Brats, Tunics and Tailoring in Viking Ireland

Irish clothing, for both men and women, generally consisted of two important pieces: a léine and a brat.

The léine was a tunic-like garment, usually made out of linen and reached to about the knee.  If you were wealthy you could also wear a garment made out of silk to impress your friends and neighbours. 

Of course, these tunic-like garments had to be the right length: neither short enough to expose the buttocks, nor too long so that they would drag along the ground.  Too-short tunics were not impressive, and satires often mocked individuals wearing them, denouncing their low status (and perhaps their poverty).

A ninth-century Irish text declares that one legal ‘handsbreadth’ (the width of a fist) should be allowed between the edge of the tunic and the knee.  This meant that the tunic could be one handsbreath above or below the knee.

Occasionally, belts were worn with this garment and this allowed someone to hike up their tunic if they needed to be able to move more quickly (for instance, if they had to run into battle or away from enemies).

Did you know? One of the earliest known belts in Ireland (from the Bronze Age) was made of horse hair.

The léine was generally worn underneath a brat, a sleeveless, hoodless cloak that could be wrapped around the body between one and five times.

As the main function of the cloak was for warmth, it was usually made out of wool or some type of animal hide.

Most surviving hide cloaks were made from cow-hides, but some early examples were made from wolves and deer.

Some early Irish high-crosses and manuscripts like the Book of Kells (circa 800 AD) also indicate that trews (Irish triubhas) or trousers were likely worn by some warriors and horsemen.

Looking Good in Viking-Age Ireland

These cloaks were generally secured by a brooch or pin. If the cloak was worn by a man, the brooch / pin was placed on his shoulder, but if it was worn by a woman, the brooch/pin was secured at her breast.

Many of these brooches were oval shaped and while some may have been as opulent as the so-called ‘Tara Brooch’ many of them had simple decorations and were made of copper, silver or even gold.

The Middle Irish commentary to the law tract Cáin Íarraith, 'law of the fosterage-fee', written between the tenth and twelfth centuries, states that the sons of kings of provinces should wear gold brooches, while the sons of lesser kings were supposed to wear silver ones.

Enamelled brooch
Shannon River, County Westmeath
dating to around the 6th or 7th century

Ringed-pins were produced in Ireland from as early as the fourth century A.D., but the type was quickly adapted by the Viking settlements.

In fact a workshop dedicated to the production of copper-alloy ringed pins and stick pins was found in High Street, Dublin. 

These ringed-pins transformed over time from a plain or polyhedral-shaped ringed-pin, popular in the tenth and eleventh centuries, to a kidney-ringed pin which seems to have become fashionable after the mid-tenth century. 

Many of these items would have been constantly replaced, but a few expensive examples have survived, one in particular from Adare. 

Bracelets have been found on a number of early medieval archaeological sites, and were made of various elements, including jet, lignite, shale, stone, antler, boar tusk, glass, copper alloy, gold and silver.

Rings have also been uncovered in archaeological excavations, although it can be difficult to separate rings that were worn on fingers from ring pins or ring brooches. These adornments were also made of assorted materials including copper alloy, iron, silver and tin, as well as amber, lignite/shale, glass and stone.

Finger rings were primarily ornamental and were worn on all fingers, even thumbs. 

After metal objects were produced, any further embellishments with either gem stones or glass would have increased their value. There is limited evidence for glass-working in early medieval Ireland, and most glass therefore probably reached settlements as fully formed glass vessels.

Many women also wore head-coverings. Archaeological excavations have shown that women in Viking-Age Dublin had a choice between caps, headbands, scarves, kerchiefs, and simple rectangular pieces of cloth that could be worn on the head and knotted under the chin or worn around the shoulders.

Did you know?  The Old Irish term for a veiled woman (caillech) could also refer to a female spouse, a nun, an older woman or a clerical concubine.

Looking Even Better!

The colours of a garment could indicate one's social position. Reds, greens, purples and blues were described in early Irish law tracts as the appropriate colours for nobles and kings.

Peasants and common farmers were said to wear more muted / less attractive colours: black, dun, gray or sometimes yellow.  One Middle Irish satire used (among other insults) the colour of a man's tunic to disparage its unfortunate victim:

'A mír do duine, a delb in demain
a chír i cuile, a chrebair chuilig
a athbró íchtair, a airbe ibair
a ól íar n-ítaid, a inair uidir'

'You bit of a man, you form of the Devil
you comb in a larder, you flea-ridden woodcock
you worn-out lower quern, you fence of yew
you drink after thirst, you dun-coloured tunic'.

Roisin McLaughlin, Early Irish Satire (Dublin, 2008), pp 154-5 §51.

Of course, garments were not always confined to one colour.  Often decorative borders were woven around the edges and added different colours. 

According to the psuedo-historical text known as the Lebor Gabála Érenn, 'The book of the taking of Ireland', compiled sometime in the second half of the eleventh-century, the number of colours on a garment could also be used to distinguish social groups:

By Tigernmas were purple and blue and green first put upon garments in Ireland. By Tigernmas were first made checkerings upon garments in Ireland – one colour in the (single) garment of slaves, two colours in the garb of peasants, three in the garments of hirelings and fighting men, four in those of lordings, five in those of chieftains, six in those of men of learning, seven in those of kings and queens."

R.A. Stewart Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn: The book of the taking of Ireland, Irish Texts Society, xliv (Dublin, 1956), part v, pp 206-9.

Shoes for the Man (and Woman, and Child ...)

A number of shoes have also been found in excavations of Viking-Age Dublin and indicate a variety of styles and levels of skill in construction. Shoes would have been worn by men, women and children of almost every walk of life.

Photo taken with kind permission of the National Museum of Ireland

Photo taken with kind permission of the National Museum of Ireland

Although most leather shoes from the late Viking-Age were made from cowhide, the skins of goat and sheep were also utilised by medieval leather-workers, particularly in Waterford City.

 

Sources: 

Thomas Charles-Edwards, ‘Social structure’, in Pauline Stafford (ed.), A companion to the early Middle Ages: Britain and Ireland c. 500-1100 (Oxford, 2009), pp 107-25.

(Mary B. Deevy and Christine Baker, 'Ring brooches and finger rings from medieval Dublin' in Medieval Dublin I (Dublin, 2000), pp 159-84.

Michael Gibbons, Myles Gibbons and Jim Higgins, 'Hiberno-Norse ringed pin from Omey Feichín, Connemara: it's historical and cultural setting' in Journal of Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, vol. 57 (2005), pp 151-65.

Ruth Johnson, 'The development of Irish brooch forms and pins in the Viking Age c.850-1170', in Peritia, vol. 15 (2001), pp 321-62.

Thomas Kerr, Maureen Doyle, Matt Seaver, Finbar McCormick and Aidan O’Sullivan, ‘Industrial activity on rural secular sites in Ireland, A.D. 400-1100’, EMAP Report 6.1 (December, 2012). 

Dáire O’Rourke, ‘Leather artefacts’ in M.F. Hurley and O.M.B. Scully (eds), Late Viking Age and medieval  Waterford: excavations 1986-1992 (Waterford, 1997), pp 703-36.

Dáire O'Rourke, 'First steps in medieval footwear', in Archaeology Ireland, vol. 5, no. 1 (1991), pp 22-3.

Robin Chapman Stacey, ‘Berrad Airechta: an Old Irish tract on suretyship’ in Thomas Charles-Edwards, Morfydd E. Owen and D.B. Walters (eds), Lawyers and laymen: studies in the history of law presented to professor Dafydd Jenkins on his seventy-fifth birthday, Gŵyl Ddewi 1986 (Cardiff, 1986), pp 210-33

Trivia: 

The Old Irish term for a veiled woman (caillech) could also refer to a female spouse, a nun, an older woman or a clerical concubine