Historians differ in their reckoning, but for the purposes of this book the period we call 'medieval' is taken to run from 1000 AD until 1500. After a necessarily brief introduction to post-Norman Conquest subjects we try in these pages to reconstruct the appearance of the ordinary European soldiers during the last 300 years of that period, and (again briefly) that of the women who followed them to war. We look at the everyday dress of the warrior classes rather than high fashion, at the common soldier rather than the mounted knight, at armour of the less expensive kinds rather than the magnificent harness of the nobleman. It goes without saying that this vast subject deserves a much larger book than this.
Hard information is difficult to find, the more so the further back you look. Very little work has been done on everyday clothing, and on the sort of people who became soldiers. The best that we have been able to do is to put together scraps and fragments of information on which to base reconstructions. We are only too aware that a lot of guesswork is involved; but we have examined contemporary chronicles and illustrations, inventories of clothing and equipment, household and wardrobe accounts, letters, paintings, sculptures and archaeological finds.
We have gained ample evidence of the effects of outdoor life on woollen and linen cloth, vegetable dyes, hand-sewn vegetable-tanned leathers, and arms and armour, by the direct method of recreating clothing and equipment and using it in all weathers. We have consulted the staffs of many museums, experimental archaeologists, armourers, smiths and weavers, and those who practice other 'living history' crafts. The result has been growing awareness of how little trustworthy evidence remains, and of how important it is to be conscious of how much we don't know.
At the dawn of the 11 th century people of all classes wore very much the same loosely cut garments that had been worn for the previous three centuries, shortened for active work, hunting and war. Sleeve length, fullness of body and skirt, and the amount of decoration varied at different times, following current ideas of beauty and elegance. But we really know very little about the dress of the Saxons and Scandinavians who had carvcd up and settled Europe's sea coasts, and even less about what is now the German-speaking world further inland.
Our view is distorted by the images created by folklore, literature, imaginative art, and the well-intentioned reconstructions of past historians - who laboured to show us that the distant past was crude and barbaric and that mankind had made great progress up to their own time. We like our ancestors to be rough and hard-drinking, living in crude huts, dressed in coarse cloth and cloaked in bearskin, their legs wrapped in furs and cross-gartered. On to this unlikely image we have pasted each new archaeological discovery; these usually indicate a more civilised or certainly a more materially sophisticated people - but we retain the basic primitive impression to fill in the gaps.
Occasional pockets of richer finds - the 'bog people' of Scandinavia and Germany, the 14th century gowns and hoods found at Herjolfsness in Greenland, and various royal burials -
A reconstruction of 9th century finds on which they are based. Viking raiders. Everything they how can we tell if most Vikings wear is based on sound research - really looked like this? (Photo but without an idea of how John Howe)
'typical' or otherwise were the actually muddy the waters still further. We have no idea how typical they were. They are full of clues that fit uncomfortably into the general picture we have already constructed, and they provoke more questions than answers. Where we have one or two remaining helmets we must remember that many thousands more existed. Where we have traces of fabric we can analyse the weave - but we cannot know how widespread was the use of embroidery, decoration and gaudy colour.
Look at the wonderful sinuous carvings and jewellery of the Vikings - did they use similar extravagant designs on their clothes? We simply do not know - though we can guess. Mankind's love of colour, decoration and signs of tribal difference is universal and has flowered among the poorest and most 'primitive' peoples, past and present. Common sense tells us that it has always been so; but for evidence we have only a handful of illuminated manuscripts and written descriptions, fewer sculptures, and what little physical evidence the corrosive soil leaves us - all of them difficult to interpret.
We frequently build conjectural reconstructions on flimsy evidence which, by repetition, become accepted as fact. We can never be sure that a collection of bucklcs at the waist of a skeleton belonged to a belt being worn, every buckle still in its original position - or to a belt or belts folded up and laid on top of the corpse and now scattered by the passing of time. We know next to nothing of contemporary burial customs, and cannot know with any certainty if the warrior was buried equipped as he was in life, or in some special way for his entombment. In the 18th century officers might be buried with their swords, but common soldiers almost never with musket and bayonet - we should not conclude that the frequency of a particular type of grave find indicates how common it was in life.
The common footsoldicr of the Middle Ages remains an obscure figure. Clerks recorded what arms and armour he had and how much he cost, but almost never what he wore, carricd in his pack, or thought about. Artists and writers have busied themselves with the warrior patrons who paid him. There are no diaries of an ordinary halberdier, no voices from the ranks, as there are for Wellington's Peninsular army. Nevertheless, in reading what the soldier of 1812 wrote, I believe we can get a glimpse of his distant ancestor.
The sleeping rough or being billeted on the long-suffering peasants, the hard marches, the biscuit and rotten salt pork, the breakdown of discipline after the storming of a town, the harsh punishments, the general impression of tough, enduring, occasionally very cruel inen and women - these are much the same over the gulf of 500 years. So are the constant hunt for shelter and food, loot and drink; the distinctly separate lives lived by officers and men; even the wounds from blade and missile. There is some deep connection between Private Wheeler of Wellington's 51st of Foot, searching a dead Frenchman for coin or tobacco, and the hungry English archcrof 1415, trudging across France in the rain, dreaming of a dry barn and silver to jingle in his purse.
There exists only one helmet that can definitely be called 'Viking'. Found at Gjermundbu and dating from the 9th century, it has goggle-like eye protection, a small nasal bar, and traces of a mail curtain or aventail. Other evidence points to the simultaneous popularity of the conical helmet which, in the form fitted with a nasal, we think of as 'Norman'. This or some similar simple helmet, and a mail or padded shirt, seem to have been the most widely worn protection during the 10th and 1 Ith centuries, as worn by most of the warriors depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry.
Archaeology and the sagas have given us a lot of clues about the life of these early warriors, but our knowledge is too often fragmentary for us to build up a clear picture. Archaeologists tend to christen any richly dressed or bejewelled cadaver an 'aristocrat'; but perhaps such things were commonplace in that culture - or perhaps it was customary to bury the dead with extravagant finery they never enjoyed in life? We simply don't know whose grave it is. Written records might tell us that at one time a mail shirt cost the same as a horse; but we don't know how common it was to own a horse. Was a mail shirt the equivalent of a small Japanese car today -valuable, but obtainable by most -or of a Rolls Royce, available only to the truly rich (unless stolen, second-hand, or rusty and falling apart - as some mail shirts must have been?)
We know that the Vikings were vain about their appearance, loved rich clothing and dressed their hair carefully; but this is not enough to recreate the appearance of a Viking raiding crew. New information from excavations of Viking settlements in Russia shows that they influenced Slavic design, clothing, arms and armour, and were doubtless influenced in turn; but to what degree ? Rich graves at Birka in Sweden, an important 10th century trading base with the East, may hold native Scandinavians or Eastern 'foreigners'. They, and debatable interpretations of very crude figures carved on 8th century picture stones in Gotland, have led some Viking re-enactors to adopt baggy trousers, kaftan coats and other Eastern fashions; but we have no real proof that these were worn by Vikings in Western Europe. (Photo John Howe)
Normans: The Bayeux Tapestry Reconsidered
The Bayeux Tapestry is actually an embroidery, made some years after the Conquest to the order of Bishop Odo. half-brother of the Conqueror, for the cathedral at Bayeux, Normandy. It is our principal reference for arms and armour of the second half of the llth century. As such, it should be considered carefully.
It has been heavily restored. It shows, in nearly 'comic strip' form, the story of Duke William's invasion of England. It is a much-studied document of a period from which few documents survive. One might say thai it has been over-studied.
It shows red, green and blue horses, cabbage-like trees, startlingly constructed mythical beasts, and many armed warriors. They, their armour and weapons, ships and camps are extremely stylised and decoratively rendered. General form and construction are indicated, but without scale; and all embroidered surfaces are treated as decorative elements, the stitches used freely to add variety and decoration.
Helmets and spears are yellow, red. dark and light blue and green, as are the decorative rings and cross-hatchings used to convey the mail shirts of the combatants. Sometimes there are cross-hatched lines running at right angles to each other, sometimes saucer-sized rings. Sometimes both patterns are used on parts of the same garment. Sometimes the shaky design wobbles from rings to less certain scale-like shapes, with cross-hatching used to distinguish an arm from a body. I see no reason why the designs representing armour should be taken literally. They all seem to be attempts at suggesting so-called 'chain' mail.
On the much-disputed subject of mail, it is well worth quoting F.M.Kelly in Apollo Magazine, November 1931:
'And at the start let me define plainly what I mean by "mail". I hold that in the Middle Ages and, indeed, as long as armour continued ... the term applied properly, nay. exclusively, to that type of defence composed of interlinked rings. Only through a late poetical licence did it come to be extended to armour in general. "Chain-mail" is a mere piece of modern pleonasm; "scalemail" and still more "plate mail", stark nonsense. As for Meyrick's proposed classification of mail - "ringed", "single", "double-chain", "mascled", "rustree", "trelliced", etc. - it may be dismissed without further ado. His categories, in so far as they were not pure invention, rested wholly on a misconception of the evidence; the passages he cites to support his theories of "ringed", "trelliced", "mascled", etc., all refer to what he calls "chain" mail; otherwise, MAIL pure and simple.' This opinion, so perfectly expressed, was endorsed by Claude Blair in his magisterial book European Armour.
From written accounts and other sources we know that some scale armour was probably worn in the 11th century, and no doubt various sorts of padded gambesons as well, the patterns of the reinforced stitches that kept the padding in place perhaps being represented by some of the cross-hatching lines rendered on the Tapestry.
Mail does not rub much as the individual rings move very freely on the surface of the body. Friction holds much of the mass in place on the rough textures of the clothing. If the mail fits well and not too loosely there arc no hanging folds of rings to sway about, and uncomfortable drag is minimised. But some kind of padding was certainly necessary under the mail to cushion blows that would otherwise drive the wire rings into the flesh.
It is not clear just how much use the seafaring Vikings made of horses for their forays inland, but use them they certainly did. With the passage of lime and contact with horsemen in the lands they settled, some of their descendants evolved into a powerful and aggressive cavalry. Centuries of raiding and settling intermingled the peoples of Britain and coastal Europe, and spread Scandinavian culture into Russia and the Mediterranean. The warband of Hrolf the Ganger settled in northern France; the descendants of these 'Northmen' became the
Normans, continuing their expeditions of conquest by sea and land. A tough breed of greedy, quarrelsome knights, ambitious and hungry for land and power, they took service wherever rewards were promised. The knights of Duke William's 'Norman' army which invaded England in 1066 were not the united nationalistic oppressors of legend. In fact they hailed from all over Europe, drawn to the banner of William the Bastard by a craving for land and gold. (Photo VS-Books)
(Opposite) This reconstruction of an 1 i th century Norman cavalryman illustrates a style of defence and dress apparently common at that time across Western Europe. His long kite-shaped shield protects his left side and leg when on horseback. He has a spangenhelm - a conical helmet built up from four segmental plates on a frame -with a wide nasal; this is secured over the integral hood of his long mail hauberk. Slit front and back for riding, this is worn over a lightly padded gambeson. He would be armed with a long spear for use on horseback (not seen here) and a sword.
The sword has always held a certain mystique. Saxons and Vikings gave them splendid names - 'Greyflank', 'Byrnie-biter', 'Long and Sharp' - and reverently handed down the beautifully wrought blades from father to son. or placed them in a hero's grave. In crusading times the sword became the symbol of knighthood, inheriting something of the old pagan magic - made respectable by a mixture of prayer and Christian purpose. Later, with the emergence of the professional, highly-valued footsoldier, it became the common arm of the medieval fighting man. In the more cynical 15th century a French soldier might christen his sword 'Gaine-Puin - (gagne-pain, "breadwinner'). (Photo VS-Books)
(Right) Crusader, second half of the 12th century. Many surviving effigies show that at about this time a linen gown was worn over the armour. Styles varied, long or short, sometimes with sleeves, and almost always slit before and behind for riding. Why it was adopted is unclear. It was not ample enough to give complete protection from rain - but in the sun of the Holy Land some covering was necessary to stop the long mail hauberk from heating up unbearably. In direct contact with hot sunshine or icy air a mail shirt soon becomes an extremely uncomfortable burden, but even a single layer of cloth between it and the outside temperature makes a great difference. At first simply of plain linen or some colourful fabric, during the next century these surcoats came to be used as an additional surface on which to display the owner's heraldic colours and devices.
Some other adaptations to the climate of the Holy Land and hard campaigning are also visible here - soft boots, a piece of carpet as a saddle cloth, a water gourd, picket rope and cooking pot, and - just visible on his chest - a long scarf to keep off sun and dust. (Photo John Howe; figure made by Gerry Embleton / Time Machine AG)
(Left) The heavy but well-balanced double-edged broadsword of the early Norman world. Contrary to popular belief swords were not usually worn in everyday life during the Middle Ages. Important officials might carry their sword with the waist belts wrapped around it for some ceremonial occasions, but normally the wearing of swords in civil life was officially discouraged. (Photo Gerry Embleton)
The high praises of God are in their throats, and two-edged swords are in their hands to bring punishment on the nations and rebuke upon the peoples, and to bind their kings in chains and their nobles with links of iron.
John of Salisbury, 12lh C
(Opposite) Plate 1:
Mail and Helmets, el050 to 1250
(Above) The hauberk with integral hood continued to be the most common defence during the 12th and 13th centuries. The neck opening was usually closed with a ventail which fastened across the jaw and throat. In the second half of the 12th century mail mittens formed part of the sleeves; they were lined with a leather glove, and the hand could be pushed through a slit in the palm to leave the mitten hanging from the wrist when not needed. Mail stockings (chausses) were also commonly worn. The necessary padded garment worn under the mail doubtless took many forms to suit taste and comfort. We do not know when metal, leather or horn reinforcements were first incorporated into it. (Photo VS-Books)
(A) This is virtually the same as the equipment shown on the Bayeux Tapestry. Simple cross-hatching, which makes no attempt to follow the form of the body, probably represents mail, or is simply an artistic convention for 'armour'. There is no separate ventail here, but this may be because the drawing is very simple. (Apocalypse of St Sever, mid-11 th C)
(B) The rectangular panels high on the chests may be a very impressionistic rendering of the neck closure of the shirt, or of a ventail. Not too much weight should be rested on the details of the very free renderings of the Tapestry. (Bayeux Tapestry, late 11th C)
(C) The details on this stone figure look convincing; clearly a cloth- or leather-bound mail flap hangs down on the chest, its construction closely resembling those shown on the Bayeux Tapestry. (11 th C, possibly Spanish, site now unknown)
(D & E) Two examples of mail coifs - in this usage, the integral hood to a mail shirt - with laced-up ventails. (MS illustrations, mid-13th C)
(F) The conical helm with nasal worn by Vikings and Normans, and popular throughout 11 th century Europe; the ventail is tied up by a lace threaded though the mail. It was essential for the helmet to be firmly fixed on the head or any blow would force the nasal back into the face. For the same reason the mail covering the cheeks and chin must have been padded, i
(G & H) Cloth coifs - in this usage, tight-fitting caps often tied beneath the chin - are shown worn by civilian and soldier alike, for work and war, in various illustrations (including the Maciejowski Bible, c1250); and some are clearly padded.
They also helped keep long hair, when fashionable, out of the way. Fashions in hair length changed, much as they do today. In 1095 the council of Rouen passed a decree against long hair, and Henry I of England did the same - both unsuccessfully.
Legend has it that 'a young provincial soldier who had long and beautiful hair' dreamed that he was being strangled with his own locks, and cut them off; his companions followed suit, and so spread a short-lived fashion for short hair. At the end of the 12th century followers of international courtly fashion curled their hair, but only the vainest of soldiers would have had time for such affectations.
Fashions in clothing came and went among the wealthier sort for longer or shorter, tighter or looser-flowing gowns - but probably had less effect on the everyday clothing of workers and soldiers. Their garments may have faintly and tardily echoed passing fashion, but remained short enough for easy movement and long enough to protect against the elements.
(I) 'Kettle hat' or chapel defer with thongs to tie under the chin, worn over a mail coif. Again, one cannot over-emphasise the fact that all helmets needed to be very firmly secured on the head to be an effective defence in hand-to-hand combat. Many sources show kettle hats of various styles, sometimes coloured as if painted.
(J) Manuscripts and sculptures, c 1240-1250, show a rounded form to the top of the mail coif which is clearly shaped by a padded cap beneath. The helmet lining was probably shaped to fit snugly over it.
(K) Sculpture from the Temple Church. London, c 1240-50, showing a buckled ventail; and also a circlet of metal or perhaps leather, indicating a firm foundation for the helmet.
(L, M & N) Some sculptures on the facade of Wells Cathedral, c 1230-1240 show examples of the sophisticated arming caps which developed to seat 13th C 'bucket' helms securely, Note that N has a stiffly padded collar which would further prevent the bottom edge of the helm from being knocked inwards.
(O) Effigy of a Templer wearing a close-fitting arming cap completely covering cheeks and mouth. It is clearly not mail, as the texture of his mail collar is carved to contrast with its smooth surfaces. Perhaps it is thick leather? (Temple Church, London. 13thC)
(P) Effigy of Geoffrey dc Mandeville, Earl of Essex c 1238, from the Temple Church; this effigy was severely damaged by German bombing during the Second World War. It shows, in a style that elongates the form of figure and head, a type of cap not seen elsewhere, with an attached band which encircles the face. This may be a leather arming cap to fit tightly inside a flat-topped 'great helm' and hold it securely in place.
(Q) Two headpieces marking a transition between the mail coif and the enclosed 'bucket' helm. They are coloured, and in shape they echo figure P. May we speculate that they are of thick but still slightly flexible leather? If they are of one-piece metal construction it is hard to see how one got them on and off. (Martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket, late 12th C)
(R) The Maciejowski Bible of c 1250 shows a variety of open-faced and 'bucket' helms. This one, fitting quite high on the head, would need a very secure foundation and fixing, or the slightest blow would reposition the eye slits and blind the wearer.
(S) A deeper version of about the same date shows strongly reinforced eye slits and holes for ventilation over the cheeks. The same form with a rounded crown would remain in use well into the 14th century.
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