Women usually accompanied medieval armies - as sutlers, serving women, wives, laundresses and prostitutes. Sometimes their presence was harshly controlled (Henry V of England ordered that anyone who found a whore in camp could take her money, drive her off and break her arm). At other times they were tolerated in considerable numbers, and could be recruited as a general labour force. At the siege of Neuss by the Burgundians in 1475 some 4,000 camp women marched to the sound of trumpets and pipes, with a banner given by Charles the Bold, to work on a canal to divert the Rhine.
More rarely, women of the land-holding classes actually led troops in fulfilment of the family's feudal duty, or fought alongside brother or husband - or in place of a husband lost or imprisoned. Women of any class might play an important part in the defence of a castle or town. We know of at least one who served as a common soldier, known to be a woman by her comrades but looking and behaving tough enough to pass as a man. In battle some wore men's clothes and even armour - but these were the rare exceptions.
Most women made the camp a more comfortable place, cooked food and nursed the sick. Like their men, they would have dressed to suit their station in life and the hardships to be encountered. A woman of the aristocracy would have lived like the knight who was her husband, relative or protector, with spacious tents, comfortable camp equipage and plentiful servants. The humblest soldier's woman would have shared his cloak in a barn or under a hedge. The prettiest of fashionable dresses, the most frivolous of headdresses would have been very rarely seen. No one went campaigning in a party frock.
(Opposite) The scene that might have greeted a weary 14th century captain, home after a hard day of drill and organisation. He has brought his wife along on this safe stage of the campaign and they have found billets in a merchant's house, suitable to their status. His wife rises at the clatter of his horse on the cobbles outside and the bustle of their servants and his archer guard. He will wash off the grime and sweat, change into a comfortable gown and share a supper with her. They will discuss their days' work in detail - his under arms, hers running his household. She was raised to this world, and her grasp of kinship politics and understanding of most military matters will calm him. How good she looks in fine bleached linen, and a simple gown of the very finest English wool woven in Flanders, dyed at Prato near Florence - expensive, but worth it to give such pleasure. (Photo David Lazenby, Middelaldercentret)
(Right) Meanwhile, out in the fringe of the woods the wife of a vinlainer - the commander of 20 men - gathers wood for her cooking, breathing the evening air away from the smoke and noise of the camp and planning her soup. Her husband has found his soldiers billets in a sprawling farm. Life is always hard, but not so bad with her ox of a husband, a sensible and much respected man who always goes home from his campaigning with money in his purse - sometimes a surprising amount. This his fifth campaign and his wife's second. She has born him five children, but three died in infancy; her surviving girls were both married and gone before they were 16, so there is nothing to keep her at home.
(Opposite top) Here followers of a 1470s Swiss company cook their comrades" meal at the end of a long hot day. The cook wears a simple linen dress over her shift, and her long hair plaited and tied up in a linen cloth - typical everyday working dress. (Photo John Howe)
(Opposite) Little jewellery was worn, but the bells worn by all classes seem to have made up for any lack of decoration elsewhere. Here are two beautifully reconstructed 14th century belt buckles: prized purchases - or loot - for any young soldier, and a fine gift for a buxom cook ... (Photos & reconstructions Simon Metcalfe)
(Below & right) She wears a yellow kirtle - underdress - which she made and dyed herself. Her overdress is a woad-dyed gown her husband 'found' for her. She takes pleasure in the fashionable buttoned sleeves and the close fit allowed by the several panels of the body.
The patterns for these garments were based on those found at Herjolfness in Greenland at the beginning of the 20th century. They are meticulously reconstructed using vegetable-dyed wool, linen thread, and only the sewing techniques known to have been used at the time. The narrow panels of the torso of the dress are shaped to follow the body's form, not to economise, though there is nothing to indicate that this gown belonged to a 'rich' woman. The buttoned sleeves are typical of the 14th century. Note the two methods of shortening the skirt length for convenience when working: by tucking up the front, and by gathering some of the length over a second belt worn on the hips. (Photos Anne Embleton, reconstruction Julie Douglass)
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