Friday, July 20, 2018

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

by Paula Lofting

This post concentrates mostly in the evidence we have for hair and headgear from the late Anglo-Saxon period: the 10th and 11th centuries.

By this time, wimples were big business in Anglo-Saxon society and much of Europe was converted, with German Paganism having little influence in Scandinavia  by 1100. Russia was also fully converted from around the 9th century, however, some other Eastern European communities were more resistant until the later medieval period.

Lot sleeps with his daughter who has loose hair
In Part's I & II, we have seen how Christianity has influenced the idea of women covering their hair and dressing modestly, and is the basis of the wimple and veil. As we saw in Part I, it was from a dictum of St Paul's (I Corinthians 2:5-6) that the wearing of veils grew.

 ...every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.  
This sentiment of Paul's was soon to extend to women going about in public, not just married women, but girls who had reached puberty, around the age of 11-13.

It is difficult to establish whether or not women wore their hair covered at home mainly due to the lack of art that depicts women in their home environments without wearing a wimple. If any of the images are to be believed, one would think that women wore their head covered even when giving birth, having sex, and whilst sleeping. This could be attributed to the fact that the artists were  mostly monks or clerics, and their religious values influenced the artistry in the sense that moral women had to be shown wearing veils. Immoral women portrayed in scenes such as those from the Psychomachia by Prudentius wear their hair loose, see image below.

Chastity impales Lust represented
by a female with uncovered hair

The head gear seems to have covered the whole of the head and the shoulders with some of the neck on display, however on this image, these ladies appear to be wearing a light coloured veil under the top layer that seems to cover their neck up to their chin. This may have been what a 10th century nun would have been expected to wear under their wimples to distinguish them from the non-ecclesiastical women of the day.  How a woman wore her veil seems to have been a matter of taste, for there are several different styles.

Female saints wearing double veils.
From the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, late 10th c.
 BL Ms ADD 49598, f.2 
A large portion of the women portrayed in  Anglo-Saxon art seem to be high status so it is difficult to know how the lower class would have worn their head gear, but most likely, because of the work peasant women had to do, it would have been simple. As we have seen in the previous posts, simple caps like a bonnet which would tie around the head or under the chin, or scarves tied behind the neck, would have been better suited to those women doing manual labour than a long piece of floaty material wrapped around the head and neck. Perhaps, if the women could afford it, they might wear a snood or hood-type wimple, which went over their heads for special occasions like going to church, or out abroad.

Nuns on the Benediction
of Archbishop Robert
Mid 11thc
The beautiful illumination cropped from the Benediction of the Archbishop of Canterbury right, shows nuns wearing their headdresses in different styles. The woman at the back appears to have what could be a projection under her wimple to give it its triangular shape, the woman on the left in front, is wearing a snood-type wimple which is shaped much like a pillow case with openings at both ends, that has been widened at one end to fit and cover the shoulders. The last lady has a very elaborately wound and pinned scarf-type headdress with the end of it draped across the top of her head. These nuns are very well dressed for their vocation, indeed - the only thing that appears to give away  their occupation is the censor one of them has in her hand.

 Psychomachia late 10thc
© The British Library Board 
The young lady to the right is Luxuria from the psychomachia,  dancing for the warriors and tempting them away from their arms in favour of debauchery. She is wearing a similar style of headwear to the nun with the trailing end pinned over her head on the Benediction of Robert. The artist appears to have drawn her with particular attention to detail showing how the Anglo-Saxons must have loved their folds, frills and trailing, long flowing garments. It seems that the more elaborate and carefully the headdress is arranged, the more disapproving the monks were, who were the most likely artists of these drawings.  But not all Anglo-Saxons, it seems, had such ornately worn headrails. More modest women can be found wearing tighter and less voluminous wimples.

Queen Emma and Cnut
Public Domain, British Library online
Queens seem to have worn distinctive headdresses, as we see in the picture of 11thc Emma of Normandy with her sons. A veil is worn underneath her crown. Probably like the one that the angel is holding above Emma's head in the image of her and Cnut. Owen Crocker tells us in her Dress in Anglo Saxon England that there are images of women with embroidered and possibly bejewelled wimples, (see page 223 of her aforementioned book). As mentioned in Part II, Bishop Aldhelm had brought up the subject of nuns wearing inappropriate clothing. Apparently this was also a problem in late Anglo-Saxon period, as St Edith of Wilton was said to have been better dressed than the Bishop of Winchester!

Fillets were still popular in the 10th and 11th centuries as we see in the will of a lady called Wynflaed. She left two fillets - bindan - one was to a secular woman, and another to a nun, which seems to have been worn in conjunction with a veil and worn over the top as a 'ring'. One woman left a baende to her sister-in-law in her will of 1012. Queen Emma wears a baende across her forehead under her wimple in the image of her with Cnut. These items seem to have been one of the most gifted items in wills in the later AS world, possibly indicating how richly made they were, with jewels and gold sewn into them.                                             

The indication that Anglo Saxon women wore their hair in plaits and or 'up', is suggested by the unusual exception of the Virgin Mary who is wearing her uncovered and in a plait wound around her the crown of her head on an ivory book cover. But it is very difficult to assess how common this practice may have been as mostly, women are drawn with their hair covered.

In order to get some perspective on the functional and daily use of wimples, veils, and headrails etc, I asked Kat Dearden, a reenactor of the popular living history society, Regia Anglorum ( what her thoughts are on the wearing of wimples within the time bracket of the Anglo-Saxon period, here's what she had to say: 

"I strongly suspect that the full veil/wimple was not worn at all times. It's not practical. When working or in a domestic setting I think women covered their hair with a cap or scarf, and you see that borne out in later manuscripts that show far more scenes of daily life.When going out in public, going to church or in formal settings in the home, such as recieving visitors or celebrations, then that's when the full veil would be expected and worn. I suspect the rules probably differed according to social status as well. Queens and noble women are almost always on show, carrying out some form of formal role, therefore always veiled. Nuns are always in a religious setting, so likewise always veiled. Poorer women though? I think it's more likely the veil was worn at the same sort of times my Gran wore her hat, or a headscarf, at church, trips into town, and for 'company'. The sort of company that makes you panic and get the tea set out. Otherwise they are mostly engaging in domestic tasks with their family around, so no need for the full fig, just a cap to keep hair clean, out of the way and decently covered."

Kat Dearden
photo courtesy of Caroline Williams

Further Reading

Gale R. Owen-Crocker (2004) Dress In Anglo-Saxon England (rev. ed.) Boydell Press, UK.

Paula Lofting - 

 Paula is the author of the award-winning Sons of the Wolf series set in the years leading up to the Battle of Hastings in the 11thc. Centred around the lives of a Sussex thegn, Wulfhere, and his family, we also meet historical characters such as Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and his powerful family. The series tells the story of a bloodfeud between two men, played out against the backdrop of historical events.
Paula also reenacts with popular Living History Society, Regia Anglorum and works part-time as a psychiatric nurse. An avid reader of books, she has always wanted to write a major historical epic and is currently working on her third book in the series, Wolf's Bane. 

Paula can be found on:
You can also check out her Blog, 1066: The Road to Hastings and Other Stories , for more about the 11th century
Her Books, Sons of the Wolf and The Wolf Banner can be purchased here


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