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Notes on Early Medieval Women’s Dress

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We are repeatedly called upon to create a text that would be devoted to women’s clothing in the Early Middle Ages and that would be a certain counterweight to our typical articles, which are usually focused on general or exclusively male material culture. We are not deaf to this challenge, which is why we decided to publish an article that has a significant impact on the visualization and reconstruction of early medieval women’s clothing, and which is a follow-up to our article Construction of early medieval tunics (Vlasatý 2023a). It will be about how pregnancy and breastfeeding influenced the clothing culture of the Early Middle Ages. If you are a reenactor, you can skip to the final chapters.

An example of a reconstruction of an early medieval woman’s clothing.
Source: Julia Kovalevskaja, Inspiration #1, A Woman From Birka.


How many clothes did an early medieval person own?

For a very introduction, we have to answer the question of how many pieces of clothing a person had at her or his disposal in the Early Middle Ages. Due to the low cost of materials and mechanized work, today we live surrounded by cheap and easily dyed textiles and can own dozens of items of clothing that we change daily. There is no doubt that the reality of the Early Middle Ages was completely different. Experimental production of tunics and shirts showed that the entire process from growing/cutting to sewing takes an incredible 300-400 hours (Ejstrud et al. 2011: 79; Vedeler – Hammarlund 2017: 30). Each piece of clothing was thus an extremely laborious product and a clear demonstration that the owner could afford the clothing. But it follows from this assumption that:

  1. the early medieval wardrobe must have been limited
  2. huge differences arose between the price of undyed clothes and clothes made of quality and dyed cloth
  3. due to cost, the garments were patched, inherited and worn until completely torn, when they were recycled

The limited wardrobe of ordinary people is best expressed in written sources. In general, it appears from written sources that the wardrobe of peasants consisted of undyed clothes for work and blue-coloured clothes for special occasions. Valla-Ljóts saga attributes two tunics to the protagonist: a black one (svartr) for everyday wear and a blue one (blár) for killing (Ewing 2006b). When the local ruler Sigurðr Sýr of the Ólafs saga helga (33) supervises his workers in the fields and learns of the arrival of a rare visitor, he does not think it necessary to change his blue tunic and trousers, but changes his gray cloak for a scarlet one, puts on better shoes, fastens gilded spurs and takes a helmet instead of a hat. The ratio between undyed and dyed garments cannot be determined. In the Icelandic peasant society described in the Family sagas, dyed clothing is considered unusual, noteworthy, and even prominent people do not wear it all the time (e.g. Eyrbyggja saga 20). This diction of the sources suggests that it may have been unusual to own more than one festive garment. In light of this, we could relate the report in the Chronicle of John of Wallingford that the Danes “changed their clothes regularly” (Ewing 2006a: 12) to the exchange of ordinary undyed garments. This would mean that it might have been normal for the average landowning class to own at least two pieces everyday clothes and one festive dress, which were stored in a lockable chest.

An example of a reconstruction of an early medieval woman’s clothing.
Source: Hilde Thunem, urd.priv.no/viking/.

In the royal circle, red is added to the blue colour. Considering the frequency with which monarchs gave away clothing to their supporters as a reward and investment (see Þórbjǫrn hornklofi : Hrafnsmál 19; Melnikova 2011: 90), it can be assumed that it was common among the aristocracy to own multiples of luxurious clothing. Anglo-Saxon wills are a special and valuable source of information in this respect. We know a total of four wills where aristocratic women bequeath part of their clothing to their relatives, however the most impressive is the will of Æthelgifu from the years 980-990, which, in addition to gold, servants, bowls and cups, brooches and chests, donates textiles (tapestry, bedding, shawls) including more than five dresses:

And to Wulfwynn my relative […] her brightest gown. […] And my blue gown which is untrimmed at the bottom and her best head-dresses are to be given to Beornwynn. And her three purple gowns are to be given to Lufetat and Ælgifu and Godwif, and Wulfgifu is to be given some of her other, dun-coloured gowns.“ (Sylvester et al. 2014: 16; Tollerton 2011: 204-5)

In the years 966-975, a noblewoman Ælfgifu bequeaths maids, horses, rings, drinking horns and cups, tents, chests, books and textiles (dresses, shawls, cloaks, altar cloths, bedding, tapestries):

And she bequeathes to Æthelflæd, daughter of Ealhhelm, […] her broken twill gown and another of linen or else some linen cloth. And to Eadgifu […] her best dun tunic.“ (Sylvester et al. 2014: 15)

The will of a woman named Wulfwaru, made sometime between 984 and 1016, continues in a similar vein. In addition to lands with servants, gold, brooches and rings, bowls and cups, crosses and painted chests, she also bequeaths textiles (clothing, bedding, belts, tablecloths):

And I grant to my elder daughter, Gode […] one entire woman’s outfit. […] And to my younger daughter Ælfwaru, I grant all of the woman’s clothing which is left.“ (Sylvester et al. 2014: 21)

To make the list complete, let us name the anonymous woman who gives her relative Leofflæd “my land and my gold, my clothing and my raiment and all that I possess.“ (Tollerton 2011: 60).

An example of a reconstruction of an early medieval woman’s clothing.
Source: Leah De Bernardi, The Eoforwic Project.

How does this idea hold up when compared to grave finds? It is common for the deceased to be buried in one set of clothing, usually the best available, while the other pieces were apparently passed down among the survivors. Multiple layering of clothes on the deceased is not usual, however there were situations when the deceased was buried in two linen dresses (Malmius 2001) or two aprons (Blindheim 1945). Common archaeological situations thus correspond relatively well to written descriptions:

And he raised his corpse, cleaning and arranging it as was customary. The dug a grave there and placed Þórólfr in it along all his weapons and clothing. Before saying goodbye, Egill reached to him, putting a golden arm-ring on each his arm.
(Egils saga Skallagrímssonar 55)

There, at the edge of that cape, Egill had a mound erected. To it, Skallagrímr and his horse were placed, along with his weapons and his craft tools.
(Egils saga Skallagrímssonar 55)

King Hákon was so mourned that both his friends and enemies grieved his death, saying no such king will ever rule Norway. His friends carried his body to Sæheim in Northern Hǫrðaland and piled up a large mound there, to which they laid the king with all his gear and best clothing, but no other goods. Over his grave they conversed as pagans are accustomed and shown him way to Valhalla.
(Hákonar saga góða 32)

He placed a drink, fruit and a stringed musical instrument next to him in grave […]They dressed him in pants, trouser legs, shoes, tunic and silk caftan with golden buttons. On his head they placed a sable-lined silk cap. Carrying him from tent to boat, they laid him to the rest on a blanket and underlaid him with pillows. Then they brought a drink, fruits and herbs, arranging them around him. Also, they brought bread, meat and onions, placing them in front of him, a dog cut in half laid on the deck, and all his armament next to him.“
(Ibn Fadlan : Risala §89)

An example of a reconstruction of an early medieval woman’s clothing.
Source: Ola Nigbor, Projekt Trollkona.


What age did early medieval people reach?

The early medieval population was biologically no different from that of today, meaning that there was a chance of living to what we now call an advanced age. Egill, the hero of Egils saga Skallagrímssonar, lives to be more than 80 years old (ch. 85), and a runestone from Rök, Sweden, even states: “90-year-old Sibbi of Vé begat a son” (Jansson 1987: 36). The early medieval Persian polyhistor Avicenna wrote the following of division of human life (Niebrzydowski 2011: 6):

The ages are four in all. There is the age of growing up, which is called the age of adolescence and commonly lasts until the age of thirty. Then there is an age of standing still, which is called the age of beauty and commonly lasts until the age of thirty-five or forty. Then there is an age of diminution in which power is not lost, and that is old age, which commonly lasts until the age of sixty. There is also another diminution marked by a manifest loss of power, and this is the age of decrepitude and the end of life.

The problem lies in the pitfalls and difficulties of life that the Middle Ages brought and which dramatically reduced the life expectancy. The mortality of a large number of newborns and children under the age of six was crucial. We cannot imagine the reality of life more than 200 years ago more vividly: at present, the neonatal mortality rate in the Czech Republic is 2.2 per 1000 healthy births, in the worst-affected country in the world – Sierra Leone – this ratio is 78 per 1000, but still in the 18th century in European countries, the ratio was roughly between 150-300 per 1000 (see Viazzo – Corsini 1993). This means that even in the recent past one in five or three children did not survive birth, and we have little reason to think that this was significantly different in the Middle Ages. A fifth of all skeletal remains from 11th-12th century Schleswig is made up of children under the age of six, while the majority were children under the age of two (Hühne-Osterloh – Grupe 1989: 249). In Mikulčice churches, children under the age of two make up almost a third of all deaths (Stloukal – Vyhnálek 1976: 28). Some estimates made for the Early Middle Ages put the rate of newborn deaths at up to 40% (Révész 2014: 74). And the situation with maternal mortality was similar. While its ratio is 3 per 100000 (0.003%) in the current Czech Republic and over 1000 per 100000 (1%) in the least developed countries (Chad and Nigeria), in the Early Middle Ages maternal mortality is estimated at 1.7%, which is still evaluated by commentators as an underestimated figure (Murphy 2021).

In addition to these difficulties, we can of course name ubiquitous diseases (see Vlasatý 2023b), parasites (see Vlasatý 2023c) and injuries (Vlasatý 2023d), which were difficult problems to solve with the state of hygiene and health care at the time. Health complications have an adverse effect on life expectancy: for example, even in the current world, a fracture reduces life expectancy by one to seven years (Tran et al. 2023). Life expectancy is also significantly affected by the demandingness of the profession (Coenen et al. 2018) and sudden poverty (Pool et al. 2018). It is generally assumed that life expectancy at birth in the Middle Ages was around 30-33 years, and at age 25 the expected remaining life was 23.3 years (Carrieri – Serraino 2005; Chochol – Palečková 1961: 632). Due to maternal mortality, the life expectancy of women in the Middle Ages was set roughly one to two years lower than the life expectancy of men (Drozdová 2001: 114-5; Hines 1997: 135). The average age of all adults at the time of death varies between 20-45 years in the Early Middle Ages (Gilleard 2009: 1068-9; Révész 2014: 74). It is estimated that a third of all people died before reaching the age of 18 (Révész 2014: 74) and that the number of people who died after the age of 60 is always below a quarter of the adult female population. The life expectancy of nobility and high-income people was and still is generally higher due to better care, diet and a better lifestyle (less strenuous work), but at the same time we have to bear in mind that the probability of a violent death was between 30-60% for male early medieval nobles (Cummins 2017; Chetty et al. 2016). For comparison, in the Czech Republic, life expectancy at birth is currently more than twice as long (76 years for men, 82 for women).

For the sake of usefulness for other parts of our article, we decided to create a graph showing the age of deceased adult women. The generally reported statistics can be influenced by the method of burial (selection for a certain location, length of operation of the cemetery) and the state of preservation, so the only available option is the selection of cemeteries with a large number of deceased and their comparison. Mortality graphs are generally drawn for men and women at the same time, but this inadvertently obscures the fact that the lines for men and women have different peaks. Adult men generally died most in the maturus age (40-60 years), while adult women died most in the adultus age (20-40 years), i.e. in the period we would call full adulthood or young age today. A third to a half of all adult women died at this age (35-55%). At the maturus age (40-60 years), early medieval women experience a reduction in mortality and, depending on the location, it remains in the range of 15-45%. We probably will not be far from the truth if we say that 25-30% of women born in the Early Middle Ages lived to be over 40 and less than 10% of women born over 60. In theory, this means that relatively few women lived to see their grandchildren reach adulthood (see also Crawford 2022: 3-4): in Family sagas, this happens to women who are considered old (Laxdæla saga 7, 72- 78). An illustrative example can be the Oseberg mound, which hid the skeletons of two women, one aged around 50 and the other aged 25-40 (Holck 2006).

Chart showing age at death of adult women.
Sources: Hall 1994: 46-47; Hanáková – Stloukal 1966: 10; Jakab 2021: 44; Malá 1962: 15; Sellevold 1999: 8; Staecker 2009: 479; Stloukal – Vyhnálek 1976: 28; Tomazo-Ravnik 1975: 88.


When did women get married and start giving birth?

In general, it appears that there were more men than women in early medieval society, meaning that women were considered scarce and that the marriage market was only available to the most successful men who either came from well-to-do families or traveled from a young age abroad in order to secure their own fortune and establish a prosperous economy (Hallam 1985: 56; Raffield et al. 2017). It follows from this premise that the average age of women at marriage was lower than the age of men.

It can be expected that there was a social and biological imperative to enter marriage and conceive offspring early. Considering the significantly limited legal options of children who were not born in a regular marriage, let us assume that the begetting of offspring in marriage was a desirable and common condition (Jochens 1995: 24, 79). Roman pagan girls were first married at the age of 12-15, while Roman Christian girls at the age of 15-18 (Hopkins 1965). There are different opinions on the age of brides in the High Middle Ages – for 13th-15th century Italy, the age was set at 15-19 years (Herlihy – Klapisch-Zuber 1978), for England of the same period the average was calculated at 22.4 years (Hallam 1985: 61). The Family sagas do not provide explicit accounts of when girls were married, however it can be assumed that some girls were married at sixteen (Callow 2007: 49): the only exception is Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir, who we learn was first married at fifteen (Laxdæla saga 34) and she only gave birth to her first healthy child with her second husband when she was eighteen at the earliest. If we take into account the multifold higher maternal mortality during childbirth before the age of fifteen (Nove et al. 2014: 163) and the fact that the mammary glands are usually fully developed around 17-18 years of age, we can confirm the opinion that the optimal age for the first pregnancy sets between the 19th and 23rd years of a woman’s life. A striking illustration is the example of the 9th century noblewoman Judith of Flanders, who was married for the first time at twelve, a second time at fourteen, and a third time at about nineteen, with healthy children only arising from the third marriage (Bremmer 1995: 63-4). Likewise, Eleanor of Aquitaine – assuming she was born in 1122 – was married at the age of fifteen, the first child conceived after marriage was premature and she gave birth to the first healthy offspring at the age of 23 (Harris-Stoertz 2012: 275).

So it may not necessarily be true that girls were married immediately after their first menstruation, but physical and mental readiness could be taken into account. It is also true that fathers were willing to wait several years to arrange advantageous unions: for example, when Gunnlaugr sets out on a courtship and at the same time announces his journey abroad, the father reluctantly, under the weight of the good name of Gunnlaugr’s family, allows the girl to be promised to him for three years (Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu 7). The question is to what extent the acquisition of the offspring was adapted to the current financial situation. Apart from other financial expenses, pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding is an energy-intensive undertaking that requires a quarter more calories (approx. 2500 kcal instead of the usual 2000 kcal), which was not a problem for well-off families, but could be a serious complication for low-income mothers. In written sources, we even read about children being abandoned in nature due to poverty (Sanders 2021: 54).

Biblical scene of Tamar with twins. Source: London, BL, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, fol. 57v.


When did women stop giving birth and how many children did they give birth to?

The question of when early medieval women stopped giving birth cannot be simply answered, as no source is explicit. In current medicine, it is proven that pregnancy at the age of over 35 is accompanied by increased complications, which is associated with a higher incidence of uterine fibroids, type II diabetes and increased blood pressure (Bianco et al. 1996; Nove et al. 2014: 160). Children born after the age of 40 are at increased risk of Down syndrome (Morris et al. 2005). Statistically, such pregnancies more often end in caesarean section (Bianco et al. 1996), which, in the absence of a sterile environment in period medicine, must be understood as a last resort, which almost always killed the mother, but could save the child (Pařízek et al. 2016). A certain indicator can be the current developing countries, where caesarean sections occur minimally due to insufficient care (Betran et al. 2021). Pregnancy over the age of 40 was probably not common (see Halsall 1996: 17-8), but there were certainly exceptional women who enjoyed good health, had the best available care and who gave birth in their forties: Eleanor of Aquitaine, who gave birth to her last child at the age of 43/44, is an example. She is the oldest mother we know from the European Middle Ages, and also one of the oldest women of the High Middle Ages: she lived to be 82 years old.

It is difficult to determine the intervals between early medieval births, and basically the only sources we can use relate to the social elite, who may have made very different decisions thanks to their resources. The mentioned Eleanor of Aquitaine gave birth in one case with an interval of 12 months (September 1157 – September 1158), once with an interval of 14 months (October 1165 – December 1166), once with an interval of 15 months (June 1156 – September 1157), once with an interval of 16 months (February 1155 – June 1156) and once with an interval of 18 months (August 1153 – February 1155). Judith of Flanders gave birth to at least 3 children in approximately 7 years before she died at the age of 26. For the non-aristocratic circle of the 14th-16th century, the intervals were calculated at 17-32 months (Benedictow 1985: 33-5). In current medicine, the minimum recommended interval between births is 18 months, while a shorter interval leads to a number of health complications, causing increased mortality of mothers and children (Fotso et al. 2013; Shachar – Lyell 2012; Schummers et al. 2018). The same rate is a risky birth that takes place in an interval of more than 5 years from the previous one (Conde-Agudelo 2007). If we stated that a third to a half of adult women died before the age of forty, there may be a correlation with insufficient intervals, pregnancy at a lower or, conversely, higher than optimal age and the absence of health care.

It is not possible to generalize the number of children and, as far as we know, there is no work that attempts to statistically capture the average number of children. Undoubtedly, because of the high infant mortality, more children were expected to be born, some of whom would survive to adulthood. Even though a higher number of children is not explicitly associated with higher social prestige, a high number of offspring may have helped in the implementation of the local politics. Written sources testify to an extremely wide range of situations regarding the number of children. Queen Æthelflæd of Mercia bore an only daughter with King Æthelred, whose birth was said to be so complicated that she bore no more children (Thompson 2004: 9). A runestone from Hillersjö, Sweden, testifies to the tragic family of Geirlaug, who gave birth to several children, but only the daughter lived to adulthood but soon died with her only child (Wicker 2012: 881). Wulfwaru, whose will we mentioned above, had at least four adult children (Sylvester et al. 2014: 21). Egill and Ásgerðr of the Egils saga Skallagrímssonar had 5 children who lived to adulthood. Laxdæla saga (31) mentions Guðmundr Sǫlmundarson, who fathers four sons and two daughters with his wife Þuríðr. Queen Ealhswith bore Alfred the Great five children and several others who died young (Dockray-Miller 2000: 53). Ælfgifu of York, wife of Æthelred II, managed to give birth to at least 8 children until her death at the age of 32. Eleanor of Aquitaine gave birth to ten children and one was premature. Finally, Hallfríðr Einarsdóttir had six sons and seven daughters with the Icelandic chieftain Snorri; here it is interesting to note that Snorri raised a total of 19 legitimate children of his own and 3 illegitimate and the last child was born after his death at the age of 77 (Jochens 1995: 81).

It follows that if a woman was in good health and married into a family with a good background, it was not considered impossible for her to be pregnant in an interval of 18 months between the ages of 17-35 and give birth ten times, or to have ten births at the age 16-36 years with an interval of 24 months. However, we must say that these are mere guesses. We move in areas that chronicles do not normally talk about. Let us add that some codes explicitly protect women of childbearing age with astronomical fines for killing them, which clearly points to the important role that fertile women played in society (Halsall 1996: 17-8).

An example of a reconstruction of an early medieval woman’s clothing.
Source: Ulla Moilanen, Muinaiskuvia / Living history photographs.


Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding provides a unique nutritional, health and psychological opportunity for both infants and mothers (Eidelman et al. 2012; Tucker – O’Malley 2022), and breast milk represents the best food for a newborn child, for which there was no adequate and economically available alternative in the Early Middle Ages. Breastfeeding strengthens the bond between mother and child and increases the child’s life expectancy (eg Knodel – van de Walle 1967: 113). Tacitus records that breastfeeding had a great tradition among the Germanic tribes, which seems to have continued throughout the Early Middle Ages (Jochens 1995: 81). We can assume that women returned to their normal duties soon after giving birth and nursed while working – the 13th century Sturlunga saga depicts a scene of a poor farmer and his wife working in a field with him mowing for hay and her raking, while she “carried a swaddled baby on her back which she nursed at her breast” (Jochens 1995: 80-1).

Breastfeeding is surprisingly also mentioned in Old Norse codes in connection with the fact that breastfeeding women were not required to fast (Benedictow 1985: 25), which well reflects the increased energy expenditure during breastfeeding. From these codes, it was determined that breastfeeding could last even more than two years (Jochens 1995: 81). In his extensive work on medieval breastfeeding, Benedictow believes that this interpretation of the codes is not correct and that it was common to breastfeed for 6-10 months (Benedictow 1985: 32-7), which corresponds to the minimum recommended period of exclusive breastfeeding today (Kramer – Kakuma 2012). Let us add that the Family sagas are practically silent about breastfeeding, but it is said about Herdís from the Laxdæla saga (72) that she was given to be raised by her grandmother in one year and was already living separated from her mother.

If we know that some elite women gave birth with an interval of 12-16 months, it may mean that breastfeeding was provided by persons other than the mothers – wet nurses. They are basically never explicitly mentioned in the Early Middle Ages, however there are solid reports for the existence of this profession in the High Middle Ages (see Sperling 2013). An interesting source of information is an unexpected type of source – church criticism; for example, if we take the following quote as a plausible state of early medieval reality, in the circle of the wealthy it may have been common to entrust children to wet nurses and continue their sexual life, while the church considered the ideal state when even a financially secure mother devotes herself to breastfeeding and behaves in a restrained way towards her husband (MMFH IV 1971: 86-7):

A man should not proceed to intercourse [with his wife] until the child she has borne is weaned. However, a bad habit has arisen in married life that women do not take care to feed the children they have given birth to, but give them to other women to feed them. The only reason why this happens is apparently intemperance: because they do not want to abstain, they are reluctant to nurse the children they have given birth to.

We cannot fail to note that early medieval society did not share the current understanding of prudence, and breastfeeding was undoubtedly an everyday part of the public space, not a private activity. The most illustrative picture is provided by Hem Eriksen in her study of architecture and understanding of space in the Viking Age (Hem Eriksen 2019: 101):

The Viking longhouse caters to a completely different view on privacy than a modern north European perspective. Daily activities, food preparation, pro- duction processes, as well as everyday intimate moments such as children’s play, sharing a meal, sleep, and sexual activity, must have taken place within a restricted space, and in close vicinity to other household members. For instance, if we are to believe the eyewitness account of ibn Fadla ̄ n, sexual intercourse, at least between free men and enslaved women, was not regarded as a private act, but could be conducted with a full audience. Moreover, bodily functions such as urinating and defecating were at least in the middle ages and up to modern times not necessarily conducted in concealment or removed from other people, but could rather happen in ‘public’ situations.

Madonna and Child. Around the year 800.
Source: Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 58, 7v.


Implications for Early Medieval Women’s Clothing

Let’s summarize the important points of the previous chapters:

  • Clothing was an expensive part of an individual’s possessions and the wardrobe was quite limited. In the case of average free people, a person had roughly two sets of everyday clothes and one set of festive clothes, while for rich people and the aristocracy we are talking about multiple number of that amount. Clothing was so expensive that it was passed down.

  • Although there were people who lived to be over 80 years old, life expectancy hovered around 30-35 years. Every third child born died before the age of two, every third or second adult woman died in connection with childbearing between the ages of 20 and 40. Less than a tenth of women lived to be over 60 years old.

  • Girls first entered marriage at the age of 15-19 and were expected to bear a large number of children. Women remained in their fertile years for 20 or more years and sometimes gave birth to more than 10 children, of which usually only a few lived to adulthood.

  • It was common to breastfeed the babies. Women from financially secure families could afford wet nurses.

We have chosen this complicated and lengthy path to vividly illustrate that more than half of the life of the dominant part of early medieval women was a constant alternation of pregnancy and breastfeeding. This fact was necessarily reflected in the wardrobe. Maternity dresses had to be loose enough to accommodate repeated body changes and be comfortable. Waist circumference can increase by up to 70% of its original value during pregnancy (Holden 2020). This basically means that the maternity dress must be almost twice as spacious in the torso area as it would have been before pregnancy. Loose clothes are not unknown in the Early Middle Ages, we record them in archeology (e.g. Zubkova – Orfinskaja 2016) and iconography, which we present below. The nursing dress had to allow the breasts to be exposed several times a day, without the need to remove the entire garment. We can expect that there was a tendency to combine both of these functions into one garment rather than to create two special-use garments, especially in the case of ordinary peasant women whose wardrobes were limited. For this reason, it seems that ordinary, everyday clothes served as maternity and nursing clothes. The standard women’s fashion of the Early Middle Ages must therefore essentially be called maternity fashion.

A selection of 9th-11th century Anglo-Saxon iconography.
Source: London, BL, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, fol. 57r, 58r; London, BL, Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, fol. 120v; London, BL, Add MS 49598, fol. 51v; London, BL, Stowe MS 944, fol. 6r.

A selection of Frankish iconography of the 9th century.
Source: Stuttgart, WLB, Cod. bibl. fol. 23, fol. 33v, 55r, 57v, 61v.

A selection of Ottonian iconography of the 11th century.
Source: Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek Bamberg, Msc. Bibl. 140, fol. 60r; Nürnberg, GNM, Hs. 156142, fol. 77v, 111r.

A selection of Scandinavian iconography. Source: Nordahl 2001: 52.


Reconstruction proposal

When reconstructing, we can rely on preserved finds, iconography and, exceptionally, also on written sources. Comparison with older and younger periods is also important. Please note that there was geographically and chronologically differentiated fashion and that the presented models serve to present clothing elements that may not have met in time and space. It is a simplification that helps us grasp and describe the material.

The Massacre of the Innocents in the iconography of the 9th and 10th centuries.
Source: Trier, Stadtbibliothek, Ms. 24, fol. 15v; Munich, BSB Clm 23631, fol, 24v.

We can start with the group of underdress (A). The first variant (A1) is a sleeveless, loose, peplos-like dress that has wide shoulder straps reaching to the elbows and a deep neckline reaching the waist. The top can be hung below the waist, leaving the torso completely bare. This solution is worn by mothers in early medieval scenes of the Massacre of the Innocents (see Trier, Stadtbibliothek, Ms. 24, fol. 15v; Munich, BSB Clm 23631, fol, 24v; altar panels from the church of St. Dominic in Zadar). A similar dress can be seen on a shieldmaiden figure of from Hårby, Denmark (Gardeła et al. 2022: Fig. 7). The second option is a dress that has a neckline that reaches the chest or below. A notable clue in the written sources is the mention from the Laxdæla saga (34), which states that an excessively long slit in a man’s tunic can be grounds for divorce proceedings, as the wearer does not appear masculine enough when wearing a woman’s neckline (Ewing 2006a: 55-6). Archaeological finds are richer – the most interesting are women’s dresses from Moščevaja Balka, which have a neckline that reaches below the waist (Jerusalimskaja 2012: Il. 116). The chest could therefore be revealed and covered as needed. The women’s dress from the Latvian site of Salaspils Laukskola have a neckline that reaches the waist (Zariņa 1999: 48. att.). Long necklines could be fixed at the neck with cords (Zubkova et al. 2010: 296) or small, differently shaped brooches, which we find very often in archaeological material and which are almost exclusively the privilege of female graves (Hägg 1974: 19; Maixner 2005: 205; Müller-Wille 1976: 34; see also Vlasatý 2022). Thunem suggests that one possibility to aesthetically solve the excess of material in a certain area of the dress is localized pleating – represented by A2 in our scheme (Thunem 2015). We can add that the pleating and gathering in the area of the neck or hips (A3) could have had a similar function (Orfinskaja 2018: 430; Zubkova et al. 2010: 296). Both methods may have aimed to take up the loose material of an oversized dress so that the garment appeared tasteful, was practically wearable and allowed for possible enlargement of the circumference. A good parallel is the woolen dress of a fifteen-seventeen-year-old girl from grave 31 from Ulvdal, Norway (the second half of the 14th century), which is pleated at the sides only (Vedeler 2006: 120-125; 2007). Also noteworthy is the second dress from Moščevaja Balka, which has a chest-length neckline that is covered by an extensive rectangular lapel, see A4 (Jerusalimskaja 2012: Il. 124).

In iconography, women are usually wrapped in scarfs and shawls, which make it impossible to read the clothing in detail in the neck area. In some of the scenes we mentioned above, the neck area is legible and does not include any extensive cleavage. A possible reason is that the slits were small, difficult to see due to their location in the seams and unimportant for the tone of the work. An opening in the seam of the garment is preserved, for example, in Haithabu (Hägg 1984: 42-5), but more importantly for our article, an opening in the seam is found on the lapel from Moščevaja Balka (see illustration), where the opening could easily have been used to hold a baby inside the lapel. One of the variants (A5) uses one central slit on the chest. This is an interpretation of scenes of the Madonna nursing a child, which throughout the Middle Ages is depicted with a breast that is removed from the inside of a garment that does not have a deep neckline (e.g. scenes from the churches of Saqqara and Villahermosa del Rio; Madonna and Child by master Barnaba da Modena). As far as we know, the only well-proven depiction is the scene from the manuscript Paris, BnF, MS Fr. 12323, fol. 97r from the 14th century, where there is a slit in the middle of the garment, which exposes the breast. An alternative is to place one or more slits in the seams located on the sides (A6). In this way, holes in the armpits or laces on the sides can basically be used.

We can add that not all solutions are universally suitable for all women. The variant applying slits in the armpits is suitable for women with a certain anatomy, while the central slits are universal. However, the clothes are loose and allow some rotation, so even the less conveniently placed slits allow breastfeeding, but it is a less comfortable option.

If the outer garment overlapped the lower layer in the chest area and at the same time did not copy previous variants in terms of cut, it was designed to be loose and allow quick removal (B). This was usually achieved using metal fasteners. The first of the possibilities presented below (B1) is a well-known Scandinavian type of apron (eg Geijer 1938: Abb. 49). It consists of a strip of fabric, the upper edge of which is placed on the chest and fastened with paired loops and oval brooches. If necessary, it is therefore possible to simply unfasten the brooch, which fully reveals the front part of the undergarment. The peplos (B2), which is a traditional garment in a number of European countries from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, works in a similar way (e.g. Hägg 1967-1968; Lehtosalo-Hilander 1984; Owen-Crocker 2010: 42; Zariņa 1988: 28). The only difference is that the peplos covers the entire chest area and is fastened at the shoulders, but it is an extremely spacious garment. Of course, the peplos could also be the underdress. The third type (B3) of clothing is a coat that is open from the neck to the lower edge and fastened with a fastener (e.g. Bau 1981: Fig. 2; Malmius 2001) or left loose (Orfinskaja 2018: 425-6; Orfinskaya – Pushkina 2011).

It is quite remarkable that a problem so vast that it affected virtually every adult woman is so little discussed in contemporary academic literature and among reenactors. With the exception of brief mentions, it is essentially absent from the basic review literature (Ewing 2006a: 56; Falk 1919: 141; Jesch 1991; Jochens 1995; Rabiega 2019).


Recommendations for reenactors

This article thematizes the adaptation of early medieval women’s clothing to the constant sequence of pregnancy and breastfeeding, which filled half or more of a woman’s life in the Early Middle ages. Garments had to be loose fitting to cope with repeated body changes, and had to include slits that allowed for breastfeeding without having to put the entire garment off. Investing in such clothing with more fabric consumption pays off in the long run in terms of time savings and convenience.

Contemporary female reenactors typically start families much later than their early medieval counterparts, making it unnecessary to design costumes for pregnancy and breastfeeding. In fact, only a few reenactors pursue their hobby during these trying times. It is understandable and absolutely fine, but we lose valuable experience associated with practical use and get a distorted idea of the correct silhouette of a woman’s historical costume!

Nursing dress with a slit fastened with a button.
Source: Veronika Tabáková, Anna Křivánková.

Our recommendation that we can pass on to adult female reenactors is to challenge them to design their clothes in accordance with this article from the very beginning. Special attention should be paid to:

  • sufficient looseness of clothing, which can be solved by using a larger amount of fabric (at least 6 meters with a width of 40-60 cm). The main distinguishing feature is the wide gores inserted on the side up to the level of the armpits. If the existing garment is not loose enough, the dress can be hitched up and tied under the breasts, which creates a certain amount of looseness.

  • the possibility to put the breast out really quickly and easily. For that reason, a classic zigzag lacing is not suitable and can be replaced with a pair of laces, brooches and hooks.

  • if the wearer is more shy, a variant that does not lead to exposure can be chosen. The slits located in the armpits are almost imperceptible, and the central slits can be lined or covered with a separate piece that prevents the body from being exposed. By the way, similar fashion is reappearing today in the form of nursing dresses, sweatshirts and jackets. The use of a scarf, which appears to be a common part of the clothing of an adult and married woman in the Early Middle Ages, can also cover a long neckline.

This will necessarily lead to three positive aspects:

  • the costume will adhere much better to the period silhouette that we see in the iconographic sources and which is clearly distinguished from the men’s tunics; a more believable image of the past will be conveyed to both the performers and the audience

  • the costume will be more comfortable

  • the costume will be less susceptible to changes in the figure that occur during life for various reasons, and will be usable even when pregnancy and breastfeeding occur; you will not have to make or buy a whole new costume

A successful reconstruction of a women’s dress, made of 42 cm wide linen.
Source: Jan & Chloé Chevalier-Orkisz.


Acknowledgment

The realization of this article would not have been possible without consultations with Monika Baráková, Anna Křivánková, János Mestellér, Eva Svobodová and Jakub Vykouk, who helped shape the final form. Our thanks go to Diego Flores Cartes, who selflessly created the illustrative diagrams. I thank Leah De Bernardi, Julia Kovalevskaja, Anna Křivánková, Ulla Moilanen, Ola Nigbor and Jan Orkisz for their permission to use photos from their personal archives.

We hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact us or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support our work, please, fund our project on PatreonBuymeacoffee or Paypal.


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