Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Dress, Music and Fighting: 11th-century life through the eyes of an Anglo-Saxon artist (Part I - Dress)

by Christopher Monk

How should we imagine life back in early medieval England (pre-1066)?  What did people look like?  What did they believe?  What did they do to ‘hang out’, as one historical fiction writer put it to me recently?

There are, of course, written historical records upon which we can draw.  We have laws, charters and wills, for example – written from as early as 600 in the case of the Kentish laws of Ethelbert – from which we may tease out details about everyday life.  We also have the rich archaeological record from the Anglo-Saxon period (c.450-c.1066), which furnishes us with many a revelation, be they somewhat tantalising at times.

Not to be overlooked as a resource is the art of the period.  As a specialist in Anglo-Saxon cultural history, I’ve found it immensely rewarding to explore the world of the early English peoples through the illustrated pages of their books.  My favourite manuscript for doing this is the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch.  Let me tell you something about it, and let us see what insights it might bring to our understanding of life back in the eleventh century.

The Hexateuch goes by the official ‘shelfmark’ of London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv.  To see it in the flesh, then, you would need to go to the British Library, though it’s extremely unlikely that it would be made available for your perusal at leisure.  Fortunately, we can see it online, as the Library has made it available in full as one of its digitised manuscripts (a link is provided at the end).  And what’s particularly exciting is that we can zoom in really close to examine the detail.

The Hexateuch was produced around 1020-40, so towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, very probably during the reign of King Cnut (reigned 1016-35).  Its origin is likely the St Augustine’s monastery at Canterbury.  The Hexateuch combines both a textual and visual treatment of the first six books of the Bible, Genesis through to Judges.  It is essentially a picture book – certainly the design of the book focused on the illustrations – accompanied by vernacular (Old English [OE]) translations and paraphrases of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate bible.

To the modern eye, it resembles a comic book.  The pictures closely follow the order of the text but they dominate the pages, there being 394 framed illustrations in total.  Furthermore, they frequently amplify the text, revealing emotions, tensions and scenarios not always evident in the words themselves.  What is key for our purposes is that the artist draws upon contemporary life in order to bring the lives of the patriarchs and the Israelites into sharp focus.  

Let us have a look at just a handful of pictorial scenes to see what they reveal about life in eleventh-century England.  And hopefully that will help us all appreciate that we have another resource in which our imagining of the Anglo-Saxons can be rooted.

Dapper dressers

So what did the Anglo-Saxons look like?  How did they dress, for example?

First, I should point out that we need to show care when interpreting art.  To illustrate: when God or angelic messengers appear in the Hexateuch, they are depicted in classical garb, thus we have a nod to Roman culture rather than a representation of what figures of authority in the period would have gone around wearing.  And I should also make the observation that colour is not always used in a realistic way by the artist.  So, for example, please don’t think that blue rinses were in fashion!

One of my favourite images for demonstrating male attire is the one here of four ‘unrighteous’ men in the days of Noah before the Flood.  They are probably meant to represent the giants or ‘entas’* who were born from the miscegenation of ‘the sons of God’ and ‘the daughters of men’ (Genesis 6:1-8)

They wear the ubiquitous long-sleeved short tunic, along with a cloak fastened by a brooch, either at the shoulder or centrally (the majority of men are shown wearing it at the shoulder).  

Elsewhere men are shown without cloaks or with shorter versions than you see here.  Sometimes we also see men with longer tunics, often kings or pharaohs, though these are also very often shown on men who are seated and so perhaps the artist is concerned with preserving modesty rather than wishing to indicate actual length. 

Though the vast majority of tunics are plain, nevertheless we do come across a significant number of tunics with decorated edging, very similar to those worn by the two central figures.  As you see, these fringes run along the bottom and partway up the sides of the garment.  This may indicate that some tunics had side slits, similar to those on Joseph’s famous ‘coat of many colours’, depicted later – although Joseph’s garment lacks an embellished edging.  Incidentally, the ‘technicolour dreamcoat’ is not shown as truly multi-coloured because the artist is following the slightly odd OE translation – hringfag, meaning ‘ring-patterned’ – of the Latin polymita, meaning ‘cloth woven from threads of many colours’. 

These decorative edges, or fringes, may be representative of embroidery, and would likely have been worn by men of some note, not by ordinary ceorls (free-men of low rank) and certainly not by slaves.  Indeed, in the Hexateuch they appear on men from important families, such as Joseph’s brothers, who as you see here are shown with golden edging on their tunics. 

It would seem, then, that if you really wanted to look the dapper man about town in the eleventh century, you needed embroidered garments.  Maybe it might catch on today? 

I’m afraid that’s all I have space for in this post concerning dress.  There was so much more that could have been said about both male and female dress, too, which brings me to a core area of my present research: women in Anglo-Saxon culture.

For my second detail from the Hexateuch, I want to focus on a particular ‘female’ skill, and in doing so throw something out there that may cause a stir.  Now, I bet you’re thinking weaving, spinning or embroidery, aren’t you?  Well, I’m not going there; instead we’re going to look at women as musicians. And then it will be back to the men for my final insight from the Hexateuch.  And what is it in Anglo-Saxon culture that men did best?  All you living history performers know, don’t you?  Yes, fighting, of course.  

[These will be published in Part 2 - Music and Fighting - on Saturday (27th August)]

*Tolkien fans will recognise the origin here of his giant tree-beings, the ‘ents’.

Works consulted:
Graham Lawson and Susan Rankin, ‘Music’, and Graeme Lawson, ‘Musical Instruments’, from The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Michael Lapidge et al. (Blackwell, 2001). 
Gale R. Owen-Crocker, Dress in Anglo-Saxon England: Revised and enlarged edition (Boydell, 2004)
Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), English Historical Documents c. 500-1042 (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955)

Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: http://bosworth.ff.cuni.cz/
Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources: http://logeion.uchicago.edu/
Douay-Rheims Bible:  http://www.drbo.org/
The Old English Illustrated Hexateuch: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/BriefDisplay.aspx: Just type ‘hexateuch’ into the search box.

Dr Christopher Monk taught for four years at the University of Manchester (UK) on subjects ranging from the language and history of Beowulf to sex and sexuality in Anglo-Saxon art.  He now works as an independent consultant and development editor.  Recently he was the medieval history and manuscript expert for a major permanent exhibition at Rochester Cathedral (due to open later in 2016) about one of Britain’s most important, but overlooked, medieval books, the twelfth-century Textus Roffensis.  Chris continues to juggle scholarly work with creative writing.  He has just published a chapter in a collection of essays about the Bayeux Tapestry, and has an eBook under review called Sodom in the Anglo-Saxon Imagination.  But he’s also written a screenplay based in 1978 about a Kate Bush obsessive and is presently writing what he describes as “a sort of historical fantasy prequel to Beowulf”. He blogs as the transhistorical Anglo-Saxon Monk.
Find him At his website


  1. Excellent and fascinating post, Chris. Thank you! Looking forward to the womenfolk.

  2. Yes, very informative and absorbing! Can't wait for the next post

  3. Wonderful illustrations! I had no idea we had anything of this quality.

    1. Helena, I think that's what motivated me to write this: not that many folk are familiar with Anglo-Saxon manuscript art.

  4. Totally awesome and something that had never crossed my mind. Thanks for sharing this, Professor Monk.


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