Ordinary Objects in the Sagas
By Steven T. Dunn (Fjorn the Skald)
Legendary swords, enchanted jewelry, golden arm-rings…these are the (very shiny) objects that we all drool over—and the Norse weren’t any different. When a ‘mysterious’ old man barges into your party and plunges a sword into a tree—that’s pretty epic. When a dwarf forges a ring that replicates itself eight times every ninth night—that’s also pretty epic. But these objects are alluring mostly because they are exotic, being both rare and magical. Like us, most of the Norse didn’t even have a rusty sword hanging in their hall. After all, swords (magical or not) were prestigious weapons. Yet, because people didn’t have them (and definitely wanted them), they naturally became the all-star objects of their respective sagas.
But here’s the thing: ordinary objects can actually tell us more about their society than those fancy swords and rings.
I don’t mean to write an academic article here, but I’ll still defend my statement by citing someone smarter than me: “…some objects, their physical properties, and their material implementation are not only wordless expressions of fundamental aspects of a way of living and thinking; they are sometimes the only means of rendering visible the pillars of social order that are otherwise blurred, if not hidden.” In other words, objects from our daily lives obtain deeper meaning as we use them; and that meaning can be understood ‘wordlessly’ just by seeing or interacting with that object. Being ordinary is therefore what gives it deeper meaning, because people are more familiar with it and associate it with aspects of their ‘ordinary’ lives (rather than yearning for prestigious goods they’ve hardly seen).
Consider clothing, for example. At the most basic level, a shirt is just a piece of cloth worn over our torso, right? But when you change the color and design of that shirt, its impression can change dramatically. A ragged, dirty t-shirt conveys something quite different than a pristine, satin blouse (even if those judgments are often wrong and inconsiderate). Yet, in the end, both of those shirts convey layers of deeper meaning that I didn’t actually have to put into words for you to understand (probably). The same is true for less-obvious examples, too. For the Norse, the object can be as mundane as a piece of stolen cheese and still convey ‘unspoken’ layers of deeper meaning to the audience—but I’ll leave that for my master’s thesis to explain.
The takeaway is this: that ordinary objects can serve as fascinating perspectives for understanding the past. In order to pull that off, however, we have to examine historical sources from the perspective of an object. So if two people are fighting over a piece of cheese, we have to examine the deeper meaning of that fight starting with the cheese (not the people). But for this post, we won’t be focusing on cheese. Instead, we’re going to examine Norse society through their cloaks.
Cloaks in the Medieval North
We shamefully don’t wear cloaks anymore, but they were common (and often necessary) for people living in the medieval North—so much so that they had different kinds for different occasions. Some offered protection from the elements when traveling, and they were considered a necessary part of a person’s provisions for a journey:
“In his baggage were three hundred ells of homespun cloth, twelve homespun cloaks and the provisions for his journey. Arnbjorn was handy around the ship and ready to help, and the traders held him in high regard.”The Saga of the People of Eyri, chapter 39 (Judy Quinn trans., 1997)
Some people were even crafty enough to convert them into backpacks:
“He decided to take off his helmet and sword, and broke the head off his spear and threw the shaft out to sea, then wrapped his weapons in his cloak to make a bundle that he tied to his back.”Egil’s Saga, chapter 45 (Bernard Scudder trans., 1997)
But others (usually made from leather) were for working on the farm:
“To return now to Arnkel’s slaves, they went inside after they had finished unloading the hay, and took off their leather cloaks.”The Saga of the People of Eyri, chapter 37 (Judy Quinn trans., 1997)
This is probably a good time to mention that most Norse cloaks were made from homespun wool, not straight-up fur. Have some class. I know it’s popular to imagine all those ‘Vikings’ running around in fur cloaks, but most people weren’t so crude. People seriously got made fun of for dressing like that (or similarly bad):
“Snorri…wore a black cloak and rode a good black mare. He had an old trough-shaped saddle and carried unornamented weapons. […] [He] rode on to Helgafell, intending to stay there for the winter. Bork received him coolly and Snorri became a laughing stock because of his outfit. Bork concluded that he must have been unlucky with his travel money to have squandered it all.”The Saga of the People of Eyri, chapter 13 (Judy Quinn trans., 1997)
Of course, some sagas do mention people wearing fur and animal-skin cloaks, but they certainly weren’t the norm (or aspiration); and stubbornly assuming otherwise completely disregards the work women did to weave their much-more-common homespun cloaks. In fact, women drove the medieval Icelandic economy with their homespun—it was literally their form of currency. That homespun was obviously used for more than just weaving cloaks (such as sails, shirts, sacks, etc.), but cloaks are nevertheless mentioned specifically as a form of possible payment in medieval Icelandic law at least 10 times.
This means that cloaks weren’t just for warmth or practicality. They were literal manifestations of a person’s wealth. And although sagas fail to mention it explicitly, they also would have seen them as a sign of a woman’s skill (which men surely bragged about when puffing their chests out to one another). Wearing a fancy cloak was therefore like wearing a cape made from $100-bills—and sometimes they really seemed that absurd to bystanders:
“One of the men was wearing a cloak and a long gown of fine quality cloth. They watched what this man did. He drew his sword and cut off the bottom of the cloak which had become dirty during his riding, and he threw the strip of cloth away–it was the width of a hand–and, speaking so that they could hear, said that he had no wish to go around covered in muck. […] A servant woman picked up the piece of cloth which the man had cut off, and said that this fellow could well be called an outrageous show-off.”The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal, chapter 31 (Andrew Wawn trans., 1997)
But regardless of how pompous some people were, the value of that cloak was no joke. In fact, it really pushes the boundary of what we should consider an ‘ordinary object’ in Norse society. Cloaks were common, yes…but some were so valuable that they became prestigious goods on par with golden rings. And if you don’t believe me, consider the (many) examples of kings—kings—giving cloaks as gifts (without any hint of sarcasm):
“He called out to Kjartan, asking him not to hurry off, and Kjartan turned back reluctantly. The king then removed a fine cloak from his own shoulders and gave it to Kjartan, saying it wouldn’t do for him to return to his men without a cloak.”
— The Saga of the People of Laxardal, chapter 40 (Keneva Kunz trans., 1997)
“The king thanked him for the poem and, as a reward, gave him a cloak of scarlet-lined with the finest furs and with an embroidered band stretching down to the hem.”The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue, chapter 7 (Katrina C. Attwood trans., 1997)
“As a reward for his poetry, Athelstan gave Egil two more gold rings weighing a mark each, along with an expensive cloak that the king himself had worn.”Egil’s Saga, chapter 55 (Bernard Scudder trans., 1997)
With cloaks occupying every rung of the Norse social ladder—from slaves working in leather cloaks to poets obtaining embroidered cloaks from a king’s own shoulders—it’s no wonder that fancy cloaks made for dapper men. As a necessary object with unnecessary splendor, cloaks easily became the primary signifier of one’s status to the rest of their community. Some men were even nicknamed after their cloaks (King Harald Gray-Cloak, An Red-Cloak, etc.), and we can only imagine how splendid their cloaks must have been. But we could (and will) take that idea a step further, because cloaks could literally embody the men who wore them, acting as their stand-in (even when they weren’t wearing it). I have an example, too, but it does contain spoilers:
“Hildigunn then went out and opened up her chest. She took from it the cloak which Flosi had given Hoskuld and in which Hoskuld was slain, and which she had kept there with all its blood. She went back into the main room with the cloak. She walked silently up to Flosi. Flosi had finished eating and the table had been cleared. Hildigunn placed the cloak on Flosi’s shoulders; the dried blood poured down all over him.
Then she spoke: ‘This cloak, Flosi, was your gift to Hoskuld, and now I give it back to you. He was slain in it. In the name of God and all good men I charge you, by all the powers of your Christ and by your courage and manliness, to avenge all the wounds which he received in dying—or else be an object of contempt to all men.’”Njal’s Saga, chapter 116 (Robert Cook trans., 1997)
There’s a lot of ‘unspoken’ meaning wrapped up in that cloak, so allow me to explain. Not only does Hoskuld’s cloak embody him (even after death), but it also embodies his relationship to Flosi, who gave him that cloak. Thus, when Hildigunn places it on Flosi, she is literally placing the responsibility of avenging Hoskuld’s death onto his shoulders. And though she does, she hardly needs to tell Flosi what the gesture means, because that cloak embodies Hoskuld’s life, reputation, and social connections, as well as the social responsibility to ‘restore’ his honor through vengeance. While the saga itself is actually against such behavior, it was nevertheless a common practice in Norse society: the death of a kinsman was often paid for with the death of another—and failing to do so brought even more shame to the family.
So here’s our conclusion: Norse cloaks weren’t only practical, common objects necessary for survival; they also embodied a woman’s skill, a household’s wealth, the life and reputation of its owner, and could even convey ‘unspoken’ social relationships (especially when received as a gift) and responsibilities.
That’s a lot.
No matter how small and insignificant it may seem, every object tells a story. In fact, I’d argue that the more mundane an object seems, the more unspoken meaning it gains. We just tend to overlook that deeper meaning because it’s so obvious (to us) at a glance; we don’t need words to express it—and that was true for the Norse, as well. When looking more carefully at their ordinary objects, however, we have just one problem: we’re out of the loop. We’re not the ‘original’ audience for these stories. That means we have to do extra work to understand what those ordinary objects could convey to them, rather than dismissing them as random or unimportant. But once we’ve done that work, we’re given a glimpse of the significance they saw in their daily lives. And that, my friends, is something worth looking for.
Steven T. Dunn (nicknamed Fjorn the Skald) is a public historian and fantasy writer. He obtained a master’s degree in History from the University of South Florida in 2019, which he has used to create his own educational website, Fjorn’s Hall (fjorns-hall.com). There he offers concise, inexpensive ‘Raids’ (blogposts, videos, and lectures) plundering Norse mythology and Viking history without academic jargon. All the while, he not-so-secretly studies a world called Älthren, to which he has devoted over 450 pages of handwritten (and illustrated) lore in his journals.
You can find an interview with Steven from last year’s Norsevember here if you want to find out more about him and what he does!
* cloak featured in title image taken from Folkofthewood on Etsy.