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 25 September 2019.
The tapestries from the Viking Age are not easily found. Sure, there are bits and pieces of information on the Internet. but there is no comprehensive history (that I could find). Therefore, I have made a reconstruction myself.
In short, economics are the key to understanding tapestries and their history. In times of wealth, more tapestries are produced. This explains why many wall hangings are known from the Roman Empire, and the late medieval period, but from the period in between. Why? Chaos rules in Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Tribes roam the continent, often raiding and plundering. These are unstable times, not for economic growth.
The Dawn of the Middle Ages
By the sixth century, the tribes stop migrating and settle down. All this time, tapestries are produced but in small quantities. We know this from the samples of the Sutton Hoo ship burial in England.1 And an Ostrogoth household in Italy has “two woven colored tapestries” in its inventory.2 Furthermore, there are silk weaves in the tomb of the Merovingian Queen Arnegund.3
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.4
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,5 quick to grab new opportunities.
As the influence of the Byzantines on Italy and the Church weakens, the response from the Pope is immediate.6 He sends missionaries to the far ends of the continent to convert locals and build churches. They take along silk tapestries. As diplomatic gifts for the European nobility (who are used to receiving these gifts from the Byzantine emperors). But also to be used in churches and during processions on high Feast days.7 They display Bible stories and function as a visual education for the illiterate masses. Of course, they also very much intended to show off the Church’s wealth and power. In due time, many if not most religious centres across Europe make their own tapestries.
7th century: Anglo-Saxon Hubs
Pope Gregory sends one mission to Anglo-Saxon England in the seventh century. In its wake, two strong and wealthy religious centres emerge in Northumbria and Kent.8 Their artwork produced in their workshops is exceptional. Take, for example, the Lindisfarne Gospels,9 and the textiles of the Opus Anglicum.10 They show how the art style is firmly rooted in Celtic, British and Nordic traditions. And how the style expands with the arrival of Byzantine silks. For then the weavers learn and quickly adopt 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.11
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.12
Being rich landowners, Frankish religious centres had much wealth to invest. As a result they produced religious artwork in abundance. Just like their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.13 Unfortunately, only few tapestry samples have survived. This might not seem strange given the fact that the Vikings often raided the Frankish shores.14
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 this time, the Viking settle down across Europe and travel extensively. Money and trade goods find their way to Scandinavia more easily and consistently. As a result, the first workshop with skilled craftsmen emerge. And slowly, the tapestry production moves from the family home to the urban environment.15
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.16
There for trade, not conversion, seems to be the trigger for increased tapestry production. Scandinavia is still pagan at this time. This shows in the early designs of the tapestries. When religious motifs start to play a role, the designs show the struggle of the pagan versus the Christian society. This will last until the tenth century, when Christianity is finally and formally accepted in the northern society.17
10th century: Al-Andalus tiraz
Another country with an impressive tapestry tradition is Spain.
By the eighth century, the Arabs who rule large parts of Asia and the Mediterranean, conquer the Iberian peninsula. 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.18
There is a puzzling claim on Internet. It states that Arab-Spanish tapestries heavily influenced the European tapestry tradition. Do they mean the early or later Middle Ages? Rather annoyingly, this website offers no references or sources. For I have questions. For there seems to be a strong weaving tradition in place in Europe before the Arabs conquer the Iberian peninsula. And the Arabs stay on the Iberian Peninsula after they lose the battle of Tours in 732 against the Franks.19
Undoutedly, motifs and techniques may have come to Europe via Spain. But was this in a hugely significant way? Byzantine motifs were influenced by Coptic weaving traditions. And the Byzantine silks found there way to Europe long before the Al-Andalus’ tapestries did. Both Byzantine and Coptic motifs can be found in early Anglo-Saxon tapestries. Long before they could have been influenced by the Spanish tradition. That is not to say that the Al-Andalus’ tapestries thus only included Sasanian or Arab motifs. Or that they did not influence the Anglo-Saxon weaving at all.
Can this question be answered at all? Scholars point out how various empires and civilizations in the Middle East and Central Asia borrowed ideas, or were inspired by each other. They each have their own versions of a motif. What makes it hard is that these can overlap, making it difficult to determine its origins. Or, for that matter, if the Frankish, Anglo-Saxon or Nordic weaver was inspired by a Byzantine or Al-Andalus’ tapestry.
10/11th century: German Artwork
Charlemagne’s influence reached as far as Germany. His campaigns led to the early conversion of Germanic tribes in the eighth century.20 Despite his efforts to conquer all Germanic tribes, the region remains unstable. This partly explains 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.
Germany remains a puzzle of duchies and petty kingdoms. But by the early tenth century, Otto I succeeds as king of East Francia. His strong rule provides some stability within the kingdom. The first local tapestries survive from this time period. 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.22
This concludes my history of Viking Age tapestries. In a nutshell, it all starts on an economic low. From these depths, an ambitious man rises and creates an empire. The empire is stable and pushes economic growth. The rich elite can now afford expensive status symbols, such as tapestries.
Apart from wealth, trade is another important trigger for tapestry production. Silk trade brings new techniques and motifs to Europe. It helps local weavers to expand their knowledge and skills. At first, the weavers are found in religious centres and homes. When the production increases, trade towns emerge and professional workshops are opened.
High quality or remarkable tapestries from regions outside Scandinavia, Western Europe and the Iberian Peninsula might exist, but I have not found them (yet). Perhaps I have not looked hard enough, perhaps there are just a few left.
On a final note, I have not (yet) found remarkable tapestries in Europe outside Scandinavia, Western Europe and the Iberian Peninsula. Perhaps they do exist and I have not looked hard enough. Or perhaps there are none to a few left and not much has been written about them. Don’t hesitate to leave a comment if you know about other tapestries.
- Sonja Marzinzik, ‘Expressions of Power – Luxury textiles from early medieval northern Europe.’ In: Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008. Vol 1. (Earleville: Textile Society of America, 2008), fn. 14–26. ↩
- T.S. Burns, A History of the Ostrogoths. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991), pp. 134. ↩
- ‘Saint–Denis a town in the Middle Ages,’ Saint–Denis. Last Accessed 02 July 2017. ↩
- Heleanor Feltham, ‘Justinian and the International Silk Trade.’ In: Sino–Platonic Papers, Volume 194 (2009), pp. 32–33 [pp. 1–40]. ↩
- Paolo Delogu, ‘Rome in the ninth century: the economic system.’ In: Post–Roman Towns, Trade and Settlement in Europe and Byzantium: The Heirs of the Roman West, edited by Joachim Henning. Vol. 1 Millennium Studies. (Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2007), pp. 105–106 [pp. 105–118]. ↩
- J. M. Hussey, ‘Justinian I | Byzantine emperor,’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Last Accessed 03 January 2017. ↩
- Laura Weigert, Weaving Sacred Stories: French Choir Tapestries and the Performance of Clerical Identity. (Cornell University Press, 2004), pp. 1. ↩
- DK, History of Britain and Ireland. (London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd, 2011), pp. 44. ↩
- Michelle P. Brown, ‘Reading the Lindisfarne Gospels: Text, Image, Context.’ In: The Lindisfarne Gospels: New Perspectives, edited by Richard Gameson (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp. 90. ↩
- ‘Introduction to English Embroidery,’ V&A Museum. Last Accessed 19 June 2017. ↩
- Mildred Budny and Dominic Tweddle, ‘The Early Medieval Textiles at Maaseik, Belgium.’ In: The Antiquaries Journal. Volume 65.2 (1985), pp. 353–389. ↩
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Charlemagne | Holy Roman emperor [747?–814],’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Last Accessed 07 December 2016. ↩
- Encyclopaedia Larousse en ligne, ‘Tapisserie de tapis.’ Last Accessed 10 December 2016. ↩
- John H. Dameron, ‘The Church as Lord.’ In: The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Christianity, edited by John H. Arnold. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), fn 14. ↩
- University of Oslo, ‘Norwegian Vikings purchased silk from Persia,’ ScienceDaily. Published June 2016. Last Accessed 19 June 2016. ↩
- Marianne Vedeler, Silk for the Vikings. (Barnsley: Oxbow Books, 2014), fn. 33. ↩
- Sverre Bagge and S. Nordeide, ‘Norway – Process of Christianization,’ Christianization and the Rise of the Christian Monarchy. Last Accessed 22 June 2016. ↩
- Gillian Vogelzang Eastwood, ‘Tiraz from Andalusia,’ Textile Research Centre Leiden. Last Accessed 12 December 2016. ↩
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Carolingian dynasty,’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Last Accessed 27 June 2016. ↩
- ‘How Christianity came to Europe,’ Medievalists.net.Last Accessed 12 December 2016. ↩
- ‘Bishop Gunther’s shroud.’ Qantara. Last Accessed 19 June 2016. ↩
- Madeleine Jarry, ‘Tapestry,’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Last Accessed 19 June 2016. ↩