Possets is celebrating the Middle Ages this Yule, a very exciting time which is still a touchpaper for most people’s creative yearnings. It was a time which was branded as The Dark Ages, but there was so much going on. So, in advance of Possets’ celebration of Medieval times let’s find out a bit about that period which will make the Yule even more fun!
The Middle Ages are thought to start at the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and go until the Renaissance at about 1400. For so long, the Western world had looked to Rome for their laws, civilization, commerce, and protection. At last Rome was overtaken by “barbarians” and the streets of the place were filled with desperate people who had no civil services. No order was kept, no garbage was collected, nothing stopped pillaging and looting and it was burnt out chaos. Rome had fallen and on top of Rome came the detritus of passing peoples.
The farther flung parts of the Empire fared pretty well overall. In places like England (Britannia) the populace reverted to their tribal ways but seemed to live among the buildings and customs of the fallen Romans. But the world became divided among warlords and new nations formed.
It is interesting to note that during this time the ruling classes were composed of very very young people. Since the life span of a Western European was about 30 years old! Considering possible death from: infection, accident, childbirth, war, and The Black Death; you can see that their lives were short. Of all the causes, infection really was the #1 killer. It was all too easy to come into contact with an invisible mortality.
So, the consequence of that kind of a short life was that so many of the decisions we live with today were made by people who were in their twenties! And also Western Europe was ruled by people who were very young indeed by our standards.
I am not going to go on about nations coming and going, dates and battles, little known historic moments…this is a story just about the more interesting parts of the Middle Ages and for nothing more than entertainment.
One of the best loved parts of the Middle Ages was the wonderful headgear, the hennin. To the left is an image of a countess wearing a hennin. She is the most fashionable lady, and by the way she is holding a red hot bar in one hand and the severed head of her husband in the other arm. She is undergoing a trial by ordeal where she must endure some dreadful torture to prove that she is telling the truth (she passes the test by the way and avenges her husband’s unjust death). However, she is wearing the hennin which is a conical hat made of a light fabric like linen starched and put over a mesh frame. It normally had a veil draped about the top pointed end and the black piece of cloth which covers the front of her hennin is known as a lappet and was considered quite chic.
Even though we think of the hennin as being a main feature of the Middle Ages, it appeared at the end of the Middle Ages just before the Renaissance broke out! Hennins were a Western European fashion seen often in Burgundy France but scarcely in Italy eastward.
Oddly enough you can still see hennins as part of culture in Kazakhstan! They are a traditional bride’s headpiece. I don’t know if there was any cross cultural reason for this but I suspect not.
If hennins were only seen in the late Middle Ages, what was the true headgear of most of that time? The wimple! Married ladies did not show their hair and hid it under a headscarf and arrangement which covered their necks. Most women dressed pretty much like modern nuns do, with a great many variations. What we think of as hijab, or modern Muslim head covering for women was what one wore in the Medieval times everywhere. Most of the wimples I see in medieval art are white and look like simple linen coverings. The image to the left is a painting by Robert Campin and is of a very elaborate wimple which you can see hides the lady’s hair and neck and comes down on either side of her face. This was, again, a late Middle Ages wimple but because painting was now a good deal more advanced I am showing it here. It is not so very different from the earlier Middle Ages wimple.
This is the first in a series of blogs from Possets Perfumes about the Middle Ages. As I pointed out, I am just highlighting interesting details about that time and not trying to present a definitive essay on such a huge topic. There are a great many excellent sources about this time, one of my favorites is A Distant Mirror by historian Barbara Tuchman.