Dressing the Body
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter presents the archaeological evidence of dress from later medieval Britain. It includes the often fragmentary textile and leather remains of clothing and shoes, and the dress accessories worn with them. Excavated finds from different types of sites are considered, and the numerous chance finds recorded through the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Accessories such as rings, brooches, buckles, badges, and rosaries, made of base or precious metals, gemstones, or other natural materials, were valued for more than their monetary worth. They had the ability to hold memories and beliefs, convey messages, and protect and display identities. Their role in everyday life makes them suitable for inclusion in future studies on the ‘archaeology of emotion’. The article also highlights the relatively slow development of medieval archaeologists’ interest in apparel, and the need for further work that encompasses a range of sources.
Studies of the consumption of clothing have been absent from later medieval archaeological discourse until recently and the history of dress only claimed a respectable academic status at the turn of the twenty-first century. True enough, after the Second World War archaeologists were interested in the manufacture of material culture; these objects were at the forefront of discussions about production, trade routes, and the economy. Nevertheless, how these manufactured objects were consumed, why they were chosen, or why their styles changed, featured little. Post-war museum curators were at the forefront of studying apparel in their collections, but often it was the beautiful and exceptional rather than everyday items. One exception was June Swann’s exhaustive work on footwear in Northampton Museum and Art Gallery (1969; 1981; 1996) but academic snobbery meant that the curators’ work had little impact on the wider research agenda or teaching (see Taylor 2002, 64).
New ways of interpreting material culture came about with changes in archaeological thought, especially an understanding of objects as material which might be ‘read’ (see Chapter 3). At the same time, as more rescue and developer-led archaeology has been carried out and a greater variety of sites have been investigated, so more everyday material culture has become available for study (see the Medieval finds from excavations in London series and East Anglian Archaeology Reports of nearly forty Norwich excavations, especially Egan and Pritchard 2002 and Margeson 1993; see (see Chapter 1). In particular, great strides have been made in the acceptance of studying apparel and textiles, especially through new journals such as Costume and Textile History. Jones and Stallybrass’s 2000 volume revealed how clothes were extremely valuable materials that were central to the making of Renaissance culture but also had roles in memory and identities. Surviving textiles, accessories, and shoes can be usefully explored to understand the people of the past, and add to a ‘meaningful medieval archaeology’ as advocated by Gilchrist (2009, 400).
(p. 790) Scraps and Offcuts
Over a thousand pieces of footwear including pattens of leather and wood, and hundreds of textile fragments have been excavated from waterlogged contexts in London (c.1150–1450) (Crowfoot et al. 2001; Egan 2005a, 17–32, 58–61; Grew and de Neergaard 2001). Other notable sites include Newcastle upon Tyne’s Castle ditch at the Black Gate, which was used as a rubbish dump; sixteenth-century textile fragments and leather pieces found here are interpreted as cobblers’ waste and domestic cast-offs (Vaughan 1981, 184–90; Walton 1981, 190–228). From High Street, Perth, 441 samples of fabrics, yarns, and cordage were also recovered. These were mostly early twelfth to fourteenth century in date and made of wool; although thirty-one silk items were found along with fibres of goat and horse hair (Dransart et al. 2012). Leather articles from the High Street in Perth numbered six thousand, including shoes, straps, sheaths, and offcuts (Thomas and Bogdan 2012) but the largest collection of clothing and footwear from a secure context anywhere in the United Kingdom belongs to the Mary Rose (sank 1545). In total there were 655 items of clothing, footwear, fastenings, and linings discovered in the wreck, many being associated with skeletal remains (Forster et al. 2005, 18). Most were wool and leather products including 257 pieces of footwear, of which 140 were paired. Smaller urban assemblages of wool, silk fragments, and leather footwear include those from Southampton, Winchester, York, and Oxford (Crowfoot 1975; 1990; Jones 1976; Jope 1958; Walton Rogers 1997).
Generally speaking, linen textiles are rare on archaeological sites because anaerobic and acidic environments are detrimental to plant (bast) fibres. Our physical evidence for linens comes from the processing waste of the bast fibres of flax and hemp, as well as artistic and documentary evidence. Furs suffer too, and are absent from excavations but while the exotic fur trade of Russian ermine or sable would not necessarily have left skeletal remains in Britain, we can start to identify the preparation of more common species. For example, twelfth- and thirteenth-century cat crania and thirteenth-century fox snouts from Oxford have been interpreted as the remains of killing and skinning animals for their fur (Hassall et al. 1989, 263).
These archaeological finds provide a glimpse into the later medieval textiles and shoes in everyday use, though there are challenges. The majority are scraps or offcuts; that is, the pieces thrown away after tailoring or the translation of items, such as the shoe waste deemed unusable by the cobbler. They are rarely the finished garments worn by the populace. Even the remarkable finds of the Mary Rose are exclusive; despite all social levels from the officers to the ordinary sailors and soldiers being present on board, the clothing is exclusively male. Another issue is that textile evidence from rural sites is practically non-existent. Were silks worn in rural settlements along with woollens? Probably they were, but the evidence is currently lacking. For higher-status sites, excavations at castles, among them Barnard Castle (Co. Durham) and Fast Castle (Berwickshire), have revealed tantalizing scraps of textile and leather but insufficient (p. 791) to develop a full understanding of the clothes worn by the vast array of people living and working there (Ryder and Gabra-Sanders 1992). At Barnard Castle, only three small fragments of tabby weave and two ‘spun gold’ threads, one forming a plait, were recovered. The threads are of a type seen in ecclesiastical embroideries, and gold plait is rare in archaeological contexts (silk examples are known from thirteenth- to fifteenth- century deposits) (Crowfoot 2007). Barnard Castle’s leather finds are much more numerous with 350 manufactured fragments identified, cobblers’ waste dating from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries being the most common. The turn shoe soles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries indicate that practical round and small pointed toed shoe were preferred, rather than the exaggerated pointed footwear that was fashionable at the time (Mould 2007, 542).
The clothing of the religious communities is another area where relatively little is known archaeologically. The terms Blackfriars, Whitefriars, and Greyfriars suggest that the colour of their outer garments worn in public was distinctive. But what else did they wear, and did they strictly follow the regulations on dress laid down in their Rules? From excavations of religious houses a surprisingly wide range of dress accessories have been recovered, but these items may have been worn and lost by lay servants or visitors. Evidence from burials suggests that by 1100 monks were buried clothed with objects of their office (Gilchrist and Sloane 2005, 215; Standley 2013, 104); at Jedburgh Abbey (Scottish Borders) Augustinian Canons excavated in the chapter house were buried wearing leather shoes (Thomas 1995). Leather finds of footwear, belts, and sheaths at Austin Friars, Leicester, suggest that the friars were making leather goods for their own consumption (Allin 1981). Nuns’ burials have also been identified from pins around the head and copper-alloy staining on the skull suggesting the head-dresses or veils that were fastened with these accessories. The nunnery of St Clement, Clementhorpe (North Yorkshire), and the Bridgettine double monastery at Syon (Middlesex) are two examples (Gilchrist and Sloane 2005, 81).
In archaeological textile reports the materials, weave pattern, twist direction of thread, and dyes are traditionally the primary focus. This information can provide evidence of production methods, trade, and possible provenances and is studied together with the remains of textile production, such as spindle-whorls, flax tools, fulling mills, and dyeing vats (Standley 2016b; Walton 1991). The scraps and offcuts that survive in Britain can be compared with whole garments, often from mainland Europe, and this helps to understand styles and trade. Extant apparel preserved in museum collections includes the hawking glove of Henry VIII in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Figure 49.1), and religious vestments in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Pieces have also been found in tombs: for example the silk mitre, buskins, and slippers of Archbishop Hubert Walter (d. 1205) removed when his tomb was opened in Canterbury Cathedral in the nineteenth century. Most tomb remains in Britain are, however, fragmentary, such as the silks in the possible tomb of Henry de Blois (d. 1171) in Winchester Cathedral, or the tomb in Dunfermline Abbey opened in 1819 that contained a high-quality brocaded tabby silk fragment (Henshall et al. 1954–6). From the royal tombs at Las Huelgas, Burgos (Spain), late twelfth- to mid fourteenth-century (p. 792) clothes and textiles have been wonderfully preserved providing comparanda for British fabrics, especially silks (Yarza 2005). Similarly, material originally from Germany can be compared with Perth’s almost complete silk hair-nets, suggesting that they were imported into Scotland (Bennett et al. 2012, 49–50). Two of the delicate Perth hair-nets are embroidered with repeated designs: one of cross crosslets (Figure 49.2), the other of birds and lozenges. This embroidered netting is known as lacis, and the Perth finds from a context of around 1400–1410 are the first of their kind to be found in Britain.
Apparel has been found concealed in medieval and post-medieval buildings too.1 However, there are no clear answers as to why items were chosen, their locations, or the purpose of these concealments. One suggestion is that they were protective devices like witches’ bottles. Nevertheless, the occasional recovery adds to our knowledge of what was worn by, most likely, the people who were living in the buildings. The (p. 793) most regularly concealed items were shoes and the earliest cache is from Winchester Cathedral, believed to date from the early fourteenth century (Swann 1996). Other garments including corsets, doublets, and hats were concealed from the sixteenth century onwards (Eastrop 2010; Hayward 2010).
Dress accessories are ubiquitous on medieval excavations. Often made of copper- and lead-alloy and having escaped recycling, they are found as general domestic waste or, occasionally, as grave goods and special deposits. The key reference collection is from London where closely dated contexts of the mid-twelfth to mid-fifteenth century have informed the dating of buckles, brooches, mirror cases, mounts, strap ends, pilgrim badges, and much else (Egan and Pritchard 2002; Spencer 2010). Winchester, Norwich, York, Salisbury, and Perth have also produced significant assemblages. Investigations of deserted and currently occupied rural settlements are also available, with extensive investigations at Westbury (Buckinghamshire) and Meols (Cheshire), for example (Egan 2005b; Gerrard with Aston 2007; Griffiths et al. 2007; Hinton 2010; Ivens et al. 1995; Lewis 2007).
Gold and silver objects were typically recycled so their recovery is of particular consequence. Later medieval hoards such as those from Fishpool (Nottinghamshire, the jewellery dated to the mid-fifteenth century), Lark Hill (Worcester, twelfth century), and near Thame (Oxfordshire, fourteenth and fifteenth century) provide evidence of precious jewellery (alongside coins) that survived tumultuous events but was (p. 794) never reclaimed by their owners (British Museum PE 1967.12-8.1-9; MLA.54,8-20,1-6; Ashmolean Museum AN1940.224-228; Standley 2016c; Cherry 1973). The reliquary ring from the Thame Hoard has been described as ‘Perhaps the most exceptional of all surviving ecclesiastical rings’ (Campbell 2009, 47) (Figure 49.3). Precious metal chance finds, often recovered through metal-detecting and processed through the 1996 Treasure Act (in England and Wales) and Treasure Trove in Scotland, also continue to test our understanding. Silver-gilt dress-hooks are a new class of Tudor accessory that came to light through the Treasure process and the Portable Antiquity Scheme (PAS)2 (Gaimster et al. 2002) and their study underlined the efficacy of interdisciplinary approaches in historical archaeology.
Base metal objects also have great value. Recent chance finds expose the commonality of certain object types that have so far eluded widespread recovery through excavation, for example, lead-alloy pilgrim badges, copper-alloy mirror cases, purse frames, and silver-gilt brooches decorated with rosettes. The latter were once thought to be limited to the north of Britain, but PAS results prove otherwise (Standley 2013, 41). Other exciting archaeological finds that were worn on the body include spectacles, the bone frames of which have been found at religious houses such as Battle Abbey (East Sussex), Chester Dominican Friary (Cheshire), Hailes Abbey (Gloucestershire), and Melrose Abbey (Roxburghshire). From Austin Friars, Leicester, there is also a fourteenth-century decorated calfskin case or pouch for spectacles (Allin 1981, 162); a copper-alloy reading-glass frame perhaps of the fourteenth century was a chance find from Norfolk (Ashley 2004). Cosmetic sets, mirror cases, and false hairpieces were also carried or worn (Egan and Pritchard 2002, 358–83; Crowfoot et al. 2001, fig. 99; Standley 2008) and these objects speak of the desire and lengths people went to manifest a ‘desirable’ appearance. Along with the lace-ends used to secure and tighten the new styles of clothing that became fashionable in the fourteenth century, they can be included in the material culture of medieval sexuality (Staniland 1997, 239; Standley 2013, 60–1).
Symbols and Saints
No accessory conveyed the wearer’s identity better than signet or seal rings and items of livery. These items, among them the Dunstable Swan jewel, are considered by David Hinton (see Chapter 30). Archaeological finds include a collar of forty-one silver links each formed by the letter S from the foreshore of the Thames (Museum of London 84.80). This was a suitable emblem of authority for a government official or ambassador, the esses probably representing the word Souveignez and/or Sovereigne. Middleham Castle (North Yorkshire) has artefactual evidence of both Houses of Lancaster and York: Ralph Neville and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who used the castle as his powerbase before his accession to the throne. The livery accessories here were a gold ring decorated with twelve esses and the inscription of ‘Sovereynly’ once worn by a member of Neville’s household (late fourteenth or early fifteenth century; York Museums Trust, YORYM: 1992.21); and a later fifteenth-century copper-alloy livery badge of a crested boar, used as an emblem by Richard. A similar but higher-value badge of silver-gilt was found in the area of Bosworth (Leicestershire) (Scott 2009).
Seal rings and pendant matrices can reveal both personal choice and elements of humour. A late thirteenth- to early fourteenth-century gold ring found in Hereford was set with a sapphire intaglio carved around the first century bc, and depicted the veiled head of a Ptolemic queen. The bezel in which it sits has the Lombardic inscription TECTA LEGE LECTA TEGE (Read what is written, hide what is read) (p. 796) (Figure 49.4). This ancient gem could have been chosen because of its likeness to contemporary depictions of the Virgin Mary, or indeed to represent its female owner. Henig (2008) has argued for a well-organized, international trade in ancient gems with merchants carrying a selection for their patrons. For those without access to ancient gems or armorial privileges, a variety of motifs were chosen for personal seals, including the lamb and flag of the Agnus Dei, and animals referencing the hunt. Satirical images are known too, such as the inversion of the natural order in which a hare or rabbit is out hunting while riding a hound, often accompanied by the hunting cry ‘Sohou!’ (such as PAS YORYM-018BAF). This upside-down-world motif is taken further on a chance find matrix from Suffolk (PAS SF-1F0772), where a rabbit’s body has a mitred human head, inscribed with SOHOV LEVESKE (Sohou l’evesque), suggesting the hunting of bishops. (p. 797) Witty puns include a squirrel with the legend I CRAC NOTIS (I crack nuts), perhaps relating to sexual conquests (e.g. PAS NARC-EABB91).
Later medieval badges depicting sexual imagery can seem bizarre, even incomprehensible (Jones 1993; 2001; 2002; 2014). Purses, for example, were analogous with vulvas, and a late fourteenth- to early fifteenth-century pendant from London aptly depicts a decorated purse containing a phallus.3 Other purse pendants were perhaps used as charms to bring good fortune or to show the wearer’s charitable nature; although they too may have had sexual connotations. One from King’s Lynn (Norfolk) (King’s Lynn Museum PB 151) depicts the tip of a blade pointing into it. At first glance these are just two items commonly worn on a medieval belt and simply a charm against cutpurses—but daggers or swords were also metaphorical symbols of the phallus and with this knowledge the item takes on a new meaning. Possibly this was a courtship gift alongside posy rings or brooches. One such pendant is in the shape of a stylized vulva with the inscription CON POR AMOVRS (cunt for love)—leaving little to the imagination! Their use as good luck charms is another proposition and, just as phalluses and vulvas were seen as apotropaic in Roman times, this belief may have continued into the later medieval period. There may be some association with the sex trade too (Jones 2002).
Many decorative and symbolic items were made of natural materials: jet, coral, bone, ivory, wood, and semi-precious and precious gemstones. Coloured glass was used to imitate gems too, especially in cheaper base metal accessories, such as the stirrup rings that were popular from the mid-twelfth to fifteenth centuries. Many natural materials were not only deemed attractive, but perceived to hold powerful properties that could protect, heal, and cure the wearers (Evans and Serjeantson 1933). Contemporary lapidaries attest to this, and rings bearing gems often had open-backed bezels to allow the magical stone to touch the skin of the wearer, such as that in Figure 49.4.
‘Pairs of beads’ or rosaries used to remember and count prayers were made from a range of materials. From the Augustinian priory of St Oswald’s in Gloucester, a group of eighteen amber beads were recovered from a single sixteenth-century context—perhaps a rosary or even a necklace that once adorned a statue of the Virgin Mary hidden at the Reformation; while a single jet bead from the Tudor courtier’s house Acton Court (Gloucestershire) was carved with three scallop shells, suggesting its origin as a rosary (p. 798) bead from Santiago de Compostela (Spain) (Standley 2013, 67–8). Pilgrim badges, such as scallop shells, are considered by Yeoman (Chapter 40), while Santiago as a pilgrimage destination is discussed by Gerrard and Gutiérrez-González (Chapter 59). Badges and tokens became more popular in the early fourteenth century, in preference to ampullae, and are often found in large numbers in riverine contexts in urban areas, notably in London and Salisbury (Spencer 2010; 1990, 58). Ampullae, on the other hand, are more common chance finds on cultivated land than badges (1379 ampullae to 448 badges in England and Wales as of April 2015; Anderson 2010).
Rings, brooches, and pendants with protective formulae and words are common finds from the thirteenth to early sixteenth centuries. The title ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’, Christ’s trigram IHC, Ave Maria, and names of the Magi are frequently found on accessories, as well as other material culture, such as knives and ceramics (Blake et al. 2003). All these indicate devotion to the religious cults and were thought to protect wearers. Accessories that caused those who saw them to remember the Passion, Eucharist, or the martyrdom of saints acted as mnemonics, and were miniature, portable versions of the imagery that decorated churches and chapels. The late fifteenth-century Coventry (p. 799) ring is a powerful example of such a devotional ring: the large gold band is engraved with Christ standing in the tomb with the Cross and Instruments of Passion behind (British Museum AF.897). The Five Wounds of Christ are all represented, accompanied by the text ‘The well of pitty, the well of merci, the well of confort, the well of gracy, the well of everlastingh lyffe’.
There is also evidence of modifications made to functional accessories in order to transform them into talismanic accessories. For example, late twelfth- to late fourteenth-century copper-alloy buckle plates were incised with invocations to the Virgin Mary. They have been found as chance finds throughout England, and on excavations at deserted medieval settlements, such as Seacourt (Oxfordshire) and Tattenhoe (Buckinghamshire) (Figure 49.5) (Biddle 1961–2, no. 16; Mills 1995, fig. 154.90). One possibility is that these modifications were carried out by women with the intention of (p. 800) wearing the belts during pregnancy. More elaborate buckle plates designed with devotional motifs and relic girdles were worn to protect mother and child (Standley 2013, 80–2); perhaps the inscribed buckle plates were home-made versions. The consecration of pilgrims’ staves and purses was carried out at places of pilgrimage (Webb 2000, 186), and belts and attached buckle plates could well have received a similar blessing at shrines dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Research into the archaeology of medieval clothing and dress accessories is far from comprehensive, but developing. For example, pinpointing accessories worn by children is difficult; simply associating the small size of objects with children is neither adequate nor accurate. Particular time periods also require further consideration, especially the eleventh and twelfth centuries (Hinton 2005, 172). Chance finds, such as the gaping-mouth beast buckles thought to be twelfth century in date, are only now beginning to fill that gap (Figure 49.6) (Rogerson and Ashley 2011). Approaches and methods need to evolve and a capacity to work with a range of sources remains an essential prerequisite (for example Hayward 2009; Heley 2009; Standley 2013; 2016a). One fruitful avenue for future study might be to develop an ‘archaeology of later medieval emotion’ (Tarlow 2000; 2012); many of the dress accessories discussed above are associated with fear, love, desire, joviality, lust, support, and sentimentality. Archaeological material evidence will be central to the ambitions of any project such as this.
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