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.