Tuesday, March 16, 2021


 Medieval people valued silk cloth.  It was smooth next to the skin (unlike homespun wool), it took colors well, it was lustrous due to the structure of its fibers, it didn't fade, it was very strong for its weight, and moths wouldn't eat it.  (Clothes moths have been a perennial issue for people and their clothes--there are clothes moths in the Bible, where heaven is described among other things as a place where moths will not crawl around and chew holes.)

But the early medieval West did not have silk worms.  In fact, the general belief was that silk was spun from some special stone, found in the fabled East.  The Obviously False slur of silk coming from some worm was roundly rejected.

Now in fact silk does come from worms, raised in China for for at least the past four thousand years.  The worms graze on mulberry leaves, then spin cocoons, which can be carefully unwound to produce the filament, after boiling up the cocoons to kill the pupae.  They would emerge as a moth (not a clothes moth! which eats wool, not mulberry leaves) if they lived.  In fact, so-called raw silk or wild silk is made from cocoons where the moth has emerged, breaking through the cocoon and breaking a lot of the filaments, so the result is a less smooth texture.

Silk was extremely valuable in medieval Europe.  One of the things that Charlemagne ordered the overseers of his manors to do each year was count up how many lengths of silk cloth they had, as recorded in his "Capitulare de villis."  The epics and romances showed how luxurious their heroes and heroines were by insisting that they wore silk, slept under silk blankets, and had silk tents.


The above is a nice piece of silk from eleventh-century Egypt, revered for many years at Cadouin as a Holy Hanky (see more on the Hanky here).

A big part of the expense was getting the silk over thousands of miles from China.  The Silk Road (not really a road, a network of routes) led from China across central Asia and ended up eventually at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.  There in the Middle Ages it was picked up by Italian trading ships and taken to Italy.  From there it was sold throughout Europe.

The Near East was also where spices from southeast Asia were bought by Italian merchants.  The spices had not come via the Silk Road, however.  Instead they had come on Arabic dhows, across the Indian Ocean.  But in the medieval mind, silk and spices both came from the mystic East, which was why Columbus was distraught when the "Indians" he encountered seemed to have neither silk nor spices.

Understandably, the medieval West was eager to find the secret of silk production.  Silk worms appear to have reached Byzantium in the sixth century AD, smuggled there probably from India.  By the twelfth century some Italian cities had figured out about the worms and were raising them in secret, while still putting out the story of the special, magical stone.

 © C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on medieval clothing, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback.

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