blanket or Buttonhole-stitch is used to finish raw or cut edges. It’s similar to the whip stitch, but you catch a loop (like making a knot) to lay the thread along the edge, protecting it from fraying. The closer together the ‘L’ shaped stitch, the more secure the cut edge will be.

Seams and Seam Treatments

The simplest seam when making Viking clothes is just two pieces of fabric layered together and sewn with a running- or back-stitch (called a butted– or bound seam). When it’s turned inside out and pressed, the seem will look smart on the outside, with stitching and excess fabric hidden on the inside of the garment. But, the raw or cut edge of the fabric is likely to unravel or fray during use, especially if using linen, or wool that has a loose weave. To combat this, we use a seam treatment. Make sure you leave enough excess seam allowance when you cut your fabric to be able to do these techniques.

An illustration of a 'stand up seam'

Stand-up Seam

The stand-up seam is a common seam treatment and one of the easiest to make. Sew your seam together using a running or back stitch (as the explained above), then fold the cut edges inward towards the seam (press with an iron if it helps). On the join of the fold, use a whip stitch to catch all 4-layers and secure it. On thicker fabric, it may feel too bulky, so you could instead use a blanket stitch to secure the cut edge.

An illustration of a felled seam.

Felled Seam

A felled or spread-seam starts with a butted seam as explained above, but rather that folding the edge in as with a stand-up seam, we spread the edges away from the seam and whip-stitch the raw edges on one side, or both sides (optionally folding the edge in on itself). This makes the inside of the seam very comfortable, but you will have stitching visible on the outside, so be as neat as you can, using small stitches.

An illustration of a lapped seam, as seen at viking excavations at Hedeby/Haithabu

Lapped Seam

Lapped seams are similar to modern ‘flat-felled’ seams. You lay the edges over each other then either: whip-stitch the raw edges or; fold the edges under and lap them together, then whip-stitch the fold. It should look the same on the inside and outside of the garment.


The hem is where you treat an unjoined edge. Viking-age hems are almost always folded inward and then whip-stitched. On lighter material, such as fine linens or silk, the edge can be rolled in. On bulkier material, hems may have just been blanket-stitched. Occasionally we see the use of herringbone stitch on either the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ side of the fabric.

Illustration of a rolled hem, whip-stitched.

Herringbone Stitch

Herringbone-stitch is like a double-row of back-stitch. This type of stitch has been found on Viking-age fabrics and may have been used on the inside or outside of the garment in a decorative way, especially on hems in the place of a simple whip-stitch.

Viking Clothing – What You Need

Through the ex­am­i­na­tion of archaeological fragments, art, lit­er­a­ture, and ac­counts from the pre and post Viking–Age, we can de­ter­mine that there are a few dis­tinct gar­ments, depending on whether you dress as male or female.

Shirt or Serk/Skyrta

The serk or skyrta, we as­sume, is an under–gar­ment. For male dress (skyrta), it appears to be just longer than waist-length, while the female version is a gown (serk) that is just slightly-shorter than ankle-length. They’re both shorter that the kyr­tle, an over-garment, and are prob­a­bly close fitting at the neck and wrist to allow the larger kyrtle to be comfortably worn over it.

There is evidence for both woollen and linen under-garments. A linen shirt from Viborg is made from two layers, with a tight neck-hole finished with a tie, and tapered to fit at the sleeves. A woollen shirt from Skjoldehamn in the north of Norway has multiple gussets and a stand up collar, and another from Guddal shows similar construction.

The neckline on the female serk may be pleated

Tunic or Kyrtle

The Kyrtle is a woollen outer-garment with a large skirt – it’s length is below the knee for men, and to the ankle for women. It could be hitched up at the waist with a belt. The sleeves, while still tapered to fit, can be slightly bag­gier so they can be rolled up.

It’s not clear from ar­chae­ol­ogy how Viking-Age peo­ple lay­ered cloth­ing exactly, but fragments ad­hered to the un­der­side of metal brooches and buck­les on the top­most layer sometimes have multiple fabrics. This indicates that, at least at the time of burial, people wore an under and outer layer.


An­other part of the un­der­wear is the breeches and hose, or trousers. Again, much of our knowl­edge comes from pre and post Viking–Age finds, such as the Thors­berg trousers and Dät­gen breeches, but there is some con­tem­po­rary archae­ol­ogy. There’s a frag­ment of woollen hose found in Hedeby, and fragments of an elab­o­rately dec­o­rated pair of woollen trousers from Skjold­e­hamn.

Woollen leg wraps may have been worn to protect the trousers or the bare calf while working in the fields, and there are several fragments of coarse cloth that are candidates for belong to this garment, along with fasteners.


Along with the main clothing, there is evidence for headwear such as caps, hats and religious garb such as wimples. There are complete mittens made from wool for cold hands, and one of the most in­ter­est­ing and com­plete finds from York is a woollen sock wo­ven us­ing a tech­nique called Naal­bind­ing. On top of that, any cold or wet weather is best survived with a large shawl or cloak, and sturdy leather shoes.

Male Costume

Serk: wool or linen, mid-thigh length.
Kyrtle: wool, knee-length when hitched up with a belt.
Trousers: wool, ankle-length.
Leg Wraps: wool, enough to wrap your calves.
Belt: leather with a iron or copper-alloy buckel.
Hat: wool.
Cloak: wool, fixed with a copper-alloy pin.
Shoes: leather turnshoes.

Hrafn and Snorri wearing typical viking-age clothing.

Female Costume

Serk: wool or linen, above the ankle.
Kyrtle: wool, ankle-length.
Hose (optional): wool, fitted to your feet and to come above the knee.
Leg Wraps (optional): wool, enough to wrap your calves
Belt (optional): wool braid, leather depending on impression, though this seems to be rare.
Cap or Wimple: wool or linen for the cap, linen for wimple.
Cloak or Mantle: wool, fixed with a pin.

For more elaborate dress, specifically for Scandinavian female impressions, check out this great article on the Smokkr, a woollen over-garment fixed with beautiful oval brooches.

Making a Viking Kyrtle or Over-Tunic

As discussed above, the Kyrtle is the main outer-garment of the Viking-age person. It is made from a medium to thick wool, perfect for inclement weather protection, and to last as long as possible.

Textiles and Colours

Viking-age fabrics are commonly found woven in a Plain or Tabby Weave, or in a Twill Weave, usually 2/2 twill or 2/1 twill. To judge the fineness of a fabric, we use a measurement called sett. The sett is how many warp and weft threads there are per square centimetre (or inch, depending on where you are in the world). For wool, we also describe its hairiness. Hairy fabric has short curly fibres that are often coarse and scratchy, finer fabric has longer fibres that feel soft. For your kyrtle look for a medium-hairy fabric with a sett between 10 and 14 (ie. 10 to 14 threads per cm in both directions).


Period fleece was prepared for spinning in a process called ‘combing,’ where the selected fleece is drawn through the teeth of large iron combs. This produces a ‘worsted’ yarn that is made of mainly long, straight fibres, giving a soft texture. Later medieval, and modern wool yarns are often made by ‘carding’ the fleece, which produces a ‘woollen’ yarn that is made of short, curly fibres, giving a ‘hairy’ texture.

There were plenty of ‘hairy’ textiles from the Viking-age, probably made by adding more teeth to the combs for speed of processing, but modern people don’t often like wearing it close to the skin! It can be hard to tell the difference via a photograph, so always try and handle the fabric to see if it is soft or hairy, or look at the product description carefully (or ask the manufacturer) before buying. Fulled fabrics are not common in the Viking-age, so avoid buying them (if you can’t see the weave, it’s probably fulled or felted).

Types of Weave

Tabby Weave or Plain Weave is the simplest type of woven fabric. The warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) threads cross at right angles, aligned so they form a simple criss-cross pattern.

In twill weaves, the weft is staggered to the right or the left, creating a diagonal effect. For a 2/2 Twill Weave the weft goes under two warp threads, then over two.

In 2/1 Twill Weave the weft goes under two warp threads, then over one the weft goes under two warp threads, then over one

Most woollen fabrics, especially those intended for hard days of manual labour were probably undyed. Undyed colours range from bleached grey­ish white to a muddy green–brown.

Undyed wool colours

However, access to gardens with dyestuffs, or trade through urban centres meant that other colours were available. Wool takes dye pigments very well, and if a person had access to a lot of dyestuff, or a mordant to help fix the pigments to the fibres, colours could be quite vibrant. Madder and woad based dyes were the most abundant, giving a brick read and light/mid blue respectively. Other plants like tansy and weld give yellowish-green colours. More rarely, certain lichens give a pale purple/lilac colour.

Kyrtle Pattern

This pattern is based on interpretations of fragments found at Hedeby, and shares similarities with other finds, such as Skjoldehamn and Guddal, and medieval garments from Greenland. The period silhouette in art indicates a wide skirt, achieved by added 2 or more triangular inserts (gores).

The Hedeby fragments suggest an inset sleeve, contouring to the shoulder, and tapered at the wrist. One set of fragments from Hedeby also shows a pieced arm, perhaps to extend an otherwise tight fit.

Some interpretations suggest that the body of most early-medieval tunics are are ‘poncho cut.’ in other words, it’s made from one long piece of fabric and folded in half before cutting the neck hole.

To add a fuller skirt, you can add more gores. An interpretation from Hedeby has a separate skirt sewn to the body at the waist, in which case it can be made from many pieces.


Measure whist wearing a thickish layer as this is outerwear. Add an extra 3-5cm for seam allowance. Medium sized people need about 2m x 1.5m of fabric.

  1. Length: For men, from the shoulder, over the breast to the knee. For women, from the shoulder, over the breast to the ankle.
  2. Arm length: From the point of the shoulder, over a bent elbow (teapot!), to the wrist.
  3. Bicep: Around the thickest part.
  4. Wrist: Around the thickest part of the hand.
  5. Chest: Arm-pit to arm-pit over the breast.
  6. Shoulder to Arm-Pit: From the point of your shoulder to under your arm-pit.
  7. Gores: For men: waist, from the hip to the knee. For women: waist, over the hip to the ankle. The pattern above uses 2 gores in the sides for a simple Viking-age silhouette, but you can add 4 (or more), in the sides, front and back for a fuller skirt if you wish.
  8. Neck: All around the lower part of the neck, then half the measurement.
  9. Waist (Optional): You can make a more fitted garment by measuring your waist, wrap the tape around you, and halve it (allowing for seams).

When cutting fabric, keep the bottom blade of your shears on the cutting surface. This will allow them to glide smoothly through the fabric. If you can, use clamps or weights to help the fabric move less when cutting or measuring. If you are cutting two or more layers at once, think about getting a rotary cutter.


There are many necklines shown in period art work, and a few remain from the surviving fragments. The simplest neckline is a circle, just big enough to fit your head once hemmed. A nice variation of this is a circle just about the size of your neck with a split down front (keyhole), or offset to the side, where you can attach a thong, or use a bead as a fastener.

The ‘boat shape’ is common in art work, where the neckline is cut along the fold of the material and rounded off on the front and back to make it comfortable. The Kragelund tunic (left) has the boat shape over the front and back instead, giving it a distinct look.

The Skjoldeham tunic has a large ‘V’ neck, with decoration lining the cut.


Sewing the kirtle is straightforward. Start by sewing the sleeves into the arm holes, then stitch from the under arm to the waist. Use back stitch for this. Sew up the sleeves, then add the gores. Finish off by hemming the sleeves, skirt and neck, and felling the seams.

Making a Viking Shirt

The shirt pattern is a simple rectangle design, but otherwise follows the same measurement/construction method as the Kyrtle. The main difference between the male and female pattern is the overall length, and the need to add gussets for the longer female serk. For men, it should be above the knee, for women, it can be longer. In both cases it is shorter than the kyrtle. Additionally, skyrta/serks are fairly well fitting underwear, especially around the neck.

Textile and Colours

The shirt is best made from linen, although if you find softer, long-fibred wool, it’s not a supper itchy experience, and it’s that much more authentic for lower-status folk.

Use a medium weight, undyed tabby (plain weave) linen, or light weight tabby wool. Get one with a sett of 15-20 threads per cm for linen. Most linens would have been undyed in the Viking-age. Flax fibres do not hold much pigment, so without expensive mordants as fixatives, the colour appears washed out, or quickly fades. As the garment sits close to the skin, it will get very apparent sweat marks without thorough washing, which will also fade the colour.

Shirt Pattern

This is a hugely simplified ver­sion of the Vi­borg shirt without the lining, and is also similar to the T-tunic of antiquity. You can ei­ther cut two wide rec­tan­gles, or fold the fab­ric over and cut just the neck hole like a pon­cho. Insert square gus­sets un­der the arms for ex­tra space. The sleeves ta­per to the wrist, be­ing quite close fitting. For a female variant, add in triangular side gores to fill out the skirt (see the kyrtle pattern above) use a circular neckline and use pleats/gathers to fit the neck-hole nice and tight – there’s fragments of pleated material from Hedeby, Pskov and Birka that suggests this was a style used.

A Note on the Viborg Short

The Viborg shirt is a much more complicated garment than the simple pattern above. it is made of two layers of linen in the body, sewn together with a running stitch. The arms are made from two pieces, rather than one tube. The skirt is made of two pieces, one wider than the other to form an overlap, but it doesn’t have side gussets. The double layered body means that the neck hole consists of two flaps that are tied through a loop on each side.


Measurements are taken the same was as the Kyrtle above: around the chest, under the armpits, this will give you the width. Keep this garment more or less square, and slightly wider than the shoulder. Remember to leave allowances for seams, and refitting! Optionally, you can add in pieces to make a wider skirt, or add in a standing collar (best on wool shirts): this type of construction is seen on the Skjoldeham shirt.

Medium sized people need about 1.75m x 1.5m of fabric.


Sewing the serk is broadly the same as the kyrtle, but if you use square gussets, attach them to the sleeves first, then set the sleeve in. For the longer serk or gown worn by women, you can include gussets in the sides for a fuller skirt.

Making Viking Trousers or Breeches

Besides the Skjoldehamn trousers, fragments of legwear from Hedeby and earlier Iron-Age footed-breeches indicate possible methods of construction.

The legs, however long, are cut as tubes with a single seam — either inside or outside. Trousers have a large seat, and some bagginess for the behind. A separate waist belt is attached and folded over to incorporate a drawstring, or additional loops are sewn on to accommodate a belt.

Textiles and Colours

As with the kyrtle, choose a medium-hairy woollen fabric of around 10-14 threads per cm. Twill woven wool works best as the fabric stretches well in the bias. Again, colours are best plain, or using the simple dyes available to early-medieval people.

Trousers Pattern

This pattern is based on a find from Migration Period Germany (Thorsberg) which are form fitting and comfortable, with durable seam placement.


Add a 3-5cm seam allowance to each measurement.

  1. Length: Waist to ankle, measuring down the side of your body. These should sit high on your waist, not low slung on your hips.
  2. Hips: The widest part around your hips.
  3. Waist: Around your waist, over your belly button.
  4. Seat: From your belly button, between your legs, to your waistline on your back.
  5. Thigh: Measure loosely the widest part of the circumference of your thigh.
  6. Knee: Measure loosely the circumference of a bent knee.
  7. Ankle: Measure loosely the circumference of your ankle (we will cut a split to get your foot in).
  8. Seat Length: Measure from your waist at the back, to below your buttocks.
  9. Crotch Length: Measure from your waist at the front, under your legs to below your buttocks.

Also, measure ankle to knee, ankle to thigh, thigh to waist.

Trousers are basically two tubes (legs) attached to two rectangular gussets (a large square for the bottom, narrow rectangle for the crotch). The Waist band is sewn on separately and can either be made as a tube for a drawstring, or you can sew on 6-8 belt loops.

Short breeches should fall just be­low the knee, long trousers should be fitted at the an­kle. There is a small cut to al­low the foot through, which is re-en­forced with a blan­ket stitch.

Medium sized people need about 1.5m x 1.5m of fabric.


Sewing the trousers can be a little more complex than the tunic or shirt, so take your time, and use pins or tack-stitches to get the right shape. Try them on a lot!

  1. Pin the legs together along the curved edge from ankle to thigh, leaving 10cm at the bottom for the ankle slit. The garment will not sit perfectly flat or even at the ankle – this is ok, you’ll hem the ankle and tidy up later.
  2. Tack stitch (long running stitch) the seam and try the leg on to make sure it fits, adjust where needed, then back stitch the seam. Repeat for the other leg (remember to mirror the fold as you’ll get two of the same legs!)
  3. Pin the seat into the legs – start at the top and work down the curve from hip to thigh/crotch. You will not keep it perfectly square – this is good, you want a lot of stretch.
  4. Pin in the crotch – it will connect to the seat, and the remaining parts of the legs. The leg seams will fall to the sides.
  5. Tack together and fit, adjust as you need, then back stitch together.
  6. If you find they are too tight in the thighs, add in triangular gores to the inside of the legs.


  1. Turn the trousers the proper way out (as if you are wearing them). On the outside, place your waistband so the edge of the waistband and top edge of the trousers meet (the widest part is at the back, the join is at the front – especially important if you use a drawstring!) Back stitch just below the edge, to the waistband is like a flap all around the waist.
  2. Now fold the waistband up and over the edge and to the inside of the trousers. Roll the edge (so it is on the inside) and whip stitch it on.
  3. Whip stitch the belt loops equally around the waist.

Making Viking Legwraps

Legwraps, some­times called winingas or putees, are cloth strips that protect the lower leg. They need to be at least 2m long and are 10-20cm wide, whether they are woven as a single item, or cut and hemmed. A twill or herringbone wool is the best fabric as will be stretchier while you move around. Alternatively, a smaller tablet-woven band could be used.

Legwarps can be fasted with hooked tags, common throughout the Viking world, or tied with a band or thong. Project Forlog has a great page on the use of hooked-tags as clothes fasteners.

Cloaks and Shawls

illustration of a man in a cloak.

A ba­sic cloak is a sim­ple rec­tan­gle of thick wool. The fab­ric is tabby wo­ven or a sim­ple twill. The edges are finished with a blan­ket stitch, or if woven as a single piece, finished plain or with twisted warp-ends. In terms of size, the length should be about the same as the wingspan of your outstretched arms, and wide enough to wrap around your torso.

Period artwork shows men pin the cloak on their right shoulder. Use a copper-alloy brooch or pin.

a ringed pin
A ringed pin from Got­land in the British Mu­seum

Icons of female figures show a sort of shawl, where the rectangular or square-woven cloth is wrapped around the body and fastened at the front. It might look something like this:

Making a Jorvik Cap

Thorunn in a cap

Most women’s caps found in the Viking age are a simple rectangle of cloth folded over and sewn on one side. Caps can be made from wool, linen or silk. The Jorvik cap is made of silk, and the hems are rolled. The rear corner has a line of stitches that follows the contour of the head.

Cap Pattern

The cap is a simple rectangular head covering with a tie under the chin. You can make it out of wool or linen. Cut a rectangle to the following dimensions:

  1. Length: From your chin, to your right ear, over the crown of your head, down to your left ear and to your chin. (approx 60cm for medium sized head)
  2. Width: From your forehead to the back of your skull, then half it. (approx 20cm for medium sized head)


  1. Fold in half
  2. There are two methods to round the corner:
    1. Pictured: Sew an arc from the middle of the fold to the back edge and continue to sew the back seam. Cut off the excess and treat the seam.
    2. Sew the back edge, then pull the top in. Whip stitch the outside to create the curve.
  3. Finish the back seam and hem the open edges
  4. Optional: Add a tie — a loop of braid, or folded strips of linen.

Wimple Pattern

Alternatively, Christian women wear a wimple, a formal head scarf, in period artwork. The wimple is a a long semi-circle of cloth.

  1. Length: is the length of out stretched arms
  2. Width: at it’s thickest point is 1/4 to 1/3 the length. eg. If length is 100cm, with would be 25cm or 33cm.

You can use a bone, wooden or copper-alloy pin to secure, or use a tablet-woven band (sometimes called a fillet).

Loffy in a wimple

Making a Viking Hat

Several hats are present in the archaeological record or the Viking-Age. The two simplest to make are a 4-panel hat based on a find from Birka, Sewden, and a ‘pillbox’ hat from Leens, Netherlands. Other headgear also exists, such as hoods.

4-Panel Hat Pattern

4-panel hat diagram

To make the hat, first measure your head circumference from around your forehead, tops of ears and back. Divide by 4 to get the short edge size of the panel. Now measure from ear to ear and half the measurement for the height of the panel from the short edge to the point. Draw the long edges in towards the point. (Remember to add a few centimetres for seam allowance to each side.)

Sew all 4 pieces together, and hem the bottom edge.

Pillbox Hat Pattern

pillbox hat diagram

To make the hat, first measure your head circumference from around your forehead, tops of ears and back. This is the circumference of the circular crown panel, and the length of the rectangular headband panel. The height of the rectangular headband panel is about 11cm (not including seam allowance).

The Leens example is made of 3 pieces, with two semi-circles stitched together to form the crown. It is attached to the headband with a whip stitch. Th eseams are decorated on the outside with a herringbone stitch, and the hem is decorated with a visible running stitch, also on the outside.


The accessories listed here are personal items that finish off a costume. These are key items for the fit of clothing — usually functional as well as decorative, and some essential for any work or trade.


Shoes from the Viking-age are made of leather and are usually of the turnshoe construction. The upper is cut as one piece then stitched to the sole inside out around a last — it is then turned the right way out so that the stitching is on the inside.

Turnshoe diagram
Based on examples found in York. A single piece for the foot and ankle is sewn to a separate sole in most cases. There are variations with slightly taller uppers and 3 toggles, and those with shallow uppers that look like slippers.

Knife and Sheath

A knife is of course a great utility. Made of iron, sometimes with a hard steel edge, the knife or seax could be anywhere from a couple of inches to the size of a machete. These smaller knives aren’t adapted for warfare. They are tools that are used around the house, or out in the fields and woods.

The handle would be of wood, some set with bone, sometimes with copper-alloy or iron fittings. Housing the knife is a leather sheath. Wet leather wrapped around the knife forms the sheath, where we cut to shape and stitch one seam. In some cases metal fittings protect the stitching.


Men wore a gir­dle around the waist, usu­ally of leather. The strap is about 1/​2 inch to 1 inch in width and tied (with split ends) or buck­led. Belts are often made with two thin layers stitched together. Buck­les are made from bone, iron, lead-alloy or cop­per-al­loy. Buck­les are sometimes ac­com­pa­nied by a strap-end which pro­tects the leather and pro­vides ex­tra dec­o­ra­tion. Many metal items in the Viking–age were stamped with a ring and dot mo­tif, or scored with ‘dogs teeth’ markings.


The best preserved sock is from York and made from wool with a technique called nalbinding. The knot­ted con­struc­tion makes them ex­tremely hard wear­ing, and quite wa­ter­proof. Then there’s simple sewn socks using normal woollen textiles, found at Skjoldeham in Norway.


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 and mounted on a wooden rod, the fleece is drawn into thin strands as it’s spun. Women spent a good portion of the year spinning yarn from fleece, so this is an essential item for female impressions.

For more information about textiles and clothing of the Viking-age, check out our article. We also have a summary of Viking Children’s clothing. Now ensconced on this blog, this page will be easier to edit and we intend to add pages covering other garments, such as the apron-dress or smokkr, the Klappenrock jacked, caftans and more.

Further Reading

This guide is for new reenactors starting out, and those putting together simple costumes of early-medieval/Viking-age people, rather than an academic work. How­ever, if you are in­ter­ested in finding out more about Viking–Age cloth­ing and ac­cou­trements, please find a se­lec­tion of books and on­line ar­ti­cles below.

CategoriesClothingDaily Living and PastimesMaterial Culture

Viking Clothing and Jewellery

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

Viking children’s clothing was probably just smaller versions of adult clothing.
Check out our article about making Viking clothing for kids here!

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.

Viking clothing: A blue broken diamond weave fabric edged with a  silver and silk brocade tablet woven band.

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


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



Viking Age Surgery and Medicine

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!

Astronomical pages from Bede, Harley MS 3091 from the British Library
Astronomical pages from Bede, Harley MS 3091 from the British Library.


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.

Surgical Procedure

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

Bald’s Leechbook

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.

Further Reading

For more about Viking and Anglo-Saxon medicine, see more posts on the blog!

  • Bald’s Leechbook (Translation available online)
  • Celsus: On Medicine (Translation available Online)
  • Cameron, M.L (2006). Anglo-Saxon Medicine
  • Heimskringla (Translation available online)
  • Herbal remedies, Paulinus of Aquileia, Astronomical tables and more – Harley MS 3091
  • Lacnunga, Herbarium, Medicina de quadrupedibus – Harley MS 585
  • Sherley-Price, L trans. Bede (1990). Ecclesiastical History of the English People
  • Pollington, S (2008). Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing

This article is a repost of an older article from our website, originally at See also a further exploration into Viking and Anglo-Saxon medicines here.


Medicines for all infirmities

When we look back at Anglo-Saxon and Viking medicine in the early medieval period, we often think of it as inept at best, lethal at worst. We see a reliance on magic and religion over science and are glad we were born when we were. However, the reality is a little more complex and interesting than it first appears.

While the Anglo-Saxons believed that afflictions were just that, afflictions from God, they were the first people north of the Alps to create medical texts in their own language. This suggests that they took medicine seriously. Similarly, the Icelandic Sagas tell us of astute healers who employed fairly effective methods of healing.

To understand the medicine and society at the time we must look at the way people lived. If you were at the top of the social hierarchy the chances were, you would be well fed and have the possibility of a balanced diet. However, if you were at the other end of the scale in the winter months you would rarely have enough food and be unlikely to ever see a balanced diet. For most of society, malnutrition coupled with living in cold, dank hovels did not make for the best start to a healthy world.

Into this world strode the lǣċe, (pronounced leech or larch), which was the common term for a healer of any kind in Old English, in Old Norse it was læknir. Both words come from a similar Proto-Germanic origin and arguably derive from either the term to bleed or a term for an enchanter. Either of these origins would fit given the nature of the work they did.

Healers in Saxon England ranged from local healers often known as cunning women/men who had knowledge passed down through the ages in a verbal tradition, to monks who were specifically trained. Interspersed between the two, were secular, educated physicians of varying abilities who earnt their livelihood through their medical skills.

A lot of the book learned healing and monastic training came from old Latin and Greek texts. Some of these texts were translated such as the Herbarium, passing Mediterranean medicine into the Saxon tradition. This meant that bleeding, the four humours and Roman treatments were still being practiced in Saxon England to one degree or another.

One of the best sets of medical texts of the time were Bald’s Leechbooks. It still has elements of faith, superstition and magic but goes about critically looking at the body and its working, literally from head to foot. It often gives sound advice such as pregnant women should avoid salty foods, alcoholic drinks and vigorous exercise.

The Lacnunga by comparison is an erratically written collection of ‘knowledge’, often haphazardly put down. This may have not been the best for the patient but gives us an excellent look at beliefs that common people had that even Bald stayed away from. The best example of this is:

“157. Against when a man cannot sleep: take henbane’s seed and gardens mint juice; stir together and smear the head with it; better will come to him.
158. When a man first tells you that your cattle are lost, say then, before you say anything else “Bethlehem was that city called in which Christ was born…”

Here we can see that in the Saxon mind a purely herbal remedy held the same weight as a purely magical cure. Many cures, especially for things that were incurable at the time, were a mixture of both. This blending often meant that any success gained by the herbs, poultices and broths would also be giving credit to the more magical elements such as incantations, Luna phases and holy relics.

Vikings by comparison had none of these written traditions, to draw from or contribute to. Our evidence comes from the saga’s written generations after the events described and archaeological remains. Undoubtedly healing went on, and at the very beginning of the Viking period this was at a local level.

The use of runes and charms are often cited in the sagas and the belief in their power was just as strong as the Saxon belief in Christian religion. In Egil’s saga chapter 73 for example a young woman was first harmed by the improper use of runes and then healed by the correct use of runes.

Given the violent, dangerous world they lived in the Saxons and the Vikings often became proficient in first aid and surgery. The tools of their trade were in many ways not dissimilar to our own, if a little cruder. Many would come from everyday life such as a needle or sharp knife. Others would be closer to workmen’s tools such as a saw, mallet or given some of Bald’s descriptions, a sledgehammer.

Germs and infections undoubtedly killed a large percentage of patients. Surprisingly, many people survived these procedures. There is evidence that people even survived trepanning from skulls that have subsequently healed. More interestingly, some of the science they employed seemed far in advance of their age. Bald recommends an early variant of biodegrading stitches, while in Heimskringla we see a clever diagnostic technique.

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.

Many cures worked and are still supported by science today. Horehound was a treatment for coughs and is still used in lozenges. Honey was used as an antiseptic, and we know that its high sugar content draws out the water from bacteria, dehydrating and killing them. At one end of the scale there was often science behind the medicine, so genuine healing took place, even if the science wasn’t known to the practitioner. Just as often we have magical and (some) herbal cures that offer nothing more than hope and a placebo effect.  At the other end, there were a number of lethal treatments which became more dangerous than the ailment they were trying to treat. All of these treatments combine into a lucky dip, that few in the modern age would be brave enough to try.

See more posts about Anglo-Saxon and Viking medicine throughout our blog!