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As with all medieval clothing, your choice of medieval gloves says an enormous amount about who you are. Different materials indicate differing stations in the feudal hierarchy: could you afford your glove to be inlaid with gold thread? Would sumptuary law permit you gloves of fine silk? Different designs indicate your role: are your gloves thick and workmanlike to protect your hands whilst you weed the fields? Or are they armoured to protect your hands in chivalric combat? We’ll take a whistlestop tour through medieval history to help you make these choices, so that by the end you’ll know exactly which modern reproductions are perfect for your fantasy outfit or historical medieval impression.
What Is Glove? The Ancient History of Medieval Gloves
Baby don’t hurt me, no more.
There is no doubt that the primary use of gloves throughout history has been a simple matter of protecting the hands during manual labour. In Homer’s epic poem Odyssey, likely composed somewhere in the 700s BCE, Odysseus returns home after his epic voyage to find his father Laërtes working in the vineyard alongside his bondsmen: he is wearing sturdy cloth gloves so as not to be scratched by brambles whilst hoeing. Odysseus, shocked by his father’s age and by his careworn state, breaks down in tears – we can infer that this is not in small part from his humble attire. Shepherds, peasants and manual workers more generally would have worn simple gloves when required – for example, when clearing spiny plants like Laërtes, or when dealing with abrasive materials like gritstone. They would have been made from cheap local materials: furs or skins, or local textiles depending on availability.
The gauntlet, a hand-covering designed for use in combat and often armoured with tough leather, ringmail or armoured plates, is also of ancient origin. The first historian to approach history as a systematic discipline was a Roman named Herodotus, and he wrote a History of the Greek-Persian wars based on a pretty thorough and analytical weighing-up of the available historical sources. In it, the Spartan King Leotychides is caught in the act of being bribed to end his invasion of Thessaly with a gauntlet filled with silver – literally, symbolically stuffing his military might with money. Herodotus introduces this scandalous anecdote midway through the narrative of a previous battle with a staggeringly modern sense of dramatic foreshadowing: ‘this is where our brave hero will end up, but we can talk about that later…’ Does this lurid detail have the ring of truth? Herodotus revels in keeping us guessing.
Elsewhere, some pre-medieval gloves had assumed high status. In dynastic Egypt, noblewomen would treat their hands with honey and fragrant oils to keep them soft and lovely, and then they would put on extremely fine silk or linen gloves, which were richly coloured and decorated. Rather than being five-digited, these were more like fitted pamper-bags tied around the wrist with maybe a thumb to allow some limited dexterity. But the impracticality of these gloves was partially the point: you did not need manual dexterity if you had servants to wait upon you, fan you with palm fronds, feed you grapes and wine, and generally fulfill every trope from 1950s Hollywood.
The Power of Glove: Symbology in Medieval Europe
The Hand of the King
In the early-medieval period, kings maintained their supremacy by ‘enfeoffing’ – granting the title or ‘fief’ of lands they owned to nobles whose support they required (note: the king didn’t ‘give’ the land to the noble, it was still the king’s land, but the noble was generously granted the right to use it and make an income from it). Enfeoffing was often pledged with a symbolic glove being exchanged; customs varied as to whether the king was the one giving the glove to the vassal, or whether the vassal was obliged to provide the king with some cosy handwarmers. A typical example of this was when the victorious Duke William of Normandy was in the process of becoming William the Conqueror, King of England. He bestowed a ‘grand serjeanty’ upon his follower Bertram de Verdun – a role which obliged Bertrand to find the King a glove to wear on his right-hand during his coronation, and to support the King’s right arm whilst he held the heavy sceptre during the religious service. This ridiculously easy gig was really about handing out spoils to his nobles: this ceremonial role granted him Farnham Manor, a conquered English holding which had belonged to an Anglo-Saxon noble, and which was inherited by Bertram’s heirs up until the 20th-century.
The kind of gloves which would have been suitable for such courtly rituals were obviously far-removed from the practical ones – either linen or leather medieval gloves – which the majority of subjects would never have ever seen. Although we can only guess what the gloves Bertram had made for William would have looked like, another staggering example of the intricacy and workmanship involved in the construction of gloves for the medieval upper-nobility has fortunately survived: Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II’s coronation gloves. Hundreds of pearls, emeralds, sapphires and delicate painted enamels have been applied to it, and the Holy Roman insignia were applied in gold thread and gold wire using two different couching methods by master-craftsmen in the Royal Workshops of Sicily. Practicality was evidently of secondary importance, behind wearing on one hand the sort of bling that could buy a medium-sized county.
When creating an image of royalty in re-enactment or roleplay, this symbolic ostentatiousness is key, especially that invested in the glove, which is overlaid with the symbolism of royal generousity and the bestowing of royal power.
Holy Gloves, Holey Gloves
In the medieval period, certain kinds of medieval gloves also became associated with with Christian Church. From simple gloves with modest iconography worn by middle-ranking clergy, all the way up to highly decorated gloves set with jewels or ornaments on the back of the hand, they became an integral part of the formal pontifical vestments set out in Catholic canon literature from the period. It is thought that the wearing of gloves for holy services originated as a Frankish custom, emerging amongst bishops in the 10th-century in what is now modern France and Germany. The usual colour of these gloves was white, although they varied significantly by place; set colours were not codified until after the medieval period. This early trend for priestly hand-coverings is thought to have less to do with any practical desire to keep the hands clean, and more to do with the desire for adornment on special occasion. They often had a long, exaggerated cuff, as well as sometimes an added tassel: it should be noted that they are all masculine in type and size, indicating that formal Church rites had now changed to wholly exclude women, unlike early Christianity. These glove forms spread across Europe, as well as back to Rome, where they became part of the Papal trappings of liturgical Catholicism.
A fascinating early example of this glove type is the Glove of St. Adalbert, part of the Treasury of St. Vitus’ Cathedral, the central cathedral in Prague, Czechia. Traditionally, this glove is linked with the Second Bishop of Prague, St. Adalbert (c. 956-997) – however, the intervening centuries have muddied the physical remains of the Saint, and it appears that the glove is sadly too young to have been ever used by him! Dating to the centuries immediately after his death, it is a more humble garment than Freidrich II’s coronation gloves by a long margin, although its simplicity belies its importance. Using sparing gold thread, it bears a typical enameled figure on the back of its hand - but most importantly it is one of the earliest surviving examples of medieval knitwork. If you are portraying a medieval or fantasy religious figure, a pair of medieval gloves is a sure-fire shortcut to authenticity. Though you don’t have to splash out on gold-woven hand-knitted ones: modern reproductions made with machine-woven fabric or similar, in the white or undyed linen colour of the period, are most faithful.
Women’s Falconry Gloves
The dawn of the 10th-century saw the beginnings of glove manufacture in Europe, and by the 13th-century, it was common for women of means to wear decorative long medieval gloves or mittens – again, tied up with the idea of not having to do manual labour, and being able to keep one’s digits covered and protected from wear. A re-enactment or LARP portrayal of a noble lady from this period would not be complete without a fine pair of women’s medieval gloves.
But it is around this time in the medieval record that we see an altogether different sort of woman depicted in the surviving literature. By the high-medieval period (c. 1300 CE), hunting with small hawks had become something of a fad amongst women of European courts – if only this had stayed trendy, falconry TikTok would be lit. Indeed, the most important medieval book on falconry was written by a woman: the 1486 Boke of St. Albans was written by Prioress Juliana Berners who was an avid falconer, hunter and fisher - a veritable 15th-century Ray Mears. Falconry itself has a long and storied history, but by the high-medieval period, it was in the process of dying out as a wholly utilitarian method of hunting, becoming wholly the province of courtly sport (in Europe; in North Africa, for example, Berbers would supplement meagre winter food supplies by hunting with hawks up until the modern era).
And of course, you cannot do falconry without gloves: either medieval leather gloves or other stout fabric, striking a balance between rich decoration with thread and toolwork, and practicality so your goshawk doesn’t get snagged on your bling. Whilst very few falconry gloves have survived at all, and even fewer that we can explicitly tie to women, they would have been of a type akin to Henry VIII’s hawking glove at the Ashmolean Museum: free from ostentatious decoration, but still richly stitched and painstakingly constructed. Inevitably, as we have seen over and over, falconry and its gloves became layered with symbolic social meaning.
Depictions of women falconers and their gloves can be found throughout the medieval period. Ladies’ devotional literature is often a rich source for depictions of medieval life – for example, the English-made Taymouth Hours (c. 1330 CE) contains numerous scenes of women hunting with hawks, such as this scene of a woman recalling the bird to her gloved hand with a rabbit leg. Note the woman’s falconry glove: a long drooping cuff, as in men’s hunting gloves of the period. Another contemporary German text featuring women’s falconry, the Codex Manesse, is a book of ‘Minnesange’ courtly poetry. It sheds light on the social role of falconry (and thereby the symbology of falconry gloves) if we compare the status of women in two of the illuminations. In the first, the man is the one holding the bird in a power-stance of repose, and the woman he courts is submissive and fawning, dribbling all over him like a second-rate One Direction fanfic. In the second, the tables are turned: in this image, the woman wears the falconry glove, holding the centre of the image whilst the submissive prince courts her. We can imply from this that the falconry glove seems to be a symbol of social power in this period, as accessible to men as it is to women, associated with nobility and power. As such, a modern reproduction falconry glove would make a powerful statement if included in a re-enactment impression of a historical woman or a fantasy LARP outfit.
Although we’ve barely scratched the surface of the variety of medieval hand-coverings, you now know the right questions to ask. In societies which were obsessed with rigid hierarchy and the outward display of status, every medieval person would have had in the forefront of their minds: what am I saying to the world with these gloves? If you can answer that question for your medieval impression or fantasy outfit, then you will be absolutely golden when selecting from the wide range of reproduction gloves available.