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Medieval Purses, Pouches, Aumonieres & Bags

Pockets were unknown in medieval clothing, therefore purses and pouches of various kinds were widely utilised by all people of all classes. Purses were small cloth purses also known as aumonieres or alms purses.

Paris was well known during the 14th century for producing some of the finest of these. It was not uncommon for the embroidery to depict scenes of courtly love. Many were given as gifts and it was deemed an appropriate embroidery activity for aristocratic ladies.

The detail at right comes from the 14th century Manesse Codex and shows a woman looking at different styles of belts and bags which are being offered for sale by a merchant.

Styles of bag
Styles of bags differed for women and men. Women often preferred the drawstring kind, while men opted for the more practical leather, kidney-shaped bag.

Bags could be square, rectangular or trapezoid.

Ladies styles of fabric bag varied a little but generally were either square or rectangular with two drawstrings across the top, running horizontally one in each direction, with or without tassels, some having a rounded top. The example at left above is dated between 1400-1600 from the British Isles. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It shows the typical drawstrings with tassels closure at the top. It attaches to the belt by the means of two loops at the very top. Shown at right is a similar style of fabric bag with drawstring and tassels dated between 1276 and 1300.

Both men and women utilised the small, drawstring pouch or aumoniere pouch for the keeping of alms. These might be attached to the belt by the use of a belt hook, a purpose made attachment on the belt.

They might be made of plain fabric, embroidery or soft leather. Shown at the left is a leather drawstring pouch with two mini-pouches attached. It is dated to approximately the 1400s and is part of the collection in the Stadt Museum in Germany. It is a basic u-shape design which is stitched up the sides.

Another style of 15th century purse, featuring an iron metal framework is pictured at the left. It is from western Europe and made from silk velvet. It is certain that because of the expensive metalwork and fabric, that it did not belong to a commoner.

Some bags and pouches were made of soft leather, some of embroidered silk on linen, some of velvet, and many with gold thread, embroidery and tapestry.

When Queen Jeanna of Burgundy was crowned in 1317, she received twelve embroidered purses, six velvet purses, a further six embroidered samite purses as well as sixteen other purses of an unknown type. It is not unlikely that she gave most away as gifts.

In 1319, a countess is recorded as giving a gift of a purse which was embroidered with pearls, which shows that many purses as well as being utilitarian were very costly and ornate.

Medieval bags were often heavily embroidered front and back with scenes of courtly love. The image at left shows Game With A Hood on a 1340 aumoniere from Paris. Along with it's embroidery, and coloured drawstrings, it has many decorative tassels along the bottom and a band added at the upper opening where the double drawstring is. The embroidery shows a fashionably dressed young couple in a garden. It is embroidered with couched gold and silver threads and split stitched for the remainder on linen.

Margherita Datini's, the wife of a wealthy Italian businessman's 1397 personal effects list includes two purses described as embroidered wool.

It is not specified whether the purses were made of wool and embroidered with perhaps silks and gold threads or whether they were made of woolen cloth and embroidered also with wool.

The sample at right appears to be gold couched embroidery and split stitch on gold silk. The man and the woman are human above the waist indicating their courtly and proper halves whist below the waist they are depicted as animals symbolising their bestial passions which come from their nether regions below. It is dated at the mid 14th century and is of French origin.

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