Clothing in Norse Literature

This paper was written by the owner of, Elizabeth Rüssel Palm (née Eskelund Rüssel), during her studies in prehistoric archaeology at University of Copenhagen. The paper is an exam paper written for the subject "Norse Literature", however, we have chosen to publish it online as it contains interesting information and a very good appendix for references.
The actual paper is in Danish and may be seen, if you switch the language of this page to Danish. Here, on the English site, you can read the abstact and view the appendix.

E.E. Rüssel: The Literary Costume

A study of the clothing descriptions in the sagas and their historical parallels.


This paper looks into the clothing described in the Sagas of the Icelanders. The Sagas were written during the 13th century but take place in the period from the late 9th century to the early 11th century. If the sagas were written down after several centuries of oral tradition, there's a chance that at least some of the clothes described would be characteristic of the clothing traditions of the historical period when the events took place.
In order to find as many descriptions of clothing in the chosen sagas as possible, the texts were digitally searched using a list of search terms (appendix 1) and 992 descriptions were found but none of them seemed characteristic of either of the two periods.
The colours of the clothing were looked at and the described colours were already technically available during the Viking Age while the 13th century fashion of parti-coloured clothes does not appear in the descriptions.Additionally, the paper looks into three excerpts of scenes where the clothes are important to the story. One would think that perhaps such a scene would cause the description of the clothes to be remembered more accurately if the saga was passed on orally, but it is clear that the more details are given, the less they correspond to the historical clothes. Finally, an attempt is made to connect the clothing terms of the sagas to historical pieces of clothing, and all in all, it must be concluded that while the saga writers knew little or nothing about Viking dress, they attempted to describe old-fashioned clothes, resulting in what is close to a 12th century description, but not a very Viking one.

Appendix 2: Database of mentions of clothing in Icelandic Sagas

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