Stitching The Details

There’s a phenomenon — I’m sure you’ve experienced it — where you’ll learn a word that you’re sure you’ve never heard before and will probably never hear again, and then almost as soon as you’ve learned it, you start seeing it everywhere. It’s like a conspiracy: the world knows you just learned that word, and now it’s in every newspaper article, every blog post, every conversation with friends, and you find yourself wondering how it is that it took you so long to learn it, when clearly it’s everywhere.

I would like to propose that a version of this phenomenon exists for research. You’ll embark on learning about a topic you knew nothing about before, and as soon as you’ve got a little bit of information about it, suddenly you’re noticing that information everywhere, and wondering how it is that you never paid attention to it before.

In my case, the topic is medieval fashion, and specifically, twelfth-century clothing. This is a period I work on as both an author and an academic, but as a literature-focused researcher rather than a historian, I rarely find myself worrying too much about concrete, material details. This is a weakness when I have my author hat on, though, and I suddenly find that material culture matters a lot and need to go figure out the architecture and what any of my characters are wearing before I can proceed.

I’m currently editing The Wolf and His King, a queer Bisclavret retelling I originally drafted in 2019. It’s quite literary in style (partially in second person and partially in verse, for starters), and focused a lot more on the metaphorical resonances of werewolfism (which I’m using partly to explore ideas about chronic pain/illness) than on the exact practicalities. Still, those who know ‘Bisclavret’, one of the lais of Marie de France, will know that clothing is a crucial part of the story: Bisclavret needs his clothes to transform back into a human, and when they’re stolen, he’s trapped in wolf form until they’re restored to him.

The centrality of clothing in the story meant I couldn’t brush over it as an inconsequential detail in my novel, though of course I did in the early drafts, because I never layer in the important details until way too late in the process. Clothes are not incidental: they are fundamental to the plot. And although Bisclavret, and by extension this novel, is not set in a very specific identifiable year — it seems to be set in a version of Brittany onto which Marie is projecting a lot of Anglo-Norman cultural details; for starters, it has a king — I wanted that clothing to be historically plausible, even if accurate is a rung further up the ladder that I’m not exactly on right now.

A manuscript image of a woman writing at a sloped desk. She holds a pen in one hand and a knife in the other (for erasing mistakes). She's wearing a simple veil to cover her hair, and a loose overtunic without sleeves, revealing the dark blue sleeves of her undertunic.
Marie de France, as pictured in BnF Ms. 3142 (late 13th century)

I started with YouTube videos by reenactors. While I don’t find videos a particularly useful way to learn most of the time, this is one area where they really shine. “Get ready with me, twelfth century edition!” will demonstrate far more clearly how many layers people are wearing, how they’re put on, how they’re fastened, and which parts of the clothing need a second person to help with them, than any lengthy treatise in text will do. As well as reenactors demonstrating their twelfth-century fashion, there were others digging into the manuscript images and sculptures to provide visual references to other reenactors to help them understand the styles of the time — references that any passing author might also find beneficial.

I knew, theoretically, that I would need manuscript images and other visual evidence, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea what manuscripts to look at, and with the loss of the British Library’s digitised collection, I wasn’t even sure where to start with looking for digital images, since I’m not very familiar with other libraries’ interfaces. So these videos were a great shortcut to understanding the resources I would need to work with, and giving me the basic information. From there, I was able to progress to books and other written descriptions — now that I had a picture in my head of what the terminology referred to, I could follow the descriptions in a way that I hadn’t been able to when they were all very abstract to me.

Since then, though, I’ve been seeing clothes everywhere. Every time I see a manuscript image, I find myself looking at the sleeves and the headgear, trying to guess what century it’s from before I read the caption. Scrolling on Tumblr, I ran across pictures of a reenactor showing off her latest outfit, and found myself going, “Ooh, those buttons look quite fourteenth century,” before checking the tags and determining that they were supposed to. And when reading a book that lavished descriptions on the character’s newfangled dress and its buttoned sleeves, I was able to side-eye it for being about a century early with those. Six weeks ago, I would not have noticed that, and I would not have cared.

14th Century buttoned sleeves on a men’s cotehardie, via Project Broad Axe

Or, most obviously, I was at the Fitzwilliam Museum with my mum earlier this week, and we were in the medieval art gallery. “Look,” I’d say, pointing to a manuscript image, “that looks a bit like the clothing I’ve been looking at, except slightly different hair and headgear.” Lo and behold, very early thirteenth century.

I suspect this newfound knowledge will make me very boring when reading historical fiction and watching TV/films — now I have a whole new thing to be annoyed about! As though grumbling about a TV show being two years early with the term homosexual in English wasn’t pedantic enough!* — but it’s also given me access to a whole new world of art history. While I’ll probably never be super invested in modern art history, as a non-visual person, I understand much better now what we can learn from pictures and sculptures, and I have something to look for when examining those artworks that allows me to understand them in more depth than just a casual “hehe funny medieval image”, or whatever I was doing before.

In fact, I so much can’t stop noticing the clothing on every medieval image I look at that I’m starting to wonder how on earth I managed to know nothing about medieval clothing until now — and how my vague guesswork when writing the early drafts of this book managed to be so far off the historical reality. (In my defence, though, I usually work on Ireland, and stories set in the very distant past, and in any case, trying to use Táin Bó Cúailnge to understand Irish clothing would have you thinking people often wore 27 shirts simultaneously.)

But it’s not just the visual depictions of clothing that I’ve found myself paying attention to — it’s also the descriptions in romances and stories. I was recently rereading Yvain, as you do, because Yvain is my favourite cat person, and I came across a scene in which he is dressed in fine clothes by a maiden, who fetches a needle and thread and sews his ‘shirt’.

Many of the terms I’d come to recognise from my clothing research were absent from the translation, which referred to a ‘shirt’ and ‘pants’. Fortunately, I happen to own a copy of Yvain in Old French (who doesn’t, amirite), so I could check the terms used in the original: chemise and braies. Ah, I thought. This was why I had mistakenly assumed everyone was wearing trousers and had forgotten we were in a tunic-dominated world. There’s nothing wrong with the translation of ‘braies’ as ‘pants’ — actually, I think it’s rather good, since it kind of works in both UK and US English, with braies in this period being somewhere between underpants and trousers. But the image that ‘shirt and pants’ created in my head was not one that resembled any of the manuscript images from this period.

A medieval manuscript image showing three men. The man on the left is wearing an orange tunic which has been tucked up into his belt, revealing light-coloured underwear tucked into green legwear that has been laced to the top of the underwear (fastenings not visible). He wears a light-coloured cap to cover his hair. In the middle is a man wearing a blue tunic, a light-coloured cap, and seemingly nothing on his legs. On the right is a man stripped only to his braies -- loose underwear rolled at the waist, falling to mid-calf, with the bottom hoiked up and attached to the waist. He is also wearing a cap, despite being shirtless and bare-legged.
Braies in the Morgan Bible (13th Century)

And as for the sewing…

I had never understood the sewing. I had skimmed straight past the reference to sewing, assuming vaguely that maybe there were some repairs or tailoring needed before he could wear this ‘shirt’. It didn’t occur to me that this could be part of putting the shirt on. But one of the things I learned during my research was that the tight sleeves of the nobility, in this world before buttons as fastenings or elasticated fabric, would be sewn every time they were worn. What I was seeing in this text, suddenly, was the material culture casually referenced in the literature in a way that I hadn’t previously had the knowledge to perceive.

Chrétien, of course, sees no reason to explain what this means. He’s not writing for an audience 900 years in the future; unlike a fantasy author trying to make sure their readers can follow the worldbuilding, he doesn’t need to say, “And then she sewed his sleeves in the tight fashion favoured by the nobility, demonstrating his high class and the regard in which she holds him,” or whatever, because he doesn’t need to. His audience would have understood that. I, until very recently, didn’t, and as such, the literary texts alone couldn’t teach me how clothing worked.

Back, then, to Bisclavret, and to The Wolf and His King. It became apparent that I would need to rewrite all of my clothing descriptions, but that should have been a simple edit, a mechanical change. Except, of course, that some of the clothing I was now looking at would have required a second person to help with it, and in several of these scenes, Bisclavret got dressed alone. Some would be easier to resolve than others, but it wasn’t the logistics that caught my attention about that — it was the symbolism.

In ‘Bisclavret’, as in some other French tales like Guillaume de Palerne, clothing is significant as the mechanism by which humanity — and sanity, with which it’s often conflated — is bestowed. Bisclavret is able to be human when his clothes are restored to him. Yvain, recovering from a period of madness in the woods, becomes conscious of his nakedness and clothing is needed to fully restore him to society. Guillaume and his beloved (I’m sorry, I don’t know her name in French, I only know her from the Irish Eachtra Uilliam, where she’s Melior — I assume it’s something similar) can be sewn into the skins of animals as a disguise (sewing again!) and therefore functionally become animals, temporarily, but their humanity is eventually perceived not because their skin becomes visible through gaps in the stitching, but because their human clothes are visible through the gaps.

A marginal illustration from a medieval manuscript, showing a deer with a person's face visible in its stomach and their human feet replacing the deer's back legs.
A person dressed as a deer. Roman d’Alexandre,
Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 70r (14th Century)

I knew this, which is why I knew that clothing was too significant in this story to be treated carelessly in my retelling of it. But I hadn’t thought about the implications of needing those clothes to be sewn by somebody else, or at least laced (potentially possible to do alone, but extremely difficult, especially if you’re not hypermobile like me and can’t bend your arms in weird directions). How this ensures that humanity and identity must always be granted by somebody else: created and validated by the observer. If humanity requires being dressed, and being dressed (for a high-class character) requires somebody else’s help, then humanity is also dependent on that other person to deem you worthy of it and participate in that act of recreation.

And when I put it like that it seems… well, obvious. In my own work on gender, I’ve explored how this is culturally contingent and dependent on external observers to recognise and validate behaviour and belonging. I think this is one of the reasons that the Cú Chulainn of Táin Bó Cúailnge has such a complicated and embattled masculinity: he’s alone (except for Láeg) for most of the text, defined by opposition rather than by community or society. In his case, this overlaps significantly with his humanity and the way he walks the boundaries of the monstrous. (If this interests you, I have an open-access article on the subject.)

So of course Bisclavret can’t be officially and fully human until he’s seen and recognised as human by others. I just hadn’t realised how much the act of getting dressed — not merely the act of being dressed — was a part of that.

As well as providing me with some potent fodder for angst, metaphors, and symbolism in my creative work on this story, it raises questions about the lai itself. In the early part of the tale, Bisclavret transforms in secret. How, then, is he getting dressed? Is he wearing lower-class clothing with loose sleeves and simple lacing, and therefore sacrificing some of his noble status to maintain secrecy in the act of becoming human? Is there an unnamed and unremarked servant who knows his secret, and helps him? (That could be a story in its own right.) Is his clothing, and therefore his humanity, always partial — does he return dishevelled with unsewn sleeves and wonky laces and need to have them discreetly fixed before he’s seen by anyone who matters? (Again, the unremarked servants come into play…) Is he, in fact, hypermobile and capable of managing his own fastenings, even the most awkwardly positioned ones? (I am in your medieval texts, diagnosing everyone with hEDS, muah ha ha ha.)** Or is Marie’s imagined Brittany and vague fantasy past an area in which everyday clothing logistics aren’t applicable?

I don’t have answers, and I also wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to assume I’m the first person to have thought of this. Unlike medieval Irish literature, where any deviation from a small list of well-covered topics will mean you can rapidly find yourself plumbing the bibliographic depths and emerging only with an obscure reference in a racist book from the 1880s, if you find anything at all, medieval French literature is abundant with scholars and readings of these tales from all sorts of directions. Quite possibly somebody has examined the lais from a ‘fashion history’ perspective, and drawn conclusions about what the characters must be wearing to make the story viable.

Even if they haven’t, having seen those references in Yvain to a maiden sewing Yvain’s clothing for him, references I skimmed straight past until I understood what was being described, it’s clear to me that these stories are describing, using, engaging with the material culture of their day and assuming that their readers know what they mean. Perhaps we were always supposed to assume that Bisclavret had somebody in his confidences who was helping him obtain his humanity — in which case his wife’s fear of him may also be betrayal, because he trusted somebody else with that knowledge and not her. Or perhaps we were always supposed to read into the types of clothing he might have been wearing to be able to manage alone, and how this in itself represents a subversion of the natural order because it isn’t what a baron and knight should have been wearing.

What I know for sure is that learning about medieval clothing for the purposes of writing fiction has revealed something about the stories themselves that enhances my academic understanding of them — once again, storytelling and scholarship work together. When I get inside the story and try to tell it from the inside, I understand better why it looks the way it does on the outside. I begin, temporarily, to wear the clothes of its authors, and to understand how the seams were sewn.

And I will be forevermore irritated by the anachronistic use of buttons in fiction. That too.


*Although in defence of my pedantry, the coining of the term homosexual and the shift to thinking of sexuality as an identity rather than a behaviour was actually pretty significant in the development of queer history, so having a character be accused of ‘homosexual’ activities in 1890 felt like a glaring anachronism. Bodies would probably have got away with it if I hadn’t been rereading Halperin’s 100 Years of Homosexuality that same week, though. [back]

**I don’t really believe in diagnosing fictional and historical figures with things but if I were going to, the fact that Cú Chulainn is notable for the way his knees bend backwards, he wakes up too quickly from sedation, and he needs a special hard bed or he can’t sleep… yeah that boy is hypermobile for sure. [back]

NB: Medieval clothing is, as we can see, a topic I’m new to. If there are any errors in this post, or you have any suggestions for further reading on the topic of how clothes are used in romances and lais, please let me know in the comments.

4 comments

  1. Chalkletters says:

    This was fascinating, and made me think about selkies. I haven’t done a deep dive, but my impression is that they’re definitely able to shift to and from human without help, but when their sealskin is stolen, they lose that ability. Which is kind of the opposite of the metaphor here — they don’t need another human to recognise them as human, but the ordeal of being perceived can STOP them being their true selves?

    • Finn Longman says:

      That’s so interesting, yeah. There are a couple of references to medieval werewolves where the mechanism of transformation seems more similar to selkies in that they become a wolf when they put a certain garment ON, rather than take it off – there are some in Acallam na Senórach – but I think it’s still implied that their “default” form is human and the wolf is a change, whereas I feel like selkies have a “default” seal form? Which ties in to some research I was doing a couple of years back into weird medieval birds and how you get some shapeshifting birds who are humans turned into birds, and some that seem to be birds turned into humans, and others where it’s DEEPLY unclear.

      It feels like the selkie’s stolen skin is like Bisclavret’s stolen clothes, but the “default” state is the other way around. But their transformation in general may be more voluntary than his, since it doesn’t seem like he controls his werewolfism particularly.

      Medieval stories and later folklore about shapeshifting is all SO interesting to me (of course it is, I’m trans, lol). It has so much to offer when it comes to exploring what identity and humanity really mean.

  2. L says:

    This was really cool, I was inspired to look at 12th century clothing videos as a result and the fashion is incredible. Learnt many new things from this article.

    • Finn Longman says:

      It’s such an interesting topic! I feel it’s a rabbithole I could end up going much further down than is needed to research this particular book… 😅 Trying to restrain myself but it seems I’m mostly just dragging everyone else down with me, haha. Thanks for reading!

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