Runic Embroidery and Leatherwork.

By Ásfríðr Ulfvíðardóttir/ Rebecca Lucas.

When people think runes, they may think of Vikings and runestones. Maybe some of the graffiti left by Varangians in the Hagia Sophia (Knirk, 1999) or the Piraeus Lion (Pritsak, 1981). Others may think of runes as tools of divination, and having magical properties. But very few people think of the futhark as being just another alphabet for scribbling messages.

The medieval wharf district of Bryggen, in the town of Berggen, Norway, was the amazing find place for an extensive corpus, in both Latin and Old Norse, that illustrates the use of medieval runes in daily life. Tags to attach to goods to denote ownership (Spurkland and van der Hoek, 2005;184), messages from home (Haavaldsen and Ore, 1997f), and love notes (Haavaldsen and Ore, 1997g), are just some of the inscriptions found.

But item B605 is different, because it is a shoe vamp 'bearing decorative embroidery in runes' (Spurkland and van der Hoek, 2005;183). B605 was deposited before an 1198 CE fire (ibid.), circa 1180-1190 CE (Rundata, 1993; N B605 M) and like many of the Bryggen writings was in Latin. The fragment is 353 mm long and 160 mm wide (Haavaldsen and Ore, 1997a).

B605 was embroidered with ...am(or)u-iciþomnia..., which has been normalised to amor vincit omnia (love conquers all) (Haavaldsen and Ore, 1997b). It has been suggested that the other shoe may have read et nos cedamus amori (let us give in to love), completing the poetic sentiment of Virgil's Eclogues (Spurkland and van der Hoek, 2005;184).

Shoe B605
Embroidered 12th century shoe, B605. After Roesdahl and Wilson [ed.] (1992; 360-1). For a colour photograph, see the Universitetsmuseenes Fotoportal, and search for 'bryggen sko.'  

A second 12th century shoe upper, B663, was also embroidered (Rundata, N B663 M), with the futhark (Haavaldsen and Ore, 1997a, 1997c), while another contemporary shoe piece is incised with as yet untranslated runes (Haavaldsen and Ore, 1997d; Rundata, 1993; N B8 M).

Shoe B008
Incised 12th century shoe, B008. After Haavaldsen, A. and Ore, E.S. (1997d).  

According to Swann (2001; 61), there are a total of 5 shoes from Bergen embroidered with runes. The embroidery was worked by first inscising the leather, and linen or silk thread was used for tunnel stitching (Swann 2001, 59-60). Satin stitch, cross stitch or satin stitches were used (ibid.).

These examples illustrate that in 12th century Bryggen, at least, decorating leather with runic marks and embroidery -- in both Latin and Old Norse-- was done. However it would be stretching the truth to say that this shows that runic embroidery can be applied to any other textile. As of writing, I do not know of any other examples of rune-embroidered or otherwise decorated items of clothing.

The second issue, is of concern to modern-day people who believe in an inherent magical power of runic characters. In this context, the embroidery of amor vincit omina is interpreted as a love charm or wish (Macleod and Mees, 2006; 65). Yet, we cannot know for sure the mindset of your average, amorous medieval Norwegian, and it is just as likely that this probable pair of shoes were simply decorated with a poetic verse and presented to their object of affection (ibid., 54-5). Although Macleod and Mees consider writing out the futhark to reinforce the power of magical charms (ibid., 42), it is not the use of a runic script that imparts magic, but the words that were written down.
It may also simply be a way of a gentleman to impress a girl with his runic literacy, or it may form part of a traditional, European betrothal gift, with its origins dating back to at least the 6th century (Starkey, 2004; Swann, 2001;61). In any case, while there is some evidence for seemingly non-magical runic decoration on clothing, it is up to the individual making those clothes to decide if some exotic-looking lettering is a good idea.

Bibliography


  • All links working 11/03/2011.
  • Haavaldsen, A. and Ore, E.S. 1997. Runes in Bergen (Bergen: Norwegian Computing Centre for the Humanities)
  • Haavaldsen, A. and Ore, E.S. 1997a. Inscriptions on artefacts other than wooden sticks
  • Haavaldsen, A. and Ore, E.S. 1997b. B605
  • Haavaldsen, A. and Ore, E.S. 1997c. B663
  • Haavaldsen, A. and Ore, E.S. 1997d. B008
  • Haavaldsen, A. and Ore, E.S. 1997e. B606
  • Haavaldsen, A. and Ore, E.S. 1997f. B149
  • Haavaldsen, A. and Ore, E.S. 1997g. B017
  • Knirk, J.E. 1999. Runer i Hagia Sofia i Istanbul Nytt om runer 14; 26-27.
  • Macleod, M. and Mees, B. 2006. Runic Amulets and Magic Objects (Boydell Press)
  • Nasjonalbiblioteket [National Library of Norway] Runic inscriptions from Bryggen in Bergen
  • Pritsak, O. 1981. The Origin of the Rus’ [vol. 1] (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press)
  • Roesdahl, E. and Wilson, D.M. 1992. From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavian and Europe 800-1200 (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.)
  • Rundata. 1993. Samnordisk Runtextdatabus (Uppsala: Department of Scandinavian Languages, Uppsala Univeristy.)
    The website to download the program is here. If the database is too difficult to navigate, the text files can be downloaded in a zip file and searched manually.
    Click on the green arrow next to "Rundata 2.5 and SRD 2008. Text files ("Mac"-version)" on the right hand side, scroll down and check the box accepting the terms and conditions. You can then download the .zip file.
  • Spurkland, T. and van der Hoek, B. 2005. Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions (Boydell Press)
  • Starkey, K. 2004. 'Tristan Slippers: An Image of Adultery on a Symbol of Marriage' in E. Jane Burns [Ed.] Medieval Fabrications: Dress, Textiles, Cloth Work and Other Cultural Imaginings (New York: Palgrave Macmillan); 35-54.
  • Swann, J. 2001. History of Footwear in Norway, Sweden and Finland (Stockholm: Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien)
  • Universitetsmuseenes Fotoportal