Theories on Norse Padded Armour

Translated by Greg Rice from the Czech original.

At the request of many reenactors, who are interested in early medieval warfare, my colleagues Roman Král, Jan Zajíc, Jan Bělina, et al. and I decided to write an article that would provide a comprehensive commentary on the use of padding under armor and fabric armor in the early Middle Ages. Given that there is no extant archaeological evidence, we are forced to speculate and discuss dubious literary references, iconography and tested, firsthand experience. In this article, we will formulate a list of design assumptions.

1. The need for padding under mail armor

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry.             Around 1070’s AD

Mail armor is constructed of connected rings of metal. It is logical that the mail armor and possibly other types of armor were used in combination with padding. Mail, which was the most widely used metal armor in Scandinavia, provides good protection against edged weapons and effectively disappaites the force of a blow. If it was worn without padding, a strike to the body would cause surface and internal damage. For the Viking Age (and indeed throughout the early Middle Ages) padding is never directly mentioned as part of combat equipment (mentioned as gerðar, herváðir and herklæði). The same applies to the surviving Scandinavian figures (see eg. Archer 2013) – armor lying close to the body and the undercoat is not noticeable. Padding as the bottom layer can easily be overlooked, but more significantly – when the armor was depicted, padding was not important for either the artist or the viewer of the piece of art; even though padding is as important as the other parts of armor. However, there are illuminations of contemporary European armor, in which the padding is shown (see eg. Skodell 2008), and we will try to show the parallels in contemporary padding across Western and Northern Europe.


2. The material of the padding

The best protection against the strike is layered textiles and/or leather. In the European reenactment the current trend is to produce fabric gambesons that are a few centimeters thick, but scientific investigation (see list at Archer 2014) suggests that two textile layers of fabric or a combination of fabric and leather were used. Iconography, showing the armor close to the body, could support that idea. We validated the use of few layers of wool (up to three) in modern (Eastern style) battles; the warrior is not restricted in movement and is fairly well protected against swords. Axe and spear, however, are problematic due to the force they generate. Similarly, we validated a thinner layer of felted wool.

Sagas and other sources, including The Book of the Hird (Hirðskrá) and The King’s Mirror (Konungs skuggsjá), mention textile armor treyja and panzer / panzari (Falk 1914 : § 87 + § 90; 181 – 182, 185 – 186). These two words were introduced into Old Norse from Middle Low German and they denote multi-layer linen gambesons of High and Late Middle Ages (Hjardar – Vike 2011: 194 – 196). In the Bayeux Tapestry armors are so simplied, they can represent mail, scale, lamellar armors or even gambesons, which are quilted in vertical or diamond patterns. In any case, they may be linked to professionalization of the army in 11th century.


3. Style 


The attack of the “Great Danish Army” from the manuscript M.736, fol. 9v, about 1130 AD.

Determining what style of the padding was used is probably the most difficult of all to answer, because it requires knowledge of contemporary clothing. It can be assumed that the cut of clothing was not entirely consistent over all the lands that the Norse enhabited. Also, it can be postulated that there were gradual improvements – i.e. the strengthening the individual parts and increasing the number of layers with the need of quilting.

Apparently, most of warriors in Sagas of Icelanders fought without armor, which can be interpreted as they could not afford quality armor or they acted too spontaneously to think about protection. However, from two extreme examples (Helgi, the hero of Vápnfirðinga saga, binds a big stone to his chest to avoid the injury, and Þóri Þorsteinsson, the fighter of Hákon the Good and veteran of Battle of Fitjar, cut a hole in an oxen hide and put that over his head) showing the same kind of ad hoc improvisation and the pattern of not having the armor in the fight. In some cases, warriors of sagas put on festive tunics before a fight; in the most dramatic moments of their life, fashion was more desirable than good protection. Frankish and English illuminations from the 10th – 12th centuries depict a variety of warriors clad only in caps and tunics. It is reasonable to assume that padding was virtually identical to those typical, civilian clothes, and their protective function was achieved by layering them. That means, a classic tunic (kyrtill/skyrta), knee-length garment without buttons or fastening, with long sleeves and gores. The neckline could have a lapel and collar to protect the neck, as Skjoldehamn and Guddal tunics. Likewise, coats (Klappenrock) or Eastern caftans with buttons could, of course, serve the same function.

Add. MS 24199 fol. 18

Cotton Ms. Cleo. C VIII, fol. 18v, the end of the 10th century.

This solution is illustrated in at least a few sources. The first is the illumination of the Anglo-Saxon version of The Psychomachia of Prudentius (fol. 18v, see the picture), which dates back to the late 10th century. In this illumination one can see two fighters – dancers in short ring shirts with dagged edges and under tunics that reach the knees and wrists. Practically the same solution appears in several manuscripts illuminations from the 10th – 11th century (see eg. a scene from The Book of Maccabees of St. Gallen, Fulda SacramentaryThe Golden Gospels of EchternachThe life of St. Albin and Stavelot Bible). There are also literary sources with statements about fabric under armor, namely Saga of Magnus the Good (ch. 29), which states that “King Magnus threw off from him his coat of ring-mail, and had a red silk shirt outside over his clothes [ok hafði yzta rauða silkiskyrtu] […].”

Předpokládaná rekonstrukce bojovníka uloženého v Gjermundbu, 10. století. Podle

Expected reconstruction warrior stored in Gjermundbu, 10th century. Taken from Hjardar – Vike 2011: 155.

This short quotation forces us to imagine a padding as several layered tunics. Personally, we use this solution and it allows the wearer to freely add / remove the number of layers, clean tunics separately and finally use separate tunics outside the combat context. Two Norwegian finds – Skjoldehamn and Guddal – contained paired tunics, which have been experimentally proven by us to be a good protection against cold and padding worn under the mail armor.

We can also imagine that padding could be made from tunics sewn together showing that padding is a special war garment that hardly finds application in a non-combat situations. It is often argued that Byzantine sources describe padding that is similar to a gambeson. An anonymous treatise on the strategy from the 6th century gives a particularly interesting testimony:

There should also be a space between the armor and the body. It should not be worn directly over ordinary clothing, as some do to keep down the weight of the armor, but over a garment at least a finger thick. There are two reasons for this. Where it touches the body the hard metal may not chafe but may fit and lie comfortably upon the body. In addition, it helps to prevent the enemy missiles from hitting the flesh […].”(The Anonymous Byzantine Treatise on Strategy, §16, ed. G. T. Dennis )

In Scandinavia, the existence of such a one-pieced textile represents the term treyja, which could mean that specialized clothing began to be used in the later period (11th / 12th century onwards), but due to the nature of our sources, we can neither accept or reject this idea with 100% certainty. We have to admit that both variants are possible. Thickness of the special garment could be around 1 centimeter. During the making of such a piece of clothing, we would personally avoid excessive quilting; we would only stitched the layers at hems.

Armors with possible integral lining. A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry. Around 1070’s AD.

Scandinavian iconography suggests that the length of padding adapted to the length of chain mail. It is even possible to think about the intergral lining of the mail armor, as the Bayeux Tapestry suggests; it shows armors carried on spears, not worn by anyone, with wide coloured borders, perhaps suggesting that the padding was in some way integral to the armor itself, and scenes on the border also depict armor being removed from men that are clearly naked underneath, which also suggests integral padding that is removed with the mail.  The Psychomachia of Prudentius and other contemporary illuminations, however, shows the opposite. With few exceptions, we can say that until the early 11th century, Scandinavians surely used shorter mail armors, with the length up to 70 cm and short sleeves. Mail components, such as protection over the neck or legs, were missing. During the 11th century, we can observe how the armor lengthened, which was due to Continental influence and which culminated in the use of a complete mail armor set.

We are strictly against the use of modern padding, which is haphazardly stitched together and which looks more like rags or slave clothing. The padding – no matter how it looked – had to be aesthetically pleasing and had to reflect the status of the owner. Some reenactors and organizers of festivals like to say there are no sources, so every version is possible. The goal that we reenactors should achieve is the least disturbing look that is in accordance with what we can see or read in sources. Now we will compare the Viking Recreation combat of the Modern Western European style to Modern Eastern European style. Modern Western (example here) is a style where the head is not a legal target and the force of blows is much less. This style combat is so safe it allows one to use no armor, and the historical look can be maintained. On the other hand, Modern Eastern style fighters (example here) are focused on hits with full force to protected target zones – a system that is illogical from the historical perspective. Western tradition allows to use a tunic as the main protective layer, while it is better to use more layers in the Eastern approach. The result we would like to achieve is that the armor can look historically correct in both styles, but with the different number of layers. On several occasions, we have fought in modern Eastern style battles with nothing but one tunic worn without mail armor; it turned to be a fight for our lives, the realistic feeling which gives one so much adrenalin to ignore hits from blunt weapons. Layered tunics, whether sewn or not, could be a good compromise between these two extreme approaches.


4. Reconstructions

We hold the opinion the image of reenactors is crucial in the reenactment. We strove for a quality article, but we can not completely demonstrate our thoughts without photos. Therefore, you can find a gallery below. We hope that the gallery will extend in the future. If you have any image of the appropriate padding, you can, of course, send it to us and we will publish it.


We believe that the problem has been overlooked so far and the battlefields are full of non-historical armors that look more like the Michelin-Man. In order to change the current trend, the discussion has been led, and therefore we are open to opinion and are willing to participate in further debates. The article was well accepted and a separate addition, “War coat – an experiment“, was written. The most important quote from the article says: “For a traveling fighter, it is impractical to carry civilian clothes and extra special combat protection, I think. It is more advantageous to combine these two requirements into one.

I hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact me or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon.

Sources and recommended links

The Anonymous Byzantine Treatise on Strategy. In: Three Byzantine Military Treatises, ed. a trans. George T. Dennis, Washington 1985: 1–135. Available at:

Saga of Magnús the Good (Magnús saga góða). Available at:

ARCHER, Gavin. Mail Shirts, in: The Viking Age Compendium, 2013. [online]. [ 2015-02-03]. Available at:

ARCHER, Gavin. Jacks and Gambesons, in: The Viking Age Compendium, 2014. [online]. [2015-02-03]. Available at: See the bibliography in the end.

FALK, Hjalmar. Altnordische Waffenkunde, Kristiania 1914.

HJARDAR, Kim – VIKE, Vegard. Vikinger i krig, Oslo 2011.

SKODELL, Henry. Schutzausrüstung des 11. Jahrhunderts in Mitteleuropa, in:, 2008. [online]. [2015-02-03]. Available at:

Roman subarmalis – thoracomachus – online.

The oldest gambeson from Bussy-Saint-Martin – online.

The reconstruction of quilted gambeson from the 13th century – online.

Lamellar Armours of the Viking Age

This article is a translation of my Czech article “Lamelové zbroje ze Snäckgärde?” (Lamellar Armour from Snäckgärde?). The article was well accepted and was later translated to Spanish (“Armadura lamellar en la Escandinavia vikinga“) and Portuguese (“Armadura lamelar na Escandinávia Viking“). If you like my research, you can write me anytime or support me on my Patreon site.

Lamellar armours in Scandinavia

The reconstruction of the Birka warrior. Taken from Hjardar – Vike 2011: 347.

The question of lamellar armour is popular among both experts and reenactors. I myself have dealt with this issue several times and I have collected the literature. My research led me to virtually unknown finds from Snäckgärde, which lies near Visby on Gotland. These finds did not survive, but are described by priest Nils Johan Ekdahl (1799–1870), which is called “the first scientific Gotlandic archaeologist.”

The reason why finds from Snäckgärde are unknown is that they were discovered almost 200 years ago and were lost. The literature about them is hardly accessible and mostly unknown for scholars of non-Swedish origin.  All I managed to find is this: in the year 1826, four graves with skeletons were examined in the site called Snäckgärde (Visby, Land Nord, SHM 484), and the most interesting of these four graves are those with number 2 and 4 (Carlson 1988: 245; Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 318):

Grave no. 2: grave with skeleton oriented in the south-north direction, spherical mound lined with stones. The funeral equipment consisted of an iron axe, a ring located at the waist, two opaque beads in the neck area and “some pieces of armour on the chest” (något fanns kvar and pansaret på bröstet).

Grave no. 4: grave with skeleton in east-west direction, spherical mound, 0.9 meter high, with sunken top. Inside the mound, there was a coffin of limestone, with dimensions of 3 m × 3 m (?). A ringed-pin was found the right shoulder of the dead. At waist level, a ring from the belt was discovered. Another parts of the equipment were an axe and “several scales of armour” (några pansarfjäll), found at the chest.

Judging by the funerary remains, it can be assumed that two men were laid in these mounds with their armours. Of course, we can not say for sure what kind of armours they were, but they seem to be lamellar armour, especially because of analogies and the mention of scales (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 318). Dating is problematic. Lena Thunmark-Nylén mantioned both armours in her publications about Viking Age Gotland. Pins and belt fragments also points to the Viking Age. However, what is the most important are axes – according to Ekhdal´s drawings, the axe from the grave no. 2 is a broad axe, while the axe from the grave no. 4 had the handle decorated with brass. A broad axe could be dated from the end of the 10th or from early 11th century, and the brass coated handle is a feature of some axes from the early 11th century (Thames, Langeid and another sites on Gotland, see my article “Two-handed axes). It seems logical to suppose that both graves were constructed in the same century, although there are some minor differences in the construction and the orientation of graves.


The hall of Birka with finds of chainmail rings and lamellae. Taken from Ehlton 2003: 16, Fig. 18. Made by Kjell Persson.

In Scandinavia, only one analogy of lamellar armour (or rather fragments) has been known so far, from Birka (see for example Thordeman 1939: 268; Stjerna 2001; Stjerna 2004Hedenstierna-Jonson 2006: 55, 58; Hjardar – Vike 2011: 193–195; Dawson 2013 and others). Lamellae were scattered around the so called Garrison (Garnison) and they number 720 pieces (the biggest piece consisted of 12 pieces). 267 lamellae could be analyzed and classified into 8 types, which probably served to protect different parts of the body. It is estimated that the armour from Birka protected the chest, back, shoulders, belly and legs down to knees (Stjerna 2004: 31). The armour was dated to the first part of 10th century (Stjerna 2004: 31). Scholars agree on it´s nomadic origin from Near or Middle East and it´s closest paralel comes from Balyk-Sook (for example Dawson 2002; Gorelik 2002: 145; Stjerna 2004: 31). Stjerna (2007: 247) thinks that armour and other excelent objects were not designed for war and were rather symbolic („The reason for having these weapons was certainly other than military or practical“). Dawson (2013) stands partially in opposition and claims that the armour was wrongly interepreted, because only three types from eight could be lamellae and the number of real lamellae is not enough for a half of chest armour. His conclusion is that lamellae from Birka are only pieces of recycled scrap. In the light of armours from Snäckgärde, which are not included in Dawson´s book, I consider this statement to be hasty.


The reconstruction of the Birka armour on the basis of Balyk-Sook armour. Taken from Hjardar – Vike 2011: 195.

People often think that there are many finds from the area of Old Russia. In fact, there are only a few finds from the period of 9th-11th century and they can be interpreted as eastern import, just like the example from Birka (personal conversation with Sergei Kainov; see Kirpichnikov 1971: 14-20). From this early period, finds come for example from Gnezdovo and Novgorod. The Russian material dated between 11th-13th is much more abundant, including about 270 finds (see Medvedev 1959; Kirpichnikov 1971: 14-20). However, it is important to note that until the second half of the 13th century, the number chainmail fragments is four times higher than fragments of lamellar armour, pointing out that the chainmail was the predominant type of armour in the territory of Old Russia (Kirpichnikov 1971: 15). With high probability, Old Russian lamellar armour from the Viking Age came from Byzantium, where they were dominant thanks to their simpler design and lower cost already in the 10th century (Bugarski 2005: 171).

A Note for Reenactors

The lamellar armour has become very popular among reenactors. At some festivals and events, lamellar armours count more than 50% of armours. The main arguments for usage are:

  • Low production price
  • More protection
  • Faster production
  • Great look

While these arguments are understandable, it has to be stressed that lamellar armour is in no way suitable for Viking Age reenactment. The argument that this type of armour was used by Rus can be counteracted by the fact that even in the time of the greatest expansion of lamellar armours in Russia, the number of chainmail armours was four times higher. What is more, lamellar armours were imported. If we keep the basic idea that the reenactment should be based on the reconstruction of typical objects, then it must be clear that the lamellar armour is only suitable for Nomad and Byzantine reenactment. The same applies to leather lamellar armour.

An example of well reconstructed lamellar armour. Viktor Kralin.

On the other hand, the finds from Birka and Snäckgärde suggest that this type of armour could occur in the eastern part of Scandinavia. Before any conclusion, we have to take into consideration that Birka and Gotland were territories of strong influences of Eastern Europe and Byzantium. This is also the reason for accumulation of artifacts of Eastern provenance, otherwise not known from Scandinavia. In a way, it would be strange if we had not these finds, especially from the period when they were popular in Byzantium. However, this does not mean that the lamellar armours were common in this area. Lamellar armour stands isolated from Norse warrior tradition and armours of this type sometimes occured in Baltic region until the 14th century (Thordeman 1939: 268269). Chainmail armour can be identified as the predominant form of armour in Viking Age Scandinavia, like in Old Russia. This statement can be verified by the fact that the chainmail rings were found in Birka itself (Ehlton 2003). Regarding the production of lamellar armour in the Scandinavian and Russian territory, there is no evidence to support that this was happening and such a production is highly improbable.

If lamellar armour should be tolerated in Viking reenactment, then

  • the reenactor has to reenact Baltic area or Rus area.
  • it has to be used in limited number (1 lamellar armour per group or 1 lamellar armour per 4 chainmail armours).
  • only metal lamellar armours are allowed, not leather ones or visibly lasered ones.
  • it has to correspond to finds from Birka (or Gnezdovo or Novgorod), not Visby.
  • it can not be combined with Scandinavian components like buckles.

The armour has to look like the original and has to be supplemented by appropriate gear, like Russian helmets. If we are in a debate between two positions “Yes to lamellar armours” or “No to lamellar armours“, ignoring the possibility “Yes to lamellar armours (without taking aforementioned arguments in account)“, I choose the option “No to lamellar armours”. And what is or opinion?


Bugarski, Ivan (2005). A contribution to the study of lamellar armors. In: Starinar 55, 161—179. Online:

Carlsson, Anders (1988). Penannular brooches from Viking Period Gotland, Stockholm.

Ehlton, Fredrik (2003). Ringväv från Birkas garnison, Stockholm. Online:

Dawson, Timothy (2002). Suntagma Hoplôn: The Equipment of Regular Byzantine Troops, c. 950 to c. 1204. In: D. Nicolle (ed.). Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour, Woodbridge, 81–90.

Dawson, Timothy (2013). Armour Never Wearies : Scale and Lamellar Armour in the West, from the Bronze Age to the 19th Century, Stroud.

Gorelik, Michael (2002). Arms and armour in south-eastern Europe in the second half of the first millennium AD. In: D. Nicolle (ed.). Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour, Woodbridge, 127–147.

Hedenstierna-Jonson, Charlotte (2006). The Birka Warrior – the material culture of a martial society, Stockholm. Online:

Kirpichnikov, Anatolij N. (1971). Древнерусское оружие. Вып. 3. Доспех, комплекс боевых средств IX—XIII вв, Moskva.

Medvedev, Аlexandr F. (1959) К истории пластинчатого доспеха на Руси //Советская археология, № 2, 119—134. Online:

Stjerna, Niklas (2001). Birkas krigare och deras utrustning. In: Michael Olausson (ed.). Birkas krigare, Stockholm, 39–45.

Stjerna, Niklas (2004). En stäppnomadisk rustning från Birka. In: Fornvännen 99:1, 28–32. Online:

Stjerna, Niklas. (2007). Viking-age seaxes in Uppland and Västmanland : craft production and eastern connections. In: U. Fransson (ed). Cultural interaction between east and west, Stockholm, 243–249.

Thunmark-Nylén, Lena (2006). Die Wikingerzeit Gotlands III: 1–2 : Text, Stockholm.