Dark Age Tents
Viking and Saxon Camping Equipment
Evidence for Viking and Saxon tents is hard to come by. Two basic types are in general use by re-enactors.
The tent/deck awning found with the Gokstad ship burial  has been used as the basis for large A framed tents, but whether this structure was ever in fact used as a free standing tent on land is contentious. The Icelandic sagas indicate that there were shelters for use at the Allthing which were "tented over" when occupied. In Egils saga the verb used is "tjalda" which is also used in the context of rigging awnings on ship , so the Gokstad deck awning may also have been used as a cover for a semi permanent shelter.
The second type of tent, usually known as a "Saxon Geteld" is based on manuscript illustrations.One of the principal sources is the Utrecht Psalter , a ninth century French manuscript which shows several small tents. Also of note is the Harley Psalter , an 11th century English manuscript based on the Utrecht Psalter which shows a somewhat taller version of the same design.
Building tents for re-enactment purposes is therefore largely a matter of informed guesswork and experimentation; that is to say, trying things out and using whatever works.
The Ydalir tents are based roughly on the Saxon Geteld, rather than on the Viking deck awning. These have the major advantages of being easier to make and transport; more stable in a high wind; and not being subject to such vociferous arguments between Authenticity Officers (not yet, anyway...). We have used two styles based on the same design. The end opening version illustrated here is based on the manuscript illustrations. The large side opening version where one side swings up to become an awning is an adaptation of this design which, while not as closely based on evidence, has the advantage of allowing the public to see inside when it is set up as part of a display.
A large quantity of woolen cloth found on the Gokstad ship has been interpreted as either the tent covering or the sail or both, or even as a single object which could be used as either sail or deck awning. Many of the reconstructions of Gokstad tents have used wool quite successfuly, however the Gokstad tent is not held up by tension in the covering. It would be interesting to see an experimental geteld made with wool, possibly with rope sewn into the seams to help with the tensioning, however we decided that a heavy linen cover seemed to offer a greater chance of success as it promised to be stronger, harder wearing, and less heavy when wet (a very real consideration).
Obviously you're going to want to hand spin and weave your own tent covering, but for us lesser mortals who must occasionally temper authenticity with practicality we offer the following advice.
Suitable fabrics are: heavyweight linen, linen union, heavyweight calico, sailcloth, embroidery or upholstery canvas. Good sources are local markets, fabric mills (look in your local telephone directory; lots of these places are not open to the general public but may be willing to sell you a whole bolt), and discount retail outlets like our old favourite Abakhan Rugs in Manchester. It's also worth ringing your local council (the Recycling Office) to find out if they have a waste brokerage registry. This is for local firms to advertise their waste bits and pieces, and you can find all manner of useful stuff - including bolts and lengths of cloth. Provided you're prepared to take a reasonable amount and collect it yourself, you can get it free or for very low cost.
Our smaller geteld was sewn by hand using a run and fell seam (based on textile finds from York and Oslo), however hand stitching was not considered practical for the large tent (Roughly 24' by 14' and 7½' tall).
If you're sewing your tent with a machine, then dressmaking cotton is inadequate. I used Gütermann upholstery thread, which is good and strong. If you're sewing by hand (good luck!), then the strong linen thread you sew your shoes with is best. Note: our small tent was sewn by hand with greasy linen cobblers thread, which was waxed before use. It has been in regular use for nearly seven years at the time of writing with no problems so far. We have heard a report of linen thread rotting after about 18 months use and from the same source recieved a reccomendation for the use of sail making thread obtained from a ships chandlers which has lasted so far in excess of 10 years with no further need of maintenance.
1. The Gokstad ship was built just before 900 AD and when found in 1880, buried in a mound of blue clay southwest of Oslo, contained the remains of a 60 year old man and a number of artefacts.
2. Egils saga. Trans Christine Fell. ch. 81, note 3.
3. Utrecht Psalter. Illustrated manuscript (Utrecht, Bib. Rijksuniv., MS. 32) made between AD 816 and 834 at the Benedictine abbey of Hautvillers (Altumvillare) in the diocese of Reims.
4. Harley Psalter. Illustrated manuscript which was produced at Christ Church, Canterbury, over a period of about 100 years, from c. 1020 to c. 1130. The Harley Psalter was closely based on the Utrecht Psalter, the most celebrated of all Carolingian illuminated manuscripts.