Fashion and Religion in the 11th Century

In a world, ruled by social media and advertisement, it could be easy to assume that the current world of fashion and clothing has never been so widespread and homogenised.

With new looks and trends permeating through the internet, into the minds of the consumers, the connection between fashion and commercialism has never been closer.From the jaw-dropping exhibitions of the New York and Paris catwalks, to the flocks of people crowding Primark’s 325 locations – it would appear that people have never been more enthralled with fashion and clothes shopping.

french-fashion-middle-ages1The average British woman spends around £600 a year on clothes, with men spending half of that. We spend even more on children’s clothes, around £764 per year.Our clothing habits today are ruled by immediacy and trends.

Thanks to online shopping we can now sit at home and order in anything from kids designer clothes in Liverpool to hand-crafted authentic kimonos from Tokyo. With just a few clicks we can spend a couple of hundred pounds, equivalent to an 11th century lifetime’s earning and discard the garment with a few weeks.

Just like today, buying clothes in the 11th Century was an expensive habit – more so in fact. Clothes were an expensive commodity, just like today, sellers and makers would hawk their wares for a great deal of money. Unlike today, your average consumer would only be able to afford one or two changes of clothes. So, even though their options were varied, they could make a very limited amount of choices with their restricted budgets.kids-online-clothing

The fashion choices that the average Middle-Age person made would be largely dependant on the individual’s wealth and their social status. Of course, they didn’t have Amazon back then, they didn’t even have shops as we know them. 11th Century society’s clothing was supplied by a myriad of niche businesses, specialising in one particular piece of clothing at a time.

These businesses, small as they were, would depend on the annual performance of the mystery plays to promote their wares and put them in favour with the Church. Sponsoring individual carts, hosting specific Mystery Plays, the local craft guilds would usually have some thematic link with the content of the play – some more spurious than others, for example:

Tailors – Ascension

mdievalThis strange connection between clothes tailoring and the Ascension of Christ is a little hard to piece together. At the time, tailors were a business in demand. There were no standard sizes. Unless you knew how to sow, you’d have to bring your textiles from the drapers and get them turned into custom fitted clothes. As such, they had a big sway over the Church, resulting them in scoring the most bombastic cart.

Jesus’ triumphant ascension is the ultimate tale in the Life of Jesus and would have attracted many interested viewers – acting as a nice form advertisement for their tailoring.

Cordwainers (or Shoemakers) – Agony, Betrayal and Arrest

Similarly, its hard to see the thematic link between such a crucial portion of the Jesus story and this particular story. The Agony, Betrayal and Arrest of Christ are all pivotal moments of the Passion that occur between the final moments of the Last Supper and Christ’s eventual trial at the hand of the Romans.

Once more, this is certainly one of the more dramatically rich mystery plays to perform and would have been the subject of much scrutiny, giving the Guild of Cordwainers a good chance to show off their shoes.

Hosiers–Departure of the Israelites from Egypt; Ten Plagues; Crossing the Red Sea

fashionIt’s hard to imagine how just a handful of actors in the 11th Century managed to depict not one, not two, but three major Biblical Events in back of a simple horse-drawn cart.

Even though it might be hard to picture, it was certainly the case and the Hosiers were chosen to sponsor this particular cart because of their historical affiliations with the Ancient Egyptians. Although there are very little historical records proving this, it’s an urban myth that has persisted to this present day.

Glovers—Sacrifices of Cain and Abel

cain-and-abelLastly, the makers of gloves – an item most useful to people of the middle-ages due to the freezing temperatures that they had to endure during those times. Another cart that would have drawn quite the crowd, the theological reasoning behind this particular lesson from God is a curious one.

Cain kills his brother (we can assume with his own hands, hence the gloves) because of his envy over God’s greater love for Abel’s lambs rather than his farmed goods. He is, of course, punished for this crime by the omniscient God who is confused by his envy:

‘Why are you furious? And why are you downcast? If you do right, won’t you be accepted? But if you do not do right, sin is crouching at the door.’

So, apparently, Cain didn’t do right by providing food from the land for God, and should have just been a sheep farmer instead. A little confusing – but I’m sure there’s a message in there somewhere.

Although some of these links were harder to detect than others, it’s interesting to note the correlation between the Church, Religion and Commerce. The interconnectedness of these three things might seem a little trite, but it’s hard to deny the logic.

In order to sell more of their wares, each small business had to promote their brand as much as they could – what better way to do this than a moving stage, circling the city all day in front of hundreds of people?