Earlier this summer, I was very fortunate in meeting a group of medieval re-encators, Historia Normannis. Historia Normannis is a 12th century re-enactment group, focusing primarily on the events between the reign of Henry I and King John and they bring history to life in a historically accurate, engaging and exciting way. And not only that, they were unfailingly patient and generous in giving me lots of time and answering innumerable questions.
One of the topics we discussed was the clothing of the period. They had so much valuable information and were very happy to share it via this blog.
To give an indication of how clothing differed across the classes, the re-enactors provided this striking line-up. As we pan from left to right, we first see the peasants with plain or non-dyed clothing. The colours and materials of the clothing become ever more sumptuous and expensive as we rise up the ranks to the right. We end the line with an Earl, the most richly-dressed of all.
|Earl in full robes|
He is bare-headed with no coif or head-covering, as that helps to show his status.
The detail of the embroidery on his mantle shows a lion. But it's a twelfth century lion. Norman lions were depicted with no manes as most people had only ever seen lionesses.
Next we have lesser nobles, still dressed expensively.
To modern eyes, a black cloak may look unremarkable but black dye was costly, coming as it did from the iris root. It would take a whole field of irises to yield enough dye for one cloak. The black favoured by monks was actually more a dark brown, coming from the natural black wool of Welsh sheep.
The length of the cloaks may look impractical but were designed to shield the wearer from the weather. Worn when riding a horse, only the head got wet. The lanolin in the wool would have acted as a water repellent.
I also got to try one on (no, no pictures!) and they are incredibly heavy.
Again, the details are so beautifully done.
And noblewomen of course also displayed their high status through their clothing.
The woman on the left wears a linen and not a wool dress. The colour is lighter as linen takes up dye less than wool. Blues and purples (from woad and clam shell dye/murex) were among the most expensive, with murex costing more than gold. Both women are wearing clothes that use colour contrast to add to their striking appearance. Necklines are high, with dresses laced tight at either side to follow the curves of a woman's body.
Their dresses have pendulum sleeves, which were a favourite fashion of noblewomen. The design was a way of demonstrating wealth (as the sleeves used extra fabric) as well as demonstrating that the wearer did not engage in any kind of manual work.
Again we see that she has a thick, beautifully decorated cloak. Her wimple, secured with a decorated pin, is white. All wimples were white as it demonstrated purity.She also has a hefty set of keys on her belt along with her Pater Noster beads.The keys suggest she has been left in charge of the estate by her husband, which occurred frequently.
|Historia Normannis's sweetest re-enactor!|
One of the most junior re-enactors was willing to be included too!
She a little bemused by the woman in hiking boots and raincoat asking her lots of questions. But she was so charming and polite, and I think she wins a special prize for utterly looking the part.
Still charming and polite (but perhaps not quite so sweet!), came our knights.
These two would be considered mercenaries. They would own their chain mail, a horse, a shield and a sword and their ambition would be to try and serve in a household, thus guaranteeing them a living.
|Set of armour and weapons|
With full armour weighing in at about four stone, I guess flexibility is subjective. I was assured by the re-enactors that one develops muscles to cope with wearing it. Mail of course didn't protect against blows, and men could suffer massive bruising in battle.
Mail also picked up all sorts of unmentionable debris in battle, ground into the small metal links. It was the unenviable task of a squire to clean it using only a barrel of sand.
And last, but not least, for he was doing an awful lot of the actual work, we have our peasant.
He is dressed in his rough, plain-dyed wool, with his coif or hood to protect him against all weathers. One suspects he was probably a bit muddier in real life, but even so, his contrast to the wealth of the nobles could not be more stark.
It was a fascinating day and such an opportunity to get up close and personal with history. Historia Normannis are such a welcoming and enthusiastic group. You can find out more about them and see many more fascinating pictures of them in action at http://www.normannis.co.uk/wp/
I first published this post or an edited version of it on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog on September 13th 2014.