A Classic Viking Shirt
The smell of bread baking makes your stomach rumble in anticipation. You descend another hundred feet and start to hear the laughter and screams of children in the streets. You pause for a moment. Are those children screaming? As you turn your head, fearful of what you’ll see, the bright flame of the beacon fire dances to life. In the time it took you to get halfway down the mountain, raiders have been spotted beyond the mouth of the fjord.
This classically-styled Viking shirt represents the kind of clothing worn by Scandinavians around the 8th to 12th Centuries. Vikings were known for their prowess at sea as much as for their ferocity in battle, and there is conclusive evidence of Viking settlements as far away as North America. In addition to being feared warriors, some Scandinavians were savvy traders, giving them access to materials that were unattainable through force and uncommon in the rest of Medieval Europe. They loved expensive fabrics and dyes but also needed clothing that was practical for sailing, hunting, fishing, and farming. This shirt is exactly the kind of garment an average Viking man might have worn while going about his daily activities. It’s cut with enough precision and with suitable trim such that it might be worn by a nobleman or a high ranking warrior under his armor.
For a modern adventurer, this shirt is a comfortable option for roleplaying in a wide range of fantasy settings. Viking garments, both male and female, were usually constructed like this example – by stitching together geometric, rectangular and triangular shapes to produce something that could cover the body comfortably The adornments to a piece of clothing were usually achieved with pleats, embroidery, trims, and metal objects like brooches. Tablet woven trim was a popular way of accenting collars, cuffs and hems, and many of the trims were created locally used foreign and domestic fibres.
Pleats, Colours, And Sleeves
The pleated sleeves and inter-locking trim at the collar and shoulder seams represent typical ways people would have adorned their everyday clothing in the Viking world. And though historical fiction often represents it differently, Vikings loved colours, dyes, and expensive, exotic fabrics. The light blue colour of this tunic was amongst the most sought-after of dyes. Clothing during this time was already a valuable commodity, worn for as long as possible. This was because most fabrics were made from flax and wool, which both require immense processing to create usable yarn. The ornate trim of the kind seen in this tunic would be especially prized but also not too ostentatious. This garment is suitable for high-ranking warriors and nobility but also blacksmiths, boat builders, and less well-off warriors. The off-white and brown of this shirt is probably more like the type of shirt a man might wear when engaged in daily activities, or under his armor on a daring sea-raid.
Viking Weavers – Sewing And Weaving Masters
Scandinavian women used local material such as flax, hemp, nettle, and wool to produce cloth for sails, clothing, and domestic use. And silks and cotton were imported from trade networks that extended as far as North Africa. Most longhouses had an upright, warp-weighted loom, used to make household fabric and sails. Sewing and weaving were respected and valuable skills in the Viking world.
These women’s expertise was also required to make the composite cloth armor that most average Viking warriors could afford. Linen, wool, and some kind of natural resin or glue were used to make this armor, which was similar to something like the gambeson from later European history.
The Viking Age – Violence, Voyage And Vinland
Our fascination with Vikings is quite understandable. They were accomplished and complex people, with more to their success than a fearsome reputation. And in spite of reliable, historical reports of seafaring, Germanic raiders in the Black Sea and Frisia since at least the 5th Century, it’s the image of Vikings violently bursting into English history in the 8th Century that informs a lot of our current ideas about these people.
There is a growing movement within academia to try to reframe Viking culture and society without depending too much on the historical, monastic accounts, which (understandably) didn’t view Vikings in a favourable light. Certainly, the Vikings were fierce in battle, and this was likely informed by their belief that every person’s time of death was preordained – all that matters is the person’s conduct as they face the end. There are some writings more contemporary to the Viking era which attempt to explain the unique temperament attributed to these Norsemen.
Why So Fearsome?
Dudo of St. Quentin was a historian born in the 10th Century who spent several years at the court of the Duke of Normandy, grandson of the famous Rollo who became the first Viking Ruler of Normandy in 918 A.D. He attempted to explain what he saw as the typical temperament of Norsemen with the following:
“When these have grown up, they clamour fiercely against their fathers and their grandfathers, or more frequently against each other, for shares of property; and, as they are over-many, and the land they inhabit is not large enough for them to live, there is a very old custom by which a multitude of youths is selected by lot and expelled into the realms of other nations, to win kingdoms for themselves by fighting, where they can live in uninterrupted peace.”
This explanation has mostly been refuted by modern historians, who believe that the fearlessness in battle and reckless desire for exploration and adventure common to Viking people is more likely a result of their unique creation mythology.
Swedish Historian, Professor Neil Price sets it out as like this:
“We are left with a sobering conclusion, which is that the Vikings created one of the few known world mythologies to include the pre-ordained and permanent ruin of all creation and all the powers that shaped it, with no lasting afterlife for anyone at all. The cosmos began in the frozen emptiness of Ginnungagap, and will end in fire with the last battle. Everything will burn at the Ragnarok, whatever gods and humans may do. The outcome of our actions, our fate, is already decided and therefore does not matter. What is important is the manner of our conduct as we go to meet it. The psychological implications of this and other aspects of the Norse ‘religion’ bear thinking about.”
Culture Of War
The suggestion that a culture’s underlying creation myths can affect that population’s attitude toward danger and death is not a new one. Buddhist civilisations, though often known for their spirituality and peaceful civil societies, can be fearsome opponents – like the warrior monks of feudal Japan. Influenced by their belief that death leads to rebirth, many devout warrior monks could fight with unrivalled ferocity. The Viking belief that the hour of every person’s death was preordained is significant. As is the idea that your place in Valhalla is dependent on your conduct in the face of death. Both were probably factors in a deeper pool of things influencing the Viking outlook and world view.
Were All Vikings Warriors?
The sagas suggest that all Viking men of the Jarl and Karl classes were required to own weapons. The Thrall class were slaves, forbidden to own property, had no rights under the law, and they were frequently bought and sold as part of transactions. What kind of weapon a person owned depended on their wealth. Swords were expensive to manufacture and were typically reserved for the Jarl classes and later kings.
What Kind Of Weapons?
As with many parts of the world for much of the rest of history, the spear remained the most cost-effective, battlefield-efficient weapon available to the average warrior. Vikings did enjoy throwing axes for sport and hunting and their battlefield axes could certainly be thrown in the right situation. Most of the time, an axe was carried as a sidearm, and the double-bitted, dwarven-style axe sometimes depicted in the hands of Vikings would have been very rare if it existed at all. They would likely have viewed anything other than a single-headed axe as wasteful. Even bog iron was precious in Scandinavia and throughout Europe.
Magic meets Science
Axes and seax (a kind of single-edged heavy knife) were useful tools as well as weapons and were also common battlefield weapons. These were often made with wrought iron with a steel edge. There is an interesting intersection between magic and technology in Viking metalworking history. Vikings added the bones of their deceased and those of powerful animals to their iron in the hope of imbuing it with magical properties. It did make their weapons stronger, which to them much have seemed like magic. The phenomenon is actually explained by the carbon content in the bone mixing with iron to create rudimentary steel.
Viking Swords – A Cut Above Commoners
Though the longer seax was effectively a sword, it’s thought that the “Viking sword” as we commonly call it, was something introduced to Scandinavia as loot won in battle. These Carolingian swords were probably first taken by Vikings raiding along the coast of present-day Germany, The Netherlands, and Belgium. Viking smiths later replicated the distinctive crossguard and pommel, keeping the overall dimensions about the same. Swords were probably only made for the highest status, wealthiest warriors on account of the scarcity of iron. As far as swords taken from vanquished foes on the battlefield, we can only speculate. Given the underlying current of “might is right” in Viking culture, we imagine anything taken in battle, could be kept.
Viking Shields – A Well-Rounded Classic
The Viking round wooden shield with centre boss and grip was probably cheap enough to produce that most warriors would have carried one on a raid. In many cases, the iron/steel used for the boss has survived to this day, giving us a glimpse into their frequency. When facing determined opposition, Viking warriors would form a shield wall, close distance with their enemies, and strike over the top of their shields using spears. The centre-held, round shield design works well when overlapped with other shields but can be more easily knocked off balance than later, curved shields like heaters and kites.
Armor In A Land With Little Iron
According to some sources, iron/steel helmets and other armor were extraordinarily expensive in the early Viking Period due to resource scarcity. Offense comes before defense and only wealthy people could afford these items. Many items of armor may also have been looted in raids and from battlefields, however, and it’s thought the first “Viking Swords” were brought to Scandinavia this way. People generally underestimate the protective value of composite cloth armors, which have protected many more people throughout history than metalwork armor. This type of armor doesn’t survive as well due to its organic nature, so there are fewer finds of this kind.
Composite Armor – The Unsung Hero
Those who could afford metal armor wore chainmail and iron plates, sewn together in a leather jerkin, called lamellar. Even these would have been worn over heavily quilted layers of linen and wool. Usually, some form of glue was added to one or more of these layers to make a more rigid layer, difficult to penetrate by thrusting. This is comparable to something like fibreglass today, which on its own has little to no strength but when saturated with resin and left to dry becomes very strong. Composite cloth armor doesn’t get as much exposure in fantasy as steel and iron. This may be for aesthetic reasons. Some video games, like The Witcher 3, address this somewhat, with gambeson offering the players a high level of protection.
Colour: Off-white and brown
Material: 100% cotton
Sizes: M – 2XL