The Vikings Story: Jewelry in the Middle Ages

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The Vikings Story: Jewelry in the Middle Ages

When we talk about Vikings we refer to men and women from Scandinavia who, between the end of the 8th and the beginning of the 11th century, plundered and traded in many areas of the Western world, but also in the East.

On board their ships, the drakkar, the Vikings left for numerous destinations: in Europe they arrived on the British Isles, in France, in the Shetland Islands, in the Orkney Islands, in those of Faeroe The first of these was in Iceland, and in many other European kingdoms; but they also went further east, as far as Russia and Constantinople, as well as further south, as far as Africa. But the most surprising journey they took was the one that took them to the coasts of America, to Newfoundland. As we all know, jewels are made of metals such as bronze, silver, gold, gems and precious stones, but also of simpler materials such as wood or glass. The Vikings, raiding and trading, had a vast opportunity to come into possession of these raw materials, useful therefore, as well as for other eventualities, for the production of jewelry. The Scandinavians were able to use these goods for the production of precious jewelry and luxury goods both in settlements created outside Scandinavia (especially in the British Isles), but also in the motherland.

To understand the importance of these events for the production of Viking jewelry, it is enough to think of the countless incursions that the Vikings organized and carried out in the monasteries of the European world which, if apparently devoid of interest for these raiders, were in fact home to great treasures of the religious world. One of the first and most famous of these raids, is the one that took place on June 8, 793 AD, in the English Abbey of Lindisfarne, located on the island of the same name: here the Vikings gathered a nice booty, including religious artifacts in gold, silver and other metals and precious stones. The Viking bracelet was always of symbolic importance to the Viking people. In a Viking clan, the elders gave him a bracelet if a man reached an important milestone of his life. This bracelet was a sign that the person concerned had become a real warry, more than just the belt or a piece of jewelry. This is why the bijoux Vikings can be a good idea to give a friend as a gift. Viking bracelet has a different significance, depending on the ornament it holds.

The looting was of course also committed against entire cities, such as the one that took place in Nantes in June 843, which allowed the attackers to take the greedy booty. But these men and women were able to enrich themselves and possess raw materials and precious metals also through less violent and more legal methods: let’s talk about commercial activities, in which, as mentioned, the Vikings were particularly versed and able, thanks to their ability to navigate, which brought them to the most prosperous and wealthy markets in the world (such as those in the East), but also thanks to the trade bases present in the motherland. Another important characteristic to highlight, typical of the Viking world, is that it concerns the religious history of these people: It is clear that even in the jewels we see a representation and a testimony of the religion of this people, the Norse one, finding therefore numerous symbols and images of their gods and of all that belonged to their world; but, during the XI century, a definitive process of assimilation to the Christian religion of the whole Scandinavian universe began, which therefore had important consequences also on the aspect of their jewels: from this moment on, in fact, Christian elements begin to appear more and more, going to gradually replace the pagan ones.

Most of the jewels of the Viking era come from archaeological sources: excavations of city sites, shopping centers in the Scandinavian world, random findings of Viking objects in other parts of the world or objects re-emerged from the water, but especially the findings made in the tombs, are our most important sources for this type of artifacts.

The production of these objects was based mainly on more durable materials, such as metals (precious or not), amber, glass, but also wood, ivory (in this case from the tusks of walruses) and bones. Wood was undoubtedly the raw material chosen by Viking artists, being relatively easy to carve, cheap and even abundant in northern Europe. As far as metal is concerned, this is the material from which most of the jewelry that has been found is made, so the studies are mainly based on this type of material. The main materials used for Viking jewelry were bronze or silver, the latter sometimes gilded; however, important and sumptuous jewelry made entirely of gold, in single pieces or in sets, probably belonging to the richest and most important figures in the Scandinavian world, has also been found.

The jewels were worn by both men and women, of all social classes; they wore brooches, necklaces, rings, bracelets and necklaces. These objects obviously had an ornamental and practical function (such as pins, which were used to stop clothes), but they could also indicate the state of well-being of these people. In addition, there were some pieces that had a particular symbolic value, such as all those jewels that carried a religious representation (most immediate example is the hammer of Thor). As mentioned, jewelry was used by both men and women, although there were some differences, in the type of jewelry but also in styles. Married women used to tie their clothing close to their shoulders with a pair of large matching brooches (today, modern scholars call these brooches “turtle brooches” because of their dome-shaped shape). The shape and style of these particular pins varied from region to region, but many craftsmen used the tunnel. Between these two brooches, very often, the women put chains or threads of beads, or hanging ornaments.

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