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Medieval Cloaks & Mantles

In the 12th century, English cloaks with hoods attached were exported across the Roman kingdom. Known as British cloaks, they were thick wool and particularly weatherproof and waterproof.

In the middle of the medieval period, the cloak most commonly worn by women was the mantle. It was worn as the outermost layer of clothing in the middle ages. Indeed from antiquity and onwards through to the 19th century, cloaks for both sexes remained a popular garment for traveling and for wear out of doors, particularly in cold climates.

Mantles and cloaks at that time appear to be unhooded; the hood usually worn as a separate item of clothing and having a cowl.

Many illustrations and illuminations from the Middle Ages show a cloak which drapes over the head and does not fasten at all. It would appear that this garment may not be shaped and not be a garment as such. It appears in many cases to be just a large, wrapped piece of heavy fabric which has a highly decorative border.

Cloaks for traveling in the medieval period tended to be thick and warm, often fur lined for those who could afford such luxury. Wool, with it's weather resistant properties made it a natural choice for outdoor wear.

One account for working class people states that the garment is first a cloak and then cut down into a mantle when it is worn, hinting that a cloak may be hooded for outdoor travel, and then rehemmed with the hood cut off later, when the separate hood with its own cowl would have been worn.

Pierce the Ploughman's Crede writes of a wife working in the field with her husband-

In a clouted coat cut short to the knee,
wrapped in a winnowing sheet to keep out the weather..

Mantles of a lighter nature also appear to have been worn. The drape of the fabric and colours in many paintings suggest many of these were unlined.

Our model woman from the 14th century, Margherita Datini owned six cloaks/mantles at the time of her household account in 1397. It is not unreasonable to assume that they were not identical, but were of differing thickness and suited to different weather conditions. It is possible she had duplicate quality in differing colours for the sake of fashion, but it is probable that hers were suited to different seasons and purposes.

Fabrics and linings
Mantles were made of various materials but it not not unreasonable to assume that functional, cold-weather ones were wool, owing to the nature of the fabric.

Wool lined with fur would give the heavy drape depicted in representations of mantles and cloaks in contemporary artworks and sculptures. Wool is warm and naturally weatherproof, especially when felted, and was produced in a variety of qualities and finishes making it suitable for an outer garment.

Most illustrations appear to show the mantle to be lined with fur or some kind. Once again, this would reflect the status of the wearer and Sumptuary Laws of the region and year.

Cloak fastenings
Mantles for many women seem to be fastened across the front, with a cord and two brooches of some kind on each side at clavicle height. Many contemporary illustrations show this style with the mantle apart, although one imagines that the cord could be drawn or tied together on colder days for warmth.

Shown at right is the head of the effigy of Philip IV from 1327 showing the mantle fastening with a tasseled cord. The cord would be tied at the front pulling the two sides closer together.

The other method of fastening for the mantle or cloak is a large jewelled brooch or pair of brooches.

These were often highly ornate and costly but were not a part of the cloak per se, that is, they were not stitched on and were removable.

Whether there was a reinforced eyelet for the brooch to fasten through or whether it was fastened directly through the fabric is not known, although it appears that no special holes were made for this purpose.

The 1370 German tomb effigy at left shows a very large gold brooch fastening a lightweight mantle on the wife of a man in Bartholemeus Cathedral.

As with most other forms of medieval clothing, mantles could also be decorated, although it was not unusual for cloaks to be plain.

In art we see the Virgin Mary, often with large, elaborate gold embroidery, mottoes or jewelled bands on her mantle. The two details from the paintings on this page show samples of both.

At the right, the 1434-1435 painting by Daret, Visitation shows elaborate embroidery on both women's mantles and one with shaping, gathered fabric on a neckband, a front fastening of cord and two jeweled brooches and the other with no real shape or fastening..

At the top of the page, the 1436 Jan van Eyck The Madonna with Canon van der Paele shows a band around the hem and up the front set with gemstones and thin gold cord fastening.


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