Last Updated 28 August 2017.
This is part one in a series on Viking Age tapestries. Part 2 is a brief history. Part 3 an informative piece on the fabrication of tapestries. Part 4 an inventory of Viking Age tapestries and Part 5 has bonus material on modern-day tapestries.
Setting the Scene
A tapestry is a wall hanging. The weaving technique evolved from the ancient craft of basket weaving.1 It is not only used for wall hangings but pillow covers, clothing adornments and funeral shrouds as well.
The study of tapestries is a lesson in craftsmanship and art history. There is much to learn about the use of material, tools and labour in certain periods. Looms exist in Europe as early as 3,000 BCE. The Romans are also known to have many wall decorations, paintings and tapestries.2 By the early medieval period, the first man-sized looms are built and large wall hangings can be made.3 The hangings take months to complete and can get quite expensive if gold and silver threads or silk yarns are used. Skilled weavers can also weave anything from geometrical to pictorial designs into the structure.
Not everyone has the purse to afford a tapestry, even today. In the Viking Age, they are mostly ordered by wealthy patrons who want a status symbol of their wealth and power.4After the Viking Age, tapestry weaving reaches its pinnacle by the high Middle Ages. A famous specimen is La Dame a Licorne in the Cluny Museum in Paris.
It has taken six months to find fifteen tapestries. All European, all with pictorial designs and made during the Viking Age. Even now, new information and potential candidates continue to pop up. A total of fifteen are the core of the inventory, here a quick overview of their details:
Origins: 40% is of Scandinavian, 27% German, 13% Anglo-Saxon and 13% Spanish.
Discovery: 87% found in churches or abbeys, 13% in archaeological excavations.
Date: about 46% date between c. 830–1070 and 53% from 11th–13th centuries.
[Edit 2017: Yikes. This needs some adjustment, after one more year of research. See part four, The Inventory, for an updated percentage overview.]
The oldest item is a piece from the 830s. In the quest of finding even older hangings, it occurred to me that few hangings are known from Late Antiquity. This seems a bit strange, considering the Romans knew well how to weave. Surely, their knowledge and expertise did not just disappear in Late Antiquity to return again at the start of the Middle Ages? Was I not looking closely enough? Was there really a decline, and if so, what triggered its revival by the Viking Age?
The youngest item in the inventory dates back to the early thirteenth century. A little late to be called Viking Age, you say? Well, as I see it, not all Vikings dropped dead at Hastings and a few still ruffled up the feathers in the rest of Europe though we now think of them as Normans and Rus. So, I thought I could be a little generous. If you are a stickler for detail, then, by all means, stop reading the inventory after the year 1070. You’ll miss out on a few interesting tapestries.
Are you intrigued, yet?
- Eric Broudy, The Book of Looms: A History of the Handloom from Ancient Times to the Present. (UPNE, 1979) pp. 13–14. ↩
- Broudy (1979), pp. 47. ↩
- Broudy (1979), pp. 25. ↩
- Thomas Campbell, ‘How Medieval and Renaissance Tapestries Were Made | Essay,’ The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Last accessed 19 June 2016. ↩