Costumers and reenactors alike will pore over illuminated manuscripts and extant bits of cloth housed in museums to get the right look. This can be trickier for those folks working on earlier period garb, like our group who, while also flitting about other time periods, works a lot with the 12th century.
To save you, dear readers, time, we have put together a handy guide based on one key observation that we’ve made:
12th century nobles dress like woodfowl.
Don’t believe us? Welp, grab your bliaut hems because you’re in for a treat!
We’ll begin with a simple songbird we all know and love, the robin. Rich golden brown and blue-grey plumage and a chest of eye-popping orangey-red. And our noble nailed it!
The European goldfinch is not a particularly showy bird, but some nobles can definitely pull off the subtle-but-regal look.
And here we have Hildegard von Bingen in all her magpie-inspired glory. Because magpies are awesome and so it Hilde.
And now we come to the birds that the 12-year-old in all of us has been waiting for…tits! We’ve got two tits for you today. The first one, the smaller of the two (they’re always different sizes) is the blue tit. Our noble’s outfit could not be more on point.
It’s the attention to detail that really caught our eye when it came to this great tit – the noble not the bird. The blue stockings deserve a slow golf clap.
The chaffinch may seem an understated and stately bird, but that doesn’t stop our ratite noble from going all out to achieve this feather-inspired fashion.
Surely by now we’ve exhausted our examples. HA! This wouldn’t be A THING™ if there were not a ridiculous amount of evidence to support our ridiculous supposition. So, top off your cuppa because we’re halfway there!
There are few birds as striking as the European starling and nobles never pass up a chance to be striking. Striking deals, striking coins, striking fear…striking a pose.
Sure, you say, but these are not austentatious aves. Well, let us introduce you to the roller. A perfect inspiration for our nature-draped nobbies because they are as graceful as they are gaudy.
True, most nobles tend to find their couture creativity in the more nuanced of nest-dwellers. For instance, the turtledove. It’s all in the contrast and patterns. And an oscine obsession.
Yes, this is good fashion sense. Something basically subtle with dynamic patterning and just the right amount of bling. Like this fairy wren ensemble! Perfection!
Or, not. This guy did not get the subtlety memo and has gone all green woodpecker on us. I mean…It’s a look.
I mean, I guess if you are going to insist on going all out just dress like a pheasant! Pheasant, with a ‘ph’. Not like a peasant. Don’t be ridiculous. (Can we just talk about those chausses for a second though?!)
And now you cannot unsee it. Everywhere you look, woodfowl-inspired haute couture. We bet you are just as shocked as this horse is.
Glad you enjoyed this twitter feed.
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A topic that crops up now and again in Ren faire and reenactment circles is the idea of sumptuary laws. I think most people know that “purple is for royals”. But, is that true? When did that start? What kind of purple? But, more to the point, was it just about purple?
It is tempting to think of sumptuary laws as something that came into being in Renaissance Europe, but they have been around a long time and in many places. Leviticus 19:19 prevented Jews from wearing cloth woven of two materials. The Japanese Shogunate instituted strict clothing rules to prevent the wealth-gaining merchants from showing up the Samurai. Throughout largely Christian medieval Europe Jews were required to wear a yellow belt, badge, ring, and/or a pointed hat, and Muslims often had to wear a crescent shaped badge.
Just in case you thought that yellow badge thing was something new. Nope.
These are just a few in what could be a very, very long list. The point is that throughout human history people have utilized clothing rules as a marker for social divisions, typically to ensure class distinctions, but sometimes to mark certain groups as “other”. Other reasons for these regulations had to do with trade. To encourage the use of native fibers, imports of certain fibers might be banned or limited. Wool, for instance, was a highly lucrative market, and various rules and tariffs were used by countries in an attempt to get the best profits.
Fun fact! In the 13th century you could be heavily fined for not washing your sheep. And that’s not a euphemism.
Purple gets mentioned a lot, though. Throughout the Bible the color is mentioned (often in conjunction with scarlet and or gold) as a signifier of wealth; the Greek word porphura specifically occurring in the New Testament. Roman law prevented enslaved people and certain citizens from wearing purple, regarding it as for the wealthiest citizens. In 1363, Edward III released a law which restricted diet and clothing of various classes. Purple, silk, and fur were singled out specifically. Silk and fur were for the noble classes and purple for the royal family. Under Elizabethan law the sumptuary requirements of England became perhaps the most restrictive.
Only the Augustus could wear a purple paludamentum.
But, purple is pretty easy to come by as far as dying is concerned. Simply mixing blue-producing with red-producing ingredients would get the job done. So, why are folks’ presumably purple panties in a knot?
The purple in question was not just any purple, but a purple referred to as Tyrian Purple, Royal Purple, Tyrian Red, Phoenician Purple, or Imperial Purple which is produced from sea snails. In ancient cultures it was Murex brandaris and later Hexaplex trunculus was also used. (These little guys got seriously used up basically because they have pretty blood) Depending on the snail (or mixture of snails) and mordant and cloth type the color produced was a vibrant, rich purple with often a bit of red or a bit of blue tint. The process of achieving this particular purple was labor and materials intensive. This made it very expensive. VERY expensive.
In a world where purple doesn’t always mean what you think it means…it’s ISH.
Because it was expensive, most people could not afford it anyway, but as a wealthy member of society you might also get your nose twisted over people mimicking the color. But, we do see evidence of lavenders, indigos, and purplish shades on various people in manuscript images. Because, and let’s be honest here, purple is hella pretty who doesn’t want to look hella pretty?
So wealth. So conspicuous.
Equally reserved to the noble and royal were ermine fur (which sounds so much sexier than stoat stubble) and cloth of gold. A 1520 summit between Henry VIII and Francis I was attended by so many people wearing cloth of gold that the event became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
Cloth of gold can be traced back to the Byzantine Empire and it is made from very thin thread of gold or thread wrapped in a thin spiral casing of gold.
MOAR wealth. MOAR conspicuous.
As mentioned above these laws don’t just have to be about clothes, because people seem to be fond of telling people what they can and can’t have generally speaking. Some laws dictate what foods certain people can and can’t eat. Most famously there are the religious regulations which forbid eating shellfish, or pork, or combining dairy with beef, or not eating cow all together. There is a veritable soup of anthropological and historical reasons for how these came to be, but that they are important to their cultures is certainly not debatable.
Edward III’s 1363 “Statutes Concerning Diet and Apparel” tells the lower classes they cannot have “flesh or fish” more than once a day. Why was Eddy 3 in a tizzy about what people were wearing and eating? After the Black Death there were fewer English, fewer Europeans for that matter…far, far fewer. And that meant that there was more wealth to go around, so folks who had not previously been able to afford such luxuries as pheasant and silk were able to do so. A sort of upward mobility fueled by parasite. But, this angered those people who felt their stations were in jeopardy of being confused with those of lower people. So, the crown stepped in to set everyone straight, you know, so every knew who they were at a glance and were not inclined to forget it.
Errybody so fancy even the brick layers are wearing fur…and crowns.
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The 9 Stages of Persona Building
This one is for our SCA friends. Two members of Hysterical History play in the SCA (we’ll note here that one of us has an English persona and one of us has a Welsh persona). This post comes from a place of love…and snark.
So, you are new to the Society for Creative Anachronism. You’ve been told when fighter practice is and you’ve been invited to some guild meetings. And everyone keeps talking about their personas and you feel like you should get one, too. To help ease the process, here’s a little guide on what to expect when deciding on a persona.
1. Think of something cool, like Vikings!*
*Yes, I know it's Norse.
This is absolutely NOT what the Norse looked like!
2. Realize half of everyone are Vikings.
The invasion has occurred! Hail and welcome, Ulfhild and Oddketil!
3. Consider being English, but decide that sounds boring.
Sooooo boooooring! Extra bored just thinking about it.
4. Decide to be Welsh instead. (It’s on the same island, after all)
Yeah, Welsh is cool! Odd facial hair notwithstanding.
5. Research names and learn you have no idea how to pronounce Welsh.
I'd like to buy a vow...nope...a conson...nope...a phoneme that makes sense!
6. Opt for Italian because Italian is sexy!
I'm too sexy for this book.
7. Realize that you are going to die under all the Italian Ren velvet.
We're not really in danger of a Little Ice Age...
8. See amazing garb on a German persona and decide to be German.
9. Spend a decade improving your German garb only to sit in on a Spanish clothing class at King’s College and then start all over. Viva la toca!
Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's the pellote.
Cool your tits. We couldn't mention EVERYONE!
The 5 Types of Persona Play:
Maybe you already HAVE a persona, but aren’t really sure what to do with it. Here is a helpful guide to understanding the options available to you.
- The Basic – you have a name, yay!
- The Casual – you have a name AND a backstory.
- The Ham – you have a name, a backstory AND you play it up in Court
- The Ham and Cheese – you have a name, a backstory, roleplay at the entire event, AND write your Facebook posts as your persona
- The Succumbed – Меня зовут Василий. Я люблю долго гулять по пляжу и сражения на мостах.
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One thing everyone will tell you is that medieval people did not bathe.
As a Ren faire actor, I hear this one A LOT.
Just watching TV shows and movies purportedly set in the Middle Ages you can see a bunch of dirty, filthy people in drab brown clothes. Thank goodness the Renaissance came along and saved us from dirt…and brown.
Hysterical History covered the myth of brown clothes over on our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/RenMagHystericalHistory/), so for this blog post I am going to dive right into the bathing (see what I did there?).
It really doesn’t take long to bust this one, gang.
Manuscript images are aswim (hehe I crack me up) with folks bathing and folks bathing folks. There is a town in England called BATH.
S’right there in the name. Bath, England.
Astute readers will point out to me that Bath is a Roman town. This is true, originally. But, the famous healing baths of Bath were sought after by medieval Englishfolk and if they could they would make a pilgrimage to the city.
Some of you might be thinking, sure, but all this bathing was really something for the upper classes. But, nope, it was a thing everyone managed to do.
Perhaps we first need to address what we mean by bathing. Today we consider this activity to be something that happens in a specially designed room with copious amounts of water that we either sit in or stand under, while sudsing up from stem to stern. And while showers did not exist, bathing tubs, made of wood, existed in the Middle Ages, but they were not something every household would have. However, basins and streams were certainly easier to come by. Royals may even have a bathing room build specially, but for most people it was something done wherever the tub or basin could fit.
It is thought that the bags above these basins might have held powdered or liquid soap.
Washing hands and face upon waking, before meals, and before bed was common across the populace of Europe. Scented plants were typically added to the water. See, people like things that smell good. People like to smell good. People prefer when other people smell good. People in the middle ages used items such as pomanders or ambergris to mask intense odors. And there were intense odors in the Middle Ages. They did not have clean water acts or water treatment plants or the ability to load their trash onto large trucks and have it taken many miles away to be out of sight and out of mind. But, they did recognise the stink and took actions to avoid it…it’s just that the civic and scientific tools to do it well were not really available.
The pomander is that little teaball looking doodad. Folks often wore them on belts and rosaries so they would not be without.
Soap existed in Europe by the time the 10th century rolled around. In fact in the 900s France established guilds for soapmakers, so we can safely say people had soap and it was popular enough to be making enough livre to warrant needing a guild. These were animal fat based and castille (olive oil base) soaps, with lye and scented ingredients like lavender, rose, saffron, clove, and myrtle. Black soap, hard soap, clear soap, milled soap, tallow soap, cold processed, hot processed, etc, etc. The nicest soaps were cost prohibitive to almost everyone, but basic soap was pretty ubiquitous.
There were hygiene guides which encouraged people to maintain a habit of cleaning and looking after their bodies. These often included recipes for things like scented hair powders, scented face tonics, tooth scrub, scented oils, and the like. One very famous treatise on hygiene was (presumably) written by Trota of Salerno and is called The Trotula.
What we see is a pattern of cleanliness that involves a minimum of washing hands and face a few times each day. When possible the whole body was cleaned with a cloth, or if a tub (or stream) was available, by submerging in water. Soap was used by almost everyone, as were hair cleansers. For many, nails were trimmed and cleaned, ears were cleaned, and the body powdered and oil with scented products.
Medieval ear spoons. Absolutely no longer doctor recommended. But, they did they job. Remember, kids, do not put anything smaller than your elbow IN your ear. K, thanks.
There are outlier accounts, such as the 6th century Irish Saint Fintan of Clonenagh who opted to take a bath once a year (clearly not the patron saint of soapmakers – that is Saint Florian). And gripes from Anglo-Saxon men that their womenfolk were being seduced by the incredibly clean and well-scented Norsemen. Anglo-Saxon men felt the Norsemen were fussy and overly concerned with their appearances and perhaps used too much water and too much soap and had really fanceh hair…really anything they could bitch about because the ladies were keen on the strapping, foreign invaders.
So, let’s put it to rest now. Medieval folk may have had different ways for cleaning and different ideas about hygiene, but they, too, wanted skin, hair, teeth, ears, and nails clean as much as we do. Can’t really argue with a hundred images of bathtubs and a hundred recipes for hygiene products.
Ah, a bath feast. Wait. What?! We’re going to have to explore this later!
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