I’m currently watching the Norsemen on Netflix, a pitch-black historical comedy set in a Scandinavian coastal village during the late 8th century CE. Produced by NRK, Norway’s public service broadcaster, the show is filmed on location in the beautiful south-west island of Karmøy, the cast recording their scripts in Norwegian and then English, giving the latter version a suitably authentic air. If you like your laughs lighthearted or sentimental then this series is not for you. The humour is bone-dry to the point of choking and the stereotypical violence of the age is never too far away.
However, there is one minor issue with the television show’s historical setting: namely, the awful leather armour worn by the main characters. These fantastical costumes consist of soft animal skins of various unlikely colours and textures seemingly held in place with dozens of buckled straps and metal rivets. The impression is more of a modern biker club – or its S&M equivalent – than of warriors in the Dark Ages. Despite its popularity in dramatisations and art, leather torso armour of any type almost certainly did not exist in Europe before the 11th century CE. Yes, that’s right, all those Roman centurions wearing tight body-shaped cuirasses are probably the result of some costume designer’s overactive imagination. Coupled with decades of misunderstandings by amateur historians and hobbyists alike.
While pieces of leather have been found in the military archaeology of the Continent from the Bronze Age onward, almost all examples are related to other wearable items (strips for holding mail in place, layers possibly worn over textiles and so on). No artefact has been identified that one can point to and unambiguously claim as upper-body armour in its own right, in whole or in part. On the contrary, there is far more evidence for wool- and linen-based fabrics being used in a combat setting than leather, from the linothorax of the Classical Greeks to the gambeson of the Medieval knight. And despite the frequent online references to the hide “battle-harness” of the legendary Irish hero, Cú Chulainn, the speculations and the early 20th century translations they are based upon are probably wrong. Almost certainly what is being referred to is layers of textiles and flexible soft leather braced with a wide cowhide belt.
“Then the champion and warrior, the marshalled fence of battle of all the men of earth who was Cú Chulainn, put on his battle-array of fighting and contest and strife. Of that battle-array which he put on were the twenty-seven shirts, waxed, board-like, compact, which used to be bound with strings and ropes and thongs next to his fair body that his mind and understanding might not be deranged whenever his rage should come upon him. Outside these he put on his hero’s battle-girdle of hard leather, tough and tanned, made from the choicest part of seven yearling ox-hides which covered him from the thin part of his side to the thick part of his armpit. He wore it to repel spears and points and darts and lances and arrows, for they used to glance from it as if they had struck on stone or rock or horn. Then he put on his apron of filmy silk with its border of variegated white gold against the soft lower part of his body. Outside his apron of filmy silk he put on his dark apron of pliable brown leather made from the choicest part of four yearling ox-hides with his battle-girdle of cows’ hides about it.”
So, enough of the Iron Age and Medieval biker gear, however attractive to modern tastes.