By Kim Rendfeld
If we are to believe Notker the Stammerer (and there are plenty of reasons not to), Charlemagne was trying to make a point when told his courtiers they ought to go hunting. At that moment. No changing clothes.
|By Tare Gheorghe|
The next day Charles ordered them to appear before him with in yesterday’s clothes. The courtiers’ garments were tattered and stained, not good for anything but rags, but once brushed off, Charles’s sheepskin was as good as new.
Then Charles asked his courtiers which garments were truly worth more, and the courtiers were duly ashamed of their vanity.
Writing about 70 years after Charles’s death, Notker probably made the whole thing up. Such a stunt would more likely cause resentment, and for Charles to rule such a vast empire, he needed trustworthy allies within his realm.
Besides, Einhard, a more reliable biographer who actually knew the monarch, doesn’t include a sheepskin in Charles’s outfit. To stay warm, Charles favored a vest of expensive otter or marten furs and a blue cloak.
But Notker’s anecdote does illustrate the practicality and durability of sheepskin cloaks.
|A 14th century sheep pen from the Luttrell Psalter|
A sheepskin cloak might cost a commoner as much as a live sheep or farm dog. When you consider that a peasant family might have thought themselves well off if they had a mix of 16 sheep, cows, and pigs, such an item isn’t cheap, but it is within reach. A sable-lined garment cost about 10 times more, and the marten and otter furs were 30 times as much.
To a family planning to keep a sheepskin cloak for years, it was worth the expense. The fleece kept its wearer warm and the lanolin repelled water when someone had to go outside to fetch firewood, walk to church, or get food from the cellar. It was valuable indoors, too; fires did not adequately warm the house.
Notker probably crafted his story to entertain his patron, Charles the Fat, and show the king how wise and pious his great-grandfather was. And perhaps Notker, like many writers, was fulfilling a wish. I can’t help but wonder if he had seen noblemen showing off their wealth with fancy, impractical clothes and wanted someone to teach them a lesson.
Images are public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
The Monk of Saint Gall: The Life of Charlemagne
Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne
Katie Cannon’s Craft
Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riche
Daily Life in Medieval Times by Frances and Joseph Gies
The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, and is working on Queen of the Darkest Hour. For more about Kim and her fiction, visit kimrendfeld.com or her blog, Outtakes. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.