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Med(ieval) Gala

Clearly, the fashions of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were different from today, but sometimes the fashions were just different…full stop.

Welcome to the annual Med(ieval) Gala! As always the dazzling style makers are set to walk the red carpet. Let’s see who’s shaking up the fashion world today!

If you thought the high-low look was passe, think again! This fresh take features scallops and a bold belt of twisted fabric. Reminiscent of Hailee Steinfeld in 2014, this looks blends classic and fun…but with a built-in seat cushion.

These fine gentlemen in their fancy hats have clearly taken a page from Billy Porter’s playbook. If it isn’t one step past fabulous, why did you even bother? It’s a look that combines the pageantry of the joust field with Easter Sunday.

Speaking of fabulous and hats…SOMEONE clearly liked the aesthetic of Aquaman.

There is A LOT going on here. This dress is elegance with a side of Didn’t-Come-To-Play. Ermine lined from top to bottom and what are these laces even lacing? Gold embroidery and a hennin that won’t stop.

Speaking of extra extra, this dashing dandy hasn’t met a trend he didn’t like. Stripes? YES! Circles? YES! Fringe? YES YES! And the hat just caps it all off. See what I did there?

We were unable to get an image of these bad boys in actions, but dude is going to ROCK these peacock feather butterfly wings! Let’s just say that again…peacock feather….butterfly wings.

This dashing German fella is really working it. From the chaperon to his boots everything goes together perfectly…especially his purse! There are matching purses and then there’s statement pieces like this matching purse.

We love the whimsical outfits that grace the pink carpet! And this is no exception. An homage to the infamous scene where  Hogwart’s letters whisk around the Dursley’s living room, this is a work of art as much as it is an outfit. Curious as to how they plan to sit down…

Literally stellar! This cosmic creation is a show stopper. It’s like Lady Gaga all over again – sublime and peculiar!

There’s one every year, I suppose. Someone who thinks edgy equals relevant. But, in this case we love it. Snakes as nipple rings is rather evocative of Frida Kahlo and we’re always on board with that!

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Field to Fashion

Clothing in the post-industrial age is cheap and disposable. If we grow tired of something or outgrow it, it is easy enough to get something else, usually the same day we make the decision to get new clothes. This is a loooong way from clothing in the Middle Ages. Cloth was precious. For most folks living in Medieval Europe, a couple sets of underclothes, one work outfit, and one nice outfit existed in their wardrobes. The undyed underclothes were washed more often than overclothes to preserve the nicer outer garments. There were various ways to prevent damage from clothes, like removable or tie-back sleeves.

Why were people so precious about their clothing? Well let’s take a walk through the process of wool (since it was the most common fabric type) – before mechanised looms, before sewing machines – “sheep to shawl” (as recreators say) – a field-to fashion-guide.


Shepherd: the person who raises the sheep, or herds them if you want to be pedantic about the word.

Shearing: – in many cases shepherds hired skilled workers who travelled around shearing sheep during shearing season (there’s a tongue-twister in there somewhere). 

Sorting: – fleeces get grouped into grades, worsted (long top hairs) and woollen (short underhairs) as well as sometimes by type of sheep or if it is good for warp or weft. A process apparently so boring no one bothered to capture an image of it, so here’s a battle sheep:


Washing: – the wool gets a bath in soap and water. Depending on if this is happening at home or for market it might be a quick bath, or super scrub. Quick washes leave much of the lanolin intact, which the super scrub option tends to strip it all out.

Beating: – the wool is flogged with willow sticks because it’s a dirty, dirty, fluffy cloud of fibers . This removes any bits of grit that washing missed.

Dye-in-the-wool: – sometimes the wool is quick dyed at this stage, providing a base colour for later. Often no mordant, the chemical used to make the dye hold fast, is used. Here’s some damp, dyed  roving ready to be combed:

Greasing: – if all that lanolin was stripped out during washing then some oil was added back to the wool, often something like butter or olive oil.


Combing/Carding: – this is the bit you get to do whenever you go to living history places when they give you two dog combs and you brush the wool back and forth between the two. But, some medieval tools for doing this were KILLER. Combing was used for the longer worsted wool and carding for the shorter woollen. This was to straighten and fluffify the fibers. Before iron was common and even after because it was effective but cheap, people used teasels (we’ll come back to them in a minute).


Spinning: this is when you turn all those fibers into thread through the magical process of twisting! Spinning wheels start showing up in Europe around 1300 CE (arriving by way of the Middle East from the Far East). Before that there was a variety of ways to spin and women did this often – sort of a very early fidget spinner. There’s basically distaffs…

…and drop spindles (of which there are many types).  Estimates say that there were on average 7 spinners needed for every 1 weaver. Men were spinners, women were spinsters, even if they were married. Just the job title, folks. 



Weaving: basically that toy we all played with that was a plastic square with knobs over which we stretched what seemed to be slices of plantyhose. Standing looms were a thing for a long time, then they became horizontal, then they got more and more automated, but the principle is all the same. You have the warp which are the long, tension-providing threads and the warp which passes perpendicular to the weft with an under-over motion.

   Fulling: also called walking (or waulking) or tucking, is basically washing, but for fabric. This gets oils and dirt out and prepares the fabric for taking dye. Once a garment was made it would be walked periodically to clean it of the daily grit and grime it accumulated. It also thickened the fabric (hence, the term “fulling”). Walking and tucking come from the motion used. Instead of soap and water, at this point a clay called fuller’s earth mixed with water was used.

While out of our time period, not much changed between the middle ages and 18th-century Scotland, so here is a clip from Outlander showing women waulking:

Shearing 2:  the de-fuzzing! The sequel to shearing includes 100% less wiggly farm animals. This was a method of removing all those little fuzzy bits of fiber which escaped the weave (the bad type of fuzzy that we DO NOT want). Battle sheep again…

Napping: it’s been a helluva lot of work up until now and I think we could all use I lie-down. Actually, this process used tools called teasels which were dragged across the fabric to raise the nap (the good type of fuzzy that we DO want). Teasels are also the dried heads of dispascus plants, aka thistles. These heads were placed in wooden frames and that’s what made a teasel.

And back to those teasels…this is a teasel, filled with teasels. And, now, don’t you want to casually drop ‘teasel’ into some random conversation? Just me then.

Dyeing:  this is pretty self explanatory really, except instead of heading to your local craft store you went into nature and squeezed the life out of it then made a soup of it’s leached soul and and a mordant, like alum, then bathed fabric in this blood of nature (sometimes literally – look up cochineal).

Pressing: this is basically, ironing. All sorts of cool tools to flatten fabric have existed for awhile, but irons first started appearing in the 1300s. At this point you have workable or sellable fabric! This is a glass linen smoother, for linen, but you get the idea:

Draper: mostly fabric was then purchased by fabric merchants, or drapers, who would travel the wool circuit. Then, as today, that circuit was the hotbed of fashion and people from all the fashion-oriented cities went to the big markets to look for the best options; places like Milan, Paris, Barcelona, Antwerp…and Winchester. Wool was BIG BUSINESS. There were so many laws, and levies, rules, and regulations regarding the industry. And every country had their prime wool that they were trying to dominate the market with.

Cutting/Tailoring: now, the clothing has to get made. Tailors might buy fabrics which their customers could pick from, or customers might bring in their own fabrics.

As you can see fabric was labour intensive. It’s processing and creation spanned gender and class. But the time it reached the consumer, it was a pricey commodity. Men and women tended to know at least how to do basic repairs to a garment and garments tended to be altered to fit changes in body size and shape and handed down to younger siblings, children, vassals, etc. If they were beyond wearing then it might be stripped for parts to be used in making embroidered purses. “Waste not, want not” was the name of the game when it came to fabrics.

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Blobs of Bog Butter

We adore alliteration around here, so bog butter gets extra points for it’s alliterative name. But, what is it?

You may have heard earlier this year that a 22-pound chunk of the churched dairy product was dug up in Ireland. But, finding bog butter happens far more often than you might think. There are hundreds in museums across Ireland and the UK. They are found submerged in peat bogs in Ireland and Scotland. When folks go out to harvest peat to use a fuel for fires they may end up with bonus bog butter which was laid down in the peat bog hundreds or thousands of years ago.

A peat bog.

No one is quite certain why folks felt a need to submerge butter in the peaty swamp, but considering the practice seems to have begun at least around 1,500 BCE and continued into the 17th century, it is reasonable to assume that people did it for different reasons as the times changed. The practice was spread (see what I did there) throughout cultures in the north, from Ireland to Mongolia.

Bronze Age Irish may have done it as a ritual sacrifice, but later, in the early Middle Ages, butter was accepted as a way to pay taxes, so those folks might have stored it in the bogs for safe keeping (or to avoid paying taxes?) Some historians have theorized that there may even have been time the butter was hidden ahead of raids. See, the peat bogs are cool, low in oxygen, and high in acid, making them nature’s refrigerators.

I mean, I look at it and I certainly think “Let’s chuck stuff in there.”

Bog butters have been found wrapped in animal skin or stuck instead wooden vessels.

Some of the globs of fatty spread have been tested and it was determined that most bog butter is indeed animal milk (as opposed to beef tallow or such). So, people are storing it. And testing it. We know what you’re thinking…are they TASTING it?! Sort of.

It is, apparently after all this time, edible, but the experts say it is not really advisable to dip into this dated dairy. However, there are some folks who have made bog butter. People lucky enough to live near peat bogs and have a surfeit of time and curiosity have plunged their buttery blobs into bogs and left them for various amounts of times. Which has lead to another insight…people might have done this to chemically change the flavor of the butter on purpose. Folks who have made and sampled bog butter describe the taste as being like aged cheese, or tasting “mossy”, or like “salami” depending on how long the butter bathed in bog juice.

If you’ve got the time, you can check out one such experiment here:

Whether aged 6 months or 600 years, it is safe to say this dairy delicacy won’t be showing up on grocery shelves. More’s the pity. We’d love to at least try some Kerry’OLD.

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History’s Weird Moments

History is full of epic moments, tragic moments, triumphal moments, and shameful moments. But, it’s also pretty chock full of some pretty odd occasions. Here are a handful of those unexpected, and maybe a little bit baffling, bygone events.

535 CE

It’s something we just don’t see much in modern human history, volcanic activity so extreme that it plunges the world into a deep winter. This one lasted about a year and was documented by many historians, including Procopius who said “…the sun gave forth its light without brightness.” The sad side effect of this event was a season of crop failure and famine. It may also have been the reason why so many gold hoards have been found related to 6th century Scandinavia (appease the gods!) as well as the final death knell for Teotihuacan (failed to appease the gods?).

897 CE

Okay, that first one was just to whet your appetite. It is rare, but maybe not so much ODD. So, let’s jump ahead over 300 years to “The Cadaver Synod”. The name has already got you wondering! This one has a convoluted history, but the short of it is that a bishop named Formosus went around converting folks all over to Chrisianity and generally looking politically good to the church. The Pope at the time, John VIII, excommunicated Formosus for empire building and being too keen on becoming Pope. John VIII was murdered shortly thereafter. A series of Popes came and went (with the coming and the wenting often being under questionable circumstances). In that time Formosus was reinstated and ultimately became Pope. He managed 5 years (shock!) and died of natural causes (double shock!) in 896. About a year later, Pope Stephen had Formosus dug up, dressed up, and seated for trial. Pope Stephen ranted and raved at the corpse in the chair, and, despite an ominous earthquake during proceedings, declared Formoses guilty, desecrated his corpse, and threw him in Tiber. Pope Stephen would be murdered in a jail cell just a few days later.

1233 CE

On to summer of 1233, when Europe is jumpy about witches. In Germany, one particular jumpy fellow, Conrad of Marburg, claimed there was a particularly nasty cult brewing in his region and asked the church to intercede. Pope Gregory IX created a papal bull, the Vox in Rama, to deal with the situation. The situation being, according to the bull, that the devil was half-cat/half-man and cavorting with German women. This was the first document to link cats to witches. This caused a panic about cats, specifically black cats and beginning in the district of Conrad of Marburg and spreading across Europe there was a wholesale slaughter of cats. But, these were people who neither knew of nor understood such things as food webs, epidemiology, or karma. By the 1300s there was such a significant decrease in the cat populations that the rats were running rampant … which may have led to Europe’s widespread bubonic plague.

1357 CE

I feel some of our readers may be very upset by the previous story about cat executions, so let’s go back to corpses. Like anything involving corpses, this has a bit of backstory. Pedro of Portugal, heir to the throne, took a shine to his new wife’s maid (the wife was new … and I guess so was the maid). As soon as his bride kicked off, he secretly married the maid, Ines de Castro. His dad tried to marry him off and eventually the jig was up and the couple announced their 8-year marriage publicly. King Pedro was furious and had Ines locked in a monastery and murdered in front of her child. King Pedro ALSO did not get the karma memo and popped his clogs less than 2 years later. This next bit is unsubstantiated, but widely circulated. It’s said that when King Peter 1 took the throne, he had his dead wife exhumed and her corpses placed on the throne next to his, requiring those who approached to kiss her hem. True or not, that’s a helluva story.

1487 CE

Royals giving other royals exotic animal gifts has a deep and strange history (see last week’s blog to check out that time a polar bear swam in the Thames). On this occasion, Lorenzo de Medici was gifted a giraffe by the Sultan of Egypt, al-Ashraf Qaitbay (most likely). Medici had a large menagerie and had wanted a giraffe and now he had one! She was fed treats by visiting nobles and her head could be seen passing by first-floor windows (second-story for Americans).

1518 CE 

One day in 1518 in Strasbourg (in the Holy Roman Empire), Frau Troffea was walking along having an uneventful day. Until she went to cross the street and in the middle of the road began turning and shaking and generally looking as if she was turning the lane into her own personal dance floor. Her “dance” continued for a week. During that time many others joined in this random, flash-mob rave party. Physicians blamed it on overly hot blood and variously tried cooling people off or having encouraging them to move until the problem cured itself. The church marched people to holy ground to pray for their souls. Some people died dancing, but most seem to have simply stopped as mysteriously as they had begun. No one is really sure what caused this and it was not the only incident in Europe of spontaneous, protracted prancing. Perhaps a shared stress-induced neurotic break? Ergot poisoning? It’s a mystery. You can read more about it in Renaissance Magazine Issue #118.

1629 CE

In March of 1629, King of England, Charles I, was having a conniption. He felt he should get to make decisions without approval or input from Parliament. He convinced the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir John Finch, to adjourn. Three Members, Elliot, Holles, and Valentine, leapt up to physically hold the Speaker in his chair to prevent him for rising and therefore concluding the session. While Finch was held immobile, the House went on to pass several measures in defence against the King’s actions. For anyone following the news in England, this may sound very similar to an event which just transpired on September 10th.

1640 CE

Dr. John Wilkins, clergyman, scientist, and Oliver Cromwell’s brother-in-law, at the age of 26 and during a period of both scientific zeal and confusion, sought to put people on the Moon. It was held that other planets must also have people and, if they didn’t, then they were created by God for people to move. It was also reasoned that space was full of atmosphere. So, Wilkins designed the first space shuttle designed to travel to the Moon. Wilkins called it a “flying chariot” and it had everything a 17th century Moon rocket should have. It was gunpowder powered (say that three times fast), had feathered wings which flapped, and consisted of many cogs, gears, and springs. Basically, this thing would be right at home at Burning Man. Sadly, his idea never got off the ground because he could never quite get the funding and interest.

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