A Basic Guide To Footwear in The Viking Age

When I started writing this article I thought I would create the ultimate guide to Viking footwear – No chance! I ended up with ten pages of just notes, to my own shock and horror I found I could probably write a book on the subject. So instead, I thought I would create a sort of `Bluffers Guide’ or more precisely a Duffers guide for Vikings.

Viking shoes/footwear have the same problems in reconstruction as any other Viking artifact, in that, alot of them are from rich grave finds, so therefore, they probably belonged to rich Vikings and not your normal, `Viking in the Street’. With that thought in mind, there are also quite a few rubbish finds, that is, shoes that have been discarded and thrown out with all the other junk and waste from a Viking household.

A Viking shoe is typically made from two pieces of leather, a sole and an upper, with sometimes an insert of leather (if the shoemaker did not cut the pattern out correctly or the pattern does not allow for a certain shape of shoe, unless you have an insert).

A quintessential design feature of Viking shoes means that the sole has a triangular extension at the heel, which fits into a triangular recess in the upper. This triangular heel set-up is a hallmark of dark age and early medieval footwear up until the year 1150 when round heels came into fashion (see figure above). Note also the shape of the sole, there is hardly any waist at all, the sides are nearly straight, this is in complete contrast to the waisted medieval sole underneath, note also the rounded heel on the medieval sole.

Next, the upper and sole having been cut out, what to do with them. Well the two pieces are sewn together, there are probably about six different ways to sew dark age shoes together. I have illustrated the two most common ones (see figure below). You can see from the diagrams that two pieces of thread have been used, beeswaxed woollen thread was common up until the 9/10th century after which beeswaxed linen thread was more common and eventually exclusively used. Basically you make a hole through both pieces of leather (upper and sole) with an awl then feed a needle with thread attached from each side and pull as tight as you can. Note that (A) and (B) are shown in an exploded view so it is possible to see how the stitching goes. (C) shows the angle of the awl holes, the dotted lines show the course of the thread.

Now you have a nearly finished shoe it must be turned inside out (in fact its outside out). This puts the seam on the inside where it is protected from wear on the ground. The seam is the weak spot of the Viking shoes, it is the seam that always breaks, but no problem if it does, you turn the show outside in and resew the seam. A pair of Viking shoes would last approximately 6 months in constant everyday usage with an average two minor repairs over that period.

I should just point out that the stitching hates salt water, go for a run in the sea and within a week the thread will be rotten and start to break. So next time you leap out of your longship and run up the beach through the sea, intent on rape, pillage or sheep worrying make sure you take your shoes off first!

There are two main styles of fastening Viking shoes (see figure below). The first and by far the most common, is by thonging being laced around the leather on the ankle of the `shoe’ or more correctly `ankle boot’. This can be seen laced but unknotted on the Jorvik II ankle boot. The second and I think more sexy, mode of fastening, is by a flap of leather across the instep of the shoe. At the end of the flap a leather toggle or barrel has been attached and is passed through a leather `D’ shape that has been sewn onto the shoe.

After a while Viking shoes stretch, the reason is that leather is skin and it still retains its elastic qualities even after the tanning process. Modern shoes are made in industrial presses that stretch the leather with several tonnes of force before the bits are put together, so they do not stretch much when you wear them. Viking shoes going baggy can be a pain, but it is extremely authentic, for more than just the reason of appearance. I will come back to this point later.

So once the shoe has stretched you can adjust it. This is done by one of two methods the first is to pinch together a section of leather from the top of insole to the tip of the shoe (see figure below), then sew the sides of the pinch together or secondly if you need it much tighter you can slit the leather from the top of the insole to the tip of the shoe. Pull the two sides together and cut off the excess leather, then sew the shortened sides together.

To gain a degree of comfort authentic shoes must be worn in an authentic manner, that means wearing woollen nailbinding socks and stuffing the bottom of the shoe with straw and/or wool. Going back to the point I raised earlier about baggy shoes, the baggier the shoe, the more stuffing can be placed around the foot, therefore providing more insulation and padding. Which if you were a Viking in the winter time you would be keener to insulate your shoe as much as you could. It is a well known fact that straw generates heat when wet and as no authentic shoe is waterproof, when you try this out you will find the bottom of your shoe wet, but your foot on the straw will be dry. Nailbinding socks are thick but have large holes, this causes very good insulation, in fact, in summer they will be far too hot. Also wool when wet does not loose its insulating properties the way modern man made materials do.

As an afternote, it is worth pointing out, that as far as I know only two pairs of Viking boots have been found and they are very basic affairs, that just reach maybe some 4 to 5 inches above the ankle bone. One of these pairs has an inch point at the front and in my opinion is probably a court boot worn by a nobleman. The other is not so much a boot, as an ankle boot of the Jorvik II style with extended ankle flaps that do not even cross at the front.

Finally it must be remembered that the Viking/Dark Age shoe is just a developmental stage in shoe design through the ages. It can be made better with the addition of a few modifications, however any modifications made would then render it not an authentic shoe.

Do’s & Don’t of Buying Your First “Kid” Horse

horse girlWhat little girl hasn’t asked her daddy for a pony for her birthday? Let’s face it. Having a horse in the backyard is every kid’s dream. But if Mom and Dad rush out on a whim and purchase such a “backyard” pet, they may be in for a big surprise. To keep everyone happy and safe, there are several things to consider before purchasing your child a horse.

Get Help
Many first horses are purchased on impulse. Understand that horse ownership is a big responsibility. There are safety issues, unexpected costs, and of course, the well being of the horse to consider. If you are not an experienced horseman, find someone who is.A trainer or reputable stable owner is a good place to start. Take lessons or have several riding sessions to make sure your child wants to ride on a regular basis. Owning a horse sounds “romantic,” but if your child loses interest quickly, it can become a costly adventure.

Taking lessons first will build confidence in your child’s riding ability, which is important when “test driving” prospective horses. Once your instructor can determine your child’s ability, he can help guide you to a horse that best fits your child. See Amazon.com for horse t-shirts for women and teen girls.

“Most of my clients have a lot of success if their kids learns how to ride first, and then decide owning a horse is really what they want to do,” says Paula Phillips, a riding instructor and stable owner in Wichita Falls, Texas. “Those that buy a horse first and then come for lessons second, often struggle. The kids get scared.” Phillips says the horse might be too inexperienced for the child or just a bad buy. The kids lose interest, and the parents are stuck with a horse.

“Kids that spend hours at the barn learning how to ride and do chores such as feeding, cleaning stalls and so forth, understand what it takes to keep a horse. If they do all that and still want to buy a horse, then it’s probably a good investment,” Phillips says.

Costs of Horse Ownership
A horse is an investment, and the purchase price is only the beginning. There are monthly boarding fees, feed, and veterinary care to consider, plus tack and other equipment necessary to enjoy your horse.

Boarding fees vary throughout the country, but full care (which includes feed, shavings, etc.) runs around $200/month and up. Expect to pay more in bigger cities. Pasture boarding is cheaper, although the horse may still need supplemental feed. Feed (if not included in your boarding fees) averages $100/month. Routine hoof care runs between $160 to $400 per year, depending if the horse is shod or just trimmed. Basic, routine veterinary care usually averages $200 per year. Additional expenses should be expected if your horse gets sick or hurt. Don’t forget about halters, brushes, saddles and other tack, as well as seasonal necessities such as fly spray.

Horse Shopping and Vet Inspections
There are many places to look for a horse. Word of mouth and recommendations of your riding instructor are good places to start. There’s also the newspaper, horse magazines and horse sales.

Consider the experience level of your child and that of any prospective horses. “You don’t want the blind leading the blind,” says Phillips. “I hear so many parents say, ‘I want a young horse for my kid so they can learn together.’ That is really a mistake. Either your child or the horse needs some experience so one can teach the other. If this is your first horse, a more experienced horse is almost always a better fit than a young one.”

Once you find a horse to consider, spend a lot of time with the horse before making a decision. Is the horse well mannered? Is he easy to catch, to saddle? See if the seller will let you try the horse for a few weeks before making a final decision.

Be patient and ask a lot of questions, suggests Phillips. “Why is the horse for sale? How long has this owner had it? Does it kick or crib? Will it load in a two-horse trailer? How old is it? What has this owner been doing with the horse? Can an inexperienced rider ride the horse? Has it ever colicked? Has it been x-rayed? What do you feed it? Is the horse registered? If the horse is a mare, could she be bred?”

Horses aren’t like puppies, Phillips says. “These are 1,000 pound animals we’re talking about. Find out as much as possible about the horse. You don’t want to get stuck with a horse nobody wants.”

Finally, take the horse to a veterinarian for a pre-purchase exam. A veterinarian can determine the horse’s approximate age and health. The vet will check the horse’s legs for any injuries or potential problems. “Once you find the right horse for your child, you want to make sure he’s healthy and sound,” Phillips says.

Gift Horses
If your child received a horse as a gift, Phillips recommends many of the same guidelines. “Get some help or take lessons so you can enjoy your new horse. And even if the horse is already yours, get him vet-checked,” she says. “One of my clients was given a horse a few years back. We had him checked, and he was 10 years older than the owner thought! She was very disappointed, but at least we knew what we were dealing with.”

A horse can be a wonderful companion for a child. Horse ownership teaches responsibility, leadership and loyalty, but it can also backfire, resulting in a child that never wants to be around a horse again. Hopefully by taking a few precautions before purchasing your horse, you will team up with a great equine companion for many years to come.