Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Joy of Reenactment: Medieval Clothing

By E.M. Powell

As a historical fiction writer, so much research is done through written materials or inanimate objects stored in museums. Such resources are of course marvellous but there is one type of research that is very special in bringing history to life. I am talking of course about reenactment.

Earlier this summer, I was very fortunate in meeting a group of medieval reencators, Historia Normannis. Historia Normannis is a 12th century reenactment group, focusing primarily on the events between the reign of Henry I and King John and they bring history to life in a historically accurate, engaging and exciting way. And not only that, they were unfailingly patient and generous in giving me lots of time and answering innumerable questions.

One of the topics we discussed was the clothing of the period. They had so much valuable information and were very happy to share it via this blog.

Medieval Society

To give an indication of how clothing differed across the classes, the reenactors provided this striking line-up. As we pan from left to right, we first see the peasants with plain or non-dyed clothing. The colours and materials of the clothing become ever more sumptuous and expensive as we rise up the ranks to the right. We end the line with an Earl, the most richly-dressed of all.

Earl in full robes
The fabrics are linen and silk, and his long belt is dyed red. Originally, this would have been genuine ox-blood leather, taking its name from the dye used.

He is bare-headed with no coif or head-covering, as that helps to show his status.

The detail of the embroidery on his mantle shows a lion. But it's a twelfth century lion. Norman lions were depicted with no manes as most people had only ever seen lionesses.
Norman lion

Next we have lesser nobles, still dressed expensively.

To modern eyes, a black cloak may look unremarkable but black dye was costly, coming as it did from the iris root. It would take a whole field of irises to yield enough dye for one cloak. The black favoured by monks was actually more a dark brown, coming from the natural black wool of Welsh sheep.

The length of the cloaks may look impractical but were designed to shield the wearer from the weather. Worn when riding a horse, only the head got wet. The lanolin in the wool would have acted as a water repellent.

I also got to try one on (no, no pictures!) and they are incredibly heavy.

Again, the details are so beautifully done.

And  noblewomen of course also displayed their high status through their clothing.

Noblewomen's dress

The woman on the left wears a linen and not a wool dress. The colour is lighter as linen takes up dye less than wool. Blues and purples (from woad and clam shell dye/murex) were among the most expensive, with murex costing more than gold. Both women are wearing clothes that use colour contrast to add to their striking appearance. Necklines are high, with dresses laced tight at either side to follow the curves of a woman's body.

Their dresses have pendulum sleeves, which were a favourite fashion of noblewomen. The design was a way of demonstrating wealth (as the sleeves used extra fabric) as well as demonstrating that the wearer did not engage in any kind of manual work.

Again we see that she has a thick, beautifully decorated cloak. Her wimple, secured with a decorated pin, is white. All wimples were white as it demonstrated purity.She also has a hefty set of keys on her belt along with her Pater Noster beads.The keys suggest she has been left in charge of the estate by her husband, which occurred frequently.

Historia Normannis's sweetest reenactor!

One of the most junior reenactors was willing to be included too!

She a little bemused by the woman in hiking boots and raincoat asking her lots of questions. But she was so charming and polite, and I think she wins a special prize for utterly looking the part.

Still charming and polite (but perhaps not quite so sweet!), came our knights.

Mercenary knights

These  two would be considered mercenaries. They would own their chain mail, a horse, a shield and a sword and their ambition would be to try and serve in a household, thus guaranteeing them a living.

Set of armour and weapons
Chain mail of course gives protection against a blade and is flexible when fighting in. Well, I say flexible. I tried to pick up the mail coat in the picture and could hardly get it off the ground!

With full armour weighing in at about four stone, I guess flexibility is subjective. I was assured by the reenactors that one develops muscles to cope with wearing it. Mail of course didn't protect against blows, and men could suffer massive bruising in battle.

Mail also picked up all sorts of unmentionable debris in battle, ground into the small metal links. It was the unenviable task of a squire to clean it using only a barrel of sand.

And last, but not least, for he was doing an awful lot of the actual work, we have our peasant.


He is dressed in his rough, plain-dyed wool, with his coif or hood to protect him against all weathers. One suspects he was probably a bit muddier in real life, but even so, his contrast to the wealth of the nobles could not be more stark.

It was a fascinating day and such an opportunity to get up close and personal with history. Historia Normannis are such a welcoming and enthusiastic group. You can find out more about them and see many more fascinating pictures of them in action at


E.M. Powell is the author of The Fifth Knight, a medieval thriller based on the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.

The sequel, The Blood of The Fifth Knight, will be released by Thomas & Mercer on January 1st 2015.

Visit her website at


  1. What a wonderful, informative article! I did so enjoy it and of course the photos really help a lot to show what the text is telling us. I was particularly struck by the fact that people had only seen lionesses. Why would that be, I wonder? Thank you so much.

  2. Thank you for your kind remarks, Donna! As for the lions issue, the number of people in Britain who had actually seen a lion would have been very few. Anybody that would have seen one would have been far more likely to have seen a female as they do the hunting of prey. Henry I did have some lions in his menagerie at Woodstock But in early iconography they lack manes and look a lot more like leopards. By the 1300s, there are manes a-plenty!

  3. Such an informative post for my current WIP; thanks so much E.M. Powell!

  4. I'm one of these zany, funky, history obsessed reenactors, and I probably saw you at Prestwich (such a good show!) I've made a heck of a lot of cloth kit through the years and welcome any opportunity to wax lyrical about the 12th century. A few comments- girls start wearing wimples at about 12, as since Our Lady was impregnated through her ear we need to cover ours to prevent the second coming (seriously). They only start becoming white in the middle classes, with peasant linen being a greyish beige unbleached colour. Hose should be as tightly fitted to the calf as possible as apparently this is the most attractive part of a chap. I personally identify people at a distance by hose colour as I'm short sighted. Only upper middle class dresses are back laced, with the nobility having side lacing. We generally take a person's measurements and then add two inches of seam allowance, so with a belt we can get a very nice fit. And the whole society is completely addictive!

  5. Blowing up the pics, they need to improve embroidery to be authentic to the period. The stitch used on the black lion is completely wrong and the big red lion on the white cloak should have been filled in (appliqué is perfectly ok, but embroidery was rarely left as a mere outline). However, since these were taken I suspect that at least one of thier members has been for classes, so things ought to improve. For embroidery accurate to this period look at the opusanglicanum blog on wordpress

  6. Nice medieval reenactment post as I got many ideas from your informative post. I am
    a big fan of these events.Hopefully I will a part of medieval reenactment this year.


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