Not long ago I was watching a video featuring an ongoing and very interesting "medieval reproduction" project in south-western Germany, not far from the Swiss border. The project is called Campus Galli, and the idea is to replicate, using "authentic 9th century methods", a medieval monastery, modeled after the famous 9th century Kloster plan found in the library of St Gall. In principle, I am very much in favour of the idea, in fact I would love to participate in this project and lend my skills to the cause, my mention of it here is because of a very disturbing stereotype which I saw reinforced by said video. At the same time it serves as a springboard into the broader topic of the myriad misconceptions of medieval dress in general.
|A "screenshot" taken from the film
One could not get a much bleaker image than this.
This scene is very sad in so many ways, and it would seem that most of them have been deliberately employed to maximise modern misconceptions and ingrained stereotypes of life in the early (and even later) Middle Ages. Shot in the early morning, before the sun has lent its rays to fully illuminate the landscape, on a day in which spring has yet to lend its fresh and invigorating lushness to the still barren trees, this scene has all of the hallmarks of a cold, bleak, hardscrabble, and miserable existence.
|6th century mosaic of San Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna
The "Three Kings" shown with multi-coloured and
|6th century mosaic of San Vitale, Ravenna
Court Ladies with multi-coloured and patterned
garments, and the queen with the above Three Kings
embroidered onto her dress.
Lets be clear from the beginning, these pictures are portraying people "of the court", not artisans, merchants, or peasants, but it is still important to demonstrate that people were wearing colourful and patterned clothing at this time. So often, modern concepts of even royalty and nobility, are assumed to have worn and are depicted wearing plain woven, even if coloured, clothing. It has also been a universal reality that the lower classes ape, to the best of their ability, the clothing of their superiors. The infamous 12th - 14th century "sumptuary laws" of Europe (Actually ancient Greece and Rome already had these) were intended to prevent people from exhibiting dress and wealth considered "above their station", but such laws would not have been needed if people were not practicing the "offending" behaviour. Roman records are full of such offenses, and there is no reason to believe that humanity suddenly changed their habits in this regard, at the "fall" of the Roman Empire. The many re-writings of these laws in the 13 and 14th century surely attests to the fact that there must have been a good share of scoff-laws, prompting the authorities to repeatedly attempt to thwart and curtail the offending behavior.
|BNF Lat. 12048 Fol 1v 8 jh
|Vat Barb Lat 587 fol 4v 9jh
A 9th century work, now in the Vatican, shows
St Cecilia, and two other martyr saints dressed
in much the manner described by Notker. Notice,
in particular, the ermine lining of St Cecilia's cloak.
In medieval art, it is very common to see renditions of people dressed in clothing of solid colour, and later medieval inventories, when people bothered to mention such things at all, often refer to textile objects by a singular colour. However, this in no way implies that, from a detail-specific point of view, these objects were in fact unadorned or plain. Below is a picture of part of a book, whose cover is compiled of remnants of a brocade-woven fabric. If one were to be somewhat specific about it, they would say it is "red with a lighter red pattern." but it could also be very easily described as simply being "red". We have already seen the consular diptych in which the coloured images of figures are painted in solid colours, but on the very same object, the carved figures show a proliferation of pattern. Many artists seem to have not seen the point of adding both pattern and colour in the same rendition. In addition, the smaller the scale a figure was, the less likely it would be to embellish, for the simple economy of time and skill.
|Staatsbibliothek Bamberg Msc.Bibl.95 inside cover, before 1012
Late 10th century, or earlier, fabric fragments re-used as a cover
for a book. In fact, there are two different fabrics here, the
second, red, with yellow and white stripes and white dots.
I say "many artists" but certainly not all. At the same time I saw the video which inspired this blog-post, I was just finishing up my Turn-of-the-Millennium-Casket and had been studying the artwork of a late 10th century manuscript in which two of the artists (There were four or five working on it) seem to have relished in the depiction, albeit in a "short-hand" sort of impressionistic way, of the patterns and colours of textiles. Nearly every figure in the entire manuscript has some indication of ornamented fabric for their clothing. Further, all of their clothes are blues, reds, yellows, greens, purples, etc, nothing drab about any of them. In fact, I have never seen a medieval manuscript with any figure even closely approaching the manner or (lack of) colour of dress depicted in the Campus Gali video. (Save for someone who had just received a new white "baptismal robe")
|BNF Lat 1 Fol 423r M. 9jh
A group of prelates surround King Charles in this illumination
All the bishops are dressed in ornamented textiles, dyed with
expensive colours and further adorned with gold and gems
|9th century Fragment of a Ribbon
Museum of Los Angeles
We already read about costly "ribbons of
lemon-colour and purple".
|10th century Ivory panels. Bode Museum
"Roundels" were a staple of medieval ornament for centuries.
The 5th century diptych in this article has them, and they
continued in use even into the 14th century
|5th century mosaic, Ravenna, Italy (Mosoleum of
This ceiling mosaic is a reproduction of a textile design
|Fragment of 10th century textile, produced in Köln and
formerly a drapery in the St Gereon Church of that city
|7th or 8th century "Samite" silk fragment.
This is the type of silk fabric imported from "the East"
and sold in markets all over Europe
|7th or 8th century fresco fragment, Santa Maria, Antiqua, Rome
An artists representation of the same sort of roundel
|7th or 8th c. Santa Maria Antiqua
Another example. Notice, also the
partially gilded shoes
| BSB Clm 14345 fol 7r um 853
Sometimes Ornamentation was more of the geometric type
To add to the discussion of subtle differences in dress, perhaps here is one clue? The man shown leading Saul, (who was converted to Christianity and became St Paul) is wearing wrapped leggings, but his wrappings are not crisscrossed. Is this a shift in fashion, or the mode of a different region? Whatever the case, in the days of my youth, such a distinction would have been enough to get beat up for. Doubtless it would have been noted by 9th century people as well.
|BSB Clm 22311 fol 111r sp 9jh
St John, from the late 9th century
John is shown here with a roundel-ornamented cloak, but his cushion is decorated with another popular motif, the "quatrefoil". This design is ubiquitous with Gothic art, but this painting was produced nearly 200 years before the "invention" of the Gothic style; further, the design had already been around for at least 500 years at that time, and is quite common in "Carolingian" decoration.
|8th or 9th century Fresco, Santa Maria di Torba
A hint of what wall tapestries looked like in the 8th and 9th
|Staatsbibliothek Bamberg MS Msc.Lit.131, 9th century
There is no way to know if this little fragment was part of a
wall hanging, or someone's garment, but either way, once again,
it demonstrates the complexity of early medieval textiles
|9-11th century wooden box with bone overlay; Scandinavia
Inside is a collection of minor relics and fabric which was used
to wrap them.
On first glance, these fabrics look to be mundane white rags, but on closer inspection, we can see that nearly all of them have patterns woven into the cloth. Further more, three fragments are comprised of silk of extremely fine weave. There are also three fragments which have colour, including the most prominent one, which is a pattern woven from white and green threads.