Square Neck Tunics

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Published in Regia Anglorum, Chronicle 2013 as 'Square Neck Tunics, an 11th Century Fashion' by Gavin Archer


Sometime towards the close of the 10th century a letter written, possibly, by the abbot Ælfric of Eynsham [CLAYTON 2007]:p.32, to an unidentified Brother Edward criticises the adoption of Danish fashions by the English.

I also tell you, brother Edward, ... that you act unjustly ... in abandoning the English Customs which your fathers held and love customs of heathen men who do not grant you life, and in doing so you make clear that you despise your race and your ancestors with those bad customs when you dress in Danish fashion with bared necks and have your hair coming over your eyes.

'Letter to Brother Edward' c.1000AD[BREMMER 2007]:p.33.
Fig. 1 Goliath from the Tiberius Psalter fol. 9r c.1050AD

Although Ælfric only criticises Edward for wearing his hair in a Viking fashion it is possible, although by no means certain, that another Danish fashion being adopted by the English at the turn of the first millennium was that of square neck holes in men’s tunics. It is commonly assumed by many, that square neck tunics have a Viking origin. The argument put forward supporting this opinion rests on three supporting theories:

The first has already been mentioned, the adoption of Danish fashion by the English following the renewed Viking attacks from 980AD onwards. It is just after this date that square neck tunics appear in Anglo-Saxon art.

The second is from archaeology. Two of the three garments found with square neck holes are from Scandinavia: Viborg C11th Denmark, see fig.4 and Högom C5th Sweden. The third find is from Bernuthsfeld, Germany just off the North Sea between modern Denmark and the Netherlands and dates to c.800AD [EWING 2007]:p.90. It is interesting to note however that none of these had any evidence of an attached facing, instead both the Viborg and the Bernuthsfeld garments had their neck holes bias edged.

The third and probably the least convincing theory is that the depictions of 11th century Goliaths wearing square necked tunics, fig.1 & fig.2, depict Viking warriors such as Thorkell Hávi and that the artist has attempted to differentiate the evil Goliath figure by showing him in the current Danish fashion of the time [EWING 2007]:pl.13.

Fig. 2 Goliath from the Eadui Psalter fol. 93r. 1012-1023AD

Whatever their origin, square neck holed tunics are a regular sight in 11th century English illustrated manuscripts. They are seen being worn by both kings and labourers and seem to convey no indication of social rank [OWEN-CROCKER 2004]:p.247-248.

In fact a tentative argument could be made that all of the illustrations from the 11th century that show a faced neck hole are actually trying to depict a square neck. As with any statement like this there is always some images for which this is not true. Two English sources seem to contradict this theory. The first is the unusually large round necked facings adorning the neck holes depicted in the Hereford Troper c.1050AD (British Library MS Cotton Caligula A XIV). A similar shaped neck hole to that seen in the Hereford Troper can be seen on the seated figure in fig.7. This manuscript can however be dismissed as showing typical English garb as it appears that the artist has copied Romanesque models from German and Flemish art [BROWN 2007]:p.133. If this is indeed the case then the garments would be more likely to be seen in main land Europe where the Ottonian fashion had more in common with that of Byzantium [MAYR-HARTING 1999]:p.210. The other image source is the Bayeux Tapestry, dated to c.1076AD. This seems to show a similar style of neck hole facing as that seen in the Hereford Troper with the facing being depicted around a round neck hole and sometimes flaring out wider over the shoulders. In fact what we may be seeing here is the introduction of a European proto-Romanesque fashion. Some authors argue that the Bayeux Tapestry may even be a Norman creation [GRAPE 1994]:p.54 and if this is indeed the case then its ability to accurately represent English fashion of the time could be suspect.

It is interesting to note that as yet I have not managed to find an image showing a square neck hole in any Carolingian or Ottonian manuscript. Also the only neck hole identified on the clothing fragments recovered from Hedeby, originally part of Denmark, was determined to be round [HAGG 1984]:p.50. This does lead to the possibility of square necked garments being, if anything, very English.


Fig. 3 Labourer from the Tiberius Calendar fol.4r 1025-1050AD

Trying to determine how many men would have worn faced neck holes in the 11th century is made more complicated by the stylistic nature of Anglo-Saxon art. After a quick review of the available images of secular men I think that they can be categorised using the following approximations:

  • 50% show men wearing a short cloak that completely hides the neck hole.
  • 45% show just a simple squiggle to distinguish the top of the tunic.
  • 5% actually show any detail of the neck hole and of these most just show a rounded edge as in fig.3.

Fig. 4 Reconstruction of the Viborg linen shirt. Denmark, 11th Century (after FENTZ)

The point I am trying to make here is that statistically we are on shaky ground when it comes to trying to make any kind of recommendation on how popular faced neck holes were during the period. Even in the same image some men are depicted with a faced neck hole whilst another is not, see fig.6.
‘The Life of King Edward’ written about the time of the Norman Conquest about Edward the Confessor by a Monk of St. Bertin has the following to say:

For whereas it had not been the custom for earlier English Kings in bygone days to wear clothes of great splendour, apart from cloaks and robes adorned at the top with gold in the national style,...
‘The Life of King Edward’ c.1060's [BARLOW 1992]:p.25

This implies that the adorning of tunics at the neck may have been common [OWEN-CROCKER 2004]:p.247, at least for the rich although this is not supported by the illustrated evidence.
In summary I would say that unfaced neck holes would have been in the majority during the 11th century.

Fastening the neck hole

Fig. 5 Mahalalel in his coffin is supported by Jared from the Caedmon Manuscript p.59 c.1000AD

It is likely that ties were the main method used to close the neck opening. The two images of Goliath, fig.1 and fig.2, clearly show ties at the neck and both show the ties terminating in balls. The assumption is that these cords must have been tied to secure the neck hole. A depiction of tied ties can be found at the neck of a labourer from the Tiberius Calendar in fig.3.
Another method of closing the neck can be found in the reconstruction of the Viborg shirt which is described as:

A band runs along the edge of the neck opening, continuing in two free ends which are passed through a gliding knot each, which presumably were fastened to the corners of the front. It is probable that the bands ended in a stop knot

[FENTZ 1987]

The band of the Viborg shirt was attached as a bias strip. This is where a thin strip of material is folded over in a u shape to enclose the raw edge of the tunic material. Often this creates a small raised collar. In the case of the Viborg shirt this bias strip was left long to form the ties.
Pins or hook and eye clasps may have been an alternative to the use of ties to close the neck opening [OWEN-CROCKER 2004]:p.247 but it appears that brooches were not used as we have neither images, nor any finds from archaeology to support this. It must be noted though that we only have Viking pagan graves as reference as the English had stopped burying their dead with grave goods centuries before.
A rare example of a tunic being depicted open at the neck can be seen in the Caedmon Manuscript. Here Jared is shown cradling his dead fathers head in fig.5 and it appears that the artist has attempted to show the collar of the under shirt.

The 11th century tunic

Fig. 6 Gemini twins from Arundel 60 fol.4r c.1073AD

Fig. 1 and fig.6 show the typical look of an 11th century tunic. The skirt usually comes to the top of the knee when rucked but it is never long enough to completely cover the whole knee. Sleeves are long and rucked back at the wrist.
An alternative longer tunic style coming to the shin does not appear until the second half of the 11th century starting with an example from the Harley Psalter (British Museum, MS 603 fol.29v 1050-1100AD). It is unclear what kind of neck holes these longer tunics had and it is probably likely that they would have had the more rounded Romanesque style shown on the Bayeux Tapestry.
The depiction of Goliath in fig.1 shows decoration on the neck hole facing as a series of dots. Decoration is also occasionally seen at the cuffs, but rarely at the hem. This is not to say that the skirts of the tunics were undecorated. Fig.6 shows a typical depiction of tunic decoration consisting of lines, dots and circles. As well as appearing in 11th century Anglo-Saxon art this style of decorating the skirt can also be seen in Carolingian manu-scripts such as in a Psychomachia from Brussels Bibliotheque Royal (ms. 10066-77) dated to the 10th century.
Decoration can also be seen as bands across the upper arms. These are unlikely to depict arm rings as the wearing of silver rings appear to have gone out of fashion by 1000AD [GRAHAM-CAMPBELL and BATEY 1998:p.237] and even then they were worn on the wrist. Decoration on the upper arm has continental parallels with a good example demonstrated on the Codex Aureus Epternacensis, fig.7. Note that the seated figure shares the same shape of proto-Romanesque neck hole facing as depicted on both the Hereford Troper and the Bayeux Tapestry.

Fig. 7 Codex Aureus Epternacensis Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum Hs. 156142 fol.78r 1020-1040AD

With the usual exception of the Bayeux Tapestry belts are not seen on images of men from the 11th century. The tunic is shown rucked in such a way as to cover the belt from sight making it particularly difficult to determine the type of belt used. It is not unlikely that a braided cord was used to ruck the tunic and we have a surviving example of just such a belt found on the bog body recovered from Skjoldhamn in northern Norway and dated to the 11th century [LOVLID 2009].
The neck hole facing usually ends in a point on the chest. Exceptions to this can be found on a king from the Haley Psalter (British Museum, MS 603 fol.58r 1025-1050AD) who has a square ended front slit and Lamech from the Caedmon Manuscript (Bodleian Lib.MS Junius 11p.53) who has a rounded one.

Making your own square neck hole


In many ways making a faced square neck hole is easier than a round one. You need less facing material and in my experience the facing strips are quicker to apply.
The measurements below are for the finished facing and you will need to add at least a 1cm seam allowance to all of the edges. This neck hole works for my neck size of 16½” and should be adjusted for larger or smaller necks. Just remember that you can always make the hole larger but it’s a lot harder to make it smaller! Ultimately it should be close to the neck as it appears in the pictures. The side and back facings are basically just strips sewn on and joined at 45º. The two front panels are a little bit more complicated and need to be cut to shape and then attached. Be warned, the hardest part of attaching the facings is getting the point in the middle of your tunic. I’d recommend tacking it, then trying the tunic on in front of a mirror, prior to carefully sewing it on.
The finished facing width should be between 25 to 40mm and I would say not to go any wider than this. My personal opionion is that the facing material should always be at least as posh and fine in weave as the tunic cloth. It appears that due to newly opened trade routes to the east that silk was more readily available in the 11th century than before and so may have been used for facing on tunics [FLEMING 2007]. But please use it sparingly.
The ties can be made from simple braided linen or wool and attached to the corners of the facing. The Goliath images, see fig.1 and fig.2, suggest that they can be ended with either knots or small beads but be warned, from experience these have a bad habit of bouncing around and hitting you in the face!

Catalogue of manuscripts

The following Anglo-Saxon manuscripts show faced square neck openings

  • Late C10th - Baulogne Gospels Bodleian Lib. MS 11
    • fol.11v:Asor from the Genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew
  • c.1000AD - Caedmon Manuscript Bodleian Lib.MS Junius 11
    • p.53: Maviael and Lamech
    • p.59: Jared and another man.
  • 1012-1023AD - Eadui Psalter British Lib. MS Arundel 155
    • ol.93r: Goliath
  • c.1031AD - New Minster Register British Lib. MS Stowe 944
    • fol.6r: King Cnut
  • 1025-1050AD - Tiberius Calendar British Lib. MS Cotton Tiberius B V
    • fol.4r, 4v, 5r & 6v: Agricultural labourers
  • c.1050AD - Tiberius Psalter British Lib. MS Cotton Tiberius C VI
    • fol.8v & 9r: Goliath
    • fol.11r: People greeting Christ as he en-ters Jerusalem.
  • c.1073AD - British Lib.MS Arundel 60
    • fol.4r: Gemini constellation
    • fol.12v: The Sun as a male bust.


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