Medieval Monday: Clothing and Fabrics

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Medieval Clothing and Fabrics in the Middle Ages (by Melissa Snell)

In medieval times, as today, both fashion and necessity dictated what people wore. And both fashion and necessity, in addition to cultural tradition and available materials, varied across the centuries of the Middle Ages and across the countries of Europe. After all, no one would expect the clothes of an eighth-century Viking to bear any resemblance to those of a 15th-century Venetian.

So when you ask the question “What did a man (or woman) wear in the Middle Ages?” be prepared to answer some questions yourself. Where did he live? When did he live? What was his station in life (noble, peasant, merchant, cleric)? And for what purpose might he be wearing a particular set of clothes?

Types of Materials Used in Medieval Clothing

The many types of synthetic and blended fabrics people wear today were simply not available in medieval times. But this didn’t mean that everyone wore heavy wool, burlap, and animal skins. Different textiles were manufactured in a range of weights and could vary greatly in quality. The more finely woven the textile was, the softer and more costly it would be.

Various fabrics, such as taffeta, velvet, and damask were made from textiles like silk, cotton, and linen using specific weaving techniques. These were not generally available in the earlier Middle Ages, and were among the more expensive fabrics for the extra time and care it took to make them. Materials available for use in medieval clothing included:

By far the most common fabric of the Middle Ages (and the core of the flourishing textile industry), wool was knitted or crocheted into garments, but it was more likely woven. Depending on how it was made, it could be very warm and thick, or light and airy. Wool was also felted for hats and other accessories.

Almost as common as wool, linen was made from the flax plant and theoretically available to all classes. Growing flax was labor-intensive and making linen was time-consuming, however. Since the fabric wrinkled easily, it wasn’t often found in garments worn by poorer folk. Fine linen was used for the veils and wimples of ladies, undergarments, and a wide variety of apparel and household furnishings.​

Luxurious and costly, silk was used only by the wealthiest of classes and the Church.

Less costly than flax, hemp and nettles were used to create workaday fabrics in the Middle Ages. Though more common for such uses as sails and rope, hemp may also have been used for aprons and undergarments.

Cotton doesn’t grow well in cooler climes, so its use in medieval garments was less common in northern Europe than wool or linen. Still, a cotton industry existed in southern Europe in the 12th century, and cotton became an occasional alternative to linen.

The production of leather goes back to prehistoric times. In the Middle Ages, leather was used for shoes, belts, armor, horse tackle, furniture, and a wide assortment of everyday products. Leather could be dyed, painted, or tooled in a variety of fashions for ornamentation.

In early medieval Europe, fur was common, but thanks in part to the use of animal skins by Barbarian cultures, it was considered too crass to wear in public. It was, however, used to line gloves and outer garments. By the tenth century, fur came back into fashion, and everything from beaver, fox, and sable to vair (squirrel), ermine, and marten was used for warmth and status.

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Medieval Monday: Fresh Meat and Fish

The availability and use of fresh meat, poultry and fish in the Middle Ages (By Melissa Snell)

Depending on their status in society and where they lived, medieval people had a variety of meats to enjoy. But thanks to Fridays, Lent, and various days deemed meatless by the Catholic Church, even the wealthiest and most powerful people did not eat meat or poultry every day. Fresh fish was fairly common, not only in coastal regions, but inland, where rivers and streams were still teeming with fish in the Middle Ages, and where most castles and manors included well-stocked fish ponds.

Those who could afford spices used them liberally to enhance the flavor of meat and fish. Those who could not afford spices used other flavorings like garlic, onion, vinegar and a variety of herbs grown throughout Europe. The use of spices and their importance has contributed to the misconception that it was common to use them to disguise the taste of rotten meat. However, this was an uncommon practice perpetrated by underhanded butchers and vendors who, if caught, would pay for their crime.

Meat in Castles and Manor Homes

 

A large portion of the foodstuffs served to the residents of castles and manor homes came from the land on which they lived. This included wild game from nearby forests and fields, meat and poultry from the livestock they raised in their pastureland and barnyards, and fish from stock ponds as well as from the rivers, streams and seas. Food was used swiftly — usually within a few days, and sometimes on the same day — and if there were leftovers, they were gathered up as alms for the poor and distributed daily.

Occasionally, meat procured ahead of time for large feasts for the nobility would have to last a week or so before being eaten. Such meat was usually large wild game like deer or boar. Domesticated animals could be kept on the hoof until the feast day drew near, and smaller animals could be trapped and kept alive, but big game had to be hunted and butchered as the opportunity arose, sometimes from lands several days’ travel away from the big event. There was often concern from those overseeing such victuals that the meat might go off before it came time to serve it, and so measures were usually taken to salt the meat to prevent rapid deterioration. Instructions for removing outer layers of meat that had gone bad and making wholesome use of the remainder have come down to us in extant cooking manuals.

Be it the most sumptuous of feasts or the more modest daily meal, it was the lord of the castle or manor, or the highest-ranking resident, his family, and his honored guests who would receive the most elaborate dishes and, consequently, the finest portions of meat. The lower the status of the other diners, the further away from the head of the table, and the less impressive their food. This could mean that those of low rank did not partake of the rarest type of meat, or the best cuts of meats, or the most fancily-prepared meats; but they ate meat nonetheless.

Meat for Peasants and Village-Dwellers

Peasants rarely had much fresh meat of any kind. It was illegal to hunt in the lord’s forest without permission, so, in most cases, if they had game it would have been poached, and they had every reason to cook it and dispose of the remains the very same day it was killed. Some domestic animals such as cows and sheep were too large for everyday fare and were reserved for the feasts of special occasions like weddings, baptisms, and harvest celebrations.

Chickens were ubiquitous, and most peasant families (and some city families) had them; but people would enjoy their meat only after their egg-laying days (or hen-chasing days) were over. Pigs were very popular, and could forage just about anywhere, and most peasant families had them. Still, they weren’t numerous enough to slaughter every week, so the most was made of their meat by turning it into long-lasting ham and bacon. Pork, which was popular in all levels of society, would be an unusual meal for peasants.

Fish could be had from the sea, rivers and streams, if there were any nearby, but, as with hunting the forests, the lord could claim the right to fish a body of water on his lands as part of his demesne. Fresh fish was not often on the menu for the average peasant.

A peasant family would usually subsist on pottage and porridge, made from grain, beans, root vegetables and pretty much anything else they could find that might taste good and provide sustenance, sometimes enhanced with a little bacon or ham.

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Medieval Monday: Crazy Creatures–Real or Imagined?

Last week’s shared post about knights and giant snails, written by Nicholas Rossis, inspired me to make a post that features some of the other mythical beasts, strange animals, and human-creature hybrids found in medieval texts. They’re are a lot of fun, and good inspiration for fantasy writers. These bizarre creatures defy all reason; part man, part beast, men without heads, or with the heads of dogs. At times, the grotesque physical deformities can be rather alarming. Those listed below are only a small number of the many crazy creatures born from the medieval imagination.

With a couple of exceptions, there are more images than writings about these fantastical abominations. Were they visual metaphors to express common beliefs and fears of the day? Or were they thought to be real, lurking in the remote or exotic places of the world? Maybe a little of both.


The alerion is lord over all other birds. Bigger than an eagle, it has razor-sharp, fire-colored wings. However, this bird is also exceedingly rare. There is only one pair in the world at a time.

The female of the pair lays two eggs when she is sixty years old, which take sixty days to hatch. Once the young emerge, the adult pair are escorted by a host of other birds to the sea, where they plunge into the waters and drown. The accompanying birds then return to the nest to care of the alerions’ young until they can fly on their own.


The parandrus (or tarandos) was a beast the size of an ox, with long, dark hair, and the antlers of a stag. It was able to hide itself by changing its appearance to blend in with its surroundings.

It is unclear if this creature was supposed to pose any threat, or if its exotic nature and abilities were merely a curiosity.


The cerastes is even more flexible than an ordinary serpent, and has horns protruding from the top of its head. There might be two, like those of a ram, or four small horns.

A cerastes will hide itself under the sand, with only the ends of its horns sticking up as a lure. When other animals come close thinking they’ve found food, the serpent quickly kills and eats them.

Now imagine the possible fantasy adaptations for such a creature. Animals are lured by food…what might lure larger prey, including human beings? Perhaps water in a desert environment…or glittering treasure. Maybe such a serpent would see us as an easy meal. Or with some intelligence it might have a more sinister motive. What do you think?


A muscaliet is certainly a strange creature from medieval lore. This small animal has the body of a hare, the tail and legs of a squirrel, teeth like a boar, the muzzle of a mole, and ears like a weasel. It uses the strength of its tail to jump from branch to branch, and its paws for climbing and digging under tree roots.

The muscaliet was supposed to have an extremely high body temperature, burning anything it touches. It devastates the leaves and fruit of trees, burrowing beneath the roots, building its nest there, and causing the tree to dry up and die.


Ever heard of an aspidochelone? This sea-monster is similar to a whale, but it has spines along the ridge of its back, a turtle-shell, and a head like a snake.

The creature masks itself as an island, sometimes even appearing to have rocks, trees, and sandy beaches. It lures sailors to land on its back, then it pulls all the sailors and their ship down into the depths of the ocean where it devours them.

In medieval lore, the aspidochelone was symbolic of Satan, who deceives sinners, and drags them down into hell.


No doubt you’ve heard of centaurs, which are generally good and noble creatures. But what about the onocentaur?

This beast has the upper body of a man, and the lower body of a donkey. The human half is rational, but the donkey half is wild and without control. The onocentaur is symbolic of lust and the hypocrisy of those who speak of doing good, but who do evil instead.

The onocentaur is often depicted carrying a club or bow for a weapon, and is sometimes seen working together with the siren, luring men to their doom.

 


A caladrius is a white bird, typically associated with royalty. Its excrement placed directly onto the eyes was said to cure blindness.

But this was not the bird’s only value. It was also believed that if a caladrius was brought into the room with a sick person, and turned its face away, that person was going to die. However, if the caladrius gazed into the face of the sick person, he or she would recover. When the bird eventually flew away, the illness would be taken with it.


The skoffin is the offspring of an arctic fox and a female tabby cat, and is the Icelandic version of a basilisk. It was a truly evil being that said horribly wicked things, and killed with just a look.

A skoffin could only be killed by seeing another of its kind. (In some stories it was tricked into seeing its own reflection.) Later lore claimed that it could also be killed by the sign of the cross or with a silver bullet.

Incidentally, the skoffin not pictured anywhere in medieval manuscripts… Maybe no one ever saw one and lived to tell about it…


Here’s another strange one…a gryllus. This funny looking medieval “monster” has a head and legs, but no arms or body.

Its origin is likely in the Odyssey of Greek Mythology, but it frequently graced medieval religious imagery. The gryllus became a symbol of base bodily vices and human folly.

 


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Medieval Monday: What Did Knights Have Against Snails?

I found this fun post by Nicholas Rossis and thought I’d share it today. Medieval manuscripts are full of all sorts of mythic beasts, strange animals, and human-creature hybrids. They seem to have been a staple of the medieval imagination. Some of them were actually thought to be real, lurking in distant or unreachable places. Others were merely meant to be entertaining. A good number of them were symbolic and used for teaching lessons and morals. The giant snails? Well, I’m as stumped as everyone else it would seem. But it’s certainly fun to imagine the possibilities.


What Did Knights Have Against Snails? by Nicholas Rossis

Regular readers will be familiar with my fascination with Medieval manuscripts. I recently came across on Vintage News a detail I wasn’t aware of: that Medieval knights were often pictured fighting giant snails.

Scrolls and manuscripts dating back to the 13th and 14th century often contain marginalia–broad margins and blank space that was filled with different notes and drawings (you can read more about them in my previous post, (Medieval-style Doodles, marginalia, and manicules). Funnily enough, gothic manuscripts abound with depictions of an epic snail versus knight standoff.

Sometimes the knight is mounted, sometimes not. Sometimes the snail is monstrous, sometimes tiny. Sometimes the snail is all the way across the page, sometimes right under the knight’s foot. Usually, the knight is drawn so that he looks worried, stunned, or shocked by his tiny foe.

So, what was the deal here? Historians have been unable to come to a unified answer.

The first serious contemporary study of this odd phenomenon was written in the 1960s by Lillian Randall. In her book The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare, she presented one hypothesis to explain the reasoning behind these drawings: perhaps the joke is that snails, what with the shells they carry on their backs and can hide away in, are some sort of parody of a highly-armored chivalric foe. We’re supposed to laugh at the idea of a knight being afraid of attacking such a ‘heavily armored’ opponent. Silly knight, it’s just a snail!

Lillian Randall proposed a further explanation that could account for the fact that snails so often antagonized the knights. She proposed that the snail was a symbol of the Lombards, a group vilified in the early middle ages for treasonous behavior, the sin of usury, and ‘non-chivalrous comportment in general.’ However, she could not explain why the knight was always supposed to lose the battle.


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Medieval Monday: 7 Things You Didn’t Know a Medieval Princess Could Do

I stumbled on another great article last week and thought I would share it for my Medieval Monday post.  If you go through this and just skim the 7 headers for the quick answers, you’ll really miss out. The most interesting part of this is in the detailed accounts of specific princesses in history; their circumstances…and eccentricities. Once again, real history is anything but boring!


7 things you didn’t know a medieval princess could do

Many fairy tales tell us that princesses spent years confined to towers waiting for knights to rescue them, little more than decorative pawns to be traded by their father. But the lives of historical princesses paint a very different picture. Here, through the lives of the five daughters of Edward I, historian Kelcey Wilson-Lee shares seven lessons on what it was to be a real medieval princess…

#1 Medieval princesses could command a castle

In 1293, Eleanor, the eldest daughter of Edward I, married Henri, the ruler of the small province of Bar in present-day northern France. Four years later, Henri was fighting near Lille when he was captured by hostile French forces and taken as a prisoner to Paris. With her husband imprisoned, responsibility for securing the county fell to Eleanor. As the 14th-century writer Christine de Pisan wrote, a princess should “know how to use weapons… so that she may be ready to command her men if need arises”. Eleanor marshalled what remained of Henri’s army to defend her home – the castle at Bar – and wrote to her father and other allies to raise money for Henri’s ransom, successfully safeguarding the inheritance of her young children.

Almost 30 years earlier, another princess named Eleanor held Dover Castle against her own brother, King Henry III, for several months during the uprising led by her husband, the rebel baron Simon de Montfort. After the decisive battle at Evesham, in which Eleanor’s husband and eldest son were killed, the tireless princess nevertheless fought on, bringing in a siege engine to defend the castle and using its coastal position to ship her younger children abroad with money for their upkeep.

#2 Medieval princesses could marry for love

Joan of Acre, Edward’s second daughter, first married at the age of 18 to a much older man – Gilbert de Clare, a 46-year-old divorcee who was a troublesome magnate within her father’s kingdom. When he died five years later, his widow found herself extremely eligible: young, proven fertile (as a mother of four), and in sole possession of one of England’s most valuable estates. Coupled with her royal connections, the princess proved a strong temptation to powerful European rulers and could easily have found herself consort at a rich court far from England.

But Joan had fallen in love, with a dashing but landless young man in her deceased husband’s retinue named Ralph de Monthermer. Determined not to be parted from her lover, Joan married Ralph in a secret ceremony that contravened her vow of homage to her father (rich widows who held land directly from the monarch needed the king’s permission to remarry, since their new husbands would be empowered through control of their estates). The king was livid, but eventually he forgave his headstrong daughter, who managed to keep her estates and independent income, as well as the man she loved.

Read #s 3-7 at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/princesses-what-life-like-middle-ages-daughters-edward-i-eleanor-joan-acre/


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Medieval Monday: Medieval Nun Fakes her own Death

Whoever thinks history is boring obviously hasn’t read stories like these! It’s too bad we don’t know how things turned out for the wayward nun, but maybe this little glimpse into the past could inspire some writer out there to tell their own version of who she was, why she left, and how she lived out the rest of her days. Melton’s perspective is interesting too, especially since he has quite a story all his own. Is he a villain in this real life drama, or is he correct in his assessment of her character? I guess we’ll never know for sure…


Archive shows medieval nun faked her own death to escape convent

Archbishop’s register reveals how Joan of Leeds crafted a dummy of her body that was buried, while she pursued ‘the way of carnal lust’.

A team of medieval historians working in the archives at the University of York has found evidence that a nun in the 14th century faked her own death and crafted a dummy “in the likeness of her body” in order to escape her convent and pursue – in the words of the archbishop of the time – “the way of carnal lust”.

A marginal note written in Latin and buried deep within one of the 16 heavy registers used by to record the business of the archbishops of York between 1304 and 1405 first alerted archivists to the adventures of the runaway nun. “To warn Joan of Leeds, lately nun of the house of St Clement by York, that she should return to her house,” runs the note written by archbishop William Melton and dated to 1318.

Melton, writing to inform the Dean of Beverley about the “scandalous rumour” he had heard about the arrival of the Benedictine nun Joan, claimed that Joan had “impudently cast aside the propriety of religion and the modesty of her sex”, and “out of a malicious mind simulating a bodily illness, she pretended to be dead, not dreading for the health of her soul, and with the help of numerous of her accomplices, evildoers, with malice aforethought, crafted a dummy in the likeness of her body in order to mislead the devoted faithful and she had no shame in procuring its burial in a sacred space amongst the religious of that place”.

After faking her own death, he continued, “and, in a cunning, nefarious manner … having turned her back on decency and the good of religion, seduced by indecency, she involved herself irreverently and perverted her path of life arrogantly to the way of carnal lust and away from poverty and obedience, and, having broken her vows and discarded the religious habit, she now wanders at large to the notorious peril to her soul and to the scandal of all of her order.”

Professor Sarah Rees Jones, principal investigator on the project, said the story of Joan’s escape, which she and her team discovered last week, was “extraordinary – like a Monty Python sketch”.

Continue reading: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/11/archive-shows-medieval-nun-faked-her-own-death-to-escape-convent


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Medieval Monday: Merchant Ships

medieval-cog2While many crops and other goods were able to be moved by hand, or by using animal-drawn carts, boats were also an important mode of transportation in the Middle Ages. They could bear larger and heavier loads, and allowed merchants to trade over long distances. They brought goods into the medieval world from exotic places, sparking a desire for shorter, less difficult passages, which eventually led to world exploration. There were a variety of ships built and used in the Middle Ages, and there isn’t enough space in this post to explore them all. For today, I’m going to focus on those used by merchants, since they had the most impact on daily life.

medieval-cogFor Northern Europe, the Cog was a standard merchant ship—though more accurately, it was a general term used for a variety of ships that had similar attributes. Cogs were built small at first, but with need and advances in ship building techniques, its size grew over time. The cog’s hull had high sides, and its bow and stern castles were all fortified. Though it did have oars for rowing, a single square sail was its primary means of propulsion. Cogs were difficult to sail as they were slow and not especially maneuverable. But their most distinguishing, and useful feature, were their wide, flat bottoms, which made them spacious vessels that could hold bulky loads. These ships could carry 200 tons of cargo, which was about ten times the amount that a Viking ship could hold. Cogs were able to travel along rivers, through the tidal coasts of Northern Europe, and in the shallow waters around the Low Countries. Built to be sturdy, they could be beached, and even run aground, without sinking.

medieval-cog-coinOne odd feature about the cog was that the horizontal deck planks were intentionally built with gaps between them, which allowed water to drain from the deck into the cargo hold below. There the water was pumped out with simple bilge pumps. This required some innovation when it came to packing and storing the cargo so that it wouldn’t get wet and be ruined before arriving at its destination. Therefore, most cargo was enclosed in very large (252 gallon) barrels, called “tuns” (from where we get the term tonnage).

It took some time before the cog style ship came into use in Southern Europe, where maneuverability was considered more important than having a reinforced hull. There Roman style galley ships continued to be used until later on in the Middle Ages.

I’ve included two short videos today. One is a fascinating look at an actual medieval vessel that was found and is in the process of being restored, and the other shows some of the tools and methods used to build medieval ships.