Pre-middle age & early middle age era

December 18, 2009

Preface to the Middle Ages
(Western Europe through the 11th century)
In the area we know as Europe, the time period between the fall of Rome and about the
10th century is generally known as the Dark Ages, because in comparison to the many
literate civilizations, little is known about this array of people. Some strong leaders have
emerged in history such as Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, legends about King
Arthur are abundant, and religion changes to the worship of a single God.
Prior to the Dark Ages, from about 100 BCE to about 300 ACE, the Romans ruled
throughout what we now know as Europe and Briton. The indigent people of that region
lived in a very basic condition, even though the Romans came in and built luxurious
Roman towns with baths, markets, villas, etc. There was much resentment towards the
Romans and Roman ideas. Once the Romans left there was little trace of their culture
that remained.

The Romans lived apart from the conquered people and the cultures did not intermix. So
while the Gallic people knew of baths, villas, togas, military discipline, etc., once the
Romans left the area, these ideas were rejected. The villas and baths were left to be
covered by the elements or go to ruin. Link BATH, England.
For further information on the “Tribal Migration” and fall of Rome, see Gerhard
Rempel’s lecture at

When fathers died in Frankland, the forerunner of modern France and Germany, it was
not necessarily the first son who inherited. Therefore, when Pipin died in 768 A.D., the
Frankish Empire was divided between Charlemagne and his younger brother. There was
bitter rivalry, but when the younger brother died, Charlemagne turned into a warrior king
uniting Frankland with its rebellious nobility, and extending its territories. He also
became a Christian and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He died in 814.

Charlemagne had vast “vills” which were estates that supplied his court and his army.
The vills also served as way stations on his almost continuous tours of the realm. Indeed,
at that time it was easier for the court to go where the food was than to bring food to the

The Dark Ages were the times of the Feudal System. In this system there were
basically three classes of people: serfs (peasants, villein) at the bottom of the hierarchy,
the clergy, and the nobility consisting of knights, lords, kings. Obviously there were
many more serfs than nobility. Each serf had to have a lord and became a ‘lord’s man.’
Even though they were technically free, they did vow obedience to the lord to serve him
and to perhaps bear arms for him. A man could be dissolved from his oath of fealty if the
lord tried to kill him, or make him a slave, or stole his property, or seduced his wife. But
then the man had to find another lord.
The serf’s life was a dismal one from our point of view. They were up at dawn and
worked until dusk. They tended the livestock, chopped wood, butchered animals for the
winter, tilled and soil, harvested grain for bread and beer (it was safer than milk or
water), wove their own cloth for clothing, etc. It was rare that a commoner traveled more
than five miles from their place of birth. Roads were difficult and unsafe and there was
no reason to travel as they provided all of their own necessities and most of their families
lived around them. They might have gone to a market several times in their lives, but
large towns were not common until after the Crusades.
People lived in one room huts or houses. These were generally built of wood or stone if
one was nobility, but any two story castle was reserved for the elite of the society. Even
in the castles, the lord would sleep with many of his knights and the lady would sleep
with her women. There was little privacy for individuals. The floors were strewn with
straw as the animals often lived inside. Depending on what people cold afford, the straw
was taken out and renewed annually. Of course, the nobility might do it more often.

Unlike the Romans who bathed daily, the people of the Dark Ages bathed once a year, if
that. It was cold and water was something to be feared as it carried diseases.
The Iron Age is a different chronological year for various civilizations. In Northern
Europe it was about 250 B.C. to 45 A.D. That means during this time period people
learned to forge iron for weaponry. Later they learned to forge links of chain to produce
a protective garment called chain mail.
The costume of the Dark Ages varied from culture to culture (Danish, Vikings, Franks,
Saxons, Britons, etc.). For example, the Britons dyed or tattooed their skin with blue
woad to alarm their enemies and fight off the devil. They wore animal hides, fur that was
fitted to their bodies. Their sandal-moccasin shoes were good quality and sophisticated.
The different tribes were constantly warring with each other, the men were ready for
battle and their garments were functional. Besides the animal skins, they did weave their
own fabrics out of wool and hemp. Generally these were woven in a plain or twill
weave. Some were woven with brightly colored checks. They knew of cotton and silk
through the Romans, but these fibers were not very practical for the harsh life. While the
animal skins might be fitted, the woven fabrics were not as the fraying was difficult to
control and some of the fabric would be wasted; animals were more plentiful. In general,
the women wore kirtles (skirts) with shawls; the men wore braies, breeches or leg
coverings. There were many variations on the breeches. A fabric hose (chausses) which
was a sock-like boot to the calf was often drawn up over the breeches. Other forms of
breeches were tied under the foot or at the ankle. Loose breeches were bound around the
leg with cross-gartered bands. In some cases there is no evidence that these breeches
extended to the waist, but were held up by the cross-gartering. The tunic worn on the top
of the body generally covered the top of the breeches.

The costumes were simple and lacked the elaborate decoration of the Byzantines. The
jewelry was more specific as were their hair styles. These often identified one culture
from another.

Women’s costume for many centuries was based on layers of tunics, a garment similar to
the dalmatica, some fuller than others, or the kirtle and mantle, or cape. There was not
much variation for women’s garments until after the Crusades and the influence of the
Byzantine world. In Figure 9 you should note the back lacing or pointing used to give the
garment more shape. It is rare to see the back of a garment and this is a reproduction of a
garment from the end of the Dark Ages.
A good film for costuming is a 1960’s vintage foreign film, Seventh Seal, Ingmar
Bergman, director.

Early Middle Ages: 10th to 13th Centuries
The dates of the 10th through 13th centuries (900 to 1300 A.C.E) represent a period of
enormous change for European society. By this time Christianity was the main religion
of almost all of the cultures and there existed a religious fervor. The Crusades, a holy
war to gain control of the holy land, was launched at various intervals during this period.
Although most historians agree there were eight Crusades, there were also some very
small ones such as the Children’s Crusade. The Crusades were the uniting element of the
European nations.

The first Crusade was in 1096 AD and while professing to be of religious concerns,
provided a venue for governments to gain political power, the mercenaries to gain
adventure, and the people to have direct communication with other nations. The
Crusaders often brought back fabrics, perfumes, cosmetics, dyes, spices, and other items
that were not readily available in England, France, Germany, and other parts of Europe.
They also brought back cultural ideas, such as roles of women, and technological
developments. These Crusaders must have been in culture shock with the new sights,
new sounds (lute), tastes (rhubarb, sugarcane), textures, colors, perfumes, spices
(cinnamon, ginger), abundance of carpets and cushions, bathing habits. In fact it was
ideas from the Crusades that brought public baths into European cities. Of course, the
Church was outraged at all of this which is why it took so long for many of these ideas to
be put into practice.
Along with the Crusades came the idea of Chivalry, this is an ethical code of behavior of
knights and their ladies. For the Code of Chivalry and the Rules of Courtly Love see:

These codes were the ideal, but difficult to keep in focus when poverty, plague, wars, and
famine were the daily zeitgeist of most of the commoners. Faith kept the people going at
this time and the promise of a heaven afterlife was full of hope. The Crusades were made
romantic but you need to realize that there were no pain killers, the battle fields were
blood baths, and most people died of some kind of maiming.

Note the use of chain mail, the gray/silver
garment in the center figure. Chain mail was links of forged metal fashioned into a long
tunic. It aided in the protection of the wearer from arrows, swords, and spears. Often it
covered the head, arms, legs, and some knights had chain mail coats for their horses. The
horses, bestriders, were an important part of a knight’s equipment. These large horses
were often trained to bite, kick, and attack in the battle.
The Early Middle Ages laid the foundations for the Gothic style of architecture which
had spires that seemed to reach up to the heavens.

The term “lord” comes from “loaf keeper;” the term “lady” comes from “Loaf kneader.”
In the economic and political arena, the serfs began to break away from the feudal system
and gathered in towns forming many different occupational guilds, such as the spinners’
guild, weaving guilds, etc. These guilds had their own form of heraldry, symbols
indicating their profession and eventually became quite powerful in economical changes.
The nobility used heraldry to proclaim their family heritage. See Figures 5-7 for
examples of heraldic symbols.

Some of the horsemen are wearing chain mail; they all have on tunics as well
as leg coverings called hose. You might want to link to the following web site to see
more of the tapestry pieces. Tapestry was an important form of art at that time. This one
is embroidered, but many were woven as pile-less rugs and hung on the walls of the
drafty castles.

They are all
wearing girdled (belted) tunics, some with an overskirt. Note the leg coverings. You
will often see these leg coverings (hose) appearing very smooth on the leg, but in reality
they were cut on the bias (knitting machines were not invented yet) and were probably
stretched out and falling down as you see here. The small white hat the man on the right
wears is called a coif; the man on the left has his cape wound around his head, probably
to catch the sweat.
While this period starts with composite garments (part draped and part cut and sewn), it
slowly evolves to more and more cutting and sewing. In general, the clothing of this
period begins to focus on the shape of the body rather than trying to conceal it. (By the
late 16th century the body will become quite a unique shape.) In the early Middle Ages
the shapely focus begins with the women, but by the 14th century it is the men who have
the fashion spotlight. France dictates most of the fashions.
Women’s Costume
The chemise or tunic was the basic undergarment of women. Generally it was not
decorated and not full. Similar to the dalmatica, there was little shape to this garment that
was based on a rectangle with a hole cut for the head and long straight sleeves added to
the armholes. These sleeves might be tapered at the wrist. Over the chemise, the women
wore loosely fitted cotes, which resembled the chemise in shape, but might be more
decorated. They often put a girdle or belt around the waist to give some shape.

Throughout the early middle ages, the female costume evolved into greater control or
more fitting. The bliaut (or bliaud) was developed which was often two pieces of fabric
sewn together at the hipline and generally worn by the upper classes. This took more
technological skill. (The difference between the cote and the bliaut is somewhat like the
theoretical difference between the Doric and Ionic chiton. The bliaut was generally of
finer fabric, was fuller, and more luxurious.) The bliaut was often worn with a corsage, a
very wide waistband holding in the fabric and giving shape to the body. This corsage
sometimes resembled a tight fitting vest reaching down to the upper hip.

At one point in time it became fashionable to extend the sleeve hems to an exaggerated
proportion. These sleeves became so long that they dragged the ground and were often
tied up into knots. Sometimes the length of the sleeve and the length of the train (back
hem of the dress) were dictated by sumptuary laws: the higher your station in society the
longer your sleeves or train.

The woman in
the very full yellow bliaud (with her hand being kissed by a bishop) has very long
sleeves; you can see the edges of a white chemise under it. The female in red appears to
have a more fitted bliaud. Both young ladies are showing braided hair (loose or braided
hair is the sign of an unmarried female), one with a long white wimple (or veil) over her
head. The female in black on the left hand side has her hair covered by a black wimple.
We assume she is a married or widowed female.

The chainse had elements of control in the form of points. Points are like today’s
lacings: long cords with metal tips or points on them. The chainse was cut to a curved
shape with small holes in the center back opening or side openings so that the points
could be threaded through and tightened to give shape to the body. In addition, the chaise
was often pleated, as the Egyptians pleated their garments: the garment was gathered at
the neck and shoulders, soaked in water, wrung out lengthwise, twisted tightly, binded at
the waist, and left to dry. The untwisted garment gave a pleated or crinkled effect.

Tippets were often used to decorate this garment. These were band around the biceps.
(See Figure 18) The bands had a long piece of fabric dangling from it. The importance is
in the focus on additional decoration and increased control of the fabric. The society is
becoming more skilled in cutting and sewing the woven fabric.

For warmth both women and men wore a mantle or cape. These were often called cloaks,
but unlike our cloaks they did not have sleeves, so the likeness to a cape is much more
fitting. If the mantle was fur lined it was called a pelice, pelisse, or pelicon. The pelisse
was fastened at one shoulder or at the center front by a fermail, a brooch.
Head Covering for Women
The women wore their hair long and often braided. In the beginning of this time period,
hair was covered by a long veil or exposed. However, gradually, all female hair was
covered as well as the ears. On explanation is that the culture believed Christ was
conceived through the ear and so women must cover their ears. They also believed that
hair was erotic and wanted to cover that as well. So the women developed all kinds of
bizarre head coverings.

The wimple is the oldest and most common. It was simply a piece of cloth covering the
top of the head. Sometimes it was sheer, sometimes long, sometimes small, but it always
seems to hang down to at least the shoulders. In addition, the women might also wear a
gorget, which covered the woman’s throat extending from ear to ear and filling in her
throat and neckline. A smaller version of this was the barbette, which was a chin strap
going from her ear or a hat around the chin to the other ear or hat hem. These head
pieces are generally white and made from linen or wool. Some of the young women
continued to wear the fillet, but would put on the wimple or cover their hair once they
were married. The fillet was often used to hold the wimple in place.

Men’s Costume
Active men such as workers, warriors or knights, all wore a kind of loose fitting tunic
with leg coverings or hose. These enabled them to be active while keeping them warm.
In addition, they would often wear a capelet which was a short cape pulled over the head
with a hood attached. Think of the classical images of Robin Hood. The tip of the hood
was often extended to exaggerated proportions and was called a liripipe.

An almonder was a pouch in which money or alms were kept. It generally hung from
the belt at the waist. See the center swordsman in Figure 26. It is the forerunner of the

The inactive men wore the same cote as did the women, sometimes girdled, and generally
a mantle for warmth. The more active men would wear shorter tunics. They all wore
simple leather shoes.

The warriors wore chain mail for protection. This chain mail was links of metal that
could cover any part of the body. Therefore, they were fashioned into tunics, into
caplets, into leg coverings, and even shaped to protect their battle horses. Keep in mind
that chain mail was very heavy and expensive, so not many wore all the pieces at once.
But because it was metal and subject to transferring cold or heat to the body, often a
fabric covering called a hauberk or jerkin.

Good films to see for the costuming of this period are Lion in Winter and the Kevin
Costner version of Robin Hood.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: