Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles #8

Welcome to the second installment of 2021’s Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles Blog. We continue this year’s series with a two-part post about Viking Age textile production. In ‘Weaving Identities Part 1’, Professor Mary Valante discusses Viking-Age evidence for textile production from rural Iceland, Scandinavia and Dublin, showing that it was vital to both the local and long-distance economy, and supported a shared sense of identity from town to town across the Viking world, particularly for women.

Mary Valante is a professor of medieval history at Appalachian State University, USA, where she teaches a variety of courses on medieval history. She is the author of The Vikings in Ireland and numerous articles on Viking-Age Ireland. Mary initially began learning about textile production from Dolores Kearney (next month’s guest blogger) as part of creating a new hands-on history course, Experiencing the Middle Ages. Once bitten, though, she expanded her research on the subject into women’s labor generally, especially in Viking-Age towns, which is the subject of her current research.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber once concluded that because “women’s work consisted largely of making perishables – food and clothing,” much of the evidence for their work has disappeared from the archaeological record over time. And since the everyday nature of food and clothes often meant it was unmentioned in written sources, the importance of women’s labor is far too easy for us to forget about and overlook when we study the past. Michèle Hayeur-Smith just spoke with Alexandra Makin on this blog in December, about her book, The Valkyrie’s Loom, and her research describes the vital importance of textile production to the economy of the North Atlantic during the Viking Age. My own interest is in the Viking-Age towns and settlements of Ireland, though due to its importance, most of the evidence, written and archaeological, comes from Dublin. The women living there had to clothe the entire town, provide bedclothes, bags, wraps, sails and other cloths for ships, creating textiles for both local use, and for trade.

During the Viking Age, evidence from Iceland and towns in Scandinavia suggests that textile production was well organized, hierarchical, and vital to both the local and long-distance economy. Looking at the evidence from Ireland, and especially Dublin, where the population was of mixed Irish and Scandinavian heritage and where the inhabitants were referred to as the foreigners in Irish sources for centuries, can add another layer to the study of women’s work in the Viking Age. The labor performed by women in Viking Age Dublin was vital in creating and maintaining a trade economy, while at the same time supporting a sense of shared identity that stretched from town to town across the Viking world.

There are a number of descriptions of Viking-Age textiles from Irish primary sources. The early twelfth-century Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib (the War of the Irish with the Foreigners)describes textiles from Dublin as “Beautifully woven cloth of all colours and of all kinds; their satins and silken cloth, pleasing and variegated, both scarlet and green, and all sorts of cloth in like manner.” Later in the text, the king of Leinster, Mael Morda, is seen wearing a tunic given to him by Brian Boru, king of Munster, which was “silken… with a border of gold around it and silver buttons.” As a luxury import, wearing silk was a sign of wealth and status, and having the power to give it as a gift was a display of authority. A poem about the “Fair at Carmen” from the Metrical Dindsenchus mentions the “great market of the Greek foreigners, where were gold and fine raiment.” A poem about Dublin from the Book of the Uí Maine says that the leader of the foreigners of Dublin “will never be wanting for satin or silk or sendal.” These sources and others describe imported textiles like silk, as well as cloths of many colors. While many of these written texts date to the later Viking Age, they consistently attribute especially fine textiles to Dublin.

Detail from the Book of Kells,  TCD MS 58 folio 34r, with permission of The Board of Trinity College Dublin

The cloth referred to in Old Norse as vaðmál was a coarse homespun especially from Iceland, and was often used as currency. Mark Zumbühl put together some parallel evidence from Ireland of textiles, though not vaðmál itself, also being used as a type of currency. The Book of Kells, the famous Irish illuminated Gospel book, was created in the early ninth century. Over the course of the Middle Ages, several blank pages in the manuscript were used to record later transactions of various sorts. These brief notitiae include one, where a certain Gilla Críst son of Manchán bought land from the sons of Beollán for the price of 24 ounces of silver and the education of Beollán’s son. The text includes a list of sureties, people who publicly witnessed and promised to take responsibility for the exchange, including a man named Scolaige Ua Labrata, lord of Sogain, “and it is that Scolaige who took the penalty of a purple cloak from the hands of Ímar’s son, taking it as a forfeit…” Textiles dyed purple from lichen are known from Viking-Age Dublin. It’s interesting to note that the same lichen was also used to create a purple pigment for use in illuminating manuscripts and can be seen in the Book of Kells itself. This comment about Scolaige had nothing at all to do with the land transaction, but gaining a fancy cloak as a forfeit in another transaction was something clearly something he was known for, and goes to demonstrate even more the importance of textiles in the early Irish economy. There is no way to know who Ímar’s son was, but Ímar is the Scandinavian name “Ivar” and a name known from Dublin.

A number of Old Norse loanwords into the Irish language attest to more everyday types of textiles. Words that mean shirt (scuird), button (cnap), sheet (blaí), cloak (matal) and cape (cába), to name some of the best known. Some, like the button, may indicate specific innovations, while many of the others, like shirt or mantle most likely refer to specific types or styles of these garments that were introduced to Ireland over the course of the Viking Age. Added together, the evidence shows that textile production at Hiberno-Scandinavian towns like Dublin was different in some key ways from the textile production in the rest of  Ireland, and that those textiles were valued.

Household production could not have managed the full scale production of clothing, bedcloths, sails, ships textiles, cloth for trade (for sale and as currency), textiles needed for everyday use such as bags and wrappings, and more, known from Dublin. That means that workshops of some sort must have been organized. It is important to note here that larger scale production of many types of textiles was the preserve of towns, not rural areas. At Viking-Age Scandinavian towns like Birka and Hedeby, for example, textile production was both more standardized and more specialized to produce specific and differentiated types of cloth. There needed to be space for the production of the differentiated textiles required to keep Viking-Age urban centers a going concern. Øye posited that some of the women in high status urban burials were perhaps the organizers of the work of other women, especially spinners, who were probably low-status or even enslaved. In the Old Norse poem  Rígsþula for example, the lowest status free woman plies her spindle and weaves cloth. The Cogadh tells us that following the Battle of Glen Máma in the year 999, the army of the victorious Irish king, Brian Boru, sacked Dublin and carried off so many of its inhabitants as slaves that “…no son of a soldier or of an officer of the Gaedhil (Irish) deigned to put his hand to the flail, or any other labour on earth; nor did a woman deign to put her hands to the grinding of a quern, or to knead a cake, or to wash her clothes, but had a foreign man or a foreign woman to work for them…” It is highly likely, then, that the women laboring in textile workshops were overseen by other women of higher status.

Wallace’s (2016) Viking Dublin: The Wood Quay Excavations, page 79, fig. 3.1 – it’s actually of Structure FS 1

But is it possible to locate the physical workshops in Hiberno-Scandinavian towns like Dublin and Waterford and Limerick? I think it is.The most common building type identified from excavations of Viking-Age Dublin are called “Type 1″ buildings. The walls would have stood approx 1.25m high.

Christina Petty, who contributed to this blog in November, is 5’5″ (1.65m) tall. That would make her too tall to stand against the side of a Type 1 house while inside. Christina’s loom is leaning against the wall at an angle, so while it appears to be only slightly taller than she is, it is a full-scale vertical warp-weighted loom modeled on those used during the Viking Age: it is  8′  (approx 2.5m) tall. This is the kind of math even a historian like myself can manage: 2.5m is larger than 1.25m. That means there was no place to use the loom in Viking Age Dublin houses, other than in the center. There are a few ways to solve this problem. Solution 1: Somehow, they did keep and use the looms in the middle of the residence. This is possible, but these houses were relatively small, and if the loom was standing fully vertical since it had no where to lean, that would have created problems for the more vertically challenged of us – or anyone not nearly 8′ tall, when weaving.  Solution 2: They raised the roof. Maybe the walls of Type I houses were simply higher than we have been estimating, though it seems unlikely based on remains of excavated buildings. Solution 3: They lowered the floor.

In fact, there were sunken floored buildings in many Scandinavian towns during the Viking Age. In Löddeköpinge, for example, “sunken huts” have been identified as likely textile workshops, both because looms would fit in them, and since about 80% of them contained textile tools. In Iceland, textile production o took place entirely in rural settings, but as it was a major part of the export economy production was still fairly large scale.

From Milek, ‘The Roles of Pit Houses and Gendered Space on Viking Age Farmsteads in Iceland, Medieval Archaeology 56 (2012), page 118

Karen Milek described excavations of some Icelandic “semi-subterranean” buildings; the floors of these buildings were dug down about a full meter. The Icelandic buildings were small, rectangular or square, and contained hearths. At Hofstaðir there is clear evidence that stale urine was stored in barrels in the “pit house.” Human urine was necessary for several steps of woolen cloth production, including washing the fleece, dyeing with certain dyestuffs, and fulling sailcloth. In Iceland, the evidence suggests that the “semi-subterranean” buildings were in use during the ninth and tenth centuries only, after which textile production may have moved into the house.

Fleece being prepared

Sunken-floored buildings from Viking-Age towns in Ireland, starting in Dublin, have been identified as Type 4 and described as “extremely rare.” In 1992, Wallace listed one possible Type 4 building on Fishamble street, which he dated to Dublin’s early history, the ninth century. Since then, three possible sunken-floored structures were excavated on Winetavern Street. WT 44/2 has potential to be a weaving building.  At 4.4m x 1.9m it is smaller than the buildings in Iceland, and there is no evidence in for a hearth. One of the sunken-floored buildings contained a decorated needle case. Three sunken floor structures in Waterford, and three from Limerick have been identified, and more recently five Type 4 buildings were excavated in the Temple Bar area of Dublin.

Waterford, Ireland, in Wallace, “The Archaeological Identity of the Hiberno-Norse Town”, page 56.

Initially, excavators identified the sunken-floored buildings in Dublin as early, tenth century or possibly earlier, and smaller than similar buildings from Waterford or Limerick. One in Waterford on Peters Street measured approximately 5m x 4m, and the floor was sunk 1-1.5 m.  That much at least fits well with the building at Hofstaðir in Iceland.  It had a stone-lined entrance path and possibly a loft. There is no mention of a hearth. Three sunken floored buildings with stone-lined entrances have been found in Limerick, again without hearths. Work at a rural Scandinavian site in Ireland, on Beginish Island in Co. Kerry, has also discovered a sunken-floored building.

Three sunken featured structures, Fishamble Street, Temple Bar West, Dublin. From, Linzi Simpson’s Director’s Findings

The more recent excavations at Temple Bar West have turned up a number of Type 4 buildings. Three of them are located near each other on Fishamble Street; radiocarbon dating suggests a ninth century date. These were small buildings, 2.25m x 3m, with the floors sunk about .6 m deep right through bedrock into the boulder clay below. The excavator described the buildings as  “secure and snug” “well made” “in use for some time” and ready for “domestic activity.” One of the structures had a stone surface, another had a post-and-wattle-lined walled passage leading inside. The third had a carefully paved entryway, with a wattle floor or bench along one side. Taken together, the three seem to face into a cobbled space, which the excavator describes as a “communal open space area.”  While none of the structures contained a hearth, there was one in the “communal space.” The same report describes two more sunken structures along Copper Alley, and while both were badly damaged by modern roads, like the other three sunken structures these were small, and faced into a cobbled common area containing a hearth. These buildings seem to be later in date to the structures on Fishamble Street, possibly dating to the tenth century. In short, a lot of effort, including digging through bedrock, was put into buildings that clearly were not residential, but where small groups of people expected to interact with one another.

Reconstruction of Temple Bar West, Dublin, in Margaret Gowen with Georgina Scully, A Summary Report on Excavations at Exchange Street Upper/Parliament Street (Dublin: Temple Bar Properties, 1996), 7. Base the map on Howard Clarke’s 1978 map of Viking Dublin

            Rebecca Boyd was the first scholar to suggest that some of the sunken-floored buildings from Viking Age sites in Ireland could have been used as weaving sheds. She has also proposed breaking down the Type Four structures into two types, A and B.  She argues that the Type 4A structures date to the ninth century, and were sunk only around .6m, measured about ~7.5m2 in area, and had earthen walls with wattle or plank facing. She places several of the Temple Bar West structures and maybe those from Fishamble Street into this category. Type B structures, she argues, were built in the eleventh century using sill-beam construction. These did not contain hearths; measured a significantly larger 19m2 in area, and are represented by the Type 4 structures in Waterford.

Archaeologists and historians in Ireland have written about Type 4 sunken-floored structures mostly prior to the excavations and publications of towns in Scandinavia and the newer research from Iceland. In Scandinavia, the evidence for textile production was often pretty clear; the same is not true for the structures in Ireland. There are many possible reasons for that. One is simply that these were not sites of textile production.  They may have been storage or low status habitations, the second of which may explain the shared hearths. While the state of preservation in Dublin even of organic materials can be excellent, organic and easily lost materials like bone were often used as things like spindle whorls. At Temple Bar, the early group of three sunken structures was deliberately torn down and back filled at some stage, meaning smaller finds might have been cleared out. In the later structures, the modern damage to the site is quite severe. In short, it is quite possible, but not yet provable, that these were the sites of workshops.

Women’s labor, especially when it came to textile work, helped establish and maintain local networks of exchange within Ireland, creating demand for local production of raw materials such as wool and flax. At the same time, women’s work was vital to the international trade economy, bringing in silk and other materials from far away and turning those into high-status items that were clearly in demand in Ireland, or bringing in clothing items that represented the most current international styles. Specialized work spaces is one piece of a larger puzzle that also includes enslaved labor, skilled production, women overseeing other women, the demand for raw materials, and even a sense of fashion that in some ways harkened back to Scandinavia and across the Viking world. Taken together, the fuller picture suggests that women’s work in Viking Age Dublin was both vital to the economy, and crucial to supporting a sense of shared identity that stretched from town to town across the Viking world.

I would like to thank Mary for her post. Her interdisciplinary research highlights how different forms of evidence can compliment each other, enabling us to learn more about textile production sites and processes, female labour and community, and the importance of textiles and therefore the female workforce, to long distance trade and exchange networks of the early medieval period. Next month, Weaving Identities Part 2 is taken up by Dolores Kearney:

‘How can we see the women of Viking Dublin and its hinterland?

Following on from Professor Mary Valente’s part 1 of Weaving Identities, Dolores will focus entirely on Viking Dublin. She will approach the women of that settlement, and its textile production through the concept of the châine opératoire informed by an object-based analysis. The intention is to offer you, the reader, a different style of archaeological perspective on women and textile production in Viking Dublin.

Contact: If you would like to contact Mary about her work, please use one of the links below:


Twitter: @DragonsnThings


Primary Sources

Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaib. Edited and translated by James H. Todd. Rolls Series 48. London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1867.

Mac Niocaill, Gearóid. “The Irish Charters,” in Kells Commentary, ed. Peter Fox. Luzern: Fine Arts Facsimile Publishers of Sweden, 1990.

Secondary Sources

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. New York: WW Norton & Company, 1995.

Borkent, Aukje. Norse Loanwords in Old and Middle Irish A Semantic Analysis of the Irish-Norse (language) Contact Situation. MA Thesis, University of Utrecht, 2014.

Boyd, Rebecca. “From Country to Town: Social Transitions in Viking-Age Housing,” in Everyday Life in Viking Towns: Social Approaches to Towns in England and Ireland, c. 800-1000, edited by D.M. Hadley and Letty ten Harkel. Oxford and Oakville: Oxbow Books, 2013. 73-85.

Boyd, Rebecca. “Where are the Longhouses? Reviewing Ireland’s Viking-Age Buildings,” in The Vikings in Ireland and Beyond: Before and After the Battle of Clontarf, edited by Howard B. Clarke and Ruth Johnson. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2015. 325-345.

Friðriksdóttir, Jóhanna Katrín. Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World. Bloomsbury: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

Gilchrist, Roberta. Gender and Archaeology: Contesting the Past. London: Routledge, 1999.

McDonald, Roderick W. “Dynamics of Identity: Norse Loanword-borrowers in Ireland and Scotland, and Linguistic Evidence of Urbanization.” Eolas: The Journal of the American Society of Irish Medieval Studies 11 (2018): 2-31.

Milek, Karen. “The Roles of Pit Houses and Gendered Space on Viking-Age Farmsteads in Iceland,” Medieval Archaeology 56 (2012): 85-130.

Murray, Hilary. “Houses and other structures from the Dublin excavations 1962-1976. A summary.” Mediaeval Scandinavia Odense 2 (1981): 57-68.

Murray, Hilary, and Breandan Ó Riórdáin. Viking and early medieval buildings in Dublin: a study of the buildings excavated under the direction of AB Ó Ríordáin in High Street, Winetavern Street and Christchurch Place, Dublin, 1962-63, 1967-76. Vol. 119. Bar Company, 1983.

Ó Ríordáin, Breandán. ‘Excavations at High Street and Winetavern Street, Dublin’, Medieval Archaeology 15 (1971): 73-85.

Øye, Ingvild. “Women in Early Towns.” In The Viking Age. Ireland and the West (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005), 298-308.

Richards, J.D. “Identifying Anglo-Scandinavian Settlements.” In Cultures in Contact: Scandinavian Settlement in England in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries. Edited by D.M. Hadley and J.D. Richards. (Turnhout, 2000), 29 –309.

Roberts, V. M. “Experiencing Viking Age Spinning Technologies.” Paper presented at the 54th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI May 9-12, 2019.

Sandberg-McGowan, Astrid. “Viking Influence on Irish Weaponry and Dress?” in Celtica Helsingiensia, edited by Anders Ahlqvist, Glyn Welden Banks, Riitta Latvio, Harri Nyberg and Tom Sjöblom. Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 1996. 215-231.

Simpson, Linzi. Director’s Findings: Temple Bar West. Dublin: Temple Bar Properties, 1999.

Wallace, Patrick F. The Viking Age Buildings of Dublin Medieval Dublin Excavations 1962-81, Ser A col 1. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1992.

Wallace, Patrick F. “The Archaeological Identity of the Hiberno-Norse Town.” The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 122(1992): 35-66.

Walton Rogers, Penelope. “Textile Networks in Viking-Age Towns of Britain and Ireland,” in Crafts and Social Networks in Viking Towns, edited by Steven P. Ashby and Søren M. Sindbæk. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2020. 83-126.

Zumbuhl, Mark. “Clothing as Currency in Pre-Norman Ireland?” Medieval Clothing and Textiles 9 (2013): 55-72.

Further Reading / Mary’s Publications:

The Vikings in Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2008)

“Fleets, Forts and the Geography of Toirdelbach Ua Conchobair’s Bid for the High Kingship,” in Terry Barry and Victoria McAlister, Editors, Space and Settlement in Medieval Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2015), 48-63.

“Family Relics and Viking Kingship in Ireland,” Eolas: The Journal of the American Society of Irish Medieval Studies 6 (2013), 88-106.

“Castrating Monks: Vikings, Slave Trade and the Value of Eunuchs,” in Larissa Tracy, Editor,   Castration and Culture in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2013), 174-187.

“Murder in a Viking Town,” in B.T. Hudson, Editor, Familia and Household in the Medieval Atlantic Province (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2011), 69-83.

Notitiae in the Irish Annals,”  Eolas: The Journal of the American Society of Irish Medieval Studies 1 (2006), 74-99.

“Taxation, Tolls and Tribute: The Legal Language of Economics and Commerce in Viking-Age Ireland,” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 18 (1998), 242-258.

Useful Resources:

eDil: Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language: http://www.dil.ie/

Irish Scripts on Screen: https://www.isos.dias.ie/

National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology: https://www.museum.ie/en-IE/Museums/Archaeology

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