While most movies about the Middle Ages focus on knights, battles, and kings the common people are often overlooked. Because of that, I would like to dedicate the next few articles to the life of medieval peasants and start out by answering the question of what did medieval peasants wear?
Most peasant men wore knee-long woolen tunics that were combined with ankle-length pants or leggings made out of linen or wool. Women would wear long woolen or linen dresses while both genders wore linen underclothes. Some sources indicate that peasants were limited to black, brown, or beige cloth and a total of 7 ells (=10 ft/308 cm) of fabric as well as shoes made from cowhide (if they could afford them).
It is important to state that the clothing of peasants drastically changed over the course of the Middle Ages that roughly lasting from 500 to 1500. Because of that I would like to focus on the clothing of early and high medieval peasants.
But let`s now find out more about what medieval peasants wore.
What did medieval peasants wear?
While the question of what medieval peasants wore might sound like a simple question there are still some difficulties. First of all, the Middle Ages lasted from 500 to 1500 and over the course of 1000 years many things, including the clothing of peasants changed. The other difficulty is that most sources only talk about the clothes of medieval kings, more on what medieval kings would wear in my article here while other sources, one will be presented under the last heading, is highly debated.
The clothing of male peasants developed over the course of the Middle Ages. Up until around 450 AD the Germans would wear long pants, after 450 AD knee-length pants that were combined with spats became common. That changed with the Christianization of the Germanic tribes when most of these tribes, an exception were the Saxons and Anglo-Saxons, would wear ankle-length pants in combination with gauntlets. Additionally, knee-long tunics were worn.
Now one might think that wearing pants and a tunic sounds a bit excessive, especially considering the fact that Romans had only worn tunics without pants. But several medieval sources clearly showcase the necessity of wearing either pants or leggings under the knee-long tunic to prevent the exposure of private parts.
There are actually several sources that make fun of men who did not wear pants under the tunics and the exposures that happened as a result of that.
Additionally, the lower leg could also be wrapped with spats, not only in case the peasant could not afford pants. Soldiers would also use spats as a cheap and yet somewhat effective piece of armor when they were levied into military service. For more information on the requirements of being levied as well as the composition and organization of medieval armies, I would like to recommend you my article here.
The shoes that medieval peasants wore if they could afford them were made out of cowhide.
All the cloth that peasants of both sexes wore were cut in a way that saved cloth. That meant that peasants did not wear clothes with wide sleeves since, according to a law that was supposedly passed by Charlemagne, each peasant was only allowed to use 7 ells (10 ft/308 cm) for his tunica and his pants. Now the actual existence of that law, which also limited the colors that peasants were allowed to wear is highly debated. Because of that it will be debated in the next paragraph.
What color did the clothes of medieval peasants have?
The Middle Ages were a highly hierarchical time in which it was important to immediately know the status of the person opposite to you. Just imagine a nobleman would have greeted a common pageant like another nobleman – he would have completely lost his reputation!
Because of that, it was important that peasants and noblemen could be immediately told apart without any kind of guessing. Having said that, it seems like an early medieval law that was supposedly proclaimed by Charlemagne in 768 AD solved that problem. Do you wonder what kind of clothes an important medieval king like Charlemagne wore? You can find the answer here in my article.
A law that was supposedly passed by Charlemagne in 768 AD limited peasants to cloth that was brown, black, and beige. Additionally, peasants were only allowed to use up to 7 ells (=10 ft/308 cm) of coarse fabric for their pants and tunica while cowhide was the only material allowed for shoes.
The idea behind that law – if it actually existed – was to create a clear visual difference between Peasants and noblemen. And to archive that peasants were not only excluded from the use of certain colors, more on how people in the Middle Ages dyed their clothes and which colors they used here, but were also limited in the amount of fabric they could use.
The limitation in the amount of fabric had the simple purpose of creating an additional visible difference between peasants and noblemen. Contrary to peasants noblemen and knights were not limited to 7 ells of fabric for their clothes so they could have for example wide sleeves.
So now I wrote that that source would have drastically limited the possibilities of medieval peasants to dye their clothes, an instinct that is probably as old as humanity. We know that people as early as the Neanderthals used ocher pigments to dye their clothes!
But there is one problem with the source that claims that Charlemagne introduced a law limiting the colors that medieval peasants were allowed to wear. Historians are not exactly sure if that law is real! The reason for the doubts about the authenticity of the law can be attributed to the fact that the source writing about the law was written in the 12th century while the law itself was (supposedly) written in 768.
So it is currently not possible to say with certainty whether or not peasants were actually limited to the colors brown, black and beige. But even with that unsatisfying ending I still hope that you enjoyed our trip into the Middle Ages.
And should you be interested in what medieval knights wore when they were not in armor then I would like to recommend you my article here. And for more information on medieval armor and its effectiveness 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).