...in which I share some of my favorite medieval research resources and methods for the benefit of others interested in also writing about the Middle Ages

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dressing your characters

The Earl of Gunthar stood while his squire, Julian Parr, turned back the cuffs of his dull yellow tunic to expose the ornamental embroidery worked along the narrow wrists. Gunthar had selected the undergarment for the roomy cut of its sleeve, to relieve his bandaged arm of unnecessary discomfort.

When Julian finished, two younger servants pulled forward a heavy, elaborately carved chair from the corner. Gunthar sank onto its crimson cushion and extended a well-turned foot towards a kneeling pageboy. It was unlikely that anyone would have a chance to admire his pale green hose, destined as they were all evening to be concealed beneath the ankle-length folds of his costly silk tunic. But, he mused, an appreciative audience might be found for his handsome red shoes, cunningly embellished with row upon row of tiny gold rings.

The above is an excerpt from my medieval novel, Loyalty’s Web, describing the hero as he prepares to attend a banquet in his honor given by the heroine’s father.

What sources did I use to help create the excerpt above? What sources can you turn to, to create an “authentic” costume for the characters of your medieval fiction?

There are a great many source books available on the subject of historical dress and costumes, but most seem to fall into two general categories: those that “show” and those that “tell”. Those that “tell” are heavy on verbal description, with some accompanying pictures from medieval manuscripts, etc. Those that “show” rely more heavily on “reproductions” via drawings, with accompanying description directing your attention to specific elements of those drawings.

Since I am a highly visual person myself, I prefer “showing” to “telling”, especially when I’d rather be using my limited time to create a written image of my own (as above), rather than spending hours and hours researching through text-heavy, image-light costume books. (Especially those devoted to telling me how to cut and sew my own medieval costume, when I can barely even thread a needle!)

First, allow me to share a cautionary tale about research. Always, ALways, ALWAYS write down, at minimum, the title and author of any books you copy or photocopy information from in libraries, bookstores, or other sources only temporarily in your possession. You’d think that advice would be obvious, but to some of us, it wasn’t. During my inexperienced years of writing “on the side” while studying at the University of Arizona, I found a treasure-trove of medieval information in the U of A main library. (This was well before the advent of the internet, remember.) Being inexperienced, as I said, in research methods, I photocopied pages of the most wonderful historical costume sketches (with accompanying descriptions) from a book I found in the library, but I never made a note of the source. I photocopied information for the 12th and 13th centuries, but when I found myself in later years longing for similar information on the 11th century, all I could do is kick myself for the negligence that made refinding the original book all but impossible. That was in the late 1970s. It was not until the early 2000s that, to my utter amazement and eternal gratitude, I stumbled across the very same book (this time for sale), in the gift store of the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, UT. (Thank goodness I have a sister who lives in Salt Lake City, who decided to take me to the festival one summer during a visit!) Needless to say, I bought the book right up. But there remain other pages from other books that I photocopied and still refer to, but can never refer them anyone else, because to this day, I still don’t have the titles or authors to pass on.

So, with that hard-learned lesson out of the way, let me now share with you three of my favorite source books for “dressing” my medieval characters.

(1) English Costume: from the Early Middle Ages Through the Sixteenth Century, by Iris Brooke. This is the book I “lost” when I graduated from the U of A, and rediscovered in Cedar City only a few years ago. This book is divided into sections on “English Costume of the Early Middle Ages (10th-13th centuries)”; “English Costume of the Later Middle Ages (14th-15th centuries)”; and “English Costume of the Age of Elizabeth (16th century)”.

Each section is further divided into individual centuries. For the 1100-1200s (the time setting for Loyalty’s Web) I found the following description:

“The length of the sleeves on the supertunic [i.e., outer tunic] might be merely a few inches in length and finished with a broad band of embroidery, with the contrasting and tightly-fitting sleeve of the tunic beneath reaching to the wrist, or they might be quite full but fitting to the wrist with a cuff of some contrasting material or embroidery.”

From this information came the following description in my novel:

The Earl of Gunthar stood while his squire, Julian Parr, turned back the cuffs of his dull yellow tunic to expose the ornamental embroidery worked along the narrow wrists. Gunthar had selected the undergarment for the roomy cut of its sleeve, to relieve his bandaged arm of unnecessary discomfort.

Across from each descriptive page, is a facing page of drawings of medieval people wearing the clothing or hair styles mentioned on the preceding page.

Furthermore, there are descriptive pages and sketches devoted to footwear, headwear, and as I said, even hairstyles. Here is a description of footwear from the 12th century:

“The extensive use of rings as a means of fastening garments at this time even extended to the footwear… The shoe itself was not often embroidered and separate bands of embroidery were sewn on. Another means of ornamentation was to sew small rings of gold and silver, sometimes even on to the toe and heel of the shoe…”

This became the inspiration for:
But, he mused, an appreciative audience might be found for his handsome red shoes, cunningly embellished with row upon row of tiny gold rings

(2) 900 Years of English Costume, by Nancy Bradfield. Actually, this title is no longer available, except as a very expensive used book. However, the exact same book is available for a reasonable price under a new title: Historical Costumes of England 1066-1968.

This book is divided by the reigns of the kings and queens of England, and further divided by “Men’s Fashions” and “Women’s Fashions”. Again, on one page are sketches of people dressed in medieval clothing. In this instance, the figures are each assigned a number. On the facing page, again there are descriptions, this time coordinating the “figure number” with the opposite sketches. An additional advantage of this book is that there are marginal notations to speed you along to that portion of clothing you may be particularly interested in reading about. For example, under Henry II-Richard I (1154-99), the following marginal notes appear: tunic, sleeves, scarlet cloth, hose, shoes, cloaks, hoods and hats, hair, gloves and purse, colours.

Under tunics, I find the following: “The skirts were long to the ankle.” Under hose, it reads: “The hose remained the same as in the previous reign, fitting the leg to above the knee and fastened to the girdle of the breeches (Figure 5)”…which directs my attention to a sample sketch labeled "5" on the preceding page. Since the sentence on “hose” directs me to the “previous reign”, I flip back a few pages, where I read: “From 1150 the hose were made long, fitting the leg well, to above the knee.” Returning to my original page, I read under “colours”, “Colours are on p. 17; no new ones are mentioned,” so again I flip backwards, to page 17, where under “colours”, I find, “Light blue, red, and greens were fashionable; black, yellow, red-browns, and grey were also worn.”

Hence, from all this information, I am able to write:

It was unlikely that anyone would have a chance to admire his pale green hose, destined as they were all evening to be concealed beneath the ankle-length folds of his costly silk tunic.

(3) Medieval Fashions, by Tom Tierney (A Dover Coloring Book). Never underestimate the value of a good, historical coloring book! They are excellent for further illustrations of historical clothing and how people wore them. Among other examples, this title includes several pages filled with sketches of common head-dresses worn by both men and women in various centuries of the Middle Ages, along, of course, with the accompanying hair styles.

These titles are simply three of my favorites, because of their “quick reference” nature.

Please be aware that there are many, many other excellent books on historical costume available, many of which include additional information not available in the above resources. One such example is Medieval Costume and Fashion, by Herbert Norris, which among other things, will provide you with a wonderful chart of “Names of Colors in Use During the Middle Ages” (aurnola = orange; jaune = bright yellow; pers = dark blue; verdulet = bright green, bluish in color; etc), but books such as this will make you work harder to uncover the treasures of knowledge within.

For purchasing information at Amazon.com regarding books cited in these blogs, click on "So you'd like to...Write Medieval Fiction" under LINKS to the right.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

More on names...

Here is a quick and easy tip for both supplementing your collection of names drawn from The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, and for identifying how frequently certain names were, in fact, used during the Middle Ages.

Walk into any library or bookstore and grab a medieval biography off a shelf. In this example, I am using William Rufus, by Frank Barlow. I admit my disappointment in the dry and plodding text of this biography (I’d hoped for a more colorful and lively treatment of this particular king of England). However, I did find it useful in the following manner, a trick which you can use with pretty much any medieval biography.

Flip to the index at the end of the book, and simply run down the list of names referred to in the text. While in the case of William Rufus, you will run across a few new and unusual names such as Achard (an abbot), Amieria (wife of a man named Warin), Boso (name of both a monk and a knight), Gisulf (a royal scribe), and Jarento (a bishop), you will also be able to quickly identify a list of “most popular names in use” during the time period.

For example, citing from the index:

Alan appears 5 times for different men
Baldwin appears 6 times
Geoffrey appears no less than 25 times
Gerald/Gerold appears 5 times
Gilbert, 12 times
Guy, 6 times
Henry, 10 times
Herbert, 4 times
Hugh, 31 times!
Humphrey, 4 times
John, 8 times
Nigel, 4 times
Odo, 6 times
Osbern/Osbert, 7 times
Peter, 6 times
Ralf, 22 times
Ranulf, 7 times
Richard, 19 times
Robert, 44 times!
Roger, 23 times
Simon, 5 times
Stephan/Steven, 5 times
Thomas, 4 times
Thurstin, 7 times
Walter, 15 times
William, 61 times!!! (beating out Robert, hands down)

Because men played a more frequently documented role in medieval times than women, it is harder to draw conclusions about the frequency of individual female names from such biographical indexes. However, from William Rufus we can collect the following information on women:

A form of Adela or Adelaide/Adelais appears 5 times for different women
Judith appears 3 times
Matilda appears 6 times

But it isn’t always necessary to know what the most popular names were in order to arrive at names for our characters…only that certain names were in use at all during the Middle Ages.

Drawing from the index of Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography, by Marion Meade, we can compile the following list of female names in use, at least during the 12th Century:

Aenor (the mother of Eleanor of Aquitaine)
Constance (appears 4 times)

While a quick glance through the index of William Marshal: Court, Career and Chivalry in the Angevin Empire 1147-1219, by David Crouch, will add such female names as:


As you can see, within a very short space of time, you can assemble an excellent starting list of medieval Christian names, merely by running through various indexes in biographies of medieval personages. All for the price of a few minutes’ browsing at a bookstore or your local library!

Never underestimate the value of a good index. In future posts, I will point out additional ways that this book feature can speed along research that will assist in setting a vivid and accurate setting for our medieval fiction.

Next post: I have a name. Now what am I going to wear?