When we think about medieval knights then we usually think of the crusades, castles, swords, and armor. But what did knights wear when they were not in battle but at their peaceful home castle?
This will be explored in the following.
A knight did not wear his armor outside of battles but would instead wear woolen pants or leggings, linen underclothes and undershirts, and a woolen knee-long tunic on top. For special occasions, wealthy knights also owned the same clothes made from finer fabrics like silk.
Let`s find out more.
When we look at the clothes that knights wore when they were not in battle and not wearing their armor, you can find out more about the armor of medieval knights here, then it heavily depends on the period of the Middle Ages that we look at.
Only after 1400 did the design of the clothes that knights wore start to differentiate from the clothes that peasants wore as a direct result of the disastrous plague waves. Until 1400 the clothes that different social classes wore were pretty similar in design and mostly differentiated in the used fabric and the colors used to dye the fabric.
A knight did not wear his armor outside of battles but would instead wear woolen pants or leggings, linen underclothes and undershirts, and a woolen knee-long Tunic. For special occasions, wealthy knights also owned the exact same clothes made from finer fabrics like silk.
The silk was mostly imported from the Islamic world, some pieces probably even from China through the silk road. There was actually a pretty vivid long-distance trade. Cities like Haithabu, an important Viking trading station in Northern Germany, were important stations in that long-distance trade. And some of the silk cloths that were buried with important Vikings even show Arabic symbols until this day.
But contact between the Islamic and the Christian world happened in many parts of Europe, some more some less peaceful.
However, much of the ancient Roman knowledge that had been lost in Western Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire only made it back to western Europe through these contacts. You can find out more about what the Muslim conquests in Sicily or Spain brought (back) to Europe in my article here.
But let`s return to the clothes that knights wore when they were not in battle.
The design of the already presented clothes was quite similar to the clothes that peasants would wear. You can find out more about the clothes of medieval peasants (and the colors that they were limited to) in my article here. So while the design of the clothes that were worn by knights and peasants did not really differ the materials and colors did!
Not only could knights afford better quality wool for their daily clothes than peasants could, but the colors that were used probably also differed from the colors with which peasants were allowed to dye their clothes.
While knights and their women (just like until the 13th-century high-ranking clergies) would wear colorful clothes, peasants were only allowed to dye their clothes black, brown, or beige. At least according to a law that was supposedly passed by Charlemagne in 768 AD.
This law on which the idea that peasants were only allowed to wear clothes that had been dyed black, brown, or beige is highly debated among historians. For more information on why the existence of the law is so debated even though there is a medieval source for it I would like to recommend you my article here.
The same law also says that peasants, contrary to knights and noblemen were only allowed to use 7 ells (=10 ft/308 cm) for their pants and tunica. So the fabric that was used for the clothes was also an indicator for telling apart peasants from noblemen.
And that easy differentiation between peasant and nobleman was essential in the highly hierarchical medieval world. Just imagine a knight would have publically greeted a peasant like a fellow knight – he would have been the laughingstock of his fellow knights. The amount of used fabric was also a good indicator of wealth (and in conclusion social status) because especially in the Early Middle Ages the fabric, not the labor necessary to make the clothes, was expensive!
Being able to wear clothes with a lot of used fabric, for example, wide sleeves, was a sign of economic prosperity.
So in conclusion: In the Early Middle Ages and also in parts of the High Middle Ages knights wore clothes that pretty much had the same design as the clothes of peasants only that the clothes of knights were made from better materials and (possibly) more colorful. There were also additional little differences like wider sleeves on the clothes of knights and other noblemen.
That changed with the arrival of the plague in Europe. From the 14th century onwards the survivors of the plague put more emphasis on extravaganze which resulted in the evolution of changing fashions.
And in the Late Middle Ages, these extravagant clothes were no longer exclusive to the nobility and knights but were also adopted by the wealthy citizens of medieval cities. Since the importance and influence of cities grew during the Late Middle Ages the adaption of extravagances that had previously been reserved for the nobility was a good way for the citizens of these cities to present their new status awareness.
But that is a story for another time. For now, I would like to recommend you my article here where I talk about the effectiveness of medieval knights.
And if you are interested in the clothes that an (early) medieval king would wear and how (if at all) they differentiated from the clothes of a knight then you might want to check out my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Mechthild Müller: Die Kleidung nach Quellen des frühen Mittelalters (Berlin 2003).
Maike Vogt-Lüerssen: Der Alltag im Mittelalter (Mainz-Kostheim 2001).