Last Saturday, on his Medieval Hungary blog, Zsombor Jékely pointed out some exhibitions about dress and fashion in the Middle Ages which are currently taking place in Los Angeles, New York City and Paris (France). This has made me realise something slightly odd about our own blog: While we’re frequently writing about medieval stuff and equally often deal with the textile arts, we’ve never, so far, actually blogged about the textile arts in the Middle Ages. Admittedly, of course, neither [m] nor I are experts on medieval textiles, but still, I figured it might be fun to dip into our photo archive and show you some fancy medieval dresses for a change. I’m not sure if this will become a regular feature but it might, so I prophylactically came up with a series title, The Medieval Sartorialist, which totally rips off is a tip of the hat to our favourite fashion blog, The Sartorialist.

What you see in the above photo are late 15th century statues on the main portal of Bern Minster, showing three of the Wise Virgins. Ok, technically, what you see in the picture are modern copies of 15th century statues – for preservation reasons, the originals have been brought to Bern’s Historisches Museum. When it comes to detail, though, the originals are crafted with more care and refinement than the copies, so what you’ll be seeing for the rest of the post are photos of the actual late medieval sculptures in the museum. I’ve just included this one pic of the copies because it gives a good impression of how bright and colourful those sculptures would have been when they were new.

Anyway, the sculptures refer to the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins as told in the Bible (Matthew 25, 1-13). This was a highly popular subject in late medieval art where the Wise Virgins were meant to represent those who believed in God (or shall we say: in the teachings of the Catholic Church), while the Foolish Virgins stood for those who valued the joys and pleasures of the material world higher than the heavenly realm (again, the heavenly realm as defined by the Catholic Church). Often, this moral distinction was also visualised by the kind of clothes the Virgins wear: As a general rule you can say that the Wise Virgins are dressed in a way that passes as decent within the narrow framework of Catholic morals while the Foolish Virgins have a tendency to look a lot more, well, slutty. A good example for this is provided by the early 15th century wall-paintings in St. Margaret’s Chapel in Pians (Tyrol):


As you can see, the Wise Virgins (on the left) wear dresses with a high neckline and an overcoat covering their shoulder. The Foolish ones (pictured right), on the other hand, wear deep-cut, shoulder-free dresses that even leave the upper parts of their breasts uncovered.

In Bern, the basic scheme is the same, even though here the dresses are much more elaborate and even the Wise Virgins resemble fashion dummies dressed up like a downtown Christmas tree:

Their garments are accentuated by golden seams and borders and by exquisite accessories like jewelled belts. The fabrics appear to be rich and costly, sometimes with stars embroidered onto or applicated to them…


… even though it’s not always a hundred percent clear what kind of material the artists had in mind. After all, it’s rather hard to convincingly represent textiles in  the medium of stone sculpture!

But if you take a closer look you realise that in the dresses of the Wise Virgins in Bern, all that richness and opulence is restricted to hems and borders and accessories. The dresses themselves, however, appear to be rather basic, albeit finely tailored, and are worn over an equally plain underdress .

Now take a look at the Foolish Virgins:

Here, puffed sleeves and some sort of bodice appear to be involved, and the whole things seems to be stitched together from at least three different fabrics (though, again, due to the restriction of sculptural representation it’s hard to tell what kind of fabrics these are supposed to be. Well, it least it’s hard to tell for me. If you happen to know more about this kind of thing, feel free to chime in with a comment – as already mentioned, neither [m] nor I are experts on medieval textiles, so any help is greatly appreciated).

So with the Foolish Virgins the dress in itself is much more variegated and extravagant than those of their wise counterparts. Also, there are two more remarkable differences: Firstly, while the Wise Virgins are all crowned with garlands of flowers, the Foolish ones wear elaborate headdresses, a sure sign of fashion exuberance. Secondly, while the Wise Virgins’ dresses may be figure-hugging and not exactly hide certain parts of the female anatomy, the Foolish Virgins‘ dresses are cut in a way that actually emphasis their breasts…

Hm, I guess I’ll better stop here, because this was supposed to be a nice and apolitical post and right now I’m tempted to say the Foolish Virgins‘ breasts are practically framed in a way that goes to show how even in the Middle Ages certain fashion trends were all about compartmentalizing the female body and turning it into a sexual commodity. Geez, how do other people manage to write about fashion without getting sidetracked into some sort of feminist discourse?!


Update, June 26: I just wanted to add that when I said the Foolish Virgins were generally represented in a slutty way, that too was supposed to mean “slutty as defined by the Catholic Church” or “slutty by medieval moral standards”. It is NOT my personal opinion that wearing low-cut and/or shoulder-free dresses is slutty, morally ambiguous or whatever… Just wanted to make this clear in order to avoid misunderstandings.

At the risk of becoming repetitive, here’s another one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Night Watch (first published 2002), in our Lit Knit series…

Like Jingo, it features Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch as the main protagonist. This time, however, Ankh-Morpork isn’t at war with a foreign superpower but, so to speak, with itself: There’s a revolution sweeping the city’s streets, and as it unfolds into a full-blown civil war, Vimes and his watchmen realize that their allegeance lies with the people rather than with the regime that pays their salaries. Oh, and there’s also a psychopatic killer on the loose…

But among all this chaos and confusion, there’s also yarn and knitting. The first reference occurs on page 145* when Vimes has to arrest a young woman called Miss Battye who claims to be a seamstress. The problem here is that, like in Victorian England, in Ankh-Morpork the term seamstress is generally used as a euphemism for prostitutes. So when Vimes is informed that Miss Battye “also specializes in crochet”, he wants to know what crochet means, assuming it to be code for some sort of sex act. Only when Miss Battye replies, somewhat irritated, “It’s a kind of knitting (…). Fancy you not knowing that”, does Vimes realizes that he’s dealing with a real seamstress.

A second knitting reference comes towards the end of the book. When Vimes and his men are attacked by archers during the street fighting, they seek shelter from the arrows in the nearest shop. What they find in there comes somewhat unexpected for Vimes:

” ‘Can I help any of you gentlemen?’ said a thin, querulous little voice behind him. He turned and saw a very small, almost doll-like old lady, all in black, cowering behind her counter.

He looked desperately at the shelves behind her. They were piled with skeins of wool.” (p. 430)

They’ve ended up in a yarn store! And there’s even a customer in the shop, another eldery lady called Mrs Soupson just about to buy “four ounces of grey two-ply” (p. 431). A few pages later, though, we meet her again, in a much more agitated state, waving a knitting needle among the revolutionary crowd out in the streets (p. 437).

So, as in some of his other books, Pratchett employs knitting in a very stereotypical way by essentially associating it with the realm of the female, especially with elderly ladies. But, of course, employing stereotypes is what Pratchett does, and his use of over-exaggerated clichés is part of what makes his Discworld novels so funny. In Night Watch, too, the yarn store episode has great comic potential, especially if you try to imagine it as a movie with sound and everything: First, there’s the hectic scene of the street fighting, full of noise and movement, with carts dashing by and people running around, shouting and singing revolutionary songs. And then the sudden change of scene as Vimes and his men barge into the store and find themselves immersed in a place of peace and quiet, with two eldery ladies calmly chatting over a counter, and the walls stacked with soft, cosy yarn. It’s like going from this…

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image © Wikimedia Commons

… to this

Georg Friedrich Kersting, Woman Embroidering (First Version), 1812, Schlossmuseum, Weimar. Image © Wikimedia Commons

… in the blink of an eye. And yes, in terms of clichés the contrast created here by Pratchett is also a contrast between things denoted as male – e.g. fighting, the outside – and things denoted as female – e.g. textiles and needlework, the domestic interior. And, by the way, a similar contrast may even be found in the character of Miss Battye, the seamstress: As it turns out, when she’s not busy crocheting or darning socks, she’s working for the revolutionary forces, smuggling weapons which are neatly hidden underneath all the yarns and threads in her sewing basket. Here, in a manner of speaking, the “manly” arms of war are not only in contrast but even in direct contact with the utensils of “female” needlework.

Ok, I could go on, but I guess I’ll better leave it at that – I’m afraid not all of our readers are as keen on Pratchett as I am myself ;-) Seriously, I almost feel guilty about bringing him up here so often and practically turning our Lit Knit series into Knitting with Terry.** The thing is, however, that among all my favourite writers, Pratchett appears to be by far the most knittophile – I believe that, from our previous Lit Knit entries, you will all have noticed how knitting comes up surprisingly often in his novels. As I found out only recently through Ravelry’s Ankh-Morpork Knitter’s Guild-group, there appears to be a simple explanation for this: Terry Pratchett is a knitter himself and, allegedly, even has his own sheep and spins his own yarn. Sadly, though, I may have to rephrase that last sentence in the past tense and say that Pratchett was a knitter. As you’ll probably have heard, in 2007 Pratchett was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and since then his manual dexterity has been severly affected by the disease. By now, he even finds it too impossible to type his own books anymore, so I assume that knitting’s out of the question, too. As for the books, he now dictates them to an assistant, so in spite of his condition, he still keeps them coming. Well what can you say to that? Hats off, Terry, and thanks for all the joy you continue to give us!


* As usual, all page numbers given refer to the Corgi paperback edition of the book.

** Don’t worry, though, the emphasis here really is on “almost”, so I’m far from castigating myself or anything…