Age of Heroes - 2: If Looks Could Kill - the Sight of Some Warriors Could Stun a Foe Into Fear
From when the Goths charged over the hill...
Across Europe after Rome's collapse
The Geat*chieftain Hygelac
led the first notable Scandinavian raid on mainland Europe. The target for this raid was a Frisian settlement known as Finnsburh, its menfolk answerable for a bloody raid on a Danish settlement on Sjaelland. Hygelac - the name given to the Danes' leader in the English translation of the Beowulf saga - would have worn splinted limb armour similar to that found in the Sutton Hoo burial.
This form of armour had fallen out of favour in Scandinavia by the 8th Century, as it had here. As battle armour it would have been impractical and unwieldy, and costly to replace if damaged during the course of fighting owing to the number of separate pieces and the workmanship involved in their creation.
Armour used by the Varangian Guard in Byzantium may have had its origins in this period, but its use would not have been widespread in the kind of mobile warfare needed in Asia Minor. Those warriors who raided Lindisfarne in AD793 were certainly not as elaborately or finely kitted out as in earlier times either. Even the war-gear of a local war-band leader would not have been as richly endowed as his 7th Century fore-runner, a contemporary of - say - Raedwald the king of East Anglia thought to have been buried in his ship at Sutton Hoo.
Simplification of battle-gear worn by later Viking warriors owed much to a shift in the way of fighting and campaigning in later years. Local conquests were not the most profitable when Frankia and Britain beckoned with their riches, not least of which were church artefacts that could be broken down and used to buy weaponry or luxury goods. Ship-borne raiding called for less cumbersome equipment. Mailshirt, helm, shield - not even that at times! - and trusty sword, axe or spear were all that was needed to go 'a-viking' overseas.
It was only when the Franks, Angles, Saxons or other British peoples became aware of the nature of their attackers did they need to equip themselves better. Then longer mailcoats were worn by the leaders over padded jerkins. Tactics became more sophisticated than the plain old 'smash-and-grab' of the late 8th and 9th Centuries. Then again, of course, the later campaigns by the Danes were not merely to enrich themselves, they now had an interest in the land (as their near northern neighbours had done in Ireland, the Northern and Western Isles and the Isle of Man).
Outsiders noted the care Norsemen took of their appearance. Grooming was very important to them, as the numbers of combs found on Viking digs testify, as at Coppergate in York. The image of a well-groomed head on the Sigtuna elk-antler carving, with its moustaches, bears witness to more than removing unwanted head 'livestock'. There were also tweezers for eyebrow plucking and small spoons for extracting ear-wax Being well turned-out was the benchmark by which all men judged one another; the higher the neater. Equally a well-attired man on the battlefield showed his standing. He would turn up for the battle in his finest - as in Njal's Saga, Skarp-Hedin cuts a fine figure in a showy manner, his aim being to advertise himself to the foe.
Shoes and boots were of leather or hide, usually from cattle but also from reindeer or sealskin. The old name for hide shoes was 'hriflingr'. Hersir, once landowner chieftains but later warrior retainers, might wear more elegant footwear or dressed skin as found at Coppergate. Footwear came in many styles, perhaps cut from one piece of leather or made up from two sections stitched along a seam that ran along the upper to the toe. Soles were usually made from separate foot-wide strips of leather for durability. Footwear might also be dyed. not necessarily of a natural shade. Skarp-Hedin had a black pair. A sock was also found at Coppergate, knitted from woollen yarn but not shaped to heel or toe.
Trews or breeks were shown between the 7th-9th Centuries on the Gotland stones as well as the Skogg and Oseberg tapestries, gathered anywhere from between the calf to just below the knee. Tighter-fitting breeks became more the style in the 10th-11th Centuries under Frankish and English influence. Knut 'the Great' is shown in one illustration wearing close-fitting hose or stockings, bound around the mid-leg with strips or garters of decorated cloth below which the fit appeared to be wrinkled (shades of Norah Batty in Last of the Summer Wine). Trews were made either of linen or woven wool cloth. Other design details are lost as contemporary illustrations do not show the way seams were cut.
*Geat: the Old English reference in Beowulf is to a people known to us also as 'Goths'; in early mediaeval SW Scandinavia there were several small kingdoms that neighboured Sweden and Denmark, one being Gotaland (see also 'The Saga of Hrolf Kraki' on this site - refer to the list under my profile).
A drinking horn to match a hero's prowess
A good work, Seamus Heaney's translation includes the Fight at Finnsburh, the original prelude to the saga that tells of a revenge raid on the Frisian fortress for theirs on a Danish settlement. An acquaintance told me once that whatever the cost, a strike on the Danes would be answered like for like. He was a Dane. Even in the days before Viking ships under sail, with the element of surprise on their side, those Danes of yore could not fail. Then the finding of the orphan kicks off the Beowulf tale proper...
Under the mail-shirt...
Illustrations of tunics from the first two-hundred years of the Viking Age showed them as being knee-length with full 'skirts' gathered at the waist, held in by belts. Little change could be seen until the later part of the age. The neck might be square-cut or scooped, fastened by a draw-string, hooked or secured by a bead that doubled as a form of button. Sleeves were generally wrist-length or longer. Elbow to cuff the sleeve was close-cut although not so tight as to stop wrinkling on the arms when the sleeve was pushed up onto the fore-arm. A placket might be placed around the neck-hole or a length of tablet-woven braid. This form of decoration might also be used on the hem and cuffs. Embroidery was normally applied as an alternative to braiding and material of a contrasting colour might be inserted to add width to the tunic 'skirt'.
Colours on the Bayeux Tapestry serve as a fair guide to those available in the age as dyeing technology would not have changed markedly before the turn of the 12th Century. The colour-fastness of the Bayeux Tapestry may have been due to the use of a mordant, albeit expensive. There are grounds for believing such materials were available in Scandinavia through import or local process. Un-dyed cloth was usually used by the poor, although those of higher standing might wear the same material in a working environment, but they preferred more colourful clothing.
Cloaks, rectangular or square - seem to have been the norm, seen worn by warriors away from fighting. These were pinned at the shoulder by brooches. Embroidered cloaks are mentioned in the sagas. Hoods might be improvised by folding cloaks or added to the garment as separate pieces of material.
Where helms might have seemed inappropriate wear there might have been fur-trimmed hats, influenced by eastern fashion. A detachable hood of reddish brown tabby-weave silk found at Coppergate is thought to have been a woman's, although the main argument in favour of this interpretation is a photograph of an attractive 20th Century researcher wearing it. Hats of felt are mentioned in several sagas and Odin himself is said to have worn a blue, broad-brimmed felt hat as part of his disguise when amongst the Midgard (Middle Earth) folk together with a cloak of the same colour.
Next - 3: Hierarchy
© 2012 Alan R Lancaster