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Introduction: Kirtles, houppelandes, doublets, chausses – all have fallen by the wayside, out of use and into museums as examples of the fashions of times past, all bearing their own marks of status, manufacture and meaning. But the shirt has survived them all, and is very much recognisable in the medieval period in a near-modern form. Being a thin covering of the upper body often worn as underclothing beneath other layers, the shirt’s exact lineage retains somewhat of an air of mystery. Surviving clothes from the medieval period are incredibly rare, and the few that we have are often either those of the stratospherically wealthy feudal elite, or freak chances in the case of well-preserved bog sites; thin undergarments like shirts have vanished almost completely. Depictions in medieval art can fill in the picture somewhat, but there are still significant gaps in our knowledge: medieval folk kept their shirts close to their chest.
The beauty of this is that this gives re-enactors and fantasy role-players much greater license to explore and experiment with authenticity than in other areas. Hollywood has taken to this uncertainty with great gusto, making the medieval lace-up shirt the height of raw machismo (looking at you, Kevin Costner in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves) or flirtatiousness (looking at you, every single ‘bar wench’ trope ever), but of course the realities that we do know are much more complex. Navigating the nuance of medieval dress, with the layers of social class and meaning overlaid in choices of fabric, decoration and style, is critical to developing a fully-rounded impression – and getting your shirt right doesn’t have to be like wearing a hair shirt.
The History of the Medieval Shirt
It is fairly certain from the historical record that the shirt has been around since the beginning. One of the oldest surviving garments is a shirt, known as the Tarkhan Dress. Contemporary with the remains of Ötzi the Iceman’s winter fur outfit, it has been carbon-dated to the late 4th-millenium BCE, meaning it is around 5,500 years old. Where Ötzi’s furs are utilitarian and made from simple skins, the Tarkhan Dress is a masterpiece of woven tailoring: pleated sleeves, a narrow V-neck, it is no exaggeration to say that that it wouldn’t look out of place in the Spring 2021 collection for a modern fashion house. It speaks to the complexity and wealth of the Egyptian society which produced it: only a specialised craftsperson could have had the requisite skills and time to painstakingly produce such a garment.
The European medieval shirt descends most likely from the Roman tunica or tunic. This unisex article of clothing was a simple tubular garment with a head-hole often woven into the cloth, which was pinned around the shoulders and secured around the waist with a cord. More complex variants could have sleeves and rich decorations added, but it was at core a universal garment worn by almost all strata of society. Subtle shades of meaning could be implied by cut and style – for example, a long tunica on a man might be thought effeminate, or a short one might evoke an impression of servility. Wool tended to be used in Roman tunicae in the early Republican period, but at the Roman Empire’s height, most Romans would have worn tunics made from linen, spun from flax. As far as we can tell, the near-industrial-scale production of flax and linen was dominated by women, with skilled female weavers a vital part of the process of making clothes, since Romans did not cut their cloth to fit. Instead, they ‘wove to shape’. Wearing a tunica as your topmost layer indicated that you were of lower status, doing manual work and likely getting hot and sweaty. The toga, a flowing wrapped fabric worn over the tunica by those of high status, can be seen as analogous to the modern business suit: formalwear, worn over your shirt whilst business is being done. And they say we’re so different!
The Birth of Tailoring
The medieval period saw the biggest shift in Western clothing construction: from pinning and draping large pieces of fabric that were ‘woven to fit’, to cutting pieces of fabric which would then be sewn together into shaped garments. Indeed, the word ‘tailor’ comes from the Middle French tailler, meaning ‘to cut’, and it appears in the historical record slap in the middle of the medieval period, in the 14th-century. This change in technique was partly necessitated by increasing trade, where standard lengths of fabric would be traded across large distances rather than made locally for individual requirements, and partly enabled by increasing quality of blades and tools. This of course had enormous implications for men and women’s medieval shirts.
One of the biggest concerns for the medieval tailor was therefore efficiency. The preciousness of cloth before the mass-production of fabric from the 18th-century onwards cannot be overstated: cloth was produced in small quantities, by hand, on spinning wheels and hand-looms. It is commonly estimated that an hour’s weaving required around seven hours’ spinning to make usable yarn; it becomes apparently that production at scale is simply impossible without the numbers of spinners required becoming rapidly absurd. Thus, clothing-makers had to use methods which took account of this limitation. We know that the late-medieval proverb ‘I shall cut my cote after my cloth’ (ie. I shall adapt to the limitations that exist) derives directly from the practice tailors had developed of waste-free tailoring. Whilst in Antiquity, clothing was rarely cut if at all, preferring whole cloth pieces to be draped and pinned, a skilled tailor in the 16th-century could make a medieval linen shirt from a standard 27-inch wide piece of cloth with no waste – albeit with some compromises in terms of fit. Medieval shirts were therefore generally roomy and practical rather than fitted: remember this when choosing a modern reproduction.
Linen remained a common fabric for shirts throughout this period, although by the high-medieval period (c. 1200CE), cotton had become easily accessible and became increasingly common. Although it had been cultivated and utilised since ancient times in the Americas and the Indian subcontinent, its use in Europe began in earnest with the spreading of cotton manufacture into Southern Europe from the 9th-century by the Muslim conquests of Iberia and Sicily. The presence of both of these fibres led to the creation of fustian, a mixed weave consisting of cotton weft and linen warp, which was both softer than linen and more durable than cotton. Generally, modern reproductions of good quality tend to mirror this cotton-linen mix pretty faithfully – cheaper alternatives will use pure cotton, and bargain basement ones will use synthetic fabrics. Make sure you read the labels or check the description so you aren’t surprised.
Silk had been a rare and precious fabric only accessible to the European gentry by dint of expense alone, it being a closely guarded monopoly whose secrets were held by Chinese producers. But by the high-medieval period, the secrets of sericulture (silkworm cultivation) had been spilled, and Italy was itself a major producer competing with Chinese imports. Sumptuary laws, which set out who was allowed to wear what according to social rank, often attempted to turn back the clock by restricting the use of, by now, all-too-afforable silk to the upper-classes, upon pain of punishment. Even on comparatively humble garments, intricate silk thread can be seen as embellishment towards the end of the medieval period – for example, this subtly-decorated late-medieval shirt, which likely belonged only to a wealthy merchant. By carefully choosing the right material for your medieval shirt, you can convey different things: ask yourself – is your impression a noble person? Are they wealthy? Or would they not have had the access, financial or legal, to fancy fabrics or decorations?
Some Examples of Medieval Shirts
Charlemagne’s Shirt (768 CE)
One of the greatest medieval kings was Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne. His 46-year reign as King of the Franks was marked by a forging of a new post-Roman medieval identity which both sought the cachet and form of Roman imagery and homages, whilst propagating a uniquely Germanic cultural bent. Charlemagne’s personal dress – including his shirt - was a huge part of this project of state propaganda. We have some of the writings of his dedicated scholar Einhard, who wrote the Vita Karoli Magni (The Life of Charlemagne) – in it, he describes Charles’s personal dress as that of the Frankish people over whom he ruled. Einhard wrote: “He used to wear the national, that is to say, the Frank, dress-next 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.”
Aside from being an unparalleled description of the whole dress of an early-medieval European monarch, Einhard makes it clear that this was not ostentatious courtly garb but was clothing worn by the vast majority of common folk. Of course, Einhard would say that, since he is trying to give Old Charlie Boy the common touch – he’s like just your mate down ye olde taverne, not some alien overlord. But there’s likely a grain of truth to what he has written here – and this description is gold-dust for the conscientious roleplayer or re-enactor.
We can see how, with the disintegration of the Roman Empire, medieval shirt styles in Central and Northern Europe were now culturally separate from those in the South: Einhard also writes that Charlemagne “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”. There is some speculation as well that Charlemagne seeded the medieval tradition of wearing a plain white shirt during coronation to symbolise rebirth.
Viking Shirts (c. 700-1100CE)
Northern European medieval shirts from the Viking period share an extremely distant heritage with the Mediterranean tunic, but was adapted for a different role in a harsher climate. Being from a much colder climactic region, the Viking medieval shirt or skyrta was often a simple unshaped undergarment, an extra layer against the elements. The medieval women’s shirt equivalent of the male skyrta was a serkr or vest, and both were usually made from linen, so they would have been comfortable and easy to wash. There are ghosts of parallel attitudes between the Vikings and the Romans towards the social implications of the shirt. Its association with labour and work closely match those from Rome: in the Icelandic Fljótsdæla Saga, a farmhand is described as wearing a white work-shirt over his grey tunic. This gives us another handle to incorporate into our re-enactment impressions or fantasy characters of Nordic origin.
Shirts also feature as tokens of love: in the 13th-century Kormáks Saga (Cormac the Skald’s Saga) the titular character asks his ex Steingerður to make him a shirt, and she bluntly refuses. This makes complete sense: clothing worn close to the body was clearly seen as intimate, and it would not have been appropriate for a remarried woman to be weaving undercrackers for some scruffy rockstar who’d just washed up.
The legendary Viking warriors known as ‘berserkers’ are linguistically connected to the humble shirt. The Old Norse berserkr is a compound word, consisting of ber-, from bjǫrn, meaning a bear, and serkr, the under-vest. Historians have interpreted this as meaning a warrior who has assumed the very closest clothing of a bear as to become one, having a possible link to ancient cults of bear-worship. This is not a cue for a re-enactor to go and dress up as a bear – but more depth to get us inside the psychological relationship that medieval people had to their clothes.
No Need To Get Shirty
So – we have briefly walked through the (probable) history of the medieval shirt, we have seen some surviving examples and artistic representations, and we’ve uncovered some secrets of the medieval shirt that can add extra depth to your impression or roleplay. Best of all, it doesn’t have to cost the shirt off your back!