Viking Age head-coverings

Post updated May 2015, May 2016, and April 2017 with additional pictures

I have been thinking about head covering options for female Norse re-enactors quite a bit recently, and I have also seen several questions come up in various on-line conversations. Because there is very little concrete evidence in this area, there are a lot of gaps that need to be filled with conjecture. These are my conclusions, but I would love to hear the views of other people who have studied this topic!

First of all, did Viking Age women wear a head covering? There is not enough evidence to give a conclusive answer to this question, and the answer might also vary based on social class, formality of event, weather, or other factors that we haven’t considered.

I don’t think that pagan Scandinavian women necessarily had religious pressure to cover their hair, but I feel that the evidence points toward styled hair and/or a head covering of some type. Styling the hair and wearing some type of head covering would have been practical; wearing hair up keeps it out of the way and covering it helps to keep in clean. I think that the available evidence supports the idea that loose, uncovered hair isn’t very likely in a Viking Age context.

Some pre-Viking Age archaeological finds provide support for the idea of head wear in general; bog bodies from Arden Mose and Haraldskjaer both include sprang caps. These finds indicate that head coverings did not arrive in Northern Europe with Christianity, so religious pressure is clearly not the only reason the women wore head coverings. There is also archaeological evidence of head-coverings during the Viking Age (headbands, scarves and caps from Dublin, cap from Jorvik, tablet woven headbands with evidence of a veil underneath from Birka), although the archeological record gives very little information about how these items were worn.

Most pre-Viking and Viking Age depictions of women show a knot with streamers at the back of the head. Many of the representations are difficult to interpret, but there are a few cases in which it is clear that the knot is hair (others could also be a scarf or veil wrapped around the head). This is often used as evidence that Norse women didn’t wear any type of head covering, but it is important to consider that these figurines are generally thought to represent goddesses and the knotted hairstyle might have had social or religious significance. There is no archeological evidence for the knotted hairstyle, but there is pre-Viking Age evidence for elaborate hairstyles – Arden woman’s hair was worn twisted and wound around the head (under the sprang cap) and Elling woman’s hair was arranged in an elaborate braid which was tied in a knot.

There are many discussions of women’s head coverings in various sagas and in the poem RígsÞula. In general I think this supports the idea that most women wore some type of head covering, although it is important to remember that this evidence is not conclusive since these stories were not written down until several hundred years after the Viking Age.

Taking all this evidence in to account, I feel the there are several different options for women doing Norse re-enactment, including styled hair and various head covering options. I do not see any evidence for long hair worn loose.

Some options:

1. Styled hair – several Valkyrie figurines are depicted with long hair worn in a knotted ponytail, and one Iron Age figurine seems to show a women with buns on each side of her head. There is also the possibility of hairstyles inspired by Arden woman or Elling women.

Braided hairstyle based on Valkyrie knot (styling and hairpiece by Viscountess Lorissa)

Braided hairstyle based on Valkyrie knot (styling and hairpiece by Viscountess Lorissa)

Two buns based on Danish figurine (hairpieces made by Viscountess Lorissa)

Two buns based on Danish figurine (hairpieces made by Viscountess Lorissa)

Knotted hairstyle, created using a fall to add length (picture of Mistress Aldgytha)

Knotted hairstyle, created using a fall to add length (picture of Mistress Aldgytha)

2. Knotted scarf – some Valkyrie figurines look like they could be wearing a knotted scarf around the head. There is also saga evidence of a twisted or knotted scarf (for example, in Viglundar saga a linen bandage wound around the head is compared to a woman’s head cloth). Because this style would be unlikely to leave any archaeological trace, it is difficult to tie to a particular location.

Knotted headscarf. In this style the scarf is wrapped around the head, and the tails are twisted together and coiled at the base of the neck.

One option for a knotted headscarf. In this style the scarf is wrapped around the head, and the tails are twisted together and coiled on the back of the head. If you style you hair in a bun, you can use the bun as the center of the knot. This scarf is rectangular, 52cm by 165cm

Back view of the above style.

Back view of the above style.

knotted scarf

Another option for wearing a knotted scarf – in this style the ends of the scarf are gathered at the nape of the neck and tied in a knot. This style results in a very distinct knot at the nape of the neck. This scarf is rectangular, 83cm by 147cm.

image

Back view of the style above.

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A third option for wearing a knotted scarf (back view) – in this style the front corners of the scarf are tied together at the nape of the neck, and then those ends are tied again to confine the tails of the scarf.

3. Draped scarf or veil – This style is similar to the depiction of the Virgin Mary in the Book of Kells and some Anglo-Saxon women, so I suggest this option particularly for re-enactors depicting the British Isles.

draped veil

Veil worn draped loosely around the head and shoulders.

3. Headband – headbands of silk and wool have been found at Dublin, and several graves from Birka have remains of metal-brocaded tablet weaving around the head. Evidence from Birka indicates that the headband could be worn horizontally around the head, along the hairline, or around the crown of the head.

IMG_20170311_161949893

Silk headband decorated with brocaded tablet weaving

4. Cap – extant examples from the British Isles only (Dublin and Jorvik), so this style is also primarily for re-enactors depicting women from the British Isles.

Dublin cap

Cap based on extant example from Dublin.

Cap based on extant piece from Jorvik. The Dublin styles are rectangular with a peak at the back of the head.

Cap based on extant piece from Jorvik.

Another way of wearing the Jorvik hood

Another way of wearing the Jorvik hood

5. Headband and scarf – there is evidence from Birka of a scarf or veil worn under a tablet woven headband. In the extant examples the headbands are brocaded with metal threads, however it is possible that tablet woven headbands without metal brocading were also worn in this fashion. Headbands and scarfs of silk and wool fabric were found at Dublin, so it is possible that this style worn in various areas of the Viking world. Depending on how the scarf is worn, this style also has parallels with contemporary Anglo-Saxon and Rus women’s costume.

Front view of headband and knotted scarf

One way of wearing a headband and scarf. In this case the scarf is tied with a distinct knot at the back, and a woven headband is tied following the hairline. The headband helps hold the scarf in place. This scarf is rectangular, 54cm by 260cm.

Tablet woven headband, worn over knotted scarf

Side view of the style show above.

wpid-IMG_20131023_191114_143.jpg

Another way of wearing a headband and scarf. In this case the front corners of the scarf are tied or pinned at the base of the neck, and the tails hang freely. A brocaded tablet woven headband is worn along the hairline.

veil and headband

Another option – in this case the brocaded tablet woven headband is worn horizontally around the head.

Some resources on this topic include:

Hägg, Inga “Die Tracht.” Birka. Untersuchungen und Studien. II:2. Systematische Analysen der Gräberfunde. (Ed. G. Arwidsson). 1986, 51-72. (discussion of brocaded headbands from Birka)

Heckett, Elizabeth Wincott. Viking Age Headcoverings from Dublin. Royal Irish Academy, 2003. (caps. headbands and scarves from Dublin)

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Persona Presentation – Danish landowner’s wife 910

191882_3624966113222_1354328457_oBelow is the research for my Persona Presentation entry in Caid’s 2013 A&S Pentathlon. The Persona Presentation category has a two-part format. First, the entrant researches their culture and time period of interest (focusing on activities of daily life) and writes documentation describing the character they will present. This research is provided to the judges so they can learn about the culture and prepare questions. Second, on the day of Pentathlon, you interact with the judges (in persona) for about 15 minutes. I really enjoyed this entry as I had to dig deep in to many aspects of the Viking Age culture so that I could provide reasonable answers to any questions asked, while still remembering the line between what Ciar knows and what Margaret knows about Ciar (for example, during a prep session a friend asked me about my primary protein source . . .  I answered the question before I remembered that Ciar has no idea what protein is because it wasn’t identified and named until the 19th century!).

In order to continue the fun, feel free to post your questions to the comments section, and I will do my best to answer them in persona (well, Margaret will have to help by typing up Ciar’s answers!).

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Ciar ingen Dáire is the daughter of a local lord in the region of Osraige, Leinster. From the age of seven to fourteen she was fostered[1] in the home of her father’s overlord, Cervall mac Dúnlainge, King of Osraige[2]. In 885, when Ciar was fifteen, her father followed his overlord’s example[3] and negotiated her marriage to Gunnulf Gunnarson[4], a warrior in service to the kings of Dublin.

In Dublin Ciar and Gunnulf lived in a small house near the king’s residence. It was important for Gunnulf to be close by in case the king needed his warriors, however Ciar found her first experience of urban living a bit claustrophobic and missed the rural environment of her youth[5]. During this period Ciar focused on learning her new husband’s language and culture and bore her first child, a son named Gunnar after his grandfather. Ciar had never met her husband prior to their wedding, however they have grown to respect and love each other. Is has been helpful that Gunnulf is the son of a strong, outspoken woman so he appreciates the same qualities in his wife[6].

In 893, a bloody struggle for supremacy split the Norse settlers of Dublin[7]. After his lord was killed in this struggle, Gunnulf decided to leave Ireland and return to his family farm about a day’s ride from the trading center of Hedeby, Denmark. Ciar was very excited about this move since she would be living on a farm again.

Gunnulf’s father died shortly after their return from Ireland, so Gunnulf is now the local chieftain. Because of his rank he has the largest farm in the village. The farm has several buildings, but most activity takes place in the longhouse, which is located in the middle of the farm. The longhouse is a large rectangular timber-frame building which includes the main living space, a storage room, and a byre for livestock[8]. The floors are packed earth, raised benches[9] run along each side of the living area, and a raised central hearth provides heat and light. A sleeping alcove gives Ciar and Gunnulf some privacy,[10] while other members of the household sleep on the benches in the hall. The interior walls of the longhouse are hung with woven tapestries[11]. The farm has several other buildings, including a weaving shed, a smithy, barns, and a dairy[12].

Their household[13] consists of the following people – Gunnulf and Ciar, their children Gunnar, Gunhild and Gunkil, Gunnar’s wife and baby, Gunnulf’s unmarried sister, a smith and his wife and child, two farm hands, and two female thralls[14]. Gunnar is a warrior who spends most of his time fighting for the kingdom of Jorvík,[15] but he spends some winters at the farm.

The farm is mostly self-sufficient, although they do purchase a few items such as salt, herring, and luxury fabrics. The women are responsible for the production of food and clothing for the entire household, in addition to caring for children and the sick. As the householder’s wife, Ciar is responsible for coordinating all aspects of the domestic sphere; because of her status she is able to delegate the less desirable tasks to the thralls[16]. Ciar is responsible for securing the household valuables and wears a key-shaped pendant hanging from one brooch to symbolize this authority[17]. She also keeps the actual key to their lock box, which holds valuables such as the family’s best clothes and the silver that Gunnulf acquired during his years of fighting.

Cattle are the most important type of livestock on the farm and supply milk, meat, and fertilizer[18]. Oxen are also used as plow animals. During spring and summer the women milk the cows and make butter and cheese. Ciar helps with this work, but she has given Gunhild responsibility for supervising the dairy to teach her the management skills she will need as a wife. Some animals are slaughtered each fall so meat can be preserved for the winter. After the men slaughter the animals, the women of the household are responsible for preserving it using several methods, including smoking, salting, or pickling in brine or whey[19]. All of the women work hard at slaughter time to process and preserve the meat before it goes bad.

They also raise pigs (for meat), sheep (for wool and meat), plus hens, ducks and geese (for eggs, meat and feathers)[20]. During mild weather the livestock are taken out to pasture away from the settlement so they do not destroy the crops[21]. The family has several horses, which are the primary mode of transportation – they can be ridden or used to pull carts or sleighs[22].

When Gunnulf goes into Hedeby he purchases saltwater fish such as herring, which the women preserve by salting[23]. Freshwater fish caught in the nearby river are also eaten[24].

Fields near the longhouse are planted with various crops, including hay, barley, rye, hops and flax[25]. Hay is cut during the summer and stored as winter fodder for the livestock[26]. Barley and rye are eaten as porridge and bread, flax is used to produce linen fabric, and malted barley and hops are used to brew ale[27]. Gunnulf supervises the farm hands that tend these crops and works in the fields himself at planting and harvest times. Root vegetables, cabbage, beans, and peas are grown in plots near the longhouse[28]. Ciar decides what will be planted in each vegetable patch, and the thralls do most of the planting and weeding. During the fall Ciar supervises brewing the ale.

During the summer and fall wild fruits, berries, and nuts are collected and eaten or stored for the winter[29]. Sometimes Ciar and the family spend a day gathering fruit as an excuse to get away from the farm and their normal chores.

Before it can be cooked, grain must be ground by hand using a rotary quern,[30] a strenuous task that is the responsibility of the thralls.

Food preparation occurs at the central hearth of the long-house. The diet varies with the season – fish, eggs, and dairy foods provide the bulk of their calories during the summer, and meat takes center stage in the winter. The centerpiece of a typical meal is stew cooked in an iron cauldron suspended over the fire[31]. The stew contains vegetables and meat or fish, and is sometimes thickened with peas or ground grain to make porridge. Fresh milk is often added to fish soups during the spring and summer. Pan-fried barley bread and spit-roasted poultry are also eaten on a regular basis[32]. Ciar is a talented cook and uses a variety of herbs and spices to enhance the food[33].

Two meals are served each day; the first in mid-morning and the second in the evening[34]. Trestle tables are set up at meal times, and the free members of the household sit on the built in benches of the longhouse. The thralls do not eat with the rest of the household – they eat whatever is left after everyone else has finished. Ciar makes sure that the thralls get enough to eat, although it is mostly porridge rather than meat.

Cloth and clothing production are a never-ending task for the women of the household[35]. The women take over once the men have sheared the sheep and harvested the flax[36]. Wool must be cleaned, combed, spun, dyed, woven, and finally sewn into garments[37]. The production of linen is even more complicated as it requires a multi-step process to remove the fibers from the flax plant before it can be spun in to thread[38]. Spinning is so time consuming that all of the free women spin whenever they aren’t working on another task.

Cloth of linen or wool is woven on a warp-weighted loom[39], and decorative bands and tapestries are woven on smaller specialized looms. Gunnulf’s sister Gytha is the best weaver in the household and she weaves the majority of the family’s cloth. She is currently teaching the smith’s daughter to weave; the child’s first attempts are used as clothes for the thralls. When Ciar accompanies Gunnulf to the market in Hedeby she likes to purchase imported silk to decorate the family’s best garments[40].

The children do not receive any formal education; instead they learn the skills they need in the course of daily life. Each member of the family is responsible for passing on his or her knowledge to the next generation. Ciar’s children are past the age of needing care, but she is happy to help care for her young grandson. As head of their household, Gunnulf is responsible for disciplining the children and thralls[41]. Any conflicts between the free members of the household, or between household members and other villagers, are settled at the local thing[42].

Since returning to the farm Gunnulf has found that he enjoys the quieter life of a farmer, although as a landowner he still has a duty to provide military service to the king of Jutland[43] if needed[44]. Gunnulf takes an active hand in managing the livestock and fields; he is the premier voice in the local thing and also represents their village in the regional thing.

Ciar is a Christian[45] but Gunnulf follows the traditional Scandinavian polytheistic religion and feels particular affinity for the god Thor[46]. During his time in Ireland Gunnulf became convinced in the power of the Christian God, so he does not object to Ciar’s beliefs and prayers[47]. However, Gunnulf expects Ciar to play a role in the local pagan festivals[48], which typically involve animal sacrifices followed by a feast that Gunnulf – as local chieftain – hosts for the entire village[49]. This expectation has been a source of tension in their marriage, but they have reached a compromise where Ciar focuses on the feast preparations and avoids actually participating in the rituals. Whenever Ciar visits Hedeby she seeks out any visiting Christian merchants in the hopes that they might have a traveling missionary with them so she can receive communion[50]. Ciar has tried to instill Christian views in her children and is sad that none of them have embraced her religion.

This spring, in addition to the normal tasks of planting and dairy work, Ciar is preparing for her son Gunkil to leave with his brother for his first experiences as a warrior. She is worried about his safety, but fighting and war are a part of her world and she is expected to accept the dangers without making a scene. She hopes to finish a new tunic for Gunkil before he leaves.

Works Cited

Ejstrud, Bo. “From Flax to Linen: Experiments with Flax from Ribe Viking Center.”Ribe Viking Center and University of Southern Denmark. Esbjerg, Denmark. 2011

Jesch, Judith. Women in the Viking Age. The Boydell Press; Woodbridge, Suffolk. 1991.

Jørgensen, Lise Bender “Rural Economy: Ecology, Hunting, Pastoralism, Agricultural and Nutritional Aspects” The Scandinavians from the Vendel Period to the Tenth Century, ed. Judith Jesch. The Boydell Press; Woodbridge, Suffolk. 129-152

Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí. Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200. Person Education Inc; New York, NY. 1995.

Patterson, Nerys. Cattle Lords and Clansmen. University of Notre Dame Press; Notre Dame, Indiana. 1994.

Roesdahl Else and David M Wilson, ed. From Viking to Crusader. Rizzoli International Publications; New York, NY. 1992.

Schmidt, Holger. Building Customs of Viking Age Denmark. Poul Kristensen Grafisk Virksomhed, Denmark. 1994

Ward, Christie. “Old Norse Names” n.p. Web. 11 Jan 2013. http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/ONNames.shtml#general_info

Wolf, Kirsten. Daily Life of the Vikings. Greenwood Press; Westport, CT. 2004.


[1] Fostering was an important method of developing social ties (Patterson 190).

[2] Patterson 162

[3] Cerball mac Dunlainge allied with Norse leaders and married three of his daughters to Norsemen (Ó Cróinín 264).

[4] Viking age families tended to repeat a common element in their names, ‘Gunn’ in this case (Ward).

[5] Ireland during this period was overwhelming rural with a low population density (Ó Cróinín 103).

[6] Several foreign accounts of Scandinavian women from this period comment on their outspokenness and independent behavior (Wolf 13-14). Irish women also enjoyed a degree of independence (Ó Cróinín 128).

[7] Ó Cróinín 254

[8] Excavated Danish longhouses are generally divided into three rooms – a byre at one end, a living area in the middle and a storage room at the other end. In most examples the living area is between 10m and 15m long and about 6m wide (Schmidt 52).

[9] These benches are made of packed earth with wooden supports, and run along both sides of the longhouse (Roesdahl 138).

[10] Jesch 40-41

[11] Woven hangings or tapestries serve several purposes – they provide decoration, insulation and a show of wealth (Wolf 74).

[12] Schmidt 88 and 160

[13] Households in the Viking Age would encompass a nuclear family plus additional relatives, lodgers and servants, with a possible mean of 10-13 people (Wolf 8).

[14] Thralls (slaves) were the lowest class of society; they had no legal rights and were considered property. Slavery was hereditary in Scandinavia and people captured on raids also became thralls (Wolf 105).

[15] Jorvík (York, England) was ruled by Scandinavians from 867 until 927 but was under constant threat of re-conquest by Anglo-Saxon rulers (Roesdahl 100-101).

[16] Wolf 11

[17] Wolf 13

[18] Jørgensen 130-131

[19] Wolf 82

[20] Wolf 22

[21] This is called an infield-outfield system (Jørgensen 133).

[22] Wolf 91

[23] Roesdahl 142

[24] Some varieties include salmon, perch and pike (Wolf 82).

[25] Jørgensen 135

[26] Jørgensen 134

[27] Wolf 82

[28] Roesdahl 142

[29] Apples, pears, cherries, plums, blueberries, cloudberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and hazelnuts all grew wild in Scandinavia (Wolf 83).

[30] Roesdahl 243

[31] Roesdahl 141

[32]Cauldrons made of iron, clay or soapstone and iron frying pans and roasting spits have been found in Viking Age archeological digs (Roesdahl 141). The specific dishes described are conjecture based on these utensils and the foods available.

[33] Cumin, horseradish and mustard were preserved in the Oseberg ship burial, and a variety of herbs – including parsley, dill, mint, marjoram, thyme, and garlic – were available (Wolf 83).

[34] Wolf 62

[35] Based on experiments at the Ribe Viking Center, making a single linen shirt took approximately 350 hours of labor. 85% of the time was devoted to spinning and weaving so the time devoted to constructing woolen garments would be comparable (Ejstrud 79-80).

[36] Wolf 39

[37] Wolf 11

[38] The steps include drying the flax, rippling (to separate the seed capsules from the stalks), retting (to loosen the fibers), drying and breaking the stalks, scutching (to remove the broken stalks), and heckling (combing the fibers in to spinnable bundles) (Ejstrud 9-11).

[39] Loom weights are common finds in Viking Age settlements (Roesdahl 143).

[40] Roesdahl 143

[41] Flogging and mutilation are described as appropriate methods of punishing thralls (Wolf 118).

[42] The thing was a judicial assembly. The local thing would include of all free, adult, able-bodied men and was a forum for decision making and conflict resolution (Roesdahl 120). The local thing might address pasture rights, disputes between villagers, and set penalties for crimes against people or property. There were also regional things – comprised of local chieftains – which were responsible for coordinating defense and resolving disputes from local things (Wolf 116).

[43] The first conclusive record of Danish unification is the reign of Harald Bluetooth in the mid tenth century (Roesdahl 35) however records indicate royal authority over Hedeby from at least 850 (152). Records of Danish rulers from this period are incomplete but it appears that various regions of Denmark were ruled independently by local kings – I have chosen to assume that one king ruled the Jutland peninsula.

[44] All free men were expected to own weapons (Wolf 121). The duty of landowners to provide supplies and/or military service is called leidang (Roesdahl 38).

[45] Ireland was converted to Christianity by the sixth century (Ó Cróinín 28)

[46] Thor was the deity favored by free farmers (Wolf 156).

[47] Some Scandinavians exposed to Christianity simply incorporated the Christian God as another in their pantheon (Wolf 148).

[48] The three primary festivals are in the fall after the harvest, at mid-winter, and at the beginning of spring (Wolf 157).

[49] Roesdahl 148

[50] The first Christian church in Hedeby was established around 850, primarily to minister to Christian merchants. It appears that this church was disbanded shortly after the founding monk’s death in 865 and no further missionary work is recorded in Hedeby until 934 (Roesdahl 152-153).