GARMENTS - UNDERPANTS IN HOUSEHOLD ROLLS - UNDERGARMENTS &
Question of Underpants, Trewes, Clouts or Braes
It seems to be generally
accepted as "one of those things that everybody knows"
is that medieval women did not wear underpants. This is not so.
To women of child-bearing ages, this would certainly not be an
appealing thought, especially when considering certain times of
the month. To date, I have only seen two clear images of a woman
wearing underpants in art, one shown at right- a woodcut from
Boccaccios Famous Women dated 1474, now in the Bavarian
Underpants for medieval women aren't
recorded or written about greatly, although Ian Mortimer's book,
A Time Traveler's Guide to the 14th Century mentions aristocratic
women's clouts as a form of linen braes for women to wear when
nature forces her to do so. In household rolls and in warderobe
records they are not listed specifically, except in one instance
which is within the ordinances issued to tailors concerning the
value of the clothing which could be charged for a particular
In the book Fashion in the Age
of the Black Prince, Stella Mary Newton asserts that a French
Tailor's ordinance in 1350, the Ordonnances des rois de France,
mentions the cost of a chemise as no more than 8 deniers and for
the robbes-linges (which were presumably linen underpants)
the price was to be the usual
one for masculine underants of the same style.
This certainly seems to indicate
that women may have worn underpants of a similar style to men.
Until 2008, no existing underpants. In July 2008 investigations
for re-construction were carried out at the Castle Lengberg in
Nikolsdorf, East Tyrol, Austria. A vaulted spandrel was discovered
in the south wing which was filled with backfill- possibly to
level the floor when a further level was added. The fill was stored
for subsequent sorting at a later date. When examined, it was
revealed that the fill consisted of layers of dry material, among
them organic material- twigs and straw, but also worked wood,
leather (mainly shoes) and textiles. Photo below at right ©Institute
of Archaeologies, University of Innsbruck.
the finds were a pair of linen underpants, shown at right, identical
to those shown being worn by men in illustrations in many artworks.
Beatrix Nutz was part of the archaeological team who investigated
the textile fragments, and wrote of her findings supporting the
dating of the underpants to approximately 1480:
On the contrary a closer
examination of the pieces in question showed that no textile
techniques were used in their construction that would not fit
to the time period. All applied techniques were common during
the 15th century and none of them developed later. Besides -
all other textiles from this find, like fragments of dresses,
shirts, trousers, laces etc., fit well to the 15th century.
The question of whether the underpants
found were worn by a man or a woman is not 100% conclusive but
due to the fragments of hose found with them, Beatrix Nutz, the
archaeologist who has studied them, believes that they were worn
by a man. It is interesting to note that the underpants were found
along with items of breast support which we would call bras and
corsolettes today. Although probably worn by a man, they give
a great insight into what may have been available to the medieval
woman at that time.
in household rolls
Perhaps there is no mention of women's underwear in household
accounts because most of the records and rolls were written by
male stewards who did not bother with such trifling and unimportant
items. Perhaps the items were of very little value and were not
recorded for this reason. Perhaps it was not an area any man wished
to enquire about. It was then, as it was during the following
centuries, private and "unmentionable".
is also possible that ladies' underpants do not rate a mention
because they were actually not worn at all and that in images
underwear was painted in for modesty's sake.
It does not seem that extra modesty
was required in the fresco The Fountain of Youth painted
from 1411 to 1416 by di Manta where the woman in question was
already covered by a fine chemise. A closer examination shows
a horizontal line and whitening where her underpants seem to be
although no corresponding whiteness at her breasts. In a time
period when sunbaking and tan lines were not known, it seems unlikely
that the white patch is merely her white bottom. Detail shown
As a woman, I find this insistence
at the lack of underpants to be a little perplexing. What of the
menses? It is certain that women menstruated and it follows that
some method of dealing with the same was employed. Many times
I have been asked, usually in hushed tones and in a private place,
about underwear at this time of the month. Although I have repeatedly
read that women wore nothing, I believe that in this day and age,
if women feel the necessity to speak privately on this matter,
they would probably have been less inclined to discuss it with
any kind of record-keeper in the middle ages. I feel some kind
of underpants must have been worn, at least during some times
of the month.
It is also known that many women rode horses although usually
on a saddle with a kind of foot platform which permitted genteel,
well-bred women to ride sidesaddle. The Histoire de Guillaume
le Mareschal, written circa 1226 and referencing an event in the
in 1440s tells us:
While fleeing enemies, Empress Matilda
was riding cumme femme fait, en seant as women
do, sidesaddle. Her Marshal told her she would have
to part her legs and ride astride because they needed to get a
move on. Les jambes vos covient desjoindre e metre par
en son 'larcum.
shows us that although it was the norm for a woman to ride with
her legs at the side, it was not unknown for a woman to ride astride
when required. In contrast to this, some women, like Margaret
Paston regularly rode in her travels and according to Frances
and Joseph Gies book, Women of the Middle Ages. They write
that she probably rode astride as women had always done
rather than side saddle which was just coming into vogue in the
early 15th century.' It appears that this was not considered unusual
or shocking for a business woman who was in need to travel quickly
to ride this way.
As any horsewoman would be well-aware,
to ride astride vigorously with no underwear for protection of
any kind would be unlikely for all but the shortest periods. It
is possible that for short journeys where the rider does little
more than walk, protection other than the voluminous folds of
gown were sufficient for a woman's delicate nether regions. The
image at right is from a 14th century French manuscript, Romance
of the Saint, and shows a woman who is riding astride.
In Mistress, Maids and Men
by Margaret Labarge, we learn that the Countess of Leicester seemed
to have an undergarment of fine leather. The skins were delivered
to her tailor, Hique, who also purchased 3 ells of canvas for
the same purpose. The Latin word used in the original household
roll is cruralia which suggests some kind of shin coverings.
It is known that the Countess rode astride often and it is suggested
by Margaret that these items were used to make some kind of riding-breeches
to protect her legs and underneath.