Medieval Costume, Armour and Weapons

Medieval Costume, Armour and Weapons


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486412405
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 11/20/2000
Series: Dover Fashion and Costumes Series
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 315,669
Product dimensions: 8.25(w) x 11.00(h) x (d)

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Medieval Costume, Armour and Weapons

By Zoroslava Drobná, Jan Durdik, Eduard Wagner

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2000 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-32025-0



It is possible to learn from several direct sources what the costumes were like which were worn by the various classes of feudal society in Bohemia during the hundred years dating from 1350 to 1450. Mostly these consist of actual remains of costumes that have been preserved, or individual parts of such costumes. Such material is of course very precious, because there is so little of it and what little there is comes almost exclusively from the highest classes of society of those times. For instance, in the royal tombs in St. Vitus's Cathedral in Prague remains have been found, dating from the 14th and 15th centuries, of the cloaks and costumes in which the Bohemian rulers and their wives were buried. In certain exceptional cases fairly large pieces of the material have been preserved, and they enable us to know what the clothes of the two wives of the Emperor Charles IV, who died in the 2nd half of the 14th century, looked like. This is almost a unique case however, not only in Bohemia but in the whole of Europe. There is only one other case anywhere else where, by even greater chance, a complete woman's costume has been preserved from about the year 1400. It is the dress that Margaret, Queen of the united Scandinavian lands, presented from her own wardrobe to the cathedral in Roskilde, and which was probably to have been converted into an ecclesiastical robe of some kind. This robe, which is of purple velvet with a cross-woven gold pattern, is to-day preserved in Upsala Cathedral. As it was not re-worked, it provides us with a rare example of the costume of those times.

Liturgical robes, chasubles and altar frontals have been preserved in much greater quantities. It is true that these are not civilian clothes but we learn something of the materials used, brocades and velvets, and the way in which they were adorned; for instance the embroidery, which was similar to that used in secular clothes. We have quite a large number of examples of leather goods, such as high boots and shoes dating from the 14th and 15th centuries, remains of men's leather jerkins, studded with ornamentations, and dress accessories, such as a plaited leather belt of the 14th century, which was found buried in a tomb in the Emmaus Cloister in Prague. From the graves of noblemen and burghers there are clasps, brooches and circlets of silver wire, rings and jewelry, which were not actually part of the apparel but which were an important accessory to it. At the same time it shows the method by which these very old relics can be found; in so far as they are not articles that have been kept in good condition in church inventories, the majority of them are the result of archaeological research.

Another source, more important than the rest in helping us to learn something of the costumes of the 14th and 15th centuries, is the evidence of contemporary works of art of those times, such as the sculptures, pictures and miniatures. In the period which we have under consideration, we hardly ever come across a secular subject; the artists of the Middle Ages restricted themselves to religious scenes. Secular themes only make their appearance round the border of the main subject, and are only slipped in as a small genre picture. The sculptor, painter or illuminator of the Middle Ages worked in such a way that inevitably even in his religious scenes he would portray people from his own surroundings, in the sort of clothes that he was accustomed to see. For the artist of the Middle Ages was not recording history; that was not in keeping with the character of his time, but was a much later phenomenon, which in its clearly-defined form really only dates from the time of the European romanticism of the 19th century. Hence it did not even occur to the sculptor and painter of the 14th and 15th centuries to invent some vague, fantastic clothes for the figures in their biblical or religious scenes. In the simplicity of his heart and artistic attitude the painter depicted his heroes in the kind of clothes he wore himself and in those which he saw worn by the people around him. Hence he is reliable and we can trust him when he depicts people of various classes, from the king and his nobles and the rich man to the poor woman who serves at the bedside of the Virgin Mary and her newborn child, or the ragged-clothed shepherds in the pictures of the Birth of Christ. At most we can perhaps blame him for contenting himself with a few basic, simple types of clothes - the tunic and the cloak - and of avoiding the eccentric changes in fashion. Certainly this is the case if we take Bohemian panel painting between the years 1350 and 1450, for here we do not get a picture of the full development of the costume of that period in all its richness. The illuminator, on the other hand, who was not bound by the idea of monumentalising - and it is obvious that this was one of the driving impulses of Bohemian painters of large pictures - offers us a much richer insight into the costumes of the period. We are also able to verify the testimony of the artistic works of those times, and every examination has only gone to prove the reliability of this medieval artistic material.

Such research is also supported by another substantial source, namely written accounts. These are extremely plentiful and varied. In chronicles and songs, in contemporary satires, in the sermons of the moralists, in actual documentary sources, such as legacies, town records and guild regulations, we find rich and detailed evidence of the costumes and clothes of the time. We can also learn much from the regulations and prohibitions issued by the secular and religious authorities, who were interested in preventing too great an exuberance of fashion extravagances, for which conditions at that time, not only in Bohemia but also throughout European society, were for many reasons extremely favourable. No sooner was there an interval between the wars, famines, epidemics and plagues, which harassed the people of Europe throughout the Middle Ages, than there immediately arose, among all classes of society, an irrepressible desire to live, to enjoy life and, as far as the means permitted, to dress as grandly as possible. There were no bounds to the inventiveness and richness of ideas and these were also applied in the case of clothing. Naturally these eccentricities and the general available luxury spread beyond what had formerly been the sharply outlined bounds between the various classes of feudal society and this was not exactly to the liking of the higher ruling classes. They therefore tried, by means of regulations and prohibitions, to prevent the fashions of the privileged classes of society being used by the lower classes, to prevent the fashions of the rulers, nobles and the higher church hierarchy even being used by the nouveau riche townsmen and the rich peasants. These attempts, needless to say, proved more or less useless and in vain, but they prove very clearly, nevertheless, the desire that prompted them: that the differentiations of feudal society should be clearly visible at a glance, that the poorer and non-aristocratic classes of feudal society, however wealthy they might have become, should be clearly distinguishable, at a glance, from the privileged, rich upper classes.

When we look at this phenomena today from the point of view of historical development, we see very clearly what a brake the feudal upper classes were on the general trend of development which slowly, though inevitably, was leading towards an ever greater levelling out of class differences in clothing, towards the slow creation of what was in essence a common uniform fashion and a uniform costume for the entire entity of national society. It was a development which was only solved in principle and with ultimate effect by the French Revolution in 1789.

In the middle of the 14th century, however, we find ourselves still firmly bound by the ties of feudal society. The various classes were differentiated by their clothing, above all by the richness and costliness of the work and material - even though the lower classes, the burghers and peasants, tried hard to imitate the conspicuous and gaudy splendour of the rich ruling classes. When we look at this period more closely and try to analyse the fashions and clothes of the time in greater detail, we come up against an unequal balance between the rather meagre amount of actual material that has been preserved - such as the costumes and their parts - and the numerous written documents. It is often difficult to determine and describe exactly the individual parts of the dress which we come across so many times in literary relics and dictionaries of the time, as probably in many cases it is a question of one and the same costume, which only varies in length, belting, cut of the sleeves, adornments and so on. In those cases where the preserved costumes and relics to be found in Czechoslovakia do not suffice, we have had to turn to the art treasures of both the neighbouring and more distant lands of Europe, to the art of France, Burgundy, the Netherlands and Germany. For in those days, fashion and costume was more or less a common affair for the whole of western and central Europe.

To begin with, in those days, it originated in France, but later in the 15th century it was from Burgundy; these were the countries which created luxurious fashions in their rich ruling court circles and thus set the tone for the entire elegantly dressed world of the time. But in addition, of course, each land had its own individual note, which varied at different times. Take, for instance, Germany at the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th century, or say Italy, which had its own particular style of dress and merely shared certain elements of the basic European costume of the time.

At that time Bohemia was by no means separated from this general European stream. We know that good relations between Bohemia and its neighbours and the exchange of goods and cultural commodities stem from old tradition. From time immemorial foreign goods and foreign materials came to Bohemia, which also probably caused the introduction of new modes in fashions and later entailed the arrival of foreign craftsmen -tailors from Germany, Italy and elsewhere. At any rate it is clear that the development of the native costume is directly connected with local production and the import of foreign materials. The oldest textiles produced in Bohemia included linen and cloth, both of which provided the basic elements of Bohemian costume. Then there came furs, which were generally to be found amongst the aristocracy and gradually also among the burghers, and less elaborately worked and of poorer quality even in general use among the common folk. With the increase and extension of foreign trade, the home market began to be enriched with rare foreign materials. In the earlier Middle Ages it had been silks from the East and rich brocades from Byzantium; during the 13th and 14th centuries there were still the rich Byzantine brocades, but there were also, more frequently, Italian brocades from Lucca and Venice, and even Chinese silk brocades, which probably came via the trade routes through the Mediterranean and found their way to Bohemia. They were magnificent, costly and at that time in Bohemia very rare materials. Hence it is not surprising that they were kept almost exclusively for the clothing of the ruling monarchs and the rich secular and ecclesiastical aristocracy. During the 14th and 15th centuries the Bohemian kings were buried in the royal tombs in Prague Cathedral, dressed in their costly robes and mantles of velvet and silk brocade, as we can see from the relics and remains of materials that have been found there. In the second half of the 14th century the silk brocades gave place more and more and were finally almost ousted by new materials, such as lengths of Italian and Spanish velvets. They became the great fashion and we come across them not only in robes for the clergy and in other ecclesiastical garments, which have been preserved in many cases in good condition to this day, but also as clothes for the secular and ecclesiastical nobility and in the dress of the wealthy burgher class, which grew rich with the rise of the towns and crafts and tried to imitate the external display of magnificence of the nobles. At the same time we should remember that the upper and lower ecclesiastics of those times lived like the secular nobility and the monarchs, that they usually dressed in the same manner as the most luxurious feudal lords, and that as a result the disciplinary pastoral letters and interdicts of the archbishops and Synods were often also directed against them.

In addition to the red and green velvets which, during the course of the 15th century, were more and more frequently ornamented with motifs based on the fruit and flowers of the pomegranate, on palm leaves, lotus flowers and other rich plant designs, replacing the older animal motifs, the wonder birds, which had originated in the art of the Orient, we find more and more examples of Flemish, Italian and Rhineland cloth and fine Bavarian linen making their way into Bohemia.

The richly-coloured brocades and the velvets with their decorative ornamental designs were of course not the only ornate material used for the clothes and costly dresses of the feudal overlords and the well-to-do burghers. Under the skilled hands of the embroideress even simple common linen was turned into a valuable robe. Apart from the nuns in the convents this work had been done from oldest times by serf women, later the craft embroideresses, organised in craft guilds. To be able to embroider beautifully was considered part of the good education of the wives and daughters of the ruling and noble families. The chronicler Petr Zitavský tells - in so far as it was not just a polite form of compliment in admiration of the lady - of the admiration aroused by the young Eliška of the House of Pfemyslid. For she wore a wedding dress that she had embroidered herself when she married the fourteen-year-old John of Luxembourg. The art of embroidery flourished in Bohemia throughout the whole 14th century, even longer, and it is to our great regret that no example of clothes of that time thus ornamented have survived to this day. But here again the only place from which we can learn something of the art of embroidery, its technical perfection, its beauty and purity of style, so closely connected with the art of monumental painting, is the remains of ecclesiastical robes that have been preserved in part.

Between the years 1348 and 1419, a period of rich economic and cultural life accompanied by the dark shadows of conflicts that were sharpening and growing more acute, and already heading for the outburst of the Hussite revolutionary movement, that is during the reigns of Charles IV and Wenceslas, Prague was a city of about 30,000 inhabitants and was at that time larger than either Paris or London. One may be sure that those who could afford it were provided with all that they needed in the way of fine clothes. Among the inhabitants there was quite a considerable number of craftsmen occupied in the various trades directly or indirectly connected with clothes and the making of the various accessories. However, the numbers are not known exactly, as the various lists and registers are incomplete, usually only containing the names of master craftsmen, owners of houses in Prague, and omitting those who in many crafts constituted the majority of the workers in that craft, but in most cases did not own a house. But even if we make allowances for the incompleteness of these reports, they are nevertheless of interest to us, for they at least enable us to get a better picture of what it was like in Prague at that time, and consequently also, in other places. There were altogether 22 different trades and crafts concerned with clothing and dressing the inhabitants of Prague and also to a certain extent with the export of such goods to other places.

At the same time we see to what an extent the clothing industry, like other crafts, was already subject to specialization. Apart from the tailors, who made new clothes for both men and women, there were second-hand dealers, who altered, mended and improved old clothes, coat-makers who concentrated only on coats, hosiers who dealt in stockings, and smockers who made rough smocks. Some furriers made up new furs, while others only repaired old ones. A special group was known as the black furriers.


Excerpted from Medieval Costume, Armour and Weapons by Zoroslava Drobná, Jan Durdik, Eduard Wagner. Copyright © 2000 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents

1. Armour
2. Helmets
3. Shields

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