The early shroud fulfilled the function of containing the decaying corpse, while modestly covering the body. During the eleventh century, ordinary people would have clothed their dead in a loose shirt before wrapping them in a sheet, often colored rather than white, and sometimes swaddled or wound tightly with extra bands of cloth. The sixteenth-century shroud, also referred to as a winding sheet, was usually a length of linen, which was wound around the body and secured by knotting the fabric at the head and feet. Containment and ease of transporting the shrouded body was important as most people were buried without a coffin at this time. Cunnington and Lucas (1972) and Litten (1991) both provide detailed descriptions of variations of English shrouds before the twentieth century, including alternative grave clothes used for the aristocracy and royalty.
Shrouds increasingly became indicators of social status, reflected in changing designs. A Parliamentary Act was passed in 1678 to enforce burial in woolen shrouds, to promote the ailing English wool trade. A legal document had to be signed at each burial certifying that the corpse had been buried only in wool. The wealthy disregarded this, preferring to pay a fine rather than bury their dead in wool, choosing instead more expensive fabrics and trimmings made from linen, silk, lace, gold, and silver which seemed more appropriate to their social status.
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