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 as well as across the miles of Europe. After all, no one would expect the clothes of an 8th-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 suit of clothes?
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 a textile was, the softer and more costly it would be.
Materials available for use in medieval clothing included:
Wool By far the most common fabric of the Middle Ages -- and the core of a flourishing textile industry -- wool might be 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. More about medieval wool
Linen 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, so, since the fabric wrinkled easily, it wasn't often found in garments of poorer folk. Fine linen was used for the veils and wimples of ladies, undergarments, and a wide variety of apparel and household furnishings. More about the history of linen
Hemp Less costly than flax, hemp and nettles were used to create workaday fabrics in the Middle Ages. More common for such uses as sails and rope, hemp may also have been used for aprons and undergarments. More about hemp and nettles
Cotton 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 rose up in southern Europe in the 12th century, and cotton became an occasional alternative to linen. More about medieval cotton use
Leather 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. More about medieval leather-working
Fur In early medieval Europe, fur was common, but, thanks in part to the use of animal skins by Barbarian cultures, considered too crass to wear on display. It was, however, used to line gloves and outer garments. By the tenth century, however, fur had come back into fashion, and everything from beaver, fox and sable to vair (squirrel), ermine and marten was used for warmth and status. More about medieval furs
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.
COLORS FOUND IN MEDIEVAL CLOTHING
Dyes came from rather a lot of different sources, some of them far more expensive than others.
Still, even the humble peasant could have colorful clothing. Using plants, roots, lichen, tree bark, nuts, crushed insects, mollusks and iron oxide, virtually every color of the rainbow could be achieved. However, adding color was an extra step in the manufacturing process that raised its price, so clothing made from undyed fabric in various shades of beige and off-white was not uncommon among the poorest folk.
A dyed fabric would fade fairly quickly if it wasn't mixed with a mordant, and bolder shades required either longer dyeing times or more expensive dyes. Thus, fabrics of the brightest and richest colors cost more and were, therefore most often found on nobility and the very rich. One natural dye that did not require a mordant was woad, a flowering plant that yielded a dark blue dye. Woad was used so extensively in both professional and home dyeing that it became known as "Dyer's Woad," and garments of a variety of blue shades could be found on people of virtually every level of society.
Throughout much of the Middle Ages and in most societies, the undergarments worn by both men and women didn't substantially change.
Basically, they consisted of a shirt or under-tunic, stockings or hose, and, for men at least, some kind of underpants or breeches. There is no evidence that women regularly wore underpants, but with a matter of such delicacy that the garments became known as "unmentionables," this isn’t surprising. Women may have worn underpants, depending on their resources, the nature of their outer garments and their personal preferences.
Virtually everyone wore something on their heads in the Middle Ages, to keep off the sun in hot weather, to keep their heads warm in cold weather, and to keep dirt out of their hair. Of course, as with every other type of garment, hats could indicate a person's job or station in life and could make a fashion statement.
But hats were especially important, and to knock someone's hat off his or her head was a grave insult that, depending on the circumstances, could even be considered assault.
Both men and women wore hoods, often attached to capes or jackets but sometimes standing alone. Some of the more complicated men's hats were actually hoods with a long strip of fabric in the back that could be wound around the head. A common accouterment for men of the working classes was a hood attached to a short cape that covered just the shoulders.
You may have heard that in the Middle Ages, "everyone slept naked." Like most generalizations, this can't be perfectly accurate -- and in cold weather, it was so unlikely as to be painfully ridiculous.
Illuminations, woodcuts, and other period artwork illustrate medieval people in bed in different attire; some are unclothed, but just as many are wearing simple gowns or shirts, some with sleeves. Though we have virtually no documentation regarding what people wore to bed, from these images we can glean that those who wore night dress could have been clad in an under-tunic -- possibly the same one they'd worn during the day -- or even in a lightweight (or, for colder weather, ultra-warm) gown made especially for sleeping, depending on their financial status.
As today, what people wore to bed depended on their resources, the climate, family custom and their own personal preferences.
Clothing was the quickest and easiest way to identify someone's status and station in life. The monk in his cassock, the servant in his livery, the peasant in his simple tunic were all instantly recognizable, as was the knight in armor or the lady in her fine gown. Whenever members of the lower strata of society blurred the lines of social distinction by wearing clothing ordinarily found only among the upper classes, people found it unsettling, and some saw it as downright offensive.
Throughout the medieval era, but especially in the later Middle Ages, laws were passed to regulate what could and could not be worn by members of different social classes. These laws, known as sumptuary laws, not only attempted to maintain the separation of the classes, they also addressed excessive expenditures on all sorts of items. The clergy and more pious secular leaders had concerns about the conspicuous consumption the nobility was prone to, and sumptuary laws were an attempt to reign in what some found to be distastefully ostentatious displays of wealth.
Although there are known cases of prosecution under sumptuary laws, they seldom worked. It was difficult to police everyone's purchases, and since the punishment for breaking the law was usually a fine, the very rich could still acquire whatever they pleased and pay the fine with hardly a second thought. Still, the passage of sumptuary laws persisted through the Middle Ages.
There are exceedingly few garments surviving from the Middle Ages. The exceptions are the apparel found with the bog bodies, most of whom died before the medieval period, and a handful of rare and costly items preserved through extraordinary good fortune. Textiles simply cannot withstand the elements, and unless they are buried with metal, they will deteriorate in the grave without a trace.
How, then, do we really know what people wore?
Traditionally, costumers and historians of material culture have turned to period artwork. Statues, paintings, illuminated manuscripts, tomb effigies -- even the extraordinary Bayeux Tapestry -- all depict contemporaries in medieval dress. But great care must be taken when evaluating these representations. Often "contemporary" for the artist was a generation or two too late for the subject.
Sometimes there was no attempt at all to represent a historical figure in clothing appropriate to the figure's time period. And unfortunately, most of the picture books and magazine series produced in the 19th century, from which a large percentage of modern histories are drawn, are based on misleading period artwork. Many of them further mislead with inappropriate colors and the casual addition of anachronistic garments.
Matters are further complicated by the fact that terminology is not consistent from one source to the next. There are no period documentary sources fully describing garments and providing their names. The historian must pick up these bits of scattered data from a wide range of sources -- wills, account books, letters -- and interpret exactly what is meant by each item mentioned.
There is nothing straightforward about medieval clothing history.
The truth is, the study of medieval clothing is in its infancy. With any luck, future historians will break open the treasure trove of facts about medieval clothing and share its riches with the rest of us. Until then, we amateurs and non-specialists must take our best guess based on what little we've learned.
SOURCES AND SUGGESTED READING
Piponnier, Francoise, and Perrine Mane, Dress in the Middle Ages. Yale University Press, 1997, 167 pp.
Köhler, Carl, A History of Costume. George G. Harrap and Company, Limited, 1928; reprinted by Dover; 464 pp.
Norris, Herbert, Medieval Costume and Fashion. J.M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., London, 1927; reprinted by Dover; 485 pp.
Houston, Mary G., Medieval Costume in England and France: The 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries.
Adam and Charles Black, London, 1939; reprinted by Dover; 226 pp.
Netherton, Robin, and Gale R. Owen-Crocker, Medieval Clothing and Textiles. Boydell Press, 2007, 221 pp.
Jenkins, D.T., editor, The Cambridge History of Western Textiles , vols. I and II. Cambridge University Press, 2003, 1191 pp.
Quipu is the Spanish form of the Inca (Quechua language) word khipu, a unique form of ancient communication and information storage used by the Inca Empire, their competition and their predecessors in South America. Scholars believe that quipus record information in the same way as a cuneiform tablet or a painted symbol on papyrus do. But rather than using painted or impressed symbols to convey a message, the ideas in quipus are expressed by colors and knot patterns, cord twist directions and directionality, in cotton and wool threads.
The first western report of quipus was from the Spanish conquistadors including Francisco Pizarro and the clerics who attended him. According to Spanish records, quipus were kept and maintained by specialists (called quipucamayocs or khipukamayuq), and shamans who trained for years to master the intricacies of the multi-layered codes. This was not a technology shared by everyone in the Inca community. According to 16th-century historians such as Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, quipus were carried throughout the empire by relay riders, called chasquis, who brought the coded information along the Inca road system, keeping the Inca rulers up to date with the news around their far-flung empire.
The Spanish destroyed thousands of quipus in the 16th century. An estimated 600 remain today, stored in museums or found in recent excavations or preserved in local Andean communities.
Although the process of deciphering the quipu system is still just beginning, scholars surmise (at least) that information is stored in cord color, cord length, knot type, knot location, and cord twist direction.
Quipu cords are often plaited in combined colors like a barber pole; cords sometimes have single threads of distinctively dyed cotton or wool woven in. Cords are connected mostly from a single horizontal strand, but on some elaborate examples, multiple subsidiary cords lead off from the horizontal base in vertical or oblique directions.
What information is stored in a quipu? Based on historical reports, they were certainly used for administrative tracking of tributes and records of the production levels of farmers and artisans throughout the Inca empire. Some quipu may have represented maps of the pilgrimage road network known as the ceque system and/or they may have been mnemonic devices to help oral historians remember ancient legends or the genealogical relationships so important to Inca society.
American anthropologist Frank Salomon has noted that the physicality of quipus seems to suggest that the medium was exceptionally strong in encoding discrete categories, hierarchy, numbers, and grouping. Whether quipus have narratives embedded in them as well, the likelihood that we'll ever be able to translate story-telling quipus is very small.
EVIDENCE FOR THE QUIPU USE
Archaeological evidence indicates that quipus have been in use in South America at least since ~AD 770, and they continue to be used by Andean pastoralists today. The following is a brief description of evidence supporting quipu use throughout Andean history.
Caral-Supe culture (possible, ca 2500 BC). The oldest possible quipu comes from the Caral-Supe civilization, a preceramic (Archaic) culture in South America made up of at least 18 villages and enormous pyramidal architecture. In 2005, researchers reported a collection of strings twisted around small sticks from a context dated to approximately 4,000-4,500 years ago. Further information has not been published to date, and the interpretation of this as a quipu is somewhat controversial.
Middle Horizon Wari (AD 600-1000). The strongest evidence for the pre-Inca use of quipu record keeping is from the Middle Horizon Wari (or Huari) empire, an early urban and perhaps state level Andean society centered at the capital city of Huari, Peru. The competing and contemporary Tiwanaku state also had a cord device called a chino, but little information is available about its technology or characteristics to date.
Late Horizon Inca (1450-1532). The best-known and largest number of surviving quipus are dated to the Inca period (1450-Spanish conquest in 1532). These are known both from the archaeological record and from historical reports—hundreds are in museums around the world, with data on 450 of them residing in the Khipu Database Project at Harvard University.
QUIPU USAGE AFTER THE SPANISH ARRIVAL
At first, the Spanish encouraged the use of quipu for various colonial enterprises, from recording collected tribute to keeping track of sins in the confessional.
The converted Inca peasant was supposed to bring a quipu to the priest to confess his sins and read those sins during that confession. That stopped when the priests realized that most of the people couldn't actually use a quipu in that manner: the converts had to return to the quipu specialists to obtain a quipu and a list of sins that corresponded to the knots. After that, the Spanish worked to suppress the use of the quipu.
After the suppression, much Inca information was stored in written versions of the Quechua and Spanish languages, but quipu use continued in local, intracommunity records. The historian Garcilaso de la Vega based his reports of the downfall of the last Inca king Atahualpaon both quipu and Spanish sources. It might have been at the same time that quipu technology began to spread outside of the quipucamayocs and Inca rulers: some Andean herders today still use quipu to keep track of their llama and alpaca herds. Salomon also found that in some provinces, local governments use historical quipu as patrimonial symbols of their past, although they do not claim competence in reading them.
INCA QUIPU CHARACTERISTICS
Quipus made during the Inca Empire are decorated in at least 52 different colors, either as a single solid color, twisted into two-color "barber poles", or as an unpatterned mottled group of colors. They have three kinds of knots, a single/overhand knot, a long knot of multiple twists of the overhand style, and an elaborate figure-of-eight knot.
The knots are tied in tiered clusters, which have been identified as recording the numbers of objects in a base-10 system. German archaeologist Max Uhle interviewed a shepherd in 1894, who told him that the figure-of-eight knots on his quipu stood for 100 animals, the long knots were 10s and single overhand knots represented a single animal.
Inca quipus were made from strings of spun and plied threads of cotton or camelid (alpaca and llama) wool fibers. They were typically arranged in only one organized form: primary cord and pendant.
The surviving single primary cords are of widely variable length but are typically about a half centimeter (about two-tenths of an inch) in diameter. The number of pendant cords varies between two and 1,500: the average in the Harvard database is 84. In about 25% of the quipus, the pendant cords have subsidiary pendant cords. One sample from Chile contained six levels.
Some quipus were recently found in an Inca-period archaeological site right next to plant remains of chili peppers, black beans, and peanuts (Urton and Chu 2015). Examining the quipus, Urton and Chu think they have discovered a recurring pattern of a number—15—that may represent the amount of tax due to the empire on each of these foodstuffs. This is the first time that archaeology has been able to explicitly connect quipus to accounting practices.
Wari quipus are made of cords of white cotton, which were then wrapped with elaborately dyed threads made from the wool of camelids (alpaca and llama). Knot styles found incorporated in the cords are simple overhand knots, and they are predominantly plied in a Z-twist fashion.
The Wari quipus are organized in two main formats: primary cord and pendant, and loop and branch. The primary cord of a quipu is a long horizontal cord, from which hangs a number of thinner cords. Some of those descending cords also have pendants, called subsidiary cords. The loop and branch type has an elliptical loop for a primary cord; pendant cords descend from it in series of loops and branches. Researcher Urton (2014) believes that the main organizational counting system may have been base 5 (that of the Inca quipus has been determined to be base 10) or the Wari may not have used such a representation.
Cotton (Gossypium sp.) is one of the most important and earliest domesticated non-food crops in the world. Used primarily for its fiber, cotton was domesticated independently in both the Old and New Worlds. The word "cotton" originated from the Arabic term al qutn, which became in Spanish algodón and cotton in English.
Nearly all the cotton produced in the world today is the New World species Gossypium hirsutum, but before the 19th century, several species were grown on different continents.
The four domesticated Gossypium species of the Malvaceae family are G. arboreum L., domesticated in the Indus Valley of Pakistan and India; G. herbaceum L. from Arabia and Syria; G. hirsutum from Mesoamerica; and G. barbadense from South America.
All four domestic species and their wild relatives are shrubs or small trees which are traditionally grown as summer crops; domesticated versions are highly drought- and salt-tolerant crops that grow well in marginal, arid environments. Old World cottons have short, coarse, weak fibers that are today primarily used for stuffing and quilt making; New World cottons have higher production demands but provide longer and stronger fibers and higher yields.
Wild cotton is photo-period sensitive--in other words, the plant begins to germinate when the day length reaches a certain point. Wild cotton plants are perennial and their form is sprawling.
Domestic versions are short, compact annual shrubs which do not respond to changes in day length--that's an advantage if the plant grows in places with cool winters because both wild and domestic cottons are frost-intolerant.
Cotton fruits are capsules or bolls which contain several seeds covered by two kinds of fiber: short ones called fuzz and long ones called lint.
Only the lint fibers are useful for making textiles; and the domestic plants have larger seeds covered with comparatively abundant lint. Cotton is traditionally harvested by hand, and then the cotton is ginned--processed to separate the seeds from the fiber.
After the ginning process, the cotton fibers are batted with a wooden bow to make them more flexible, and carded with a hand comb to separate the fibers before spinning. Spinning twists the individual fibers into a yarn, which can be completed by hand with a spindle and spindle whorl or with a spinning wheel.
OLD WORLD COTTON
Cotton was first domesticated in the Old World about 7,000 years ago; the earliest archaeological evidence for cotton use is from the Neolithic occupation of Mehrgarh, in the Kachi Plain of Balochistan, Pakistan, in the sixth millennium BC. Cultivation of G. arboreumbegan in the Indus Valley of India and Pakistan, and then eventually spread over Africa and Asia, whereas G. herbaceum was first cultivated in Arabia and Syria.
The two main species, G. arboreum and G. herbaceum, are genetically very different and probably diverged well before domestication. Specialists agree that the wild progenitor of G. herbaceum was an African species, whereas the ancestor of G. arboreum is still unknown.
Regions of possible origin of the G. arboreum wild progenitor are likely Madagascar or the Indus Valley, where the most ancient evidence for cultivated cotton has been found.
Abundant archaeological evidence exists for the initial domestication and use of G. arboreum, by the Harappan (aka Indus Valley) civilization in Pakistan. Mehrgarh, the earliest agricultural village in the Indus Valley, has multiple lines of evidence of cotton seeds and fibers beginning about 6000 BP. At Mohenjo-Daro, fragments of cloth and cotton textiles have been dated to the fourth millennium BC, and archaeologists agree that most of the trade that made the city grow was based on cotton exportation.
Raw material and finished cloth were exported from south Asia into Dhuweila in eastern Jordan by 6450-5000 years ago, and to Maikop (Majkop or Maykop) in the northern Caucasus by 6000 BP.
Cotton fabric has been found at Nimrud in Iraq (8th-7th centuries BC), Arjan in Iran (late 7th-early 6th centuries BC) and Kerameikos in Greece (5th century BC). According to Assyrian records of Sennacherib (705-681 BC), cotton was grown in the royal botanical gardens at Nineveh, but cool winters there would have made large-scale production impossible.
Because G. arboreum is a tropical and subtropical plant, cotton agriculture did not spread outside the Indian subcontinent until thousands of years after its domestication. Cotton cultivation is first seen in the Persian Gulf at Qal'at al-Bahrain (ca 600-400 BC), and in North Africa at Qasr Ibrim, Kellis and al-Zerqa between the 1st and 4th centuries AD. Recent investigations at Karatepe in Uzbekistan have found cotton production dated between ca. 300-500 AD. Cotton may have been grown in the Xinjiang (China) province cities of Turfan and Khotan by the 8th century AD. Cotton was finally adapted to grow in more temperate climates by the Islamic Agricultural Revolution, and between 900-1000 AD, a boom in cotton production spread into Persia, Southwest Asia, North Africa and the Mediterranean Basin.
G. herbaceum is much less well-known than G. arboreum. Traditionally it is known to grow in African open forests and grasslands. Characteristics of its wild species are a taller plant, compared to the domesticated shrubs, smaller fruit and thicker seed coats. Unfortunately, no clear domesticated remains of G. herbaceum have been recovered from archaeological contexts. However, the distribution of its closest wild progenitor suggests a northward distribution toward North Africa, and the Near East.
NEW WORLD COTTON
Among the American species, G. hirsutum was apparently cultivated first in Mexico, and G. barbadense later in Peru. However, a minority of researchers believe, alternatively, that the earliest type of cotton was introduced into Mesoamerica as an already domesticated form of G. barbadense from coastal Ecuador and Peru.
Whichever story ends up to be correct, cotton was one of the first non-food plants domesticated by the prehistoric inhabitants of the Americas.
In the Central Andes, especially in the north and central coasts of Peru, cotton was part of a fishing economy and a marine-based life style. People used cotton to make fishing nets and other textiles. Cotton remains have been recovered in many sites on the coast especially in residential middens.
Gossypium hirsutum (Upland cotton)
The oldest evidence of Gossypium hirsutum in Mesoamerica comes from the Tehuacan valley and has been dated between 3400 and 2300 BC. In different caves of the region, archaeologists affiliated to the project of Richard MacNeish found remains of fully domesticated examples of this cotton.
Recent studies have compared bolls and cotton seeds retrieved from excavations in Guila Naquitz Cave, Oaxaca, with living examples of wild and cultivated G. hirsutum punctatumgrowing along the east coast of Mexico. Additional genetic studies (Coppens d'Eeckenbrugge and Lacape 2014) support the earlier results, indicating that G.
hirsutum was likely originally domesticated in the Yucatán Peninsula .
In different eras and among different Mesoamerican cultures, cotton was a highly demanded good and a precious exchange item. Maya and Aztec merchants traded cotton for other luxury items, and nobles adorned themselves with woven and dyed mantles of the precious material.
Aztec kings often offered cotton products to noble visitors as gifts and to army leaders as payment.
Gossypium barbadense (Pima cotton)
The first clear evidence of domesticated Pima cotton comes from the Ancón-Chillón area of the central coast of Peru. The sites of this area show the domestication process began during the Preceramic period, beginning about 2500 BC. By 1000 BC the size and shape of Peruvian cotton bolls were indistinguishable from today's modern cultivars of G. barbadense.
Cotton production began on the coasts, but eventually moved inland, facilitated by the construction of canal irrigation. By the Initial Period, sites such as Huaca Prieta contained domestic cotton 1,500 to 1,000 years before pottery and maize cultivation. Unlike in the old world, cotton in Peru was initially part of subsistence practices, used for fishing and hunting nets, as well as textiles, clothing and storage bags.