Monday, May 21, 2018

Women of the Middle Ages: Wimples, Veils, and Head-rails - Part ll

By Paula Lofting

From the advent of the conversion to Christianity, it is generally accepted that women in Europe were following the convention of covering the whole of the hair. We can take this to be from the 8th-9th centuries on, though earlier than that in Britain, it is easier to find evidence for not covering the hair. The custom had started early on in the Christian religion, and was proposed by St Paul and promulgated by his followers. Loose or uncovered hair was to become associated throughout most of the medieval period with loose morals or prostitution, therefore it would be unlikely that many women would forgo this custom - at least when going out abroad. Poorer women may not have been able to afford the extra cloth to augment their head-gear, however, their caps, which the most observant of the custom wore, could be adapted to cover the whole of their hair by using a square piece of material, big enough to fit their head and then some, with a drawstring sewn within the hem. This would allow them to tie long hair into a bun or coil at the neck which could be stuffed into the cap. So even the poorest of women could enjoy the comforts of not being singled out as loose women.

Previously, we have seen during the pagan era in Europe, that women wore their hair in nets, caps, and scarves, intimating that there was a practical need for keeping the hair contained. However there have been veils worn by followers of certain pagan deities in Rome and Greece, such as Vesta, remember the Vestal Virgins? The veil in pagan times seems to have been associated with virginity and chastity, as well as being to do with female shame and the dominance of men who enforce it. Many Roman women wore the veil, and there is evidence that the veil goes back to 1100 BC. The veil may have also been in use for priestesses performing rituals, so we know that the veiling of women has been around much longer than Judaism and Christianity, but it was Christianity that brought it to Northern Europe.

Virgo Vestalis Maxima
As we saw in Part One, there is little archaeological evidence of veils and wimples being worn even during the conversion era in Anglo-Saxon England. However, there have been found in high status graves, small pairs of dainty pins by the head which indicate they were used to hold a veil in place to a cap. In some of the less wealthy graves, single pins have also been found at the jaws, near the foreheads and under the skulls of 7th century women's skeletons. showing that they may have been used to fasten scarves, hoods or other everyday head-wear.

So, what types of hair coverings did the women of this era wear?

In the top of the late 8thc Genoels-Elderen Diptych, (below) we see the Virgin Mary wearing a short wimple that appears almost to be attached to her tunic, or mantle that she is wearing. She also wears a diadem under her wimple at her forehead, which is a decorative accessory worn to hold her cap in place. Her maidservant next to her is clearly of lower class and appears to wear her uncovered hair pulled back possibly into a bun at the nape, or is cut very short. The Diptych is from the late 8th century, and originates from Flanders and so could be the custom for someone of her status in that area at that time. She might even be a slave.

Genoels-Ederen ivory
Public Domain
Bishop Aldhelm, a West Saxon abbot and bishop, was known to have documented his concerns about women's dress. He disliked the extravagant forms of white or colourful long veils attached to fillets or ribbons. In the image on the lower Diptych panel, the embracing saints look to be wearing the type of long veils that Aldhelm could be talking about. (I wonder what Aldhelm would think about today's dress if he found these distasteful!) However, these long veils could also be interpreted as cloaks, which we have seen in other images as covering the head and fastened just below the breast.

The prudish Aldhelm was not a lover of curled hair at the forehead and temples which was probably all he was allowed to see, but still found this distasteful! However, we know that curling tongs did exist so it might be that veils and wimples were worn back off the forehead at some point in the late 7th-8thc era. Fig 116 in Gale Owen-Crocker's book, Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, page 159, shows a stone engraving of a sculpture of a veiled woman with the curled hair around her face showing.

Public Domain
This figure (left) from the early half of the 9thc  wears a cloak over her head and is fastened at the chest, as described above. One might wonder if this is what Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians may have looked like in her everyday wear. Owen-Crocker (2004) describes a late 9thc headdress found in a grave in Winchester as belonging to an extremely wealthy woman. The veil was edged with gold braid; whether the material was linen or silk, we are not informed. There was also a second gold braid which may have been attached to an ornament made with loops of gold decorated ribbon and worn as a band around the head above the brow. The sex of the skeleton was not determined, but the conclusion was that this type of cloth would have been associated with a woman, rather than a man.

Copyright 2012 Shelagh Lewins
with her permission
When people refer to a wimple, they are generally referring to most types of medieval head coverings that cover the whole of the hair. Generally, the consensus seems to be that the wimple, in Old English, wimpel, was a head-covering that might have been designed as a hood-shaped garment that covered the hair and was closed at the chest, in this era, they are not shown in drawings as covering the neck and chin as they do in later periods. Some were short, like the one that the virgin Mary appears to be wearing in the ivory image above, or some were long, and some were long rectangular pieces of material, wrapped over the head with the ends wrapping around the throat and thrown back over the shoulders. They might also be referred to as veils.

The image on the above right is from a lady called Shelagh Lewins who made this reconstruction of a 9thc high status Anglo-Saxon lady wearing a simple snood-like hair covering. Also from the same site is this interpretation of a 9thc lady with a 'wrap around veil' as described above. Underneath her veil, or scarfe, you can see the cap that she has attached her veil to and has an embroidered 'headband' to adorn the cap and probably keep that in place. Medieval women must have been very adept at securing their wimples, when going out, otherwise strong winds, low-lying branches, and perhaps a bit of tomfoolery, would dislodge them quite easily if not secured well.

Copyright 2012 Shelagh Lewins
with her permission
What the pins used to hold the headdress in place may have looked like.

The 'Coppergate' cap was found in the archaeological dig in York. It can be found in the South Yorkshire museum and if you use this link you will see a picture of it: 

Here I have created my own interpretation for use in my re-enactment hobby, and which I wear around the campfire with or without my wimple. Mine has long ties attached to it so I can tie it securely to my head and keep in place. It seems I have slippery hair, which moves my head-gear all over the place throughout the day!
Here, as you can see, it is made of white linen. The cap does not cover all of my hair now, as I have too much hair to wear it all under the cap. The Coppergate cap was found in the 9thc 'Viking' area of York (Jorvik) but quite possibly also worn by the English ladies of the time. Scandinavian women would not have been as bothered about hiding their hair as the Christian Anglian women were, so a cap like this could have easily been worn by them for practical purposes rather than moral or religious reasons.

And here I am with my Coppergate cap underneath my snood-type wimple. If you look carefully, you may just see the on the top of my head, the head of the pin that secures the snood wimple to my cap. Where the 'beard' of the wimple falls at my chest (most handy for catching food that misses your mouth) and just above the York crucifix at my chest, you might just see the penanular brooch that keeps the wimple secure to my clothing, and stops it from flapping up in my face when I bend down!

In my next post, I am going to be looking at the 10th&11th centuries, the late Anglo Saxon era to see how things might have changed or moved on from the 9th century.


Paula Lofting is an author and a member of the re-enactment society Regia Anglorum, where she regularly takes part in the Battle of Hastings. Her first novel, Sons of the Wolf, is set in eleventh-century England and tells the story of Wulfhere, a man torn between family and duty. The sequel, The Wolf Banner is available now. Paula is currently working on the third book in the series, Wolf's Bane

Find Paula on her Blog
on her Amazon Author Page


  1. Reason #? why I hate men (hehe). Don't their control issues seem to be a bit out of hand? At least the ancient Hellenes only wore wreaths on their heads when they went to worship the Gods on the festival days, though oriental veiling practices were sneaking into some of the societies. I do not think veiling ever hit Kemet (Egypt).

    1. Thank you so much for that info Julia. I am thinking the same as you, it was a mysogonistic time, early Christianity, however I think that women may also have wanted to keep their hair clean, stop it from getting in the fire and cooking pot, and keep away the creepy crawlies which would have been rife in those days.


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