12 August 2014

Everyday Fashions: The Early Medieval Peasant

In early medieval times, everyday fashion marked the wearer’s status, aristocrat or commoner, laity or clergy. Widespread poverty gave peasants little choice, and it was common for someone to have only one set of clothing and not be able to afford undergarments.

The few clothes they possessed were made of wool or linen they helped produce. Silk was imported and thus reserved for the wealthy.

At least, that’s what we surmise. The authors of early medieval primary sources usually didn’t bother with information their contemporaries already knew. When reading them, you get the feeling the authors would look at you askance and say, “Who cares about peasants? Let me tell you about my boss’s victories in battle or this saint’s piety.”

But every once in a while you get a gem. In this case, Theodulf, the bishop of Orleans and courtier in Charlemagne’s court, wrote a poem about how a prelate would disguise himself as a peasant.

According to Theodulf, the undercover prelate would trade his fine linen shirt for a rough one, cover it with a loose knee-length garment rather than one that fit tightly on the torso, and don a hood, probably made of wool. The costume also involved wrapping the prelate’s legs with narrow strips of cloth and slipping his feet into heavy shoes, likely with wooden soles.

To finish the look, he would put a knife in his belt, which was perhaps rope or a leather thong. Everyone, both men and women, had eating knives.

Beyond Theodulf’s poem, we can guess at a few more things. A woman likely wore a linen shift (if she could afford one), covered by an ankle length woolen garment, and heavy shoes. She, too, would have at least a knife at her belt. If she was married, modesty dictated she cover her hair with a veil.

To keep warm in the winter, peasants might use cloaks of sheepskin or wool, the latter when undyed and tightly woven repelled water, and sheepskin mittens would protect their hands.

While peasant could not afford precious metals and stones for jewelry, it’s not too much of a stretch for them to use less expensive materials such as bone or wood to adorn themselves with rings, broaches, or pendants. Even if you had only one set of clothes, you’d want to look nice.


Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Pierre Riché (translated by Jo Ann McNamara)

Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne, by John J. Butt

Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne, translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel

The heroine of Kim Rendfeld’s upcoming release, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (August 28, 2014, Fireship Press) is an early medieval peasant who will go to great lengths to protect her children after she’s lost everything else – her husband, her home, her faith, even her freedom.  To read the first chapter or find out more about Kim, visit kimrendfeld.com, her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.