Clothing of Norman Women in the Late 11th and Early 12th Centuries

I was recently asked to write an article about the clothing of Norman women in the late 11th and early 12th centuries, but particularly the period immediately following the Conquest. Initially, I thought I would have to search really hard to find illustrations to support my theories. However, once I started seriously looking, I found them in the strangest of places, including Scandinavian carvings.

First though, we have to consider the problems of looking at manuscripts for evidence of female clothing. During this period the majority of manuscripts were still illustrated by monks. This leads to a large number of manuscripts showing the Virgin Mary and other biblical characters. Since the women of the time were not biblical characters, the assumption will have to be made that they are wearing the clothing of the highest ranking members of society. We can also ask whether monastics would have seen women wearing the latest fashions? Well, Monks didn't live 100% of the time within the monastic confines. They would have had to go to market to buy the food and supplies which they didn't grow themselves. Some monks would have been chaplains to the lords of the manor. It was also likely that the monks would have processed past ladies during church services, though then they would not have been paying attention to what people were wearing this season. These instances would have enabled them to see, even from a distance, women wearing a wide variety of garments. However, monks were notorious for copying "antique" manuscripts and duplicating the fashions that they saw there. We, therefore, have to be very careful when using manuscript evidence for ascertaining women's fashions.

So what are my theories then? That dresses were relatively fitted and had long droopy sleeves. My starting point was the illustration that I'm sure most of us are familiar with - the Bayeux Tapestry (fig. 1 (below)).Aelfgyva in the Bayeux
Tapestry Here we see Aelfgyva wearing a relatively close fitting dress with quite long sleeves and a standard wimple. Although the tapestry was commissioned by a churchman it was stitched by women (whether they were English or Norman is pretty irrelevant to this discussion), so it is probably pretty accurate to say that Aelfgyva is wearing a current fashion. Unfortunately, though the tapestry doesn't show us much in the way of detail. However, from other manuscripts we can tell that the sleeves were often lined in material of a contrasting colour and turned back to display this. From experience I can tell you that the easiest way to accomplish this is to line the entire sleeve. The sleeves are usually shown reaching to about the knee, though occasionally they reach virtually to the ground. This length, though, would probably have been restricted to the queen as the amount of cloth required would have made it too expensive for most women. There was, however, a wide variety in the length of sleeve. Whilst talking of sleeves I must point out that there is no evidence at all from this period for sleeves with knotted ends.

For some reason, possibly the change in ruling class, there are very few manuscripts dated to the period between AD1066 and 1100. Therefore, I've had to look at manuscripts from both before the conquest and in the 40 or so years following 1100. What we can say for sure, is that the fashion that we recognise as 11th century definitely continued into the 12th (fig. 2 (below)).Eadwine Psalter For example, I have found illustrations of mantles right through until the late 12th century. Equally, the hood wimple, which appears in most pre-Conquest manuscripts, seems to continue until about the same date. Figure 2 from the Eadwine Psalter (dated to mid 12th century) shows women wearing a mixture of what we would consider 11th century fashions and the new 12th century styles.

The Eadwine Psalter also shows us a few different styles from the ones we are used to seeing. The figure second from left is wearing the standard dress and mantle, however, her wimple is different from any seen so far. This seems to take the form of a piece of cloth wrapped tightly around the head and then pinned with a small brooch or pin to the side of the temple or slightly higher. The figure kneeling beside the loom also has different sleeves from any seen so far. They are still wider than normal sleeves but they are not as long as the ones seen in the Bayeux Tapestry. These also appear on a small figure of a virgin (Virgo) from a calendar dated to c.1120-1140 and are visible on a carving of the early 12th century from a church at Forshem in Sweden (fig. 3 (below)).Carving from Forshem Church,
Sweden Although this carving is from Scandinavia the sleeves are very similar to the ones from the calendar. This carving also seems to show a skirt made out of a separate piece of cloth, a style which doesn't appear in Britain for at least another 100 years. I've tried working with sleeves this length and they do allow you to do most tasks without getting in a tangle. You still have to take care when working near a roaring fire, but they are a lot more practical. I believe these sleeves would have been worn every day as a working garment and that the long droopy ones would have been kept for court occasions.

So those are the basic clothing styles, but what other variations could there be within the clothing? During the 12th century it became quite fashionable to have an open wimple leaving the neckline visible (fig. 4 (right)).Florence & John of
Chronicle This style (dating to 1130-1140), like the hooded wimples, doesn't seem to have a wimple band to hold them in place, so, presumably, they would have been pinned to a cap or hairnet which is not visible. It is possible to recreate this open style with a semi-circular wimple which would be pinned to give the folds which are often shown. Presumably this is the precursor to the veils which appear later in the 12th century, but I have no evidence from the late 11th century to support them being worn in the 11th century. As stated these wimples don't seem to have a wimple band to hold them in place and, supporting this, I have been unable to find any evidence in manuscripts for the metal "filet" which is so often portrayed in films and the like.

In the St. Anne Bury Bible (fig. 5 (left)),St. Anne
Bible which is dated to the 1130's, we can see that the woman is wearing a very strange wimple which appears to be knotted. I haven't managed to suss this one out yet, so if anyone has any ideas can you please let me know. In this illustration we can also see that an underdress is worn underneath the fitted dress. It seems to be of plain white cloth, probably fine linen and doesn't have the wrinkled sleeves so typical of Saxon costume.

In most of the illustrations there is no evidence for a belt or girdle. In some cases this is simply because the figure is wearing a mantle so any belt would be concealed underneath. Some, at first glance, appear to show something around the waist, but they can be explained in ways other than as a belt. In figure 4, for example, we can see something around the waist and coming down the front of the dress. However, on closer observation the decoration on the "girdle" seems identical to the decoration around the hem and sleeves of the dress. The only other example I've seen which appears to be a belt is on the Winchester Bible, and that is dated to around 1180. Other people have claimed that they've got evidence for girdles, but since I haven't seen this, at the moment I remain unconvinced.

In the manuscripts where the figure is not wearing a mantle we get some impression of what the neckline would have looked like. Of course Norman women would have been rich enough to have employed wet nurses so there is no need for access for breast feeding. All the visible necklines seem to show a short split, about the same length as those seen on male tunics. These can either be fastened with a brooch (or possibly an annular), as in figure 6 (right),Wedding of Matilda & Henry V an illustration of the future Empress Matilda's wedding to Henry V c. 1114, or left unfastened (fig. 4). In the latter case it is possible that it is a false split and is just decoration meant to imply an opening. In all cases though, where the neckline is visible it is decorated, even if it is only a different colour of fabric edging the neckline (fig. 7 (left)).Gospels from Pembroke College, Cambridge

So how do we achieve the fitted look? Luckily, one manuscript has survived which shows us one method of drawing in the fabric. This is the Gospel of Judith of Flanders (fig. 8 (right))Gospel of Judith of Flanders which has been dated to around the year AD1050. This very clearly shows us the long droopy sleeves, the underdress with tight sleeves, and the side fastening. Here we see what appears to be a rectangle of fabric with pleats of dress material appearing from below it. Having spoken to another seamstress we think that the way this was done was to have two rectangular (or square) pieces of fabric which are attached to the front and back of the dress. These can then be laced or stitched together to pull the waist of the dress in.

There are other ways of making a fitted dress however. I've made a reasonably fitted dress from woollen cloth which is quite stretchy. This I made up as a normal dress and then took the sides in until I got the desired effect, whilst still being able to get in and out of the dress. Alternatively small loops could be used which would be laced together. We know that loops were used in clothing in the pre-Conquest period from the textile that was found at Llangorse Crannog, South Wales. Here the loops were probably used to pin a cloak to the dress underneath. The loops were reinforced at the back of the fabric to ensure the dress could take the extra strain. Whilst these loops perform a different function, I see no reason why the same technology could not be used to pull in a dress. To utilise this method I believe that you would have to make the dress so that it fitted snugly over the bust and then use the loops to pull in the waist of the dress. This would give you gathers in exactly the same places as in the manuscripts. Alternatively, you could slit the side seams of the dress down to the top of the hips and use the loops to close the gap. The final method was possibly the one most commonly in use, and also the one where little evidence would show in the illustrations. Here, the wearer would be sewn into the garment for the day and would have to be cut out again in the evening. There are later references to people (including men) having to be cut out of their clothes as they were fastened so tightly that they restricted breathing. If this were talking about people being laced into their clothing then surely they would have just unlaced the garment. One method which I don't think was used was lacing down the back of the garment. In the illustrations where you can tell that the garment has been fitted, the lines of tension appear to dip towards the waist. If these garments were laced at the back, you would expect the tension lines to go round and up the body.

Since we have no archaeological finds of dresses from this period, how they were constructed is guesswork. It is entirely feasible for the body of the dress to be made out of one panel reaching from the hem at the back to the hem at the front. There is a later pattern from Greenland showing a dress made in at least 10 panels of material, but this dates from the late 13th or early 14th century so we can pretty much discount it for our period of interest. However, a lot of the manuscripts show a lot of material in the skirt so you would at least need extra panels in the side of the dress and probably at the front and back as well. As for what sort of cloth the dresses were made from, well just think about sitting and embroidering in the draughty hall of a castle or manor house. The Normans seemed to go in for the richness and quantity of the cloth rather than lots of decoration. Even in the illustration of Matilda at her wedding (fig. 6) the decoration is fairly restrained. Patterned linen would have been popular as would finely woven fulled woollen cloth. Silk would have still been very uncommon. In the mid 12th century Bishop Henry of Blois (Bishop of Winchester) was buried in silk robes, but he was related to the King and would have been the exception rather than the rule. I think that silk would still have been restricted to trim and head coverings.

In conclusion then what can we say about the clothing of Norman women? We can say that for special occasions, e.g. visiting court, she would have worn a semi-fitted dress with long droopy sleeves and a head covering. However, for everyday use and when working she would have worn a slightly less fitted dress with less droopy sleeves. This type of dress, though, was worn by the upper classes, those who didn't have to work every hour God gave to make ends meet and they would only have done tasks befitting that rank, e.g. embroidery, sewing, tapestry. We also have very scant evidence for belts, and this type of dress actually looks fine without one.

Finally, if anyone has any further information which I haven't included in this article, or have access to manuscripts which show things slightly differently, I'd be very interested to see it.

Sarah Doyle 1999

Sources consulted:

Fig. 1 - Bayeux Tapestry c.1080
Fig. 2 - Eadwine Psalter mid C12
Fig. 3 - Carving from Forshem Church, Sweden early C12
Fig. 4 - Florence & John of Worcester Chronicle 1130-1140
Fig. 5 - St. Anne Bury Bible 1130
Fig. 6 - Wedding of Matilda & Henry V c.1114
Fig. 7 - Gospels, Pembroke College, Cambridge 1130-1140
Fig. 8 - Gospels of Judith of Flanders c.1050

Copyright Sarah Doyle 1999

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