Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thinking About Female Images In Viking Art

Looking at the Leire statue reminded me just how common it is for women in Viking Age figurines to look as though they have a short narrow cloth covering their bodies from (approximately) waist to mid-calf. The length and width of these apparent aprons are further emphasized (as on the Leire figure) with either horizontal lines across the entire "garment", designs across the bottom edge, or, like the Leire statue, some kind of edging or design along the bottom and (or) sides.

As I thought about it, I realized that the Leire figure is not the only female figure that appears to be wearing an apron. This figure from the National Museum of Denmark, also wears a narrow cloth over her lap that looks like an apron (thank you, Pearl, for bringing this figure to my attention).

But apron-like designs on Viking Age figures of women are not limited to Danish pieces. The famous silver pendant of Freyja found in Götland also appears to be wearing an apron with horizontal trim across the bottom, under her clasped hands and her rows of beads. Some of the other female figures found in various locations in Sweden (i.e., the figure on the far left, and the third figure from the left, in the photograph under the link) show them also.

I'm not completely sure why I didn't focus on this feature of the existing Viking images before. Granted, the only evidence for the wearing of aprons (as opposed to the so-called "apron dress") during the Viking Age comes from Finland and the Baltic. Those finds survived because the Finns and Balts sewed lots of bronze coils onto their clothing, particularly onto aprons, and this had the effect of preserving parts of the apron as well as giving very exact information about its size and about what parts of the body the apron covered while it was being worn. In Scandinavia, where metal trim was sometimes sewn onto sleeve ends and bodices, but nowhere else, it is still possible that similar aprons were worn, but were not preserved for the archaeological record because they bore no metal trim to preserve them.

Nor am I the only person interested in Viking Age clothing to fail to consider aprons as a possible feature of Viking wear. In the years in which I have eagerly sought out and viewed photographs of Viking clothing reconstructions made by reenactors, costumers, and museums, I have found only one who wears an apron with her Viking garb. The accompanying photograph shows her work. Her name is Deborah Lane. I met her through the MedCos mailing list.

Consideration of the apron question may also help to answer another long-standing question about Viking women's clothing; namely, whether Viking women wore belts. Belt buckles rarely turn up in Viking women's graves and, to my knowledge, the only graves in which they have turned up are not in Scandinavia but in Viking-settled areas of England, Scotland, and the islands north of Scotland. Many have speculated that if Viking women wore belts, they must have worn tablet-woven belts, because so few belt ends and buckles have been found in women's graves.

If most Viking women wore an apron supported by a tablet woven belt, like Deborah and the woman at Eura, it would help explain why so little belt hardware has been found. Belts with buckles are usually made from leather, and it would be difficult to use a leather belt to support an apron in the manner of the Eura woman's apron (i.e., wrapping the belt around the body once, catching the top edge of the apron under it, then folding the top edge over that part of the belt before wrapping the remainder of the belt once again and tying it) because most leather belts are not long enough to wrap twice around the body, or flexible enough to hold the apron firmly and comfortably even if they were long enough.  Deborah's recreation, which shows her tablet woven belt holding her apron on in the manner of the Eura woman's apron, illustrates the point, though Deborah has added metal belt ends to her belt (I don't know of any women's graves in the Viking Age where two belt ends but no buckle have been found).

I need to think more about this issue, but an apron ornamented with embroidery, tablet weaving, or some other textile trim might be an appropriate addition to a recreated female Viking outfit.


  1. There might also be some symbolism in apron wearing too, and although I've seen it discussed for Balts and Finns, I haven't seen anything about Scandinavia proper, except for the Bronze age string skirts. (Usually described fertility or adulthood markers.)

    eg. Welters, Linda [ed] "Folk dress in Europe and Anatolia" (Oxford: Berg, 1999) has a few articles.

    and Jaana Riikonen, "Iron age aprons from southwest Finland" in Mäntylä, S. (ed.), Rituals and relations. Studies on society and material culture of the Baltic Finns. (Helsinki: Annales Academiæ Scientiarum Fennicæ, 2005) 31-72.

  2. I am not surprised by the idea of symbolism in apron wearing--but for some reason it's been assumed that the Viking Age Scandinavians didn't wear them. (The artwork makes it pretty clear that the Anglo-Saxons didn't, and I think the same is true for period Franks, but the outlying nations where Christianity came late tend to be a different story).

    Thanks for the cites; I'll have to look for Welters in particular.

    By the way, Penelope Walton thinks that the peplos may have functioned as a fertility marker for the women in 5th-6th century England--she discusses it in Cloth and Clothing in Anglo-Saxon England.

  3. Not quite in the vein of the Viking Dress .... I suspect that in C16 Venetian culture the apron became a symbol and a disguise. That being Courtesans wearing them to look more like the good wives of Venice and thus passing themslevs off in a simple disguies. This is only a theory at the moment. I am sure there is a thesis to be written about aprons some time.

  4. Deborah, I don't know anything about apron wearing in 16th century Venice (I can only recall one portrait of a wealthy woman wearing an apron, but I'm sure I haven't seen all that many period portraits). However, I remember that there was a fashion in the late 17th century for noblewomen to wear aprons--albeit delicate aprons made of expensive lace instead of utilitarian linen.

    So your theory about 16th century Venetian women and aprons may well be provable! Good luck!

  5. I don't know of any women's graves in the Viking Age where two belt ends but no buckle have been found.
    (A Viking Burial from Kneep, Uig, Isle of Lewis)

    page 23 of the PDF quotes Geijer about strap ends in Birka graves:

    Geijer notes the absence of any kind of belt in the Birka female assemblages despite the recovery of strap ends in some of the graves (Geijer. 1979,221).

    Another thing I found, that I can't double-check, is there is a tantalizing snippet from
    Viking Rus: studies on the presence of Scandinavians in Eastern Europe By Wladyslaw Duczko

    I'm not sure if either of those links are describing pairs of strap ends, but there certainly seem to be graves with strap ends but no buckle.

  6. I know about the Uig find (in fact, I will be commenting about another artifact discussed in the article you provided the URL for...real soon now). I read that article as having one buckle and one strap end--not two strap ends without a buckle. That's all I was trying to say in my post.

    Thanks for the link to the Duczko book. I may try to track the book down, just so I can read the pages you cited in context.

  7. The Uig find seems to be a little vague in it's terminology, as it says 'strap ends' when it really seems to mean 'buckle and strap end.'

    But, I was trying to point out the reference to Geijer, where it seems there are Birka graves with strap ends but no buckle. Which is different to the usual buckle-and-strap-end Hiberno-Norse pattern. Of course, the question then, is if there are pairs of strap-ends, or just one per grave (like this Birka find).

    Oh, and don't forget the sprang fragments that have been reconstructed as belts.

  8. However, the article on the Uig find clearly shows a buckle, and the design of the buckle matches the strap end depicted.

    But, I was trying to point out the reference to Geijer, where it seems there are Birka graves with strap ends but no buckle. Which is different to the usual buckle-and-strap-end Hiberno-Norse pattern. Of course, the question then, is if there are pairs of strap-ends, or just one per grave....

    For purposes of this post, I was looking at the issue this way:

    *Buckle plus one matching strap end=likely leather belt (as you say, rare in Hiberno-Norse finds).
    * Two matching strap-ends. That would be consistent with Deborah's reconstruction. However, a leather belt could also be done that way.
    * One strap end, only. That tells us nothing, because it could mean so many things. It could mean there was a buckle, or a second strap end, that was robbed in antiquity. Or it could mean that the strap end was being used as an ornament in some other way than its original use as a strap end.

    I was speculating that any textile belt (sprang, tablet-woven, what have you) could have been worn with an apron, and would not necessarily leave evidence in the archaeological record. This has come to matter more to me since I think the type of apron found at Eura, and speculated upon in my post, would more likely be worn with a textile belt.

    Unfortunately, without archaeological evidence there's no way to confirm that Viking Age Scandinavian women wore aprons. Although some of the images suggest the presence of an apron, they are abstract enough that it's difficult to rely upon them as "proof" of the existence of any particular garment.

  9. A real viking women in the photo, nothing ponsy. They wern't all skinny blond and dressed in leather as some would have us believe. My grandma left a notebook that is very helpful in many ways, Regards, Katlin.

    1. Hi! Welcome, Katlin.

      I imagine that typical Viking chores (such as beating the weft upward on a warp-weighted loom) left Viking women much more muscular than many of us are. What kind of notebook did your grandma keep? I'm curious.

    2. Vikingmaiden. In response to your comment that not all viking women were skinny. May I suggest that you have a close look at viking family law. A parent could put a child on a forced diet. A husband could do same with a wife, and vice versa. There were no fat vikings. If a family member started putting on the pounds, there were laws in place to deal with the problem.

    3. As to whether women wore belts, try cooking over an open fire with a standard two piece apron (not an apron dress), without it ending up in the fire.

    4. Hi, ravenpen! Thanks for visiting.

      Can you refer us to a source for the statement that a parent could force a child to diet, and spouses could to the same with each other, under Viking law? I've never heard that before.

    5. On the subject of belt-wearing, I don't know what you mean by a "two-piece apron", since you said you're not referring there to an apron dress. I agree that the two narrow cloths connected at the top by only straps (referred to by some as a "tea towel" apron dress) would be unwearable without either a belt or lacing down the sides, but I don't know if that's what you mean.

  10. hi i dont know how else to contact you but i do viking reenactment and have been told by my woman chieftan that i as a woman cant have a leather belt. I am the wife of a byzantine rus viking helpppppppppppppppppp please

    1. Your woman chieftain needs to get a grip, and do some proper research. There are plenty of archeological finds that disagree with your chieftain, as well as BASIC logic. You are working over an open fire with an in belted apron. It's going to go into the fire isn't it. How to stop your wife from being a walking torch? Give her a belt.

      Message for your cheftain

      It's not rocket science

  11. If you're reenacting with a group, it usually doesn't work real well to go against the ideas of the group (right or wrong). However, on the subject of Viking women and belts, you may want to take a look at this site before you push the argument further:

    Good luck!

  12. Thanks so much I am doing my first Viking kit and so appreciate the info...I have a wonderful tablet wovven belt so I think I will try this as my first sewing project. It makes a lot of sense to me that these aprons are plausible. Great Article!!!

  13. Why are you wearing an apron over your apron

    1. The picture above, which is Deborah Lane, not me, shows her wearing a single-panel apron over her "apron dress". Ravenpen, I don't know what you mean by asking why she's "wearing an apron" over her apron, since despite the name an "apron dress" is a sleeveless overdress, not an apron. The Finnish find at Eura, which I referred to in my post, shows definite physical evidence that such an apron was worn over a peplos type of overdress. Deborah's wearing such an apron with her Viking garb is speculation only.