The Length of Early Medieval Belts

There are some “truths” in reenactment that are not questioned even though they should be. These are called “reenactorism” and engaged by both newbies and veterans. In this article we will show one of these, the myth of a long belt in Early medieval Europe, following the work done by German reenactor Christopher Kunz.

It is fully evident from the preserved material that there was a number of approaches to belt wearing in the Early Middle ages. These approaches originated alongside cultural environment and local development, social ranking, gender and usage method. The assumption of using a uniform belt type with the same width and length is wrong. On the initiative of beginning reenactors who often raise questions about belt length, in this article we will try to map the legth of men’s leather belts according to iconography and finds in burial complexes.

Fig. 1: Grave no. 59 from the Haithabu-Flachgräberfeld burial site
Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010b: 308, Taf. 10.


Simple belt with a short end (up to approx. 20 cm)

This form best resembles present belts, which are manufactured approximately 15 cm longer than the waistline. In seven graves from Birka, Sweden (488, 750, 761, 918, 949, 1030, 1076) the buckles are no more than 10 cm far from each other (Arbman 1943) and similar positions could be found throughout Europe – we can mention Great Moravian (i.e. Kalousek 1973: 33, Fig. 13) or Danish graves (Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010b: 301, Taf. 3). There are no belts with hanging strap-ends in Early medieval iconography, which is rather schematic than detailed. Belts are scarcely visible in painted iconography as they usually seem to be overlapped by pleated upper tunics, which can be interpreted as an element of fashion. As a result the belt looks like a narrow horizontal line.

There is a certain contradiction between some burial positions and strap-end decor, where some of Early medieval belts had strap-ends that hung down when threaded through the buckle. The most graphic evidence comes from depictions of people and animals which can be seen on the strap-ends and placed lengthwise. In some cases, there are figures of naked men depicted on the strap-ends, which could imply that the hanging end could reach down to the genitals and symbolically represent or emphasize them (Thomas 2000: Fig. 3.16, 3.27). In the listing below we will attempt to suggest several manners of tying these belts.

Fig. 2: A selection of painted iconography of 9-11th century depicting a belt hidden in tunic pleats.
From the left: British Lib. MS Arundel 60, 4r, 11th century; BNF Lat. 1, 423r, 9th century; British Lib. MS Stowe 944, 6r, 11th century; XIV.A.13, 29v, 11th century
.

Fig. 3: Strap-ends depicting a naked man.
Thomas 2000: Fig. 3.16, 3.27.


Fig. 4: A rare depiction of hanging strap-end in Western Europe iconography. Manuscript: Latin 1141, Fol. 14, 9th century.

  • Loose end
    The simplest form is represented by a belt worn in its nearly maximal length. The end is then short enough not to obstruct manual labour and because it copies the belt, it can be hidden in a pleated tunic. Depictions of loose belt ends can be quite typically observed in 13th and 14th century. Moreover, we know a belt from Early medieval Latvia which had a metal ring at its end, used to grapple on a buckle tongue. The very same method was is also known from Čingul mound, Ukraine, from 13th century (Отрощенко – Рассамакин 1983: 78).

Fig. 5: Reconstruction of belts from 400-700 AD in Zollernalb region, Germany.
Schmitt 2005: Abb. 15.

Fig. 6: Reconstruction of Haithabu type belts.
Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010b: 140, Abb. 61.

  • Tucked behind the belt
    Another simple way of wearing a belt is tucking its end behind the already fastened part of the belt. We have at least one piece of evidence of this wearing from Anglo-Saxon England, where a belt passed through the buckle, flipped back and end tucked behind itself was documented (Watson 2006: 6-8). This forms a perpendicular line on the belt and keeps the face side of strap-end exposed. In case of pleated tunic covering the belt it can be easily adjusted to form a line.


Fig. 7: Strap-end being flipped back after going through the buckle and tucked behind the already fastened belt. Shrublands Quarry, Watson 2006: Fig. 6.

  • Tucked in a slider
    Metal belt sliders are very scarce in terms of archeological material. One of this kind was found within Gokstad Barrow (C10439) and adjusted to fit a strap-end from the same grave (Nicolaysen 1882: 49, Pl: X:11). Another slider was presumably found in Birka grave no. 478 (Abrman 1943: 138) and three more made of sheet bronze were apparently found in Kopparvik, Gotland (Toplak 2016: 126). According to sliders usually appearing in relation to spurs or garters where they are 2-3 centimeters wide (i.e. Andersen 1993: 48, 69; Thomas 2000: 268; Skre 2011: 72-74), we can assume that if the sliders were used with belts more, we would be able to detect them more easily. It is possible that they corroded over time, that organic sliders were used too or that they will be found during a more detailed research. Generally we can assume that the sliders were used in cases where the buckles did not include holding plates – in opposite cases the holding plates would not be visible after using the slider.

Fig. 8: Reconstruction of the belt from grave no. 478 at Birka.
Abrman 1943: 138, Abb. 83.

Fig. 9: Attempt for a reconstruction of the belt from Birka grave no. 949 applying a leather slider.
Author: Sippe Guntursson.

  • Puncturing two holes
    A relatively elegant reenactor’s solution is to puncture two consecutive holes and tuck the belt behind its buckle. All the belt’s components therefore remain visible. This solution was documented in case of at least two archeological finds from Britain and Belgium, 6th-7th century. (De Smaele et al. in pressWatson 2002: 3). The same system is known from Early medieval Latvia. In case of pleated tunic covering the belt it can be easily adjusted to form a line.

Fig. 10: Puncturing two holes that enables threading the strap-end behind a buckle.
Author: Erik Panknin.

  • Attaching by a thong
    Another aesthetical, yet undocumented manner of attaching a belt is adding a thong which holds the buckle’s tongue while the strap-end continues further behind the buckle. We have no evidence for this manner.

Fig. 11: Fixing the buckle with a thong attached to the belt. An unfounded hypothesis.
Author: L’Atelier de Micky.

  • Tucking into a buckle slot
    Buckles having a rectangular slot aside from the typical loop are very common in Eastern-European regions. After fastening the belt using the loop’s tongue, the strap-end could be tucked into this slot and hanged downwards. In case of pleated tunic covering the belt it can be easily adjusted to form a line.


Fig. 12: Reconstruction of the belt from Berezovec barrow.
Степанова 2009: 250, рис. 18.

  • Knot on a belt
    The most frequent solution among reenactors is undoubtedly a knot performed like this: after going through the buckle, the strap-end is tucked behind the belt from below and then passed through the resulting loop. This means achieving a perpendicular line on the belt and keeping the strap-end’s face side visible. This knot-tying, although with much shorter belt than standardly used in today’s reenactment, could be found in France during the Merovingian age (France-Lanlord 1961). With a high probability, the same solution was found in a grave from St Michael’s Church graveyard in Workington, England. Knots were often worn in 13th and 14th century.

Fig. 13: Reconstruction of a Merovingian belt from St. Quentin.
France-Lanlord 1961.


Composite belt with a long end

Some of the Eastern-European Early medieval decorated belts are manufactured in a more complex way, having one or more longer ends. In case of a belt constructed to have more ends, one of these ends – usually the shorter one – is designed to be fixed by the buckle, while the others are either tagged on or formed by the outer layer of two-layered belt. Long ends of these costly belts are designed for double wrapping, tucking into a slider or behind the belt. The length of the ends is not standardized, however we are unable to find any belt that would reach below its owner’s crotch when completely tied. While looking for parallels, we can notice that a belt compounded this way has many similarities to tassels on horse harnesses. Apparently, the belts were worn by riders or emerged from such a tradition, then maintained the position of wealthy status even after being adopted by neighbouring non-nomadic cultures. At last we can state that longer belts were designed mainly to hold more decoration and to allow the owner to handle the length more flexibly, whether for practical or aesthetical reasons.

Fig. 14: Composite belts with long ends.
A, b – belts from Gnezdovo (Мурашева 2000: рис. 109, 113), c – belts from Nové Zámky (Čilinská 1966: Abb. 19), d – belt from Hemse (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: Abb. III:9:3), e – reconstruction of belt tying from Káros, Hungary (Petkes – Sudár 2014).


Conclusion

The topic of belt lenght in reenactment is definitely a controversional one as it touches every male reenactor. Belts are sometimes costly and even a hint, originally meant as constructive critic, can easily cause negative emotions. There is no need for them though, as there is probably no reenactor who has never worn a long belt. We suppose that this reenactorism, used in practice for more than 30 years over the whole world, is caused by these factors:

  • unwillingness to perform one’s own research leading to imitation of a generally accepted model
  • bad access to sources or their misintepretation
  • easily obtainable and cheap, yet historically inaccurate belts sold on the internet in standard length of about 160 cm
  • unwillingness to talk about the problem by both organizers and attendants

In this article, we demonstrated that historical belts often did not have any hanging ends and that the maximum length where the end would reach was the crotch, which could have a symbolic meaning. Any of the aforementioned manners of attaching should not be incompatible with the sources we have at our disposal, however as we already mentioned, both the length and style of wearing followed local traditions. Western Europe therefore preferred delicately hidden belts while in Eastern Europe, the richly decorated belts were worn on public display.


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