12 May, 2010

Silk in early England

One would expect wool and linen to be readily available in early medieval Britain, as the climate is suitable for growing flax and rearing sheep. What about exotic luxury textiles, like silk?



Textiles, like other organic materials, do not usually survive well in archaeological deposits, unless the environment is either very dry (e.g. caves in a desert) or waterlogged (e.g. peat bogs). However, if textiles are deposited in close contact with metal objects, the corrosion of the metal can sometimes preserve fragments of the associated textile, either directly or as an impression in the corrosion products.

One of the funerary practices in widespread use by the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’), before they converted to Christianity, was inhumation burial with grave goods. The body was placed in the grave fully clothed, complete with jewellery and clothing fasteners such as brooches and belt buckles. Many of the clothing fasteners were made of metal, commonly copper alloy (bronze and related materials) or iron. Other metal objects such as tools, weapons or personal possessions were sometimes also buried with the body, and where these items touched clothing or other textiles such as cloth bags or wrappers they may also preserve fragments of textile.

Obviously, these tiny pieces of preserved fabric say very little about the overall shape and structure of the garments or cloths they were once part of. Nevertheless, they can say a great deal about the types of fibres, the spinning and weaving techniques used, and even, with careful chemical analysis, about dyes, colours and patterns.

Analysis of 3,800 records of preserved textiles from 1,730 graves excavated in what is now England has provided a wealth of information (Walton Rogers 2007). It should be noted that, by definition, this is a sample of textiles buried in graves containing metal objects, and may not necessarily be representative of textiles in use that were not deposited as grave goods, or textiles that were deposited in graves that did not contain metal objects. This caveat aside, however, it probably gives us a reasonable idea (and very likely the best we are going to get) of the textiles in use in Anglo-Saxon England.

Two fragments of silk cloth have been recorded (Walton Rogers 2007):

  • very fine silk twill* weave found with a Frankish brooch dated to the early- to mid-sixth century, from Dover in Kent;

  • silk tabby* weave wrapped around a small copper-alloy ball from a seventh-century smith’s grave at Tattershall Thorpe, Lincolnshire.

The smith had a miscellaneous collection of goods from Continental Europe, perhaps acquired in extensive travels (Walton Rogers 2007).

Documentary sources

Letter written by Cuthbert, abbot of Wearmouth, to Lul, Archbishop of Mainz, in 764

...you have sent, namely, an all silk robe for the relics of Bede, our master of blessed memory...
--Letter of Cuthbert to Lul, quoted in: Crossley-Holland 1999

Note: this Abbot Cuthbert is not the same as the famous St Cuthbert, who lived in the previous century.

Bede, Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow

Among other things, he brought two cloaks, all of silk, and of incomparable workmanship, for which he received an estate of three hides on the south bank of the river Were, near, its mouth, from King Alfrid

--Bede, Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, Chapter 9, available online

The abbot in question is Benedict Biscop. King Aldfrid became king of Northumbria in 684 (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV Ch.26). One hide was the area of land required to support one family.


The archaeological samples and the documentary evidence are consistent. Silk cloth was clearly known in Anglo-Saxon England in the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries. It was also clearly very rare, very expensive (two high-quality silk cloaks bought enough farmland to support three families), and confined to people who had contacts with Continental Europe (Benedict Biscop brought silk cloaks back from Rome; Abbot Cuthbert received a silk robe from the Archbishop of Mainz in what is now Germany; the grave in Dover contained a brooch from Merovingian France; the smith at Tattershall Thorpe had several items from Europe and had perhaps travelled widely).


Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Bede, Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, Chapter 9, available online
Crossley-Holland K. The Anglo-Saxon world: an anthology. Oxford University Press 1999, ISBN 0-19-283547-5.
Walton Rogers P. Cloth and clothing in early Anglo-Saxon England. Council for British Archaeology 2007, ISBN 978-1-902771-54-0.

Map links
Dover, Kent
Tattershall Thorpe, Lincolnshire

*In tabby weave the weft threads go alternately under and over one warp thread at a time; in twill weave the weft threads go over and under two or more warp threads at a time, each row stepping one thread to the side of the previous row. Tabby weaving is the simplest type, and if you did some hand-weaving in junior school it was almost certainly tabby weaving. I’ll come back to these techniques in more detail another time.


Rick said...

Does 'tabby' weaving have some oblique connection to tabby cats?

More on topic, do we have any comparative hint of what the finest quality linen or wool garments cost?

Note incidentally that the price in land is very convenient for world builders, because it is a 'real' price, connected if indirectly to the basic commodities that land produces (and nobles squeeze from the peasants). A price in silver tells you little unless you know how much silver it cost to buy, say, a cow, or for that matter a hide of land.

Anonymous said...

That's really interesting, Carla, thankyou, I didn't know about Walton Rogers's work. Something that would support your contention that silk was known, but rare, is that Bede doesn't seem to have known how it was made, something that I wound up discussing in this post of mine.

Meghan said...

Wow. That is incredibly interesting! Thanks for the great explanation and research as always. Textiles are so key to understanding history and culture (and trade).

Rick said...

silk was known, but rare ... Bede doesn't seem to have known how it was made

How difficult it was to come by this information in a world that not only had no Wikipedia, but no Google!

Silk and cotton would both come to England as exotic eastern luxury trades, so confusion about their respective origins would not be surprising. (But come to think of it, was cotton known at all? I never hear it mentioned in medieval contexts.)

Gabriele Campbell said...

The Romans knew silk, and the trade routes by which they obtained it didn't vanish after the empire collapsed, so silk in AngloSaxon graves isn't really a surprise. But that a smith could afford to buy some is interesting; I'd have thought it was rather on the shopping lists of kings and bishops. ;)

Carla said...

Rick - Not to my knowledge, although I think the origin of tabby as in cat is obscure, so who's to say? From this early period I can't think of a documentary reference to the price of a high-quality linen or wool garment. Substantial, because of the many hours of labour required to spin the thread, weave the fabric and any tablet-woven border braid, and make up the garment. Most of the time is in the spinning. The finer the thread and the more complex the weave, the more hours required. In a subsistence economy most people would have made their own wool or linen cloth for garments, either directly or via their household servants depending on status. That said, there was certainly an export market in wool cloaks from Britain to Frankia in the 8th century when Charlemagne complained to King Offa about the new fashion for short cloaks, so the origins of the cloth trade that made medieval East Anglia wealthy go back at least that far, and cloth was evidently valuable enough to be worth trading internationally. We can probably deduce that quality wool and linen garments were valuable, but not in the same league as exotic luxuries like silk. I doubt that a wool cloak of any kind would have bought you two-thirds of a farm!

Tenthmedieval - reasonably enough, since as far as I know silk was mostly imported as finished cloth, and people would have had little more idea of its origin than the nineteenth century socialites had about birds of paradise. Interesting as to whether Bede was just guessing, perhaps based on his knowledge of linen production from flax, or whether someone had told him about cotton. Linen was more luxurious than wool, since refusing to wear linen was a mark of austerity, so he may have extrapolated that the still-more-luxurious silk came from some sort of exotic plant. Which also raises the question of whether 'silk' could extend to any fine fabric imported from the Orient, and thus whether the word might have covered some of the finer types of cotton weaves. I don't think there are any grave finds of cotton mentioned in Penelope Walton Rogers' book, but that might be absence of evidence.

Meghan - thanks, and I'm glad you found it interesting. Yes, textiles are immensely important - it's worth noting that silk fabric was one of the things that were valuable enough to be carried halfway across the world!

Rick - Good question! See my response above. If cotton fibres can be definitively identified from graves (or their absence proved, which is a harder question), that would provide an answer. Cotton is a Middle English word with an Arab origin, which might suggest that it came in rather later, possibly after the crusades?

Gabriele - exactly, if the supply and the demand are still there, trade has a habit of finding other ways of matching them up, regardless of political upheavals en route. The smith might have received the silk as a gift - perhaps as a reward for some special commission for an important client? Smiths could be very highly skilled; a swordsmith or someone like the Sutton Hoo jeweller might be able to name his own price. There's material for a story in the smith's grave...

Rick said...

If 'cotton' comes from Arabic, its introduction (or at least widespread use) is pretty clearly post-Islamic.

My recollection is that silkworms were brought from China in Justinian's day, which might of reduced the price from stupendous to merely exorbitant. But in any case merchants trading west didn't necessarily know how it was made, only that you could make a bundle selling it.

Carla said...

Rick - well, the word is clearly post-Islamic. The commodity might have been around at earlier times under a different name.

Penelope Walton Rogers' book says there is one example of cotton sewing thread known from 5th-century Germany, so cotton fibre had found its way to northern Europe by that date. She says there is no example of cotton yet identified in early English graves.

That's also my recollection, though I think I read it in Robert Graves (Count Belisarius), so I wouldn't count that as a confirmed source :-) It would have been in the Byzantine interest to keep the actual method of production a secret for as long as possible. Or even to spread misinformation deliberately? After all, anyone who was hoping to find out how to make silk and undercut them wouldn't get far if they thought they were looking for a plant...

Bernita said...

Thank you, Carla.
I will mention this post to my daughter. She's in the SCA, makes costumes and there are always authenticity arguments.