‘í litklæðum’ – Coloured Clothes in Medieval Scandinavian Literature and Archaeology
Papers given at the Thirteenth International Saga Conference, Durham (2006)
What do we mean by ‘coloured clothes’? Or rather, what did the saga writers mean by their term litklæði? Today, when coloured clothes abound and modern dyes can achieve every conceivable hue, our understanding of cloth colour is concerned with the actual shade of the finished cloth. Thus, while we might distinguish between white and coloured cloth, we are more likely to perceive a contrast between brightly coloured or ‘colourful’ clothes and more muted colours. But to the medieval Icelander, the term litklæðr probably had a much more clearly defined field of reference, indicating the process of production as well as the colour of the end product. The important distinction would almost certainly have been between dyed and undyed cloth. Undyed cloth would then have been fairly common, and would have included natural wool shades such as ‘grey’ (grár) and ‘black’ (svartr).
Saga accounts will sometimes mention that a character is dressed i litklæðum, ‘in coloured clothing’. At other times they are described as wearing clothing of a particular colour. Without such a specific description, we should probably assume that saga characters are typically dressed in undyed clothes. Thus, in Eyrbyggja saga ch.20, Thorarin and Arnkell have been going back and forth to Katla’s house all day, when they are joined by Geirriðr who was wearing a blue cloak; the word goes back to Katla that the men are back and one is wearing coloured clothing. Here, it is apparent that despite their status, Thorarin and Arnkell are wearing undyed clothes, that they must habitually wear undyed clothes, and that the intended readership or audience could be expected to make the same assumptions in this respect as the author.
A similar picture of medieval clothing in the Norse Atlantic settlements can be seen in archaeological evidence from Greenland, especially from Herjolfsnes in the Eastern Settlement. When the cemetery here was excavated in the early twentieth century, it was found that a large collection of woollen clothes had been preserved in the permafrost. Many of these clothes, which date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, were so well preserved that they still look ready to wear. Like the clothes of the sagas, these clothes were undyed; instead, the cloth was typically woven from two contrasting shades of naturally pigmented wool. The weave is generally twill of the kind categorised as 2/2 twill; plain weave is also sometimes used.