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Medieval Women's Underpants

A 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.

I believe 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 a couple of clear images of a woman wearing underpants in art, one shown at right and the other below. There are a couple of written references to underpants for women, but not many. This does not mean that they never wore them.

The image at right shows Semiramus who was a mythological queen of Assyria, in a woodcut from Boccaccios Famous Women dated 1474, now in the Bavarian State Library. While it does show figures from a legend and not actual, living people, I personally feel that these underpants were not painted on for modesty.

Sources for medieval women's underpants
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)

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.

Astrida Schaeffer is a historian who has investigated medieval women's underpants. Her independent research has uncovered two pieces of further evidence for underpants being worn seperate to the use of them for the menstrual cycle. I quote her here in full, as her observations are quite compelling.

She writes first about a tale involving fiction characters, and then further on an actual legal case where underpants are a crucial part of evidence in the trail.

"In the Roman de Renart, it is clear that female braies were understood as a mark of modesty - which of course implies that they were worn by women. Called to account for his assault on Dame Hersent, Renart insists the act was consenual because "he did not remove her braies" ("et puis qu'i n'i ot braies traites") (Le Roman de Renart, Branch I, 1287, cited in Burns, note 23). In other words, since Renart did not have to remove Dame Hersent's braies, she must have done so, signaling her sexual availability and therefore his innocence. The presence or absence of the braies is central to the argument."

The trial in which underpants worn by females is mentioned can be found in Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law by Katheryn Gravdal. Astrida Schaeffer again shares what she has discovered about this court case in the early 14th century.

"...the young apprentice Perrette la Souplice, a very real person living in Paris in 1337, is on official record as wearing her braies, which proved to be a crucial piece of evidence at an actual, not literary, trial. Perrette de Lusarche and Perrette la Souplice, both aged twelve, were assaulted by Jehanin Agnes and their case went to trial. The trial transcript includes the following account: "Là, en un selier, fist entrer, oultre son gré et par force, ladicte Perrete la Souplice, et la jeta à terre, et avala ses braies, et se mist sus lui..." (There in a cellar he made her go, against her will and by force, the said Perrette la Souplice, and he threw her to the ground, and pulled down her braies, and got on top of her...)

This shows that in 1337, when the case was taken to court, underpants were worn by these girls. It is a rare glimpse into the private world of feminine undergarments which we would not have otherwise heard of.

Existing garments
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.

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:

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.

Underpants 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".

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.

Most other images show women bathing without pants or with their privvy parts modestly covered by their hands or hair.

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.

Interpreting underpants in art
Although there are only a few images of women wearing underpants in medieval art, care must be taken in understanding these in their full context.

A single image alone might show a women wearing underpants, but other images on the same page show that the text indicated a world-gone-crazy, topsy-turvy situation where the men are shown doing women's work and the women are wearing the pants as a metaphor for running the household.

Shown at right is a section of a marginal illumination which shows exactly this. We see the wife putting on the pants, and the husband, although still wearing his very masculine sword, using a distaff which is usually a key icon of women's work.

Both of the images here are from the Biblioteca Nacional de Espana's Horas de Alonso Fernández de Córdoba. It is dated around 1465.

While these do show women in underpants, context is the key.

Undergarments and horse-riding
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 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 'l’arcum.’

This shows us that although a woman might choose to ride with her legs at the side, it was not unknown for a woman to ride astride when required. Medieval art, too, often confirms this with images like the detail from the 14th century RomanceofAlexander, folio 80v which shows women out hawking and riding astride.

Some other medieval women, like Margaret Paston, regularly rode in her travels and according to Frances and Joseph Gies book, Women of the Middle Ages, she probably rode astride as women had always done rather than side saddle which was just coming into vogue in the early 15th century.

As any horsewoman would be well-aware, to ride astride vigorously with no underwear for protection 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. For extended journeys, protection might have been warrented.

In Mistress, Maids and Men by Margaret Labarge, we learn that the Countess of Leicester seemed to have an undergarment made 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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