24 July 2012

Fashionable People: What Charlemagne’s Clothes Say about Him

By Kim Rendfeld

Everything Charlemagne (748-814) did was political, right down to his choice of clothes. In The Life of Charlemagne, former courtier Einhard nicely has chapter called “Dress” and opens with, “He wore the national dress of the Franks.”

Einhard then provides this gem to historians and novelists everywhere:

“The trunk of his body was covered with a linen shirt, his thighs with linen pants. Over these, he put on a tunic trimmed in silk. The legs from the knee downward were wound with leggings, fastened around the calves with laces, and on his feet, he wore boots.  In winter, he protected his shoulders and chest with a vest made of otter skins or marten fur, and over that, he wrapped a blue cloak. He always carried a sword strapped to his side, and the hilt and the belt thereof were made of either silver or gold.”

The king also had a gold broach and a diadem. For special occasion or visits from foreign dignitaries, he had a jeweled sword. And during high festivals, he could wear golden cloth and jeweled boots.

“He disliked foreign clothes no matter how beautiful they were and would never allow himself to be dressed in them,” Einhard says.

Charlemagne was sending a message by this choice: that he was a proud, patriotic Frank who submitted to no one but God.

In fact, he used fashion as a political weapon.  In 788, one of his conditions for freeing a hostage, the son of the late duke of Benevento, was that the southern Italian agree to shave his beard in the Frankish fashion. This was an apparently response to the rival Byzantine desire for a similar show of loyalty from the old duke.

Only twice did Charlemagne ever wear anything other than the Frankish costume, and it took two succeeding popes to convince him. They asked him to wear a long tunic, chlamys, and Roman shoes—the garb of an emperor. He later used that image on his coins, complete with a laurel wreath.

The ninth century Sacramentary of Charles the Bald (also known as the Sacramentary of Metz) depicts a coronation—and it shows what a ninth century Frankish king wore. Charles the Bald was one of Charlemagne’s grandsons. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)

Kim Rendfeld is the author of The Cross and the Dragon, a tale of love amid the wars and blood feuds of Charlemagne’s reign. Her debut novel, published by Fireship Press, is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. For more about Kim, visit www.kimrendfeld.com