Early medieval European dress

Early medieval European dress

Early medieval European dress changed very gradually from about 400 to 1100. The main feature of the period was the meeting of late Roman costume with that of the invading peoples who moved into Europe over this period. For a period of several centuries, people in many countries dressed differently depending on whether they identified with the old Romanised population, or the new populations such as Franks, Anglo-Saxons, Visigoths. The most easily recognisable difference between the two groups was in male costume, where the invading peoples generally wore short tunics, with belts, and visible trousers, hose or leggings. The Romanised populations, and the Church, remained faithful to the longer tunics of Roman formal costume, coming below the knee, and often to the ankles. By the end of the period these distinctions had finally disappeared, and Roman dress forms remained mainly as special styles of clothing for the clergy - the vestments that have changed relatively little up to the present day.[1]

Many aspects of clothing in the period remain unknown. This is partly because only the wealthy were buried with clothing; it was rather the custom that most people were buried in burial shrouds, also called winding sheets.[2] Fully dressed burial may have been regarded as a pagan custom, though it would also have been highly pragmatic for an impoverished family to keep a serviceable set of clothing in use.[3]

Anglo-Saxon Adam and Eve from the Caedmon manuscript, c. 950. The angel wears iconographic dress



Shoulder-clasps for an Anglo-Saxon king of the 7th century. Sutton Hoo

Apart from the elite, most people in the period had low living standards, and clothes were probably home-made, usually from cloth made at a village level, and very simply cut. The elite imported silk cloth from the Byzantine, and later Moslem, worlds, and also probably cotton. They also could afford bleached linen and dyed and simply patterned wool woven in Europe itself. But embroidered decoration was probably very widespread, though not usually detectable in art. Most people probably wore only wool or linen, usually undyed, and leather or fur from locally-hunted animals. Archaeological finds have shown that the elite, especially men, could own superb jewellery, most commonly brooches to fasten their cloak, but also buckles, purses, weapon fittings, necklaces and other forms. The Sutton Hoo finds and the Tara Brooch are two of the most famous examples from the British Isles in the middle of the period. In France, over three hundred gold and jewelled bees were found in the tomb of the Merovingian king Childeric I (died 481; all but two bees have since been stolen and lost), which are thought to have been sewn onto his cloak.[4] Metalwork accessories were the clearest indicator of high-ranking persons. In Anglo-Saxon England, and probably most of Europe, only free people could carry a seax or knife, and both sexes normally wore one at the waist, to use for all purposes.


Both men's and women's clothing was trimmed with bands of decoration, variously embroidery, tablet-woven bands, or colourful borders woven into the fabric in the loom.[5][6] The famous Anglo-Saxon opus anglicanum needlework was sought-after as far away as Rome. Anglo-Saxons wore decorated belts.

Male dress

King Lothair I is shown in a cloak fastened on one shoulder worn over a long-sleeved tunic and cross-gartered hose, c. 850

The primary garment was the tunic -- generally a long fabric panel, folded over with a neck-hole cut into the fold, and sleeves attached. It was typical for the wealthy to display their affluence with a longer tunic made of finer and more colourful cloth, even silk or silk-trimmed. The tunic was usually belted, with either a leather or strong fabric belt. Depending on climate, trousers were tailored either loose or tight (or not worn at all if the weather was warm). The most basic leggings were strips of cloth wound round the leg, and held in place by long laces, presumably of leather, which is called cross-gartering. This may have been done with loose-fitting trousers also. Tighter-fitting hose were also worn. Over this a sleeved tunic was worn, which for the upper classes gradually became longer towards the end of the period. For peasants and warriors it was always at the knee or above. For winter, outside or formal dress, a cloak or mantle completed the outfit. The Franks had a characteristic short cape called a "saie", which barely came to the waist. This was fastened on the left shoulder (so as not to impede sword strokes) by a brooch, typically a fibula and later a round brooch on the Continent, and nearly always a round one for Anglo-Saxons, while in Ireland and Scotland the particular style of the penannular or Celtic brooch was most common. In all areas the brooch could be a highly elaborate piece of jewellery in precious metal at the top of society, with the most elaborate Celtic brooches, like the Tara Brooch and Hunterston Brooch, perhaps the most ornate and finely made of all. The "cappa" or chaperon, a one-piece hood and cape over the shoulders was worn for cold weather, and the Roman straw hat for summer fieldwork presumably spread to the invading peoples, as it was universal by the High Middle Ages. Shoes, not always worn by the poor, were mostly the simple turnshoe - typically a cowhide sole and softer leather upper, which were sewn together, and then turned inside out.


The biographers of Charlemagne record that he always dressed in the Frankish style, which means that he wore similar if superior versions of the clothes of better-off peasants over much of Europe for the later centuries of the period:

He used to wear the national, that is to say, the Frank dress: next to his skin a linen shirt and linen breeches, and above these a tunic fringed with silk; while hose fastened by bands covered his lower limbs, and shoes his feet, and he protected his shoulders and chest in winter by a close-fitting coat of otter or marten skins..... He despised foreign costumes, however handsome, and never allowed himself to be robed in them, except twice in Rome, when he donned the Roman tunic, chlamys, and shoes; the first time at the request of Pope Hadrian, the second to gratify Leo, Hadrian's successor. — Einhard

No English monarch of the time had his dress habits recorded in such detail. The biographers also record that he preferred English wool for his riding-cloaks (sagæ), and complained to Offa of Mercia about a trend to make cloaks imported into Frankia impractically short. A slightly later narrative told of his dissatisfaction with the short cloaks imported from Frisia: "What is the use of these pittaciola: I cannot cover myself up with them in bed, when riding I cannot defend myself against wind and rain, and getting down for Nature's call, the deficiency freezes the thighs".[7] But then he was six foot four inches tall. His clothes may well have been a political gesture, as the preceding Frankish dynasty, the Merovingians, seem to have been ready to borrow Byzantine styles. An early 6th century Merovingian Queen was buried in a violet silk dress and a red silk tunic embroidered in gold, as well as woollen hose and cloak.[8]


At the beginning of this period the clergy generally dressed the same as laymen in post-Roman populations; this changed completely during the period, as lay dress changed considerably but clerical dress hardly at all, and by the end all ranks of clergy wore distinctive forms of dress.

Clergy wore special short hairstyles called the tonsure; in England the choice between the Roman tonsure (the top of the head shaved) and the Celtic tonsure (only the front of the head shaved, from ear to ear) had to be resolved at the Synod of Whitby, in favour of Rome. Wealthy churches or monasteries came during this period to use richly decorated vestments for services, including opus anglicanum embroidery and imported patterned silks. Various forms of Roman-derived vestment, including the chasuble, cope, pallium, stole, maniple and dalmatic became regularised during the period, and by the end there were complicated prescriptions for who was to wear what, and when. To a large extent these forms of vestment survive today in the Catholic and (even more conservative) Anglican churches. The same process took place in the Byzantine world over the same period, which again retains early medieval styles in Eastern Orthodox vestments.

Secular (i.e. non-monastic) clergy usually wore a white alb, or loose tunic, tied at the waist with a cord (formally called a cincture), when not conducting services.[9] Senior clergy seem always to have fastened their cloaks with a brooch in the centre of their chest, rather than at their right shoulder like laymen, who needed their sword-arm unencumbered.

Female dress

The basic female clothing for all classes over the period was a simple sleeved tunic dress, with a vertical slit, usually laced, at the bodice, at least for women of an age to breast-feed. The borders and hems might be decorated with embroidery, very richly so for the upper classes. Hose were apparently often worn underneath, their length presumably depending on the weather, as the dress came near to the ankle throughout the period. An under-tunic might also be worn, and cloaks and mantles for winter or outside wear. With the coming of Christianity, married women were expected to cover their hair, at least in public, with a loose shoulder cape, mantle or kerchief. It appears that fur was mostly worn out of sight, as a lining, or perhaps like the fur waistcoats (probably worn lining outermost) known from the later Middle Ages.

Regional variation

Barbarian trousers, from a bog in Northern Germany, carbon-dated to the 4th century, though in terms of style they could come from any point in the following thousand years. Matching tunic.

Areas where Roman influence remained strong include most of Italy except the North, South-Western France, as far north as Tours, and probably cities like Cologne in Germany. Iberia was largely ruled by the Moors in the later part of the period, and in any case had received rather different influences from the Visigoths compared to other invading peoples; Spanish dress remained distinctive well after the end of the period. The Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse also ruled the South and West of France for the first two centuries of the period.

Early Anglo-Saxon women seem to have had a distinctive form of tubular dress, fastened on the shoulder with brooches, and belted. This style matches some German dresses from much earlier in the Roman period. After about 700, which roughly coincides with the general conversion to Christianity, they adopted the general Continental style.[10]

The pagan Vikings, especially the women, dressed rather differently from most of Europe, with uncovered female hair, and an outer dress made of a single length of cloth, pinned with brooches at both shoulders. Under this they wore a sleeved undergarment, perhaps with an intervening wool tunic, especially in winter, when a jacket may have been added as a final top layer.[11]

See also


  1. ^ Piponnier & Mane, p. 114-115
  2. ^ Piponnier & Mane, op cit, p112,
  3. ^ Piponnier & Mane, op cit, p. 10-11,
  4. ^ University of Chicago article and picture; Large picture from Gallica
  5. ^ Owen-Crocker, Gale R., Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 309-315
  6. ^ Østergård, Else, Woven into the Earth: Textiles from Norse Greenland
  7. ^ ..ad necessaria naturæ tibiarum congelatione deficio: quoted in H. R. Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, 2nd ed. 1991:88f.
  8. ^ Payne, p. 148
  9. ^ Piponnier & Mane, p 114
  10. ^ Payne op cit. p148
  11. ^ Payne. op cit p153


  • Østergård, Else, Woven into the Earth: Textiles from Norse Greenland, Aarhus University Press, 2004, ISBN 8772889357
  • Owen-Crocker, Gale R., Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, revised edition, Boydell Press, 2004, ISBN 1-8438-3081-7
  • Payne, Blanche; Winakor, Geitel; Farrell-Beck, Jane: The History of Costume, from the Ancient Mesopotamia to the Twentieth Century, 2nd Edn, p1 28, HarperCollins, 1992. ISBN 0060471417
  • Piponnier, Françoise, and Perrine Mane; Dress in the Middle Ages; Yale UP; 1997; ISBN 0300069065
  • Youngs, Susan (ed), "The Work of Angels", Masterpieces of Celtic Metalwork, 6th-9th centuries AD, 1989, British Museum Press, London, ISBN 0714105546

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