The Middle Ages (also called the medieval period) was a period of time that lasted about a thousand years from the 5th to the 15th centuries. It is often subdivided into three periods with the first being the Early Middle Ages, the second labeled as the High Middle Ages, and the third and final called the Late Middle Ages.
Some individuals mistakenly call the Middle Ages the “Dark Ages,” because of the lack of written works that arose out of this period. These individuals often claim that Europe was in the “dark” after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, however Europe did not simply grind to a halt. Rather, Europeans continued to live according to which class they were born into which would also determine what kind of clothing they would wear.
From this example, we can determine what historical clothing Europeans wore which was enforced by which social class they were born into. Let’s start with the clothing of peasants.
Peasants were typically limited in picking clothing because they did not have much money. In what they could afford, peasants
would only have about one to two outfits to wear for many years. Even worse, the nobility would limit what the peasants could wear; however, this did not bother the peasants because they could not afford to purchase much anyway.
In what they could buy, peasants would often resort to wearing “tunics” which were often made out of wool. Men and women would modify tunics by cutting slits for places such as the head, arms, and legs. Men would often let the tunics fall just past their knees while women would let the tunics fall down to their legs which can be thought of as dresses.
As for undergarments, it wasn’t until the 14th century that peasants began to wear “shifts.” Shifts were not as baggy as tunics and would often be longer than the tunics themselves. As a result, shifts hugged the body more closely and provided more comfort against the abrasive feel of wool. As for underwear, it is thought that men wore loin cloths while it is uncertain if women wore any kind of underwear.
So what about headwear? Women usually wore a type of linen veil that would often cover their hair and would be kept in place by a ribbon or a bow while men would wear various types of hats. These included straw hats to more elaborate such as leather coverings. Others might as also worn felt caps that would fasten around their necks.
In terms of footwear, many went without shoes in warmer seasons; however, the common footwear was leather shoes which were end together by straps. These shoes may have also had wooden soles for support. Besides leather, felt could have been also used. To support footwear, it is also possible that men would wear hose because of their shorter tunics while women probably didn’t wear hose because their tunics reached all the way down to their feet.
The next social class was the military members of European society often called knights. Knights are usually thought of as wearing a type of armor and fighting in combat on horse or on foot. Of course, as warfare technology increased, so too did a knight’s armor have to advance as well. Essentially, a knight’s armor went through three stages: leather armor, chain mail armor, and lastly plate mail armor.
The first stage is leather armor. Knights could fasten leather as armor to protect most of their body ranging from their feet, legs, chest, arms, and even their head. Even though leather was hard enough to protect from bladed attacks, knights were still vulnerable to attacks such as sword thrusts and arrows.
The next evolution was the adoption of chain mail. Like leather armor, chain mail could be assembled to any part of the body, however chain mail was often composes of many metallic rings that were assembled together to form a barrier. Even though it was superior to leather armor, chain mail could only protect against slashing attacks while being weak to piercing attacks such as sword thrusts or arrows.
The last innovation was the adoption of plate mail. Plate mail is composed of parts of metal that protect a certain region of the body. For example, a knight would wear a helmet to protect their head, a breastplate to protect their chest, and grieves to protect their legs. In places that could not be protected (such as jointed areas or the neck) knights would often wear chain mail. Finally, plate mail was able to protect against piercing attacks and was a worthy addition to a knight’s protection if they could afford this expensive armor.
The next social class is the religious which belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. There were four classes that were in a hierarchy
and from highest to lowest include the bishops, the priests, and lastly the monks and nuns. An individual was expected to wear a specific type of clothing depending on the class they belonged to.
Bishops were often the leaders of the church and who were treated as nobility. In addition to wearing the most luxurious garments available (such as silk and velvet), bishops would also wear a special hat called a “miter.” The miter would be pointed at the end and would often be decorated with expensive jewels that would signify the importance and power of the bishop.
Next in line are the priests who were in charge of a particular church. Unlike the bishops who were ordained with lavish clothes, priests would often wear long black gowns. Like the priests, monks would also wear gowns that were brown and made out of wool. In addition, monks would also wear belts around their waists and would often have a cowl (hood) to cover their heads.
Lastly are the nuns, who would be separated from the monks and priests. Nuns would often wear black, white, or grey gowns which would reach to their feet. In addition, nuns wore belts to support their gowns and tunics. In addition to the gown or tunic, the nuns would have a head opening called a “scapular” that would fall the in front and back of a gown or tunic. To cover their hair, nuns would wear “wimples” which were underneath the scapulars.
The nobility included many types of individuals such as lords who owned vessels of land and the royalty of a kingdom which included individuals such as kings and queens. These individuals often had the most lavish clothing because they were fairly rich and had much power.
For lords and royalty, the clothing attire would include the most expensive and lavish items. For example, many of the nobles often wore clothes made out of silk or velvet. A heavier cloth called “damask” was also worn and fur was often used for the trimmings of the sleeves or the trimmings of an outfit. The nobility would also wear bright colors as dyes were often expensive to produce and would be a sign of their high social ranking.
As time went on, many of the nobles began to wear fine jewelry such as jewels and diamonds. In addition, fashion styles started to come about. For example, it became fashionable for men to wear hose and pointed shoes. They would also wear a surcoat combined with an expensive tunic underneath. Women also had this sense when wearing a fur petticoat and fine linen undergarments underneath during the winter.
One interesting aspect of nobility dress is that they would often form laws that would only allow certain individuals to wear certain clothing. For example, only a particular type of nobility could wear jewelry and the nobility would also outlaw lavish clothing for lower classes in order to show their power.
Craig Freudenrich. “How Knights Work.” https://history.howstuffworks.com/middle-ages/knight.htm/printable
Melissa Snell. “European Peasant Dress.” https://historymedren.about.com/od/clothingandfabric/a/peasant_dress.htm
Guilelmus Peraldus, _Summa de virtutibus et vitiis. “_Peraldus Knight.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peraldus_Knight.jpg
“Medieval Priests.” https://www.kidspast.com/world-history/0216-authority-church.php
_"_Medieval Braises.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Braies.jpg
“Richard III of England.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Richard_III_of_England.jpg
This post is part of the series: Medieval Life
This series provides social and cultural aspects of medieval Europe.