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.