Last Updated 25 September 2019.
This is part one in a series on Viking Age tapestries. Part 2 is a brief history. Then, Part 3 an informative piece on tapestry fabrication. 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. Its weaving technique has evolved from the ancient craft of basket weaving.1 The technique is also used to make pillow covers, clothing adornments and even funeral shrouds.
The study of tapestries is a lesson in art history as well as craftsmanship. There is much to learn about the use of materials, tools and labour across centuries. Looms existed in Europe as early as 3,000 BCE, the Romans are known to have many wall decorations, paintings and tapestries in their villas and buildings.2
And by the early medieval period, man-sized looms are invented that produce large wall hangings.3 These tapestries take months to complete, and are even more expensive when they include gold, silver or silk threads. It takes a wealthy patron to own such a tapestry. But the rich noblemen are all to happy to order a status symbol that confirms their wealth and power.4
Tapestry weaving reaches its pinnacle in the late (or high) Middle Ages. There are numerous workshops with highly skilled weavers who can include any desired thread or design. The most famous specimen from this time is La Dame a Licorne in the Cluny Museum in France.
After six months of research, I have found fifteen tapestries. They are of European origin, all have pictorial designs and were made during the Viking Age. New information continues to pop up and I will update this series accordingly.
Here is a quick overview of the 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. Another year of more research and these numbers need updating. See part four, The Inventory, for an updated 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 very 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, though.
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. ↩