This is part two in a series on Viking Age tapestries. Part 1 is a brief introduction, Part 3 an informative piece on the fabrication of tapestries and Part 4 an inventory of Viking Age tapestries and Part 5 has bonus material on modern-day tapestries.
Last Updated 05 February 2018.
The tapestries of the Viking Age are hard to find. Bits and pieces of information can be found all over the Internet. But there is no comprehensive online history (that I could find). So, time for a reconstruction! The key to understanding the history of tapestries is the wall hanging’s economic importance. It has always been an expensive commodity. Production peaks generally occur in times of economic prosperity. Therefore, many samples still survive from the Roman Empire, or the late Middle Ages, for example. Similarly, it is difficult to find specimens from the time between. Why? Because after the Roman Empire collapses, Europe is ruled by chaos. Local and foreign tribes migrate across the continent, roaming and plundering the land. They redistribute existing wealth rather than increasing it.
The Dawn of the Middle Ages
By the sixth century, the migrations are slowing down. Tapestry weaving still exists around Europe. There are samples from the Sutton Hoo ship burial in England. An Ostrogoth household in Italy with “two woven colored tapestries” in its inventory. And the silk weaves in the tomb of the Merovingian Queen Arnegund.
6th century: Merovingians and Byzantine Silk
These silk clothes are the first sign of silk weaves in Europe. Is it also a sign of economic progress? It does seem that way. The Frankish nobility, the Merovingians, have enough wealth to import Byzantine silk. The Byzantine Empire has the monopoly on silk weaving in the region. It imports (raw) silk from Asia but also has its own sericulture and textile workshops that make tapestries.
The Franks are not the only ones trading with the Byzantines. With ties that go back to the time of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine emperors have close connections with Italy and the Church of Rome. Once a state religion, the Catholic Church reinvents itself after the fall of Rome. It turns into a wealthy, self-supporting institution, quick to grab new opportunities.
The Popes respond immediately when the Byzantine influence over Italy and the Church weakens. They try to reclaim their power and influence over Europe. Missionaries are sent to the far ends of the continent to convert locals and build churches in the region. During this conversion process, silk tapestries are very useful. The Byzantine emperors once present the wall hangings as gifts to the European nobility. Now, the Papacy demands and purchases Byzantine silks to use as diplomatic gifts of its own. They are the ultimate visual education for the illiterate masses. They hang from church walls and used during processions on high Feast days. Of course, all to show off the Church’s status and power. In due time, religious centres across Europe start making their own tapestries.
7th century: Anglo-Saxon Hubs
One such mission is sent by Pope Gregory to Anglo-Saxon England in the seventh century. In its wake, two strong and wealthy religious centres emerge in Northumbria and Kent. The quality of their artwork is exceptional, considering the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the textiles of the Opus Anglicum. The Anglo-Saxon artwork is firmly rooted in Celtic, British and Nordic traditions. With the arrival of Byzantine silks, the new production shows Oriental motifs and techniques. A recent study suggests that the Anglo-Saxon textiles become a coveted export product in their own right. The David Silk in Maaseik, Belgium is long thought to be a Byzantine silk. The study explains why it is very likely that this is an Anglo-Saxon original.
8th century: Carolingian Franks
At the start of the Viking Age, the eighth century, Europe is in the hands of Charlemagne. He starts out as a King of the Franks but by his death in 814 he rules an empire that covers most of western and central Europe. His imperial crown is blessed by the Church in Rome. A versatile man, Charlemagne improves legal and educational systems. He also introduces new trade rules that lead to a significant increase in wealth. Furthermore, he makes himself emphatically heard at Church councils and synod, ensuring that the Church cannot do without his advice and protection.
Charlemagne’s rule provides political and economic stability. Relatively speaking, of course. In all, though, the economy prospers and so does tapestry production. Religious centres in Francia become rich landowners and produce religious art in abundance. Just like their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Unfortunately, though records suggest a large number of textiles and tapestries – surviving samples seem few and far. Considering the Vikings often raided the Frankish shores and aimed to plunder and burn the religious institutions, this is not so strange.
9th century: Scandinavian Trade Towns
Up North, things are different. Wealth increases more slowly and over a longer time period. Though the raids ensure quick money taken back to the home base, the first trading towns only emerge by the ninth century. By that time, Vikings have settled across Europe and extensively travel the existing trade routes. Money and trade goods start finding their way to Scandinavia more consistently. The first workshops with skilled craftsmen appear and the tapestry production slowly moves from the family home into the urban environment.
The first silk textiles arrive in Scandinavia in the ninth century, too. The oldest surviving example is a Persian silk found in the Oseberg ship burial. This find implies that the Viking had direct trading with the Silk Road and Asia and did not only rely on raids or trade with Byzantium for their silk.
Therefore trade not conversion is the trigger for increased tapestry production in the North. Christianity is not formally accepted until the tenth century, yet religious motifs play an important role in the tapestry designs. At first decidedly pagan, but later it clearly shows the struggle of the pagan, tribal society transforming into a Christian, feudal society.
10th century: Al-Andalus tiraz
Spain also has an impressive tapestry tradition. Like Scandinavia, it is not triggered by Christianity. In the eighth century, the Iberian peninsula is conquered by the Arabs who ruled over large parts of Asia and the Mediterranean. Consequently, they also rule the silk trade in, to and from Asia. They have the same, if not more access to materials, techniques and motifs as the Byzantine empire. The Arabs start tiraz, local textile workshops where tapestries are made. A motif they add of their own is the use of Arabic script woven into the tapestries.
One thing that puzzles me, is the claim that the Arab-Spanish tapestries heavily influenced the European tapestry production. The website that state this very annoyingly offer no references or sources. Do they mean in the early medieval period or the late Middle Ages? I don’t know about the later period, but there are some questions to raise about Spanish influence on early European tapestries. First of all, the Arabs stay on the Iberian Peninsula after they lose the battle of Tours in 732 against the Franks.
Undoubtedly, motifs and techniques from Spain will have appeared in the rest of Europe via trade, but in a hugely significant way? The doubt that I have, consists in the fact that a number of tapestries show the same motifs and techniques even before the Al-Andalus’ ones can influence them. Take the Anglo-Saxon versions as an example. Also, there is sometimes also still confusion if something is Byzantine, Coptic, Sasanian or Arab.
10/11th century: German Artwork
The last region of interest in Germany. It converts to Christianity early in the eighth century. However, the region stays politically and economically unstable for a long time. This explains probably in part why the first tapestries appear only in the tenth century. The oldest piece is a Byzantine silk given to the bishop of Bamburg on his pilgrimage to Byzantium. As is often custom with silk tapestries, it is used as a shroud when the bishop dies on the way back home.
As soon as Germany is part of the Holy Roman Empire and is one country, instead of an endless puzzle of petty kingdoms, the first local tapestry weaves appear. These are quite beautiful and well-preserved through time. The designs are strongly influenced by the religious artwork of illuminated manuscript and stained glass windows of churches and abbeys.
This concludes my attempt to a reconstruction of Viking Age tapestry history. The very early Middle Ages seem to start at an economic low, by the Viking Age prosperity increases and more tapestry evidence can be found. Charlemagne’s empire and the expansion of Christianity in Europe ensures a relatively stable political period. Effectively, the economy starts to grow. The local nobility and religious leaders can afford tapestries as status symbols to show off their power.
The widespread import of silk means that new techniques and motifs reach local weavers who can enrich their knowledge and skills. In the beginning, these weavers are often found in religious centres. And the rise of tapestry production closely follows the rise of religious hubs around Europe, except for Scandinavia and Al-Andalus. High quality or remarkable tapestries from other European regions are hard to find. Perhaps I have not looked hard enough yet. And perhaps there are just a few left or the quality does not match that of the other regions!
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