Satchels and Bags in the Early Middle Ages

I have found that evidence for any kind of bags used in the Viking Age is extremely limited. Many existing sources are obscure or lacking detail and are therefore are very difficult to recreate. But some fragments interpreted as bags do exist and they are occasionally depicted in the art of the period.
I have tried to collect evidence from or pertaining to the Viking Age, but due to the scarcity of evidence I have included some pre-Viking examples and have used some post 11th century depictions for analogous evidence. Early evidence is hard to find but both bags and pouches become more commonly illustrated into the Middle Ages. Large bags became especially associated with pilgrims later in the Medieval period and there are several shown in the 13th century Maciejowski Bible (now called the Morgan Bible). Though evidence is lacking, some sort of large bag must have been common carried for everyday domestic uses, though it hardly would have been necessary to carry the range of items we do today. An early example is the "loculus" that was used to carry provisions by Roman soldiers, an example of which is shown on Trajan's Column.

When shown, bags are often associated with pilgrims and other poor folk such as shepherds. It is likely these were considered a labourers accessory and would have been used for storing food or provisions for the day’s work or journey. Perhaps the everyday nature of the bags contributes to the lack of evidence. The St Albans Psalter and the Life of St. Edmund both show satchel carriers wearing shaggy cloaks. Though fashionable in the Viking Age these cloaks were considered rustic in the Middle Ages and are probably illustrated to emphasise the poor nature of the wearer. The evidence from both grave finds and art shows bags were carried by both men and women.
Bags for clothing, "klæð-sekkr", are mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas. In chapter 11 of The Saga of Grettir the Strong, Thorgeir was struck in the back by an axe. However he was carrying a leather bottle on his back containing whey, and that is what the axe struck into. Bags carried by women may have an association with sorcery. In Chapter 4 of Eirik the Red's Saga, Thorbjorg the Prohettess had a large purse on her belt in which she kept her charms for her predictions. The other common use for shoulder bags in the early Middle Ages would have been for the transport and storage of books and different styles existed from sturdy leather storage bags favoured by Irish monks, to the girdle book of the later Middle Ages, popular between the 13th and 16th centuries.
As mentioned above, shoulder bags are often associated with pilgrims and shepherds. I think this means it is likely their most common use was for carrying provisions on long journeys. Other uses seem to have been to hold grain, tools such as textile equipment or fire lighting tools and other everyday Viking Age objects.

Shoulder Bags

Pictorial Evidence for Bags

St. Peter and St. Cosmas from the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano in Rome. Dating from the 6th or 7th century AD.

Possible book bags are illustrated in standing stones and crosses in Scotland and Ireland such as the stone and shrine panel from Papil, and Bressay.

Image source
The Papil Stone was found in St Laurence Church in Shetland, and is now in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. It shows several characters with crosiers and satchels that are probably book bags.

Folio 158v from the Stuttgart Psalter. Showing David and Goliath. Made in Germany and dated to between 820 and 830AD.

Folio 158r from the Stuttgart Psalter showing psalm 144.

Carolingian wall paintings in the Abbey of St. John, Müstair, Switzerland. Showing the Stoning of St. Stephen. Frescos were painted during the early years of the abbey, in the early 9th century. Later, in the 11th and 12th centuries, the abbey experienced an expansion and new paintings were added or painted over the old frescos.

Detail from Harley 603 (folio 66v) showing a large pouch. Ca. 1020- 1030AD. In the British Library.

Novalesa fresco
11th century mural of St. Eldrad being dressed as a monk in Novalesa.

An agricultural border scene in the Bayeux Tapestry that may depict a satchel being worn by a man leading a plough. Ca. 1080AD. In this case the bag is being used to hold grain.

Springtime Activities in the Countryside, folio 34, Homilies of St Gregory of Nazianzos. Ca. 11th century. (Bibliothèque Nationale de France. MS. gr.553, fol.34 )

Mosaics of the nativity from the Church of the Dormition, Daphni, Greece. Late 11th century.

One of the Romanesque frescoes from the church at Tavant that was rebuilt in about 1090. Showing a nice clear picture of a man with a satchel.

King Edmund giving alms. From the 12th century (ca. 1130) Life, Passion, and Miracles of St. Edmund. (MS M.736 Pierpont Morgan Library). One of the Beggars has a pilgrim satchel very similar to the one shown carried by Jesus in the St. Albans Psalter.

Christ on the road to Emmaus in the 12th century (ca. 1130's) St Albans Psalter.

St Cuthbert driving away the birds. The grain being sowed is kept in a large bag. From the Lives of Cuthbert (British Library Yates Thompson MS 26. Folio 42v made in the last quarter of the 12th century.

Satchels are quite commonly shown in David and Goliath images. 1 Samuel 17 specifically states "Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag" It is worth noting that David was a shepherd.

David and Goliath in the 'Worms Bible' (British Library MS Harley 2803 Folio 126v). Dated to 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century, probably ca. 1148. Made in Germany.

David and Goliath in a Bible from the French National Library of the Netherlands (BK 76 E 11 Bible, Folio 051r). Ca. 1175.

David and Goliath shown in the Stammheim Missal (Gettey MS. 62, Folio 111r). in Hildesheim, Germany. Ca. 1175.

David and Goliath in a 12th century capital letter.

Psalm 11 (folio 20r) in the Anglo-Catalan Psalter. Produced at Christ Church in Canterbury, England, c. 1180 - 1200, and then completed in Catalonia, ca. 1340 - 50. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

A Levite and his wife from the Maciejowskie Bible (13th century).

Pilgrim Satchels

Shoulder bags belonging to pilgrims are one of the most commonly depicted reference for bags in the Middle Ages, and become very common in art after the 12th century. Decorations of crosses or scallops are frequently depicted on the front of the pouch, both being symbols of pilgrims. Scallop shells were particularly associated with 'The Way of St. James', the pilgrimage to the shrine of the apostle St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in north western Spain. The shells were sold at the entrance to the cathedral by the middle of the twelfth century, and still are today. The shells later also became associated with pilgrimages to other sites and pilgrims in general.

Pilgrims from the Cathedral of Saint-Lazare, Autun (ca. 1120-1130) and an 11th Century Statue of James the Apostle.

Crucifixion of St. James. Wisborough green, West Sussex ca. 1200 - 1250.

Bags in Archaeology

Two Frankish satchels are kept in the museum at Burg Lin in Krefeld, Germany. Found in grave 2268 at Krefeld Gellep, they are dated to the 5th century. Both are made of leather with bronze fittings such as strap ends and buckles. They are both are quite similar in size and shape to other examples through the Middle Ages. I have not been able to source a copy but details are found in the report by Hilmar Staude in Die Ledertasche aus Grab 2268 von Krefeld-Gellep.

Krefeld Gellup

Krefeld Gellup Krefeld Gellup
Frankish satchels from Krefeld Gellup.

Large bags could also be constructed using knitting techniques such as sprang or naalbinding. Open weave satchels are often found in later medieval art, and are shown in the Maciejowskie Bible (see folios 32r and 25r). Above is the remains of a woollen bag made from sprang, though it is possible it is a head covering. It measures 43 x 26 cm. Dated to the 5th century AD. (Cooper Hewitt Museum, accession no. 1971-50-482)


Frame Purses

From Scandinavian sites such as Hedeby in modern day Germany there are several examples of laths of wood interpreted as rigid handles for leather or textile bags, similar to a modern tote bag. Originals were made of Ash or Maple and are described by Florian Westphal in Die Holzfunde von Haithabu as:

"The elongated flat objects have a length of 181-495mm and a thickness of 7-13mm. In the middle section they are 29-52mm wide. The semi-circular borders have diameters of 31-61mm and are all centrally pierced (7-10mm)"


Wooden purse frames. Drawn by Florian Westphal.

Wooden Purse frames from Hedeby. Shown on display in the Hedeby Museum.

The material of the bags has not survived, so it is unknown what shape the bags would take or if they were made from textile or leather. All examples have long slots or holes along the straight sizes through which the body of the bag would be attached. According to the Hedeby excavation records one example (HbH.119.003) had yarn or fabric looped through the slots. Near the ends are holes through which a leather or rope strap could have been tied.
There is a oblong piece of leather from Schleswig that may be from a frame purse, though it is rather late, being found in a 12th century layer. It has tabs on each end that may have been stitched through these slots. Though the text suggests a belt was passed through the loops. It measures 18 x 21 cm.

A similar Sami bag exists with a wooden bracket and a bag with a round base sewn from several strips of cow hide with the hair still on, and a braided strap.

Sami frame purse with a bag made of cow hide.

An antler purse frame from Sweden. In National Historical Museum Sweden. (Object No.604,027)

Another purse frame of the same style has recently been found in underwater excavations in Birka. Very similar to one of the Hedeby examples, it has horse head shaped ends and zigzag shaped peaks. But in this case round holes for the bag attachment, rather than slots.

Similar laths made of antler and wood, very like the Sami example are on display in the Viborg Museum. Photo source

Book Bags

Books with satchels are mentioned in several early Irish sources, such as Adomnan’s Life of Columba, where a book and its protective satchel are specifically mentioned as belonging to a Pictish monk. According to the 7th century Hisperica Famina, before shelves were common Irish books were commonly stored, and transported, in sturdy decorative bags. These are commonly called budgets or polaires. Several examples of these survive from Ireland and Scotland, though some that may have been made for books are now cumdachs, meaning they carry a portable shrine, as in the case of the Breac Moedoic bag. As the Irish texts say, these seem to have been made of leather and could be highly decorated.

A book satchel called the Armagh book bag is a complete bag made of (now) black leather, with tooled decoration and shoulder strap. The book is dated to the 9th century, though the bag may predate it, as it was made for a larger book that the one it now holds, which is 19.7 by 14.6 cm. It could hold a book 30 x 25 x 4 cm. The added lock is of a later date. It is now in the Trinity College, Dublin.

Another book bag is from Breac Moedoic and dates to 8th or 9th century, rather than a book it actually contains a portable metal shrine so should technically now be called a cumdach or reliquary but was originally made for a book. The bag is made from an oblong piece of tanned leather, probably dyed brown or black, and tooled. Though damaged and missing the flap, the undecorated leather strap remains. An undecorated section on the front shows the coverage and shape of the flap. It is of the same construction as other book bags also made from a oblong of leather stitched together. The internal dimensions would originally have been approximately 30 x 25 x 4 cm.

Also dated to the 8th or 9th century is the Corpus Christi Budget, kept in Library of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Though very damaged on the front it has a decoratively scalloped flap, decorated with tooled interlaced bands. It has a strap much broken and repaired with thongs, and would have been approximately 19 x 14 x 5.7 cm.

Fragments of leather from the Loch Glashan Crannog in Scotland were originally thought to have been from a garment. But in 2002 were reinterpreted as a leather book satchel dating to between the 6th to 8th century. It was stitched together with leather thronging and was large enough to carry an elaborate book.

Loch Glashan Crannog fragments. Image source Glasgow museum
Fragments from Loch Glashan Crannog in Glasgow Museum.

Other surviving book satchels include a late 10th century satchel excavated in Dublin (National Museum of Ireland, Fishamble Street I, E141: 5213) and the remains of another from Argyll, Scotland.

Other Styles of Bags

Evidence for other styles of pouches and bags that are known to exist include small pouches for money or trinkets, drawstring pouches, sacks, hunting packs and reliquary pouches. There are also images of figures using their tunic skirts to store things such as nuts, grain or even stones as shown above in the Abbey of St. John.

Small Bags

Small leather pouches suspended from the belt existed, some highly decorative, with cast copper alloy decorations are known from eastern Viking areas such as Birka in Sweden. Remains of belt pouches that could be highly decorative, though lacking in metal decorations are also known from sites such as Gokstad in Norway. There is a unusual large Saxon period leather bag from Swallow Cliff Down, found in a woman's burial and mounted on a belt with decorative metal fittings.

Image Source Historica Museet Sweden.
Belt pouches with decorative metal plates from Birka and Swallow Cliffe Down.

Remains of a leather purse found at the site of the early Christian monastery on the Ireland of Iona in Argyll. It was used some time between 550 and 750AD. Now in the National Museum of Scotland.

Sites such as Birka in Sweden, Elisenhof in Denmark and Eide Gloppen in Norway have turned up small wallets of various styles, presumably used for holding coins. The Eide Gloppen one in particular is similar in form to a very small satchel.

Image source Bergen Museum
A folding wallet from Birka and a small pouch from Eide Gloppen Parish in Norway.

Relic pouches for the storages of personal saint's relics are known from a few Viking Age examples. They are obviously associated with the period of Christianity and are usually small textile pockets often made from silk samite or decorated with embroidery.

Image source 'The Viking Dig' Richard Hall.
(Left) Byzantine relic pouch from the 9th century; stored at St. Michael Collegiate Church in Beromünster, Switzerland. (Right) A 10th century reliquary pouch found at York, made of purple silk and embroidered with a cross in an uneven chain stitch. The pouch is only 3.5x2.5cm.

Larger Bags

Two oval panels of oak found in the Gokstad ship burial have been interpreted as a backpack, both are large oval boards, about 1cm thick. The bottom piece has a double row of holes that could be from the stitching of the body of the bag and has slots to fit the hinges or straps. The body of the bag has not survived but could have been made of birch bark, leather, or wicker. I think it is more likely to be a material that required a stitching attachment. due to the 2 rows of holes in the base, which are unlike holes needed for basket weaving, though a reasonably rigid material is more suitable for the sides of this style of container due to the weight of the lid. The earliest source I have found for wicker containers with straps for use as a backpack is being shown worn by a labourer in folio 3v the 12th century Fécamp Psalter, though these are commonly found in art from the 14th century. In the Shetland Islands these containers are known as 'willow kishies'.

A different type of leather case is shown in the depiction of St Mark in the Evangile de Loisel dating to the 9th century.

Leather bags or buckets are also shown in the St. Albans Psalter.

Sacks also must have been common, and various sizes are occasionally illustrated such as these ones in the Harley Psalter and the Old English Hexateuch. Both being shown filled with grain.

Harley Psalter 603 fol.21 The Old English Hexateuch

In 1921 a Cloth bag was found in Telge, Rogaland, Norway. It contained; a warp, a sprang tube, a fringed band, a fine twill textile fragment, unspun wool, yarn, threads of twisted hair and a bone needle. Dated to ca. 445 - 545 AD. The bag was coarsely made from several pieces of 2/2 twill with a thread count of 8 threads per cm in both directions, and sewn together sloppily with large stitches. The bag measures 52cm lengthwise. One side is made from an oval piece, and the other is made of three pieces of different dimensions.

The Telge bag and a sketch of how it was constructed. Solid lines indicate seams.

I have also found evidence for carrying sacks on the end of a pole. Though this seems absent in earlier images, the earliest source I have found for this is in the manuscript Douce 293 of the Bodleian Library. Dated to the third quarter of the 12th century.

MS. Douce 293 Folio 10. In the Bodleian Library.

Reconstructing a Satchel
Period examples seem to follow a number of different forms. Most commonly the bag is rectangular. Bags with a rounded bottom are occasional, as is a trapezoidal shape - which seems to have become popular for pilgrim satchels. Extra panels for the sides seem a common feature, sometimes integral with the shoulder strap. The bag itself could be made by sewing several pieces together or made of a long rectangle folded into three and sewn up the sides, with or without side panels. This is how most rectangular examples seem to have been constructed.

Usually, though not always, the bags had a flap over the front to close the bag and secure the contents. Fastening such as ties or toggles are rarely shown, and though this is the sort of detail often omitted in early Medieval art, a fastener is not necessary to keep these bags closed, and were probably often not present. An exception being for bags holding valuable contents, such as book bags.

Though there are too few examples for any kind of reliable typology, this image shows some of the common shapes shown in period art. Taking into account bags from the 7th to 12th centuries, and omitting frame purses gives a survey of 27 bags. 24 of these are of a rectangular or slightly trapezoidal shape. The shape of lid flaps vary more, 7 having square flaps, 7 with round flaps, 7 with none and 2 with other shapes. The remaining three bags have a rounded shape and various shaped flaps.

Being well documented as a Viking accessory, frame purses deserve their own mention. Unfortunately there is no solid evidence for the shape or the material used or how these bags were constructed. To allow frame purses to be opened there would need to be enough material to pull apart the laths and allow access to the bag. A textile body allowing stretch such as naalbinding would seem to be the most suitable as a less elastic construction would require the sides of the bag to gape beyond the ends of the laths. The leather Sami example does just this, though the coarse yarn looped through Hedeby HbH.119.003 could indicate a naalbinded construction.
The shoulder straps were often made as a continuation of the side panels. Using a large inverted U, the bend forming the shoulder straps, and the arms being sewn into the sides of the pouch. Others are attached to suspension rings or sewn onto the sides near the top of the pouch. Buckles or knots on the straps are rare; most seem to have been a fixed length. The wall paintings in the Abbey of St. John from Müstair, show the waist belt over the bag straps, which would keep the bag close to the body, and may have been a common way of wearing them.

Bags could be made of leather or textiles, either woven, or looped such as sprang or naalbinding. Judging from the colours used in art, I would suggest leather was more commonly, but by no means exclusively used. It is possible textile bags were lined with a harder wearing cloth on the inside, for strength or to prevent objects falling out, such as in the case of the relic pouch from York shown above was made from a double envelope of silk.
The size of bags probably varied within a similar range to modern handbags. The smaller ones being the size of a large pocket, up to a backpack.

Due to the functional nature of the bags decoration tends to be minimal. Crosses on the flap are the most common decoration, even in earlier images. Shells as decoration became popular due to their association with pilgrims and the Way of St. James. Fringes and tassels are another frequent embellishment, either along the bottom edge or corners or occasionally from the top corners or flap. Leather pouches could also be decorated with tooling or incised lines, as this is a common feature of book satchels, probably due in part to the value of their contents. Textile bags could of course be decorated with coloured fabric or bands of tablet weaving and perhaps embroidery.


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Page by L. Brodrick. Copyright Europa Reenactment 2014.
Images have been used without permission.