Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sheepskin Cloaks: The Most Practical Medieval Fashion

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
Charles was wearing a sheepskin cloak. His followers were bedecked in silks, pheasant skins, ribbons, ermine robes, peacock feathers, and other finery. So they trekked through forests thick with briars and tree branches, got drenched with rain, and oh yeah, got spattered with blood from their prey.

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
Medieval folk depended on sheep, which were only a third of the size of today’s breeds or smaller. While alive, they were a source for wool and milk. Slaughtered, they provided meat, tallow for candles, and bones that could be made into anything from flutes to dice. Their skins could be used for parchment or cloaks.

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.

Sources

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

Kim Rendfeld is the author of two books set in Carolingian Francia, 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.

7 comments:

  1. Very practical, yes! And I'd imagine you would wear the wool on the inside, unlike what some historical dramas show. ;-)

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    1. That might depend on your skin--this was raw wool, not the superwashed fine yarns of today designed to not itch!

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    2. As you read, the lanolin repels water and lanolin is in the wool. Also, turning the fleece leather-out would compact the hairs and reduce insulating properties. People like to wear them for their looks as much as their hard qualities. Sheep wear their skins wool-side-out, I don't see why we wouldn't.

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    3. As you read, the lanolin repels water and lanolin is in the wool. Also, turning the fleece leather-out would compact the hairs and reduce insulating properties. People like to wear them for their looks as much as their hard qualities. Sheep wear their skins wool-side-out, I don't see why we wouldn't.

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    4. The fleece probably was worn facing outward for the reasons mentioned. The one part of Notker's story that has some truth talks about the cloak being white again after it was rubbed.

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  2. Kim, I like the way you point out the apocryphal nature of this story. Many chroniclers told stories about historical figures to make moral points or explain subsequent events -- and too many modern reasons take these fictional accounts seriously!

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    1. True, Helen. Primary sources are great, but researchers need to recognize unreliable narrators.

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