Who were the people of medieval Europe? We cannot divide them into “races”; they were all of the “white race” except the Negro slaves. But what a baffling unclassifiable variety of men! Greeks of Byzantium and Hellas, the half-Greek Italians of southern Italy, the Greco-Moorish-Jewish population of Sicily, the Romans, Umbrians, Tuscans, Lombards, Genoese, Venetians of Italy—all so diverse that each at once betrayed his origin by dress and coiffure and speech; the Berbers, Arabs, Jews, and Christians of Spain; the Gascons, Provencals, Burgundians, Parisians, Normans, of France; the Flemings, Walloons, and Dutch of the Lowlands; the Celtic, Anglian, Saxon, Danish, Norman stocks in England; the Celts of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland; the Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes; the hundred tribes of Germany; the Finns and Magyars and Bulgars; the Slavs of Poland, Bohemia, the Baltic States, the Balkans, and Russia: here was such a farrago of bloods and types and noses and beards and dress that no one description could fit their proud diversity.
The Germans, by a millennium of migrations and conquests, had made their type prevail in the upper classes of all Western Europe except central and southern Italy, and Spain. The blond type was so definitely admired in hair and eyes that St. Bernard struggled through an entire sermon to reconcile with this preference the “I am black but beautiful” of the Song of Songs. The ideal knight was to be tall and blond and bearded; the ideal woman in epic and romance was slender and graceful, with blue eyes and long blond or golden hair. The long hair of the Franks gave place, in the upper classes of the ninth century, to heads closely cropped in back, with only a cap of hair on the top; and beards disappeared among the European gentry in the twelfth century. The male peasantry, however, continued to wear long and unclean beards, and hair so ample that it was sometimes gathered in braids.90 In England all classes kept long hair, and the male beaux of the thirteenth century dyed their hair, curled it with irons, and bound it with ribbons.91In the same land and century the married ladies tied up their hair in a net of golden thread, while highborn lasses let it fall down their backs, with sometimes a curl falling demurely over each shoulder upon the breast.92
The West Europeans of the Middle Ages were more abundantly and attractively dressed than before or since; and the men often excelled the women in splendor and color of costume. In the fifth century the loose toga and tunic of the Roman fought a losing war with the breeches and belt of the Gaul; the colder climate and military occupations of the North required tighter and thicker clothing than had been suggested by the warmth and ease of the South; and a revolution in dress followed the transfer of power across the Alps. The common man wore close-fitting pantaloons and tunic or blouse, both of leather or strong cloth; at the belt hung knife, purse, keys, sometimes the worker’s tools; over the shoulders was flung a cloak or cape; on the head a cap or hat of wool or felt or skins; on the legs long stockings; and on the feet high leather shoes curled up at the toe to forestall stubbing. Toward the end of the Middle Ages the hose grew longer till they reached the hips and evolved into the uncomfortable trousers that modern man has substituted, as a perennial penance, for the hair shirt of the medieval saint. Nearly all garments were of wool except some of skin or leather among peasants or hunters; nearly all were spun, woven, cut, and sewed at home; but the rich had professional tailors, known in England as “scissors.” Buttons, occasionally used in antiquity, were avoided before the thirteenth century, and then appeared as functionless ornaments; hence the phrase “not worth a button.”93 In the twelfth century the tight Germanic costume was overlaid in both sexes with a girdled gown.
The rich embellished these basic garments in a hundred fancy ways. Hems and necklines were trimmed with fur; silk, satin, or velvet replaced linen or wool when the weather allowed; a velvet cap covered the head, and shoes of colored cloth followed closely the form of the feet. The finest furs came from Russia; the choicest was ermine, made from white weasel; barons were known to mortgage their lands to buy ermine for their wives. The rich wore drawers of fine white linen; hose often colored, usually of wool, sometimes of silk; a shirt of white linen, with flaunty collar and cuffs; over this a tunic; and over all, in cold or rainy weather, a mantle or cape or chaperon—a cape with a cowl that could be drawn up over the head. Some caps were made with a flat square top; thesemortiers or “mortar-boards” were affected in the later Middle Ages by lawyers and doctors, and survive in our college dignities. Dandies wore gloves in any weather, and (complained the monk Ordericus Vitalis) “swept the dusty ground with the prodigal trains of their mantles and robes.”94
Jewelry was displayed by men not only on the person but on the clothing—cap, robe, shoes. Some garments were embroidered with sacred or profane texts in pearls;95 some were trimmed with gold or silver lace, some wore cloth of gold. Kings had to distinguish themselves with extra finery: Edward the Confessor wore a robe resplendently embroidered with gold by his accomplished wife Edgitha, and Charles the Bold of Burgundy wore a robe of state so thickly inlaid with precious stones that it was valued at 200,000 ducats ($1,082,000). All but the poor wore rings; and every man of any account had a signet ring bearing his personal seal; a mark made with this seal was accepted as his personal signature.
Dress was an index of status or wealth; each class protested against the imitation of its raiment by the class below it; and sumptuary laws were vainly passed—as in France in 1294 and 1306—seeking to regulate a citizen’s expenditure on wardrobe according to his fortune and his class. The retainers, or dependent knights, of a great lord wore, at formal functions, robes presented to them by him and dyed in his favorite or distinctive color; such robes were called livery (livrée) because the lord delivered them twice a year. Good medieval garments, however, were made to last a lifetime, and some were carefully bequeathed by will.
Wellborn ladies wore a long linen chemise; over this a fur-trimmed pelisson or robe reaching to the feet; over this a bliaut or blouse worn loose in dishabille, but tightly laced against the coming of company; for all fine ladies longed for slenderness. They might also wear jeweled girdles, a silken purse, and chamois-skin gloves. Often they wore flowers in their hair, or bound it with fillets of jeweled silk. Some ladies aroused the clergy, and doubtless worried their husbands, by wearing tall conical hats adorned with horns; at one time a woman without horns was subject to unbearable ridicule.96 In the later Middle Ages high heels became the fashion. Moralists complained that women found frequent occasions to raise their robes an inch or two to show trim ankles and dainty shoes; female legs, however, were a private and costly revelation. Dante denounced the ladies of Florence for public décolleté that “showed the bosom and the breasts.”97 The dress of ladies at tournaments furnished an exciting topic for clergymen; and cardinals legislated on the length of women’s robes. When the clergy decreed veils as vital to morality, the women “caused their veils to be made of fine muslin and silk inwoven with gold, wherein they showed ten times fairer than before, and drew beholders’ eyes all the more to wantonness.”98 The monk Guyot of Provins complained that women used so much paint on their faces that none was left to color the icons in the churches; he warned them that when they wore false hair, or applied poultices of mashed beans and mares’ milk to their faces to improve their complexion, they were adding centuries to their durance in purgatory.99 Berthold of Regensburg, about 1220, berated women with vain eloquence:
Ye women, ye have bowels of compassion, and ye go to church more readily than the men … and many of you would be saved but for this one snare: … in order that ye may compass men’s praise ye spend all your labor on your garments…. Many of you pay as much to the seamstress as the cost of the cloth itself; it must have shields on the shoulders, it must be flounced and tucked all round the hem. It is not enough for you to show your pride in your very buttonholes; you must also send your feet to hell by special torments…. Ye busy yourselves with your veils: ye twitch them hither, ye twitch them thither; ye gild them here and there with gold thread, and spend thereon all your trouble. Ye will spend a good six months’ work on a single veil, which is sinful great travail—and all that men may praise your dress: “Ah, God! how fair! Was ever so fair a garment?” “How, Brother Berthold” (you say), “we do it only for the goodman’s sake, that he may gaze the less on other women.” No, believe me, if thy goodman be a good man indeed he would far rather behold thy chaste conversation than thy outward adorning…. Ye men might put an end to this, and fight against it doughtily; first with good words; and if they are still obdurate step valiantly in … tear it from her head, even though four or ten hairs should come with it, and cast it into the fire! Do thus not thrice or four times only; and presently she will forbear.100
Sometimes the women took such preaching to heart, and—two centuries before Savonarola—cast their veils and ornaments into the fire.101 Fortunately, such repentance was brief and rare.