Monday, January 18, 2021

Medieval Costumes

 Creative anachronists and those who enjoy cosplay put great effort into creating more-or-less authentic costumes.  They usually do not weave their own cloth (much less raise the sheep, shear the sheep, and spin the wool), and dying their own cloth is not common, but the more authentically-minded sew by hand rather than by by machine.

Photograph of five people standing together in costume

(Of course a lot of them buy patterns, in their size, and use the pieces of tissue to cut out pieces of cloth in the right shape, but there are limits to how heavy-duty someone wants to be.)


 Medieval Cosplay Armor Patterns | Kinpatsu Cosplay

If one is going to become all authentic about medieval costumes, one of the first decisions is to choose the era one is trying to reproduce.  For both men and women, throughout the Middle Ages, the basic unit of clothing was a tunic, essentially a long-sleeved T-shirt, shorter for the men, longer for the women, as seen in the medieval drawing below.  A long rectangular cloak, generally with a hood, went over this in cooler weather.  But this simple design was greatly varied depending on time and place.

Classical antiquity had had very simple clothing, a lot of it basically pieces of cloth just wrapped, tied, and pinned around the body.  Early medieval clothing seems to have been equally simple, although Germanic men adopted trousers, which the Romans initially found both effeminate and hilarious.

As the Middle Ages went on, clothing became more elaborate.  Elegant women wore dresses cut on the bias, which gave their clothing stretch, allowing their clothes to fit more closely to their bodies.  These elegant dresses did not have zippers or other fasteners (zippers are a nineteenth-century invention), so the woman had to wiggle her way in.  Sleeves were basted on separately, every morning.

Even with fairly simple tunics above and socks or stockings below (no tights), an outfit could be accessorized with brooches, bracelets, necklaces, sashes, and fancy belt buckles.  These were worn by both sexes.  The image below is a modern reproduction of a Frankish belt buckle.


A big advance in the thirteenth century was the adoption of buttons.  Originally they were merely decorative, but quickly women realized they could be used with loops as closings for one's clothes, allowing even more tight-fitting outfits.  Lots of buttons (which were expensive, usually mother-of-pearl or ceramic) was a sign of luxury.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages women started wearing elaborate head dresses, again as signs of wealth and luxury.  Keeping one's clothing fresh and unstained, especially if it was white, was also a sign of luxury in an era with neither dry cleaning nor washing machines.

In the post-medieval period, clothing became even more elaborate for those who could afford it.  Those huge white ruffled collars one sees in early modern Dutch paintings were certainly nothing that ordinary working people could afford or manage.

At the court of Louis XIV in France, clothing was by far the biggest expense for the aristocrats at court trying to impress each other.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on clothing and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon.  Also available in paperback1

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Medieval Armies

 We think of armies as professional bodies, thoroughly trained, wearing uniforms, following discipline, able (in the US) to get their tuition paid to go to college.  Since the era of the Vietnam War, the US has gone from a draft to a volunteer army.

Medieval armies were very different, starting with the lack of uniforms, training, and discipline.  The Roman army had been more like what we think of as an army, young men recruited into a paid professional military force for 20 year hitches, marching together in disciplined phalanxes.  Medieval generals had read about Roman armies (especially the treatise by Vegetius, "the Art of War"), but good luck having anything like that after the economic and social collapse of the Empire in the sixth century.

The Germanic armies that were commanded by early medieval kings and counts were foot-soldier armies, supposedly made up of all able-bodied free men.  Some had originally been hired by the Romans as "barbarian legions," but by the time one gets to the seventh and eighth centuries there was no sense of anyone getting paid.  They were expected to turn out and fight to defend their people.  Their chief weapon was a long sword, and they carried round shields—meant to protect the individual in a fight, rather than the tall, rectangular shields of the Romans, with which one could form a shield wall.  They had helmets but not much in the way of armor.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, once stirrups began to be in use (apparently they began in Persia), and there was enough iron to shoe horses, horses began to appear more and more in armies.  Knights started appearing attached to all armies in the eleventh century, and by the twelfth century knights made up the bulk of most armies, although they always had a significant foot-soldier component.  Great lords, especially in England, were expected to show up for battles accompanied by a certain number of knights.  If you think it would have been hard keeping a foot-soldier army disciplined when they were just young men told they needed to come defend the county, think about a lot of proud knights who were intensely proud of their ability and touchy about their honor.

These armies were still formidable.  Knights and the accompanying foot soldiers went on Crusade, conquering the Holy Land in the First Crusade and establishing the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  They lost it again within three generations, but that was probably inevitable for an occupying army surrounded by an awful lot of people who didn't want them there.

Mercenaries appeared in local wars in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, soldiers who would (at least theoretically) do what they were ordered to do, because otherwise they wouldn't be paid.  They could also (theoretically) be counted on for a long war, whereas knights usually went home from regional wars after a while.  The problem with mercenaries of course is if you stop paying, they will stop fighting for you, even switch sides.

Twelfth- and thirteenth-century knights had chain mail, helmets, lances, swords, and either round or tall, kite-shaped shields (as seen below).  Plate mail, such as you see in Hollywood movies, did not appear until the late Middle Ages.

A lot changed for armies in the Late Middle Ages.  Once gun powder became a weapon of war in the fourteenth century, during the Hundred Years War between France and England, cavalry charges became much less effective, as they could be brought down by cannon fire.  More and more armies were made up of foot soldiers armed with pikes.  Archers, both longbow men and those armed with crossbows, continued to play a major role, because there was nothing like a personal firearm.

The mass of foot soldiers of a late medieval army were treated with supreme disdain by their commanders, who called them cannon fodder, as they might be ordered to march against a bank of cannons and get killed, so the better trained soldiers could rush in before the cannons were reloaded.  These soldiers were "recruited" by officers going around to villages and ordering a certain number of young men to join the army.  They would end up with the poor who didn't have the money to buy their way out, the obnoxious and violent who were pushed to go by their neighbors, and the foolish, who actually believed the promises of military pay.

Yet these armies were tough.  For the Hundred Years War, from which we have fairly good records, soldiers would march 20 miles in a day and then fight a battle.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on medieval knights and so much more, see my ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Medieval Communication

 These days most of our communication is done by means other than talking to someone who is right next to you.  We telephone, we skype or zoom call, we email or text, we make posts on Twitter or Facebook, sometimes we even write letters.

Other than the last of these, all were impossible during the Middle Ages.  The ability to allow one's friends and relatives and co-workers, or thousands (or millions) of social media followers, to know what one is thinking has of course changed communication drastically in the last century and a half, especially the last twenty years or so.  But medieval people of course did communicate, just not the same way we do.

For them, almost all communication was of necessity face to face.  Whereas today most of feel overwhelmed by the amount of information coming in, via various communication sources (and I haven't even yet mentioned radio, TV, streaming news services, or newspapers and magazines), medieval people would have been starved for news.  Any new person coming to town, or any person returning from a trip, would have been expected to provide all sorts of information and updates, from personal news to details of battles, births of royal heirs, or miracles at a shrine.

Medieval cities were run by mayors and town councils, as I have discussed earlier, and their meetings of course would have to be done in-person.  New regulations would have to be promulgated by someone going around and telling people (hence the image of the "town crier," which persisted into early New England).

Kings would have to rely on personal representatives to spread their orders.  Charlemagne, for example, had a whole system of so-called missi (meaning "those who are sent"), people sent out from court to convey royal commands and to check up on his local counts.  Although medieval people were all comfortable with the idea of kings, they might not always know who their king was.

Then there's writing. When you think about it, it's almost magical, not only can you communicate with people who are far away, but you can receive messages from people who have been dead for centuries, or leave messages for people of the future.  Many of the messages sent out by kings would have been in writing, to avoid confusion.  Writing was valued, because preparing parchment (or in the late Middle Ages paper), making ink, and writing carefully by hand  was difficult.  The problem was that most of the population couldn't read.

If they received a written communication, they would have to have it read out to them.  For that matter, letters were normally read out loud, even if the recipient could read.  Until the thirteenth century, letters were in Latin, and even someone who could read Latin might prefer to have a number of people read and comment on a letter, to make sure the meaning was clear.

Because writing letters was rare, there was nothing like a postal system.  Letters had to be hand carried.  We know that husbands wrote their wives from Crusade, and that monks wrote to their friends at other monasteries, because these letters were preserved and often copied into books.  They only could reach the recipient if someone was going that way and could carry the letter.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on medieval communication, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback from on-line retailers.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Saint Stephen

 It's the day after Christmas, Saint Stephen's day, so I will blog about Saint Stephen.

Most people probably only think about him in relation to the King Wensceslas song, which is always treated as a Christmas song, even though it doesn't mention Christmas, just "the feast of Stephen."  Since his feast day is the day after Christmas, it all makes sense.  The song is all about how the rich should remember and help the poor, which is a repeated motif in many old Christmas songs, although there seem to be a lot of people who lose track of that.

The day after Christmas is called Boxing Day in Britain and much of the old British empire.  This has nothing to do with hitting each other with puffy gloves.  Rather, it has to do with boxes, service people going around with boxes hoping for tips from folks they've served all year.  Maybe in the spirit of Wensceslas?

But I digress.  The original Stephen is in the New Testament.  Stephen may not even actually have been a name then (though it quickly became one), as in Greek stephanos meant honor or glory.  He is often called "protomartyr," meaning first martyr, because he is the first person recorded as being put to death for his Christian faith.  In the Book of Acts he is one of the followers of Peter and the rest of the original Apostles and is stoned to death by the Jews for following this disruptive set of ideas.  Saul of Tarsus, who later became Saint Paul and one of the leaders of the early church, was said to have witnessed the stoning and been disturbed by it.

(In the Middle Ages there were even earlier martyrs celebrated, the Holy Innocents, all the baby boys Herod was supposed to have killed in trying to kill Jesus.  But Stephen still got to be a protomartyr.  The Innocents were celebrated on December 28.)

Though Stephen was killed long before the New Testament was composed, he was often depicted holding the Gospels, as in the image below.  Also note the stones.


As well as being the first martyr, Stephen was one of the first saints to have his bones discovered, treated as relics, and have churches named for him.  This happened at the beginning of the fifth century, nearly 400 years after his death.  After his relics, buried outside Jerusalem, were revealed in a vision, they were moved into a church on December 26, which is why today is his feast day.

Bits of his bones were sent to various other parts of the Roman Empire (which, you'll recall, was officially Christian at this time).  Saint Augustine of Hippo, a bishop in North Africa and one of the main theologians of the early western church, had originally been skeptical about relics, but he was impressed with the miracles these relics performed.

In the following decades, a great many churches were named for Stephen.  Originally churches had not been named for saints, but now they started to be.  In France St.-Etienne (Saint Stephen) is a very common designation for a cathedral church.  An old baptistry church, originally separate from the cathedral, would be named for Saint John the Baptist (St.-Jean) for obvious reasons, but the other French churches of the fifth and sixth centuries were generally named for local saints.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on the medieval way of thinking about saints, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Christmas Presents

 At the same time as TV shows and magazines are telling us to simplify, to get away from commercialization and overspending and discover "the true meaning of Christmas," we are also being constantly urged by the same TV and magazines to buy lavish presents, especially for the children, though expensive electronics and jewelry seem aimed more at the adults.

(I discussed this in my short book, "Contested Christmas," available on Amazon and other on-line book sellers.)

But how about the Middle Ages?  Did they have presents and commercialization?

They certainly had presents.  But they were not on Christmas!  Christmas was a time of religious observance.  The "twelve days of Christmas" however were observed, close to two weeks of feasting and merriment.  On the Feast of the Innocents, December 28, there would be special festivities dedicated to children.  This day was sometimes called Feast of Fools, a day when children would get to play the role of adults.

Presents showed up on January 1, New Year's Day.  The Romans had celebrated the first of January with presents, and there were periodic attempts in the Middle Ages to ban presents on New Year's as a pagan practice, but that didn't stop anyone.  These presents were usually exchanged between close friends or between spouses or lovers.  They were not "commercial" in that they were not made in a factory or advertised on TV, but you could certainly go to an artisan in a medieval city and buy jewelry or shoes or a new knife.  The gift-giving season might also be extended to January 6, Feast of the Wise Men, when the Three Kings were supposed to have arrived in Bethlehem and made gifts to the baby Jesus.

The Christmas-New Year's season was also when the powerful gave gifts to their underlings.  This was different from the normal practice the rest of the year, in which the powerful expected the weak to attempt to curry favor with them in part by offering presents.


Christmas presents with a focus on children really began in the nineteenth century, as did the modern version of Santa Claus.  Christmas had become a hard-drinking holiday, and there was a concerted effort to make it more friendly, home-centered (rather than tavern-centered), celebration.  Focusing on the children meant much less focus on the liquor.  Wrapping presents in colorful paper not only led to a surprise but took them out of the ordinary:  a present is something special when you have to unwrap it, not like just being handed a new shirt or a book or a toy.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval holidays and social history, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback!

Friday, December 11, 2020


 We think of queens as wives of kings, as of course they were, but they also were rulers in their own right.  After all, Elizabeth II has been queen of England for going on for 70 years.  Let's not forget the sixteenth-century Elizabeth I.  There were ruling queens in the Middle Ages as well.  And even as wives of kings, queens exercised real power.

Here a good example is Eleanor of Aquitaine, who I've discussed earlier.  She was successively queen of France and of England, by being married successively to Louis VII of France and Henry II of England, and she was the mother of both King Richard the Lionheart of England and King John of England.  That's her tomb shown below.

Okay, Eleanor was unusual.  But for all medieval queens, they functioned as the power behind the throne.  They would have their own separate court, with their own faithful men.  Here they were entirely capable of advancing their own policies, which might or might not be the same as the king's.  Eleanor plotted against Henry II on behalf of her sons, who felt that Dad was not giving them what was Rightfully Theirs.  (Teenagers, they never change.)  Even when not working in opposition to the king, the queen could be a real power.  Someone who wanted a special favor from the crown might do well to start with the queen, figuring if she agreed, she could be a significant ally.

(First ladies, wives of presidents, have separate offices and staff, but people rarely go to them to get a special favor out of the president.  Maybe they're missing a bet.)

The above image is a twelfth-century depiction of a king and queen of the Old Testament, carved onto the facade of Chartres cathedral.  Not surprisingly, they have sort of a twelfth-century look to them.  That queen isn't going to stand for any nonsense.  I think she may be taller than the king, who looks worried.

Then there were ruling queens.  The mother of Henry II, Mathilda, thought of herself as ruling queen of England, though her cousin Stephen begged to differ, and the two carried out a long civil war.  (Stephen won by outliving her.)

The most famous ruling queen is probably Isabelle, of Ferdinand-and-Isabelle, who sent Columbus off on his crack-brained attempt to get to India by sailing west.  Isabelle was king (not queen) of Castile, the northern part of what is now Spain, as well as queen of Aragon (the eastern part of Spain), a position she gained by marrying King Ferdinand of Aragon.  (I don't think he was queen of Castile.)  They called themselves the "Catholic kings."

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval social and political history, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback!

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Old Folks Homes

 In the modern West it has become common to have what used to be called old folks' homes (not to be confused with the Stephen Foster song about "old folks at home").  These assisted living facilities, senior centers, nursing homes, or the like have become necessary due to a lot of people growing older and less able to care for themselves easily, and in many cases not having anyone able or willing to care for them at home.

With the pandemic these facilities, where a lot of older people with health problems live close together, have tragically become centers of spreading the disease.  But how about the Middle Ages?  Did they have old folks' homes?

No, because most people died before they had become so incapacitated that they would have needed such a facility.  Without modern medicine, diseases or chronic conditions that can now be handled would have carried people off.  With life a lot rougher physically, even for the well-to-do, the average life expectancy was probably more like lasting into ones 50s or 60s, rather than the 70s or 80s we now assume.  (Of course then, as now, these are averages, with some living much longer, some much less.)

Families were expected to take care of the older generation, once the next generation was ready to take over the work, and grandparents provided advice and insights as well as assistance with less strenuous tasks.  The modern Amish still practice something similar, with grandparents moving into a little adjacent house once the next generation is grown, married, and ready to take over the farm.

But there were still institutions in the Middle Ages that served some of the same functions as a retirement home.  The chief was the monastery or nunnery.  Someone (usually aristocratic) who no longer was active and had started to worry about their soul would convert to the religious life, making a suitable gift, taking the habit, and leaving their possessions and family behind.  The new, strict orders of the High Middle Ages, like the Cistercians, required these converts to become novices, following a rigorous schedule to learn all about the monastic life.  Other monasteries provided a (reasonably) comfortable home where older people could pray and hope to make it into heaven.

These were group facilities, but rather than just being homes for the elderly, they were communities that included all ages down to teenagers, and at a lot of traditional monasteries, down to childhood.

 Alternately, one could go into a hospital.  Medieval hospitals became common from the thirteenth century on, founded as an act of charity by the wealthy and powerful.  The hospital of Beaune, pictured above, was founded by the most powerful lords of Burgundy.

These weren't really retirement homes, however.  They were places for the sick, the indigent, and the dying (more like a hospice).  The nuns would however try to heal the sick.  Chicken soup and saint dust are great cure-alls.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval social history, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback!