16.02.48, Vedeler, Silk for the Vikings

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Valerie Garver

The Medieval Review 16.02.48

Vedeler, Marianne. Silk for the Vikings. Ancient Textiles Series, 15. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2014. pp. x, 125. ISBN: 978-1-78297-215-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Valerie Garver
Northern Illinois University

The Vikings almost never fail to capture the popular imagination. Their broad cultural presence can aid medievalists in the classroom where they can function to sustain student interest in difficult questions of method and sources. Anyone who teaches about the Vikings will find many instructive cases in Marianne Vedeler's Silk for the Vikings. This short and well-illustrated book highlights objects that connected Viking era Scandinavians to the Mediterranean, the Islamic world, and central Asia. By examining one of the most expensive luxury goods of the early Middle Ages, she is also able to demonstrate ways that the ninth- and tenth-century Scandinavian elite participated in a broader early medieval northwestern European aristocratic culture. She thereby stresses the ways the Viking Age was marked by widespread trade and contacts with other cultures, complicating the popular image of the Viking as unsophisticated raider. This view draws from recent scholarship but also enriches it with examination of individual material items. Silk for the Vikings will deservedly find many readers among those interested in the history of medieval textiles and in the historical reconstruction of cloth and clothing, but early medievalists have much to gain from this slim volume as well.

Vedeler seeks to contextualize the silk items found in ninth- and tenth-century Scandinavian graves. Although recognizing that many of these textiles require further technical analysis, she focuses instead upon trade, production, and consumption of silk, with the exception of Chinese silk because of its rarity in early medieval Scandinanvia. The 1904 excavation of the spectacular ninth-century Oseberg ship burial turned up many silks, and Vedeler uses this trove of cloth to open her book to great effect. The grave contained a range of silk items including luxurious patterned silks from central Asia, Byzantium, and Persia; tablet woven silk bands fabricated locally from imported silk threads; and embroidery fragments of possibly either Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian manufacture. The small size of these items and the fact that some of the silk cloth survives in purposely cut strips suggests that they served to decorate clothing. The various locations of origin for the silks and the re-use of threads from silk cloth or employment of relatively low quality imported silk thread for embroidery point to the range and variety of trade locations and goods. These pieces connect the women in the Oseberg burial with far-away cultures while revealing how elite women sometimes used imported silk to adorn themselves and craft decorative textiles. In her second chapter Vedeler turns to other Viking Age graves containing silk items. Some will be familiar to readers such as those from the graves at the settlement of Birka in modern day Sweden, which Agnes Geijer studied extensively. Yet Vedeler also presents a body of finds from Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and the German site of Haithabu or Hedeby which contain some less known items and contexts. This chapter includes a map of early medieval Scandinavian sites with silk items (25) and a useful table concerning those textiles (46-47). These silks support the impression provided by the Oseberg burial that wealthy women sewed silk strips to some of their garments and that they used tablet woven bands as headdresses and as adornment for decorative textiles. Far more unusual are silk embroideries, which Vedeler notes are the rarest type of silk found in Viking Age Scandinavia.

Vedeler spends the rest of the book contextualizing the items that she discussed in her first two chapters by examining issues of production, trade, and exchange. Chapter 3 provides a brief overview of silk making techniques, covering both fabrication of thread and woven silk cloth outside of Scandinavia. Additionally Vedeler provides information on three techniques employed in Viking Age Scandinavia: tablet weaving, embroidery, and crafting gold and silver thread by wrapping lamellae (extremely thin strips of metal) around a silk core. Her fourth chapter offers an overview of some of the ways silk traded hands in the ninth and tenth centuries both within the Abbasid Caliphate and the Byzantine Empire and beyond into Scandinavia. This exchange of silk took place through both gifts and trade, and Vedeler rightly argues that the number of times silk may have changed hands before reaching early medieval Scandinavians only served to increase its economic and cultural value. The ensuing chapter on "The Long Journey to Scandinavia" points out how little scholars can sometimes discover about the exact mechanisms for trade and distribution of silk in the absence for Scandinavia of the kinds of texts that survive for example from the ninth- and tenth-century Carolingian or Anglo-Saxon worlds.

In many respects, the most innovative chapters of Silk for the Vikings are those that examine silk production and trade in the Persian, Islamic, and Byzantine worlds with a view to understanding more clearly the means by which Scandinavians obtained silk and the ways in which Vikings valued silk differently from those to their east. Vedeler provides an overview of the production sites, regulations, and specialties of these silk-producing cultures in chapters 6 and 7 as well as their native use of silk. Most helpfully she considers the ways in which Byzantine silk may have reached Scandinavia via the men who served in the Varangian guard of the Byzantine emperors in the tenth century as well as through trade with the Rus who received permission to buy five times more silk than was normally allowed as a result of trade treaties in 911 and 944. This comparative consideration of Mediterranean and Islamic cultures allows Vedeler to conclude her book with a discussion of attitudes towards silk in which she is able to contrast Scandinavian use and value of silk with that of the cultures from which the silk came. Here she notes that high regard for all silk items meant that even the lowest quality silk was considered a luxury item in Scandinavia whereas in the Byzantine Empire and Abbasid Caliphate individuals differentiated among types of silk, reserving only the very finest and most expensive silks for the Byzantine emperor for example. She also offers comparisons to western Europe, where early medieval silks have survived in some church treasuries. Her consideration of the use of silk in this part of Europe is extremely brief, but she rightly points out key differences and similarities. In addition to the aforementioned difference in the survival of texts, she notes that western European silks survive in a wider range of contexts than Viking era ones, which complicates comparison. Nevertheless she notes that silk served as a symbol of power and status across northwestern Europe, demonstrating Scandinavian participation in a broad aristocratic culture that connected Scandinavians, Franks, and Anglo-Saxons with the far away lands that produced silk.

Silk for the Vikings succeeds in its aim of contextualizing the silks found in Viking Age graves and employing these items to comment more broadly on early medieval Scandinavian culture as a whole. The book's brevity is one of its best features for it serves as a concise introduction to many issues affecting the study of early medieval textiles, but it may pose problems for expert readers. Specialists may wish that Vedeler had delved more deeply into many of her topics, but she provides sufficient references to other scholarship to allow one to follow up on most of her subjects. Handsome color maps and helpful tables and diagrams appear throughout the chapters. The book is beautifully illustrated with many color photographs, including some excellent detailed views of certain silks, yet those images are likely what makes this brief volume as costly as it is. Occasionally Vedeler's prose contains odd turns of phase and unusual spellings resulting from the fact that English is not her native language, but on the whole the book is highly readable. General readers with an interest in textiles will enjoy the book, and scholars will appreciate the quality of Vedeler's research. In addition to its examination of an important aspect of early medieval Scandinavian culture, Silk for the Vikings expands present understanding of textiles in the early medieval world while also suggesting avenues of research and comparison.

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