Fur was popular as a trimming, but should be restricted to the edging or lining of cloaks, hats and perhaps gloves. Nobody should be seen wearing complete skins on their own. Remember that we are a society of Vikings, not Wombles!
As a general rule, we would prefer not to see English, Norman and Welsh characters wearing lots of fur – wool (teased out to be shaggy) is encouraged instead. We would rather see fur on pagan viking characters – though that does not mean that vikings must use fur. With the acceptance of Christianity, viking characters should reduce their use of fur, in line with the English, Norman and Welsh.
Evidence for fur in the Viking Age
The trading town of Birka produced a range of evidence for furs:
- Red Fox, Pine Marten, Red Squirrel, Brown Bear, Lynx and Beaver have all been found associated with burials.
- Wolverine, Wolf, Badger, Otter, Ermine, Polecat, Mountain Hare, Seal, Hides (leather without hair) and Goat have been found elsewhere in the settlement.
Skeletal evidence from York showed a number of fur-bearing mammals being exploited at least for food and thus potentially for fur.
- Brown Hare, Boar, Red and Roe Deer.
Finds such as the 'cake' of woollen diamond twill, feathers and marten fur from a female grave in Kyrkhus (Hjelmland, Southern Norway) #TJ1 are parallels with those found in well stratified Early Anglo-Saxon burials where they are identified as 'coverlets' of bed burials. [P Rogers:2007, p 225] mentions multiple examples of diamond twill associated with feathers. These include examples from Sutton Hoo, Mill Hill, and a potential third example (using what may be chevron twill) is noted from Swallowcliffe Down. These cases clearly show that one of the uses of fur was in bedding.
While there is no direct archaeological evidence for uses of fur beyond bedding, there are a number of references in the sagas to fur cloaks, or cloaks lined with fur (including bear).
- The Saga of Viga-Glum: chapter 2
- "The end of it was that Eyiolf went to stay at Hreidars, on the promontory; and when Ivar was expected home, he put on a great fur cloak, which he wore every day; he was a tall man, and sat always at Hreidars side."
- The Saga of Cormac the Skald, Trans. W.G. Collingwood and J. Stefansson: Chapter 25 - How They Cruised With The King's Fleet, And Quarrelled, And Made It Up.
- "In the evening they went ashore; and the king and his men sat down to supper. Cormac was sitting
outside the door of a tent, drinking out of the same cup with Steingerd. While they were busy at it, a young fellow for mere sport and mockery stole the brooch out of Cormac’s fur cloak, which he had doffed and laid aside; and when he came to take his cloak again, the brooch was gone."
- The Saga of Cormac the Skald: Chapter 12 - Bersi's Bad Luck At The Thor's-Ness Thing.
- "They came to the meeting when most other folks were already there, and went to the tent of Olaf Peacock of Hjardarholt (Herdholt), for he was Bersi's chief. It was crowded inside, and Bersi found no seat. He used to sit next Thord, but that place was filled. In it there sat a big and strong-looking man, with a bear-skin coat, and a hood that shaded his face. Bersi stood a while before him, but the seat was not given up."
- Grettir’s Saga, Trans: G. H. Hight
- "At Yule-time Thorkell himself went out to the den with Bjorn, Grettir and others of his men, a party of eight in all. Grettir had on a fur cape which he put off when they were attacking the bear. It was rather difficult to get at him, since they could only reach him with spear-thrusts, which he parried with his teeth. Bjorn kept urging them on to tackle him, but himself did not go near enough to be in any danger. At last, when no one was looking out, he took Grettir’s fur cloak and threw it in to the bear. They did not succeed in getting the bear out, and when night came on turned to go home. Grettir then missed his cloak and saw that the bear had got it into his grip."
- Erik the Red's saga, Trans. J. Sephton: Chapter 4
- "she [the Prophetess] was dressed in such wise that she had a blue mantle over her, with strings for the neck, and it was inlaid with gems quite down to the skirt. On her neck she had glass beads. On her head she had a black hood of lambskin, lined with ermine.....Around her she wore a girdle of soft hair, and therein was a large skin-bag, in which she kept the talismans needful to her in her wisdom. She wore hairy calf-skin shoes on her feet, with long and strong-looking thongs to them, and great knobs of latten at the ends. On her hands she had gloves of ermine-skin, and they were white and hairy within."
- The Saga of Gunnlaug the Worm-Tongue and Rafn the Skald, trans. William Morris & Eirikr Magnusson: Chapter 7 - Of Gunnlaug in the East and the West
- The king thanked him for the song, and gave him as song-reward a scarlet cloak lined with the costliest of furs, and golden-broidered down to the hem; and made him his man; and Gunnlaug was with him all the winter, and was well accounted for.
Availability of animals
Further information on the range of animals evidenced from the British Isles in the early medieval period is available in the File:LHE - Datasheet 005 v1 - Availability of Animals.pdf. With thanks to Dave Constantine.
Credits: with thanks to Nathan Beal.
Higher status characters may use fur in cloaks as follows:
Higher status characters may use fur in hoods as follows:
Please note that the commonly reproduced cap from Birka (typically reproduced with a wide band of fur) had a tablet woven trim and no evidence of fur. It is suggested that the wide banded fur trimmed type 'Birka' hat be phased out over the next few years (new examples being strongly discouraged).
Similarly, mittens lined with fur are acceptable for higher status characters, but should be restricted to cold weather use.
Bedding made of furs, fur stitched to a cloth foundation (optionally padded with feathers) is entirely supported by the archaeological evidence and considered acceptable for any portrayal (quality and amount of fur dependent on status being represented).
Unacceptable use of fur in the Vikings Society
Entire animal pelts may not be worn as garments, cloaks or decorations. Fur should be a trim or lining in a garment - after all, someone status-conscious wouldn't wander round in a bit of carpet.
The tanning processes in use in the early medieval period are highly unlikely to result in fragile portions of the pelt surviving - such as the limbs, tail and face. Using boiled down urine or boiled oak galls (the main methods), pelts have to be very carefully cleaned and dried for them not to rot. It is more or less impossible to clean the paws or face well enough to stop the pelt from rotting. Soaking the pelt in salt will limit the rotting, but if you keep it in salt the skin becomes brittle. You can clean the salt off and wash the pelt many times, but the curing agent will not take properly. Boiling up oak and birch bark doesn't produce much tanning agent; you can boil it down, but that takes a long time, and would have required huge amounts of wood to keep the fire going.
Even if you cheat and use modern tanning chemicals, it is still difficult to get the pelts to cure around face and feet (not impossible, but it is hard slow work).
Hats with a wide fur trim
The commonly reproduced cap from Birka (typically reproduced with a wide band of fur) had a tablet woven trim and no evidence of fur.
Some members of the Society may feel uncomfortable using animal fur. While imitation fur is available, please be sure that it has a properly authentic appearance. “Teddy-bear” fur is not acceptable!
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