A MEDIEVAL WOMAN'S LIFE - AT HOME
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Medieval Women's Underpants
EXISTING GARMENTS - UNDERPANTS IN HOUSEHOLD ROLLS - UNDERGARMENTS & HORSE-RIDING
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 garment.
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)
This certainly seems to indicate that women may have worn underpants of a similar style to men.
Among 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:
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 wrn by a man, they give a great insight into what may have been available to the medieval woman at that time.
in household rolls
It 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 at left.
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.
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.
This 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.
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