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Silk should be treated with caution. Silk is an authentic material for our period, but it had to be imported from the middle East (the Byzantine empire or the Arab-Islamic world), making it an exotic luxury, and fiendishly expensive. Silk acquired special status as it was used to wrap the bones of saints. Silk was worth more than its weight in gold – let alone the silver used for normal currency.

Acceptable use of silk in the Vikings Society

Silk may be used as a trim on the edges of a tunic by higher status characters. In this case, the silk edging should be heavily embroidered to a high standard. This is an option (but by no means compulsory) for high status characters – but we will expect to see other evidence of wealth, such as extensive and high quality decorative metalwork in gold or silver, lavish embroidery, decorative inlay on weapons etc.

Silk may only be used for an entire garment by a character of very high status. If you are a king, queen, ealdorman or earl (in which case a silk tunic, heavily embroidered, may be appropriate) or if you are a senior member of the Church (a bishop, abbot or the head of a very wealthy church) where vestments may be made from silk, with extensive embroidery using underside-couched gold and/or silver thread and optional pearls.

Characters of ‘warrior’ or ‘lady’ status (merely higher status) would not be able to afford an entire garment made from silk.

Silks to use

If you do wish to use silk (bearing in mind the caveats above), we would prefer to see:

  • Smooth silk (habotai) – midweight silk that is not slubbed but of a single colour and is smoother to the feel than the raw silk. It is opaque (matt) but heavier than gossamer silk. The colour must be vegetable-dye achievable and may only be used as embroidery decoration backing or for fillets. Entire garments made of silk should ONLY be used by royalty, senior clergy or pre-approved actors’ costumes for a specific event.
  • Fine "gossamer silk" (headscarf type) (habotai) – this is the finest semi-transparent with a high, fine threadcount. This is useable for wimples but too fine for clothing usually. It is acceptable to use as a costume component providing the colour is veggie-dye achievable.

Further information on the types of silk to use is provided below.

Silks to avoid

We would prefer not to see:

  • "Raw silk" (silk dupion) which is the heavier-weight silk, with "slub" in the weave – i.e. rougher bits where it has not been spun smoothly. This gives a less uniform appearance of the silk surface. Although there is no evidence for the use of this form of silk, it is harder wearing and does not involve the death of the silkworms. As silk is an extremely-high status material, it should really be of the higher-quality ‘smooth silk’.
  • Shot silk (usually silk dupion) – smoother non-slubbed silk with two-tones in the weft and weave so it shimmers. Please be very, very cautious as it is very hard to source without at least one of the colours being non-vegetable-dye-achievable (usually a wholly inauthentic bright blue/green/hot pink).

Silk in the Anglo-Saxon Era

Georgina N Riall

Silk was an imported luxury textile. We know that the Anglo-Saxon élites loved silks and rich fabrics. The Flemish Goscelin is admiring; he praises our goldsmiths to the skies and then goes on to extol the embroidery skills of Anglo-Saxon women over the goldwork encrusted with gems and English pearls that ‘shine like stars’ with which they adorned the garments of the princes of the church and realm. But William of Poitier, writing after the Conquest, strikes a sour note; he describes the Anglo-Saxons as ‘ostentatious in appearance’ (mind you, he also accuses them of perfidy in character and barbarism in behaviour, so one gathers he did not take to them).

Silk was used for church hangings, church vestments, and tomb and altar coverings. It was worn by kings and the wealthy. Already around 686 Bishop Aldhelm criticises churchmen and churchwomen for wearing it. Bede (673-735) tells us that two silks were exchanged for an estate of three hides and, since a hide was a land unit that could support a family, we thereby learn that ‘...each silk would have kept one and a half families for life’ (Dodwell). The élite also used silk to embellish their halls with soft furnishings; they were less interested in the size of their buildings, whether churches or halls, than in the sumptuousness of their interiors, and after the Conquest William of Malmesbury, an Anglo-Norman, remarks on this predilection when he contrasts the Anglo-Saxons’ taste to the Normans’: ‘...the Normans live frugally in large buildings and the Anglo-Saxons extravagantly in small ones’. Suffice to say that by the time of the Conquest so much silk had entered England that William was able to re-export huge quantities to the Continent as war-booty.

So how did it reach England? It would have been brought from Byzantium, Persia and the Levant. From thence it would have travelled to Rome and to staging posts such as Pavia in Northern Italy. Alternatively, it would also have come from the Baltic through the Scandinavians in Russia and the Friesians who dominated trade in the Baltic until the 9th century. It was carried by merchants, or presented as costly gifts from rulers to rulers, or as munificent donations to religious centres by churchmen and women, by kings and the wealthy élite, and by wealthy pilgrims returning from Rome, and sometimes even Jerusalem (Appendix 1).

Silk originally reached Europe from China via the Silk Roads overland across the Eurasian steppes or through India. China managed to keep its origin a secret and its production a monopoly for many centuries (Appendix 2; Figs 1 and 2). In 552 AD, however, Nestorian monks, so it is said, smuggled out some silkworm eggs concealed in a hollowed-out wooden staff and brought them to the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Soon after craftsmen in Persia and the Levant also acquired the knowledge, and their silks became renowned for their quality. Ironically, it was not long before China began importing silk damasks and brocades, often incorporating gold threads, from Byzantium and Persia and the Levant.

Pattern-woven Silks

Unfortunately England’s soil and climate does not preserve textiles in the way that Denmark’s peat bogs do, where clothed bodies up to 2000 years old have survived. The cold prevailing in eastern Siberia has yielded up the refrigerated contents of the Pazyrik burial mounds, giving us textiles even older than those found in the Danish bogs. However we are fortunate in that the extremely dry conditions of the Tarim Basin desert north of Tibet has provided us with a wealth of information when it comes to the kind of patterned silks worn and traded along the Silk Roads (Figs. 3 and 4). Also a 6th c. AD wall painting in the Cave of the Sixteen Sword Bearers in Qizil of the “Knights with Long Swords” furnishes clues as to representative patterns (Fig. 5).

The patterned silks woven in Byzantium, Persia and the Levant reflected their respective tastes in designs (Figs 6, 7, 8, 9). Examination likewise of Byzantine illustrations and paintings also gives us an idea of the empire’s taste in patterned silks. Some motifs, such as the griffin (Fig 9), can be traced right back to ancient Mesopotamia, and became popular along the Silk Roads (Fig 10), and find their way into the borders of the Bayeux Tapestry (Fig 11). (Note too the Roman design on the tunic worn by the mummy in Fig 4, indicating that designs were a two-way traffic along the Silk Roads.)

From these textile remains and the wall-painting it can be seen that patterns have changed little over the centuries down to the present since almost identical and similar patterns are still being woven today, especially for soft-furnishings such as chair coverings and curtains.

These therefore are in all probability similar to the types of pattern-woven silks brought to England, but as mentioned above, we do not have much to go on from archaeological evidence because of our climate. However, in 1827 a Byzantine silk from St Cuthbert’s tomb in Durham Cathedral was examined and ascribed to the 7th c (Fig 8). This dating, sadly, is doubtful, for ‘...when the saint’s body was translated to a new shrine in 1104, three of the fabrics were removed and replaced by others which included two silks’. (Dodwell) Thus the most that can be claimed for the silk is that is was there by 1104. On the other hand, the silk’s reconstruction shows motifs familiar to us in the borders of the Bayeux Tapestry (birds) and the borders of manuscript illustrations (fruit).

Written sources inform us that the wealthiest religious centres in Anglo-Saxon lands were richly provided with sumptuous silks from Byzantium, Persia and the Levant in the shape of vestments, hangings, and altar and tomb coverings. Unfortunately these sources tell us little of the designs and motifs, save to extol upon the lavish use of gold woven into and embellishing these textiles. Some snippets are gleaned, however:

Alcuin in the 8th c. describes the silk hangings at York as depicting exotic forms or figures, though he does not specify what these might be. We do know, however, that hangings of this period in Roman churches were patterned with griffins, unicorns, peacocks, lions and eagles. Hangings in Roman churches also depicted scenes of Christian themes (Fig 7), a textile tradition going back to 410 AD at least, when Asterium of Ameseia complains that even secular garments were thus adorned!

William of Malmesbury tells us that at the end of the 10th c. Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury gave Glastonbury seven textiles depicting white lions, though whether these were patterned silks or embroidered ‘tapestries’ is unclear.

Bishop Aldhelm in Rome in the late 7th c. acquired a silk chasuble with a design of peacocks.

A mid-11th c. illustration in a Canterbury manuscript shows a decorated shroud typical of the Byzantine style, though the design’s ‘frames’ are square rather than the more usual lozenge shape (Fig 12). On the other hand these squared ‘frames’ do resemble the pattern of the undertunic worn by the ‘knight’ on the left in Fig 5.

The Bayeux Tapestry shows us Edward the Confessor’s body resting on what is probably a patterned silk underlay (Fig 13), and this pattern also resembles the pattern of the overtunic of the ‘knight’ on the far right in Fig 5.

In his Colloquy, Aelfric has his merchant name silk and purpura (sericum et purperam) in the same breath as precious gems and gold.


Even though contemporary written sources make it clear that a fabric called purpura was prized by the Anglo-Saxons even above silk and pattern-woven silk, it is in a sense a mystery fabric because they do not specify what it is. It has been suggested that it might have been a fur or pelt, but our written sources reveal that, in spite of its etymology denoting purple, purpura was not necessarily that colour. There was a red purpura tunicle at Ely, a white purpura chasuble and a green purpura cope at Peterborough, and after the Conquest black and red purpura vestments were acquired by Rochester, and Eddius relates that St Wilfrid adorned Ripon with various distinct colours of purpura. Now while it is true that furs can be red (or russet rather), black and white, they are not, I believe, green! - so it may be reasonable to assume that purpura was not another name for fur or pelt.

Purpura would seem to have been very shiny fabric. Aelfric in his Life of St Martin describes a garment as ‘shining like purpura’. That purpura does not necessarily mean ‘purple’ is easily accounted for. J André in his study on colour terms in Latin (Étude sur les Termes de Couleur dans la Langue Latine, Paris 1949) notes that even before the Middle Ages the Latin adjective purpureus had glided into meaning brightness and was used to describe:

  • the light of day
  • the full spectrum of the rainbow
  • the glint of sunlight on a lightly rippled sea
  • the shining whiteness of snow

Through various writings we learn that the corpses of the Anglo-Saxon élite, both lay and clerical, were shrouded in purpura, and purpura was also used for these corpses’ underlays and overlays. This élite also used it for garments and vestments, and for decorating interiors of palaces, halls, and churches.

We also know that purpura was thicker than normal silk. The London Inventory lists a textile as being ‘like purpura’ in that it is thick and of more than one colour.

For a more detailed description we must forward in time to Reginald of Durham, writing between 1165-1172. He describes St Cuthbert’s dalmatic as related to him by witnesses contemporary to the saint’s reburial at Durham in 1104. The colour, he writes, ‘...was a reddish purple....but this was shot with another colour, yellow, which produced ever-changing patterns of variegated colour’ (Dodwell), and ‘...this infusion of a yellow colour is discerned to be inherent in the cloth, sprinkled dropwise over the whole, and by its strength and brilliance the reddish-purple tint is made to give out a more powerful and brighter light.’ (Reginaldi....libellus, trans. Pace).

As Dodwell points out, nowhere in the text does Reginald call this fabric purpura. It is however ‘ exact description of shot-silk taffeta as it catches the light’.

Given that we know purpura came in variegated colours, and was a robust fabric, it is not unreasonable then to deduce, as Dodwell does, that it was the name the Anglo-Saxons applied to shot-silk taffeta. This conclusion of Dodwell’s is given further weight by information in the Life of St Edward (mid-11th c) that the Confessor had a ship with sails of purpura embroidered with scenes of the great sea-battles of Anglo-Saxon kings, and that King Edgar owned a cloak of ‘distinguished’ purpura, and that in the 7th c King Oswald’s banner was of purpura encrusted with gold.

And even if purpura was not shot-silk taffeta, it is safe to eliminate fur or pelt from the theories since neither kings’ nor saints’ corpses were shrouded in this manner, and sails of fur or pelt - let alone embroidered fur or pelt, are highly unlikely, as indeed would be banners.

SOURCES Dodwell, C R Anglo-Saxon Art - A New Perspective, Cornell University Press, 1982 Hopkirk, P Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, J Murray, 1980 Thorpe, N; James, P J Ancient Inventions, Ballantine Books, 1994 Wood, F The Silk Road - Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia, British Library, 2002

Silk imported by Traders

Silk would have entered England through her various seaports around the south coast. Interestingly, these outnumbered those along the Low Countries and Northern France facing them the other side of the Channel. Of these English ports, three of the most important were Hamwic (Southampton), Lundenwic (London) and Gippeswic (Ipswich).

Anglo-Saxon traders who crossed the Channel did not go unremarked. Charlemagne, in his 796 letter to Offa of Mercia, complains that some tried to cheat the tolls by pretending to be pilgrims. Pavia, capital of Lombardy in northern Italy, comments on the brawls started by Anglo-Saxon traders when customs officers wanted to search their baggage. At that time Pavia was a major trading centre for those buying silks since it drew merchants from Venice and Sicily carrying silks from Byzantium and the Levant. The Anglo-Saxon trade must have been important to Pavia, however, for it decided to exempt individual traders from tolls and transaction taxes so long as the English royal treasury paid a collective levy every three years. Under the terms of this early trade agreement, Pavia was to receive 50 lbs of pure silver, two greyhounds with gilded and embossed collars, two shields, two swords, and two lances; as for the Pavian officer in charge of the market, he was to receive two fur coats and two pounds of silver. This arrangement was similar to concessions made to Italo-Byzantine towns like Venice and shows just how valuable Anglo-Saxon trade was as no other non-Italian town or state was accorded this privilege.

So, even if Anglo-Saxon traders did not always enjoy the best of reputations - In 1057, Peter Damiani, addressing traders in general, accuses: ‘You flee from your homeland, do not know your children, and forsake your wife; you have forgotten everything which is essential. You are covetous, wanting to acquire more, and gain only to lose, and in losing, bemoan your lot.’ - on the other hand they were valued by Anglo-Saxon secular and ecclesiastical leaders, not just because of the luxury goods they brought home (Cnut, on pilgrimage to Rome in 1027, successfully negotiated a trading agreement with the emperor and the king of Burgundy whereby: ‘ subjects, both merchants and pilgrims.....should come and go, to and from Rome, from all hindrances caused by barriers and tolls’), but also for the useful rumours and gossip they could pass on about current political situations in the countries through which they travelled.

Trading abroad was not for the timorous. Crossing the Channel was always a risky venture. As Aelfric’s Mercator points out: ‘I board my ship with my cargo and sail to lands overseas........sometimes I suffer shipwreck with the loss of all my goods, scarcely escaping alive’. But if our Mercator made it safely to the other side of the Channel, and transported his wares up the Rhine, turned right at Koblenz onto the Aare and travelled up past Bern through Lake Thun to Lake Brienz, and then transferred his goods onto pack animals to cross the Alps into northern Italy, did his business in Pavia and made the return journey home without mishap, then surely he deserved his rich rewards. And these rewards could be socially worthwhile for an enterprising ceorl since a clause in the early 11th c compilation Geþyncðo (concerning wergelds and dignities) states: ‘...if a trader prospered, that he crossed thrice the open sea at his own expense, he was then afterwards entitled to the rights of a thegn’.

Gifts and Pilgrims

For examples of gifts of silk entering England, a short list will suffice:

7th c.	Edwin of Northumbria received either a Byzantine garment or cover and a tunic from pope Boniface V.
8th c.	Offa of Mercia was sent two silks by Charlemagne, who also sent silks to the sees of Mercia and Northumbria.
       The Anglo-Saxon bishop of Mainz, Lull, gave a fine silk to the archbishop of York.
9th c.	Asser, the Welsh chronicler, was gifted a costly silk by Alfred to persuade him to remain in England.
10th c. Kenneth of Scotland received decorated silks from Edgar.
11th c. Cnut was sent precious textiles and garments by Emperor Konrad II in Rome.

Then there were the silks brought home from Rome by returning pilgrims. St Aldhelm, Cnut, Archbishop Sigeric among others carried back costly textiles to present to churches in England. Of the ‘south-fare’ Bede in the 8th c. comments: ‘Many of the English, nobles and commoners, layfolk and clergy, men and women, eagerly followed this custom’. Anglo-Saxon women went to Rome in some numbers, and obviously mis-budgeted the funds they would need, for 22 years after Bede we find Boniface begging Canterbury to forbid their journeys: ‘A great part of them perish and few keep their virtue. There are many towns in Lombardy and Gaul where there is not a courtesan or harlot but is of English stock.’ Be that as it may, among the flow of Anglo-Saxon pilgrims flocking to Rome unsung by the chroniclers, there would have been those wealthy enough to buy and bring home valuable silks of all kinds. Neither should one forget the pilgrims who bravely ventured as far as the Holy Land. Those who took the overland route would have made their way there through Byzantium where the greatest variety of silks were on offer. Shortly before the Conquest for example, Aethelwine, a monk from Canterbury, is recorded as returning from Jerusalem through Constantinople and buying there ‘a very valuable and beautiful covering’ for the tomb of St Dunstan (St Dunstan’s Miracles, Eadmer).

SOURCES Dodwell, C R Anglo-Saxon Art - A New Perspective; Cornell University Press, 1982 Ohler, N The Medieval Traveller, The Boydell Press, 1986 Reynolds, R Later Anglo-Saxon England, Tempus, 1999

A history of silk

Silk originated in China and its production can be dated back to at least 3600 BC. A Neolithic site in Zhejiang province (still an area of major silk production today) yielded weaving implements and dyed silk gauzes. Another site in the same province, dated to 2700 BC, yielded more complex woven patterns, including damasks. The tomb of the Lady of Dai who died soon after 168 AD ‘...included painted silk hangings, forty six rolls of silk and silk dresses, skirts, socks, mittens, shoes, a pillow, scent sachets, mirror cases and wrappings. There were plain taffetas and gauzes, dyed brown, grey, vermilion, dark red, purple, yellow, blue, green, and black. There were printed silks and figured silks with woven designs, both self-colour and polychrome.’ (F Wood, The Silk Road)

Silk probably arrived in the Mediterranean sometime around the 2nd century BC. The Romans called the peoples of remote East Asia the Seres (silk people). They first encountered this material ‘as light as a cloud’ and ‘translucent as ice’ in 53 BC at Carrhae when Crassus’s seven legions were pursuing the Parthians across the Euphrates. The fleeing Parthians, shooting backwards a deadly hail of arrows while still galloping (the origin of the expression: a ‘Parthian shot’) broke the Roman formation, then yelling bloodcurdling war cries they suddenly wheeled about, at the same time unfurling great banners of silk which flashed blindingly in the blazing sunlight, causing the legions who had never seen anything like this before to turn tail and flee, leaving some twenty thousand dead behind them.

Switching from war to trade, the Parthian were soon acting as middlemen in the export of silks from China to Rome where it became so popular that it was soon considered a symbol of decadence. Tiberius in 14 AD banned men from wearing it, and Pliny castigated its transparency as ‘rendering women naked’ and blamed women for draining the empire’s economy. By the year 380 AD it was reported to have spread to all classes of Roman society, even to the lowest!

From an edict of Diocletian (301 AD) we learn that raw silk, as well as textiles, was imported into the empire. The Romans, however, had no idea how silk was produced. A 1st c. BC historian, Strabo, informs us that silk comes from India and is the product of certain dried barks, and Pliny wrote: ‘The Seres are famous for the wool of their forests. They remove the down from leaves with the help of water....’ and Virgil tells us the threads are combed from leaves - a widely-held belief which persisted for centuries.

Today we know that silk comes from the silk ‘worm’ - which is not in fact a worm at all but the caterpillar of the Bombyx mori moth: “The caterpillars feed on mulberry leaves for about five weeks (it takes about two hundredweight of leaves to produce a pound of silk) and grow from 1mm to 70 or 80 mm before spinning their cocoons. The material for the cocoons is produced in two glands that run along the caterpillar’s body and it consists of a protein substance called fibroin (which forms the fibre) and a gummy mixture called sericin or ‘silk gum’. The caterpillar extrudes a little of the silk solution from a pair of holes on the top of its head, fixes it to a support and then draws its head back to stretch the fibroin out. Moving its head from side to side, the caterpillar lays its double filament in a figure-of-eight pattern, forming a cocoon around itself as the sericin hardens. Left to itself, the caterpillar would turn into a chrysalis inside its nut-shaped cocoon and, after a week or so, a fat, hairy moth. The moth’s exit from the cocoon would break the filaments so that they could not be reeled into a silk thread; thus the majority of the chrysalises are stifled by hot air or steam. Their cocoons are then placed in hot water which softens the sericin, making it possible to find the end of the filament and reel it. Five to seven filaments are reeled together to form a fine thread which can be woven into cloth.” (F. Wood, The Silk Road - quoting from The Silk Book, London, The Silk and Rayon Users’ Association, 1951)

SOURCES Hopkirk, P Foreign Devils on The Silk Road; J Murray, 1980 Thorpe, N; James, P J Ancient Inventions; Ballantine Books, 1994 Wood, F The Silk Road - Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia, British Library, 2002

Credits: with many thanks to Georgian Riall.