Farmers and Peasants: Clothes and Hygiene

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Farmers and Peasants: Clothes and Hygiene


Keeping Warm. The fire pit in the center of a peasant house served as the sole source of heat, the cook fire, and the primary light source. Maintaining it was crucial and an ongoing chore. If the fire died out, it had to be restarted either by using embers borrowed from a neighbor or with a flint and steel, a relatively valuable tool. In the fire pit the peasant built a small pile of highly flammable objects, including materials such as dry grasses, tiny pieces of wood, or old scraps of cloth. When a spark flew off into these objects, the peasant coaxed it into flame by blowing on it and gradually feeding slightly larger kindling to the flame until a usable fire was achieved. Wood, however, was an exhaustible resource, and peasants were generally entitled only to windfall wood—branches or trees blown down in storms. The thin sticks that a peasant gathered were frequently bundled together to make something approximating a log and, therefore, a more consistent and durable fire. Although fire was essential for peasants, it was also a danger. Medieval records are filled with stories about people, especially young children, falling into a fire and being critically burned. To minimize such hazards, the fire was allowed to die down into embers during the evening and at night, so that the house cooled significantly while people were sleeping. Mornings were long and chilly, because reheating the house usually took hours. The fire had to be stoked; new wood and other supplies had to be gathered; and the heat had to radiate from the fire. Perhaps it is not surprising that peasants generally went immediately to the fields in the morning and returned to their homes only a few hours later for the main meal. The difficulties in heating peasant residences help to account for peasant clothing.

Medieval Clothes. Clothing in medieval Europe, even among peasants, had several functions. It kept a person warm, covered nakedness (which was considered shameful), and marked a person’s status. For example, while medieval men and women sometimes stripped down to their shirts when doing heavy labor, both sexes considered public nakedness exceptionally embarrassing once one was no longer a child. In fact, a common part of medieval punishments

involved stripping the guilty person and making him or her face his sentence naked. Clothes were thus an important investment, and an expensive one. Medieval peasants rarely, if ever, bought new clothes. They made their own basic garments or purchased secondhand ones from a merchant who specialized in selling used goods. Moreover, a peasant generally owned only a few pieces of clothing: two of each undergarment, one outer garment, a hat, a belt, and a pair of shoes. A person usually had only one article to wear while the rest were being washed. Men’s and women’s clothes differed to some extent. The first piece of clothing a man put on was a pair of half trousers made of linen or another thin material; known in English as braies, they resembled modern boxer shorts but went down to about mid calf. Elastic and zippers are modern inventions, and buttons were expensive decorations for a wealthy person’s clothing, so braies were held up by rolling the top over at the waist several times and cinching it in place with a belt. Sometimes braies had ties at the bottom of each leg. They could be run through this belt to shorten the braies when one was working in the heat. Next a peasant pulled on a pair of woolen hose that ran from waist to foot and was attached to the braies by several leather thongs. Although medieval pictures depict hose as formfit-ting, the lack of elastic probably meant that it fit close to the body but not snugly. In many ways hose resembled loose modern stirrup pants. Over the braies and hose was put a linen shirt, which reached at least to the thighs and was slit up the side for mobility. Over all of these layers came a tunic, which for laborers probably reached no further than the knee, so that it did not get in the way while the peasant worked. Tunics could have sleeves or be sleeveless, and they usually had a large head opening, which might have laces so that the material could be gathered close to the neck for warmth. Medieval women did not wear braies; instead, their first piece of clothing was a shirt that was a longer version of the man’s shirt. When a woman wore hose, it generally went only to the knees. Her tunic was also like a man’s, but it always went to the floor. Over their tunics both men and women wore narrow belts around their waists, and they could attach various objects to their belts, money pouches and knives being among the most common. In cold weather a peasant wore a wool mantle, a simple half circle of fabric with a center slit through which a person could put his or her head. Peasants might decorate any of these articles, but such work took time away from their extremely busy lives. There is almost no mention in medieval documents of specialized underwear or special clothes for sleeping. Normally peasants slept in the nude. If it was cold, a peasant might remove only his outer layer of clothes before he went to sleep.

Making Cloth and Clothing. One of a medieval woman’s most time-consuming and onerous activities was making thread (spinning) and weaving it into cloth. Girls in the Middle Ages began helping with this task by at least the age of seven and did not stop until they died or their hands were so crippled from arthritis (or other diseases or injuries) that they were unable to manipulate the tools. In the early Middle Ages, when weaving was done on an upright loom, it could be a source of supplemental income for peasant families. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries weaving for trade had become more of an urban craft, and most peasant weaving was done for private consumption. Producing clothes in medieval Europe began with the basics: gathering the raw materials. Flax plants (for linen) or wool from sheep was generally the base for thread, although many kinds of hair and fibers could be spun. First, the material was cleaned and combed to remove all dirt, and unusable fibers were removed to make the remaining fibers run parallel, which made it easier to spin and led to better cloth. The spinner attached one end of a fiber to the top of a spindle, a stick about one foot long with a weight at the bottom. Then she started spinning the spindle, which twisted the fibers together, and the weight pulled them into thread. Later in the Middle Ages a fairly prosperous peasant might have a spinning wheel, which allowed more thread to be spun with less effort, but it was always a luxury item. Once the thread was spun, it was made into cloth on a loom. After it was woven, fabric had to be finished, with the process varying depending on the type of fabric. If the cloth were dyed, and that worn by most medieval peasants was not, the dyes were based on natural materials. These dyes faded in the sun, so even dyed peasant clothes often looked washed out. Only the richest people could afford to redye their clothing. Once the cloth itself was produced, it had to be made into clothes. The tools used in this process involved a substantial investment: shears, needles, and some form of pin or fastener to hold pieces of cloth together. Metal needles were valuable goods. In many cases peasant clothing was designed to require little sewing, but darning and other repairs were needed during the long lifetime of a garment. Clothes were too valuable to be discarded just because they were torn.

Hats. In medieval society a hat was a necessary piece of clothing. It helped retain warmth, protected farmers from the heat and sun, and marked a villager’s wealth and status. The most basic hat worn by men, particularly workers and farmers, was called a coif. It was a linen cap that covered the head and tied under the chin. It kept a man’s head warm and his hair clean while he worked. Women’s head coverings were also made of linen, but theirs were generally triangular. Rather than wrapping fully around a woman’s head like a man’s coif, a pointed part of the cloth draped off the back of the head and dropped down to the nape of the neck. Sometimes in the summer men and women wore straw hats, particularly while working the fields, to protect themselves from the sun. Hoods made of wool or even leather might be worn in cold weather for additional warmth or protection from rain or snow. While fur linings were the best way to keep warm, fur was generally a luxury and might only appear in or on a peasant’s hat if it had been passed down from a wealthier owner.

Shoes and Other Apparel. Shoes provided important protection and warmth. Because making them required specialized skills and because they were made of leather, shoes were expensive, and they could wear out quickly. For these reasons, although medieval manuscripts generally depict farmers wearing something on their feet, it is unlikely that all peasants always wore shoes. When peasant men and women did wear shoes, they favored a low, leather boot, which probably lasted six months at most. By the twelfth century, shoes were held on a person’s feet by leather thongs, which were laced around the ankle; examples from the next century also show these lacings going up the side of the ankle. There was no heel, and, when the sole wore through, another piece of leather was sewn on top of the existing sole. To make shoes somewhat watertight, people greased them with animal fat from slaughtered livestock. Attachments were also available to make shoes more functional. For example, wooden platforms could be laced onto regular leather shoes so that the wearer could avoid getting his or her shoes muddy.

Washing Clothes and Bodies. When the fabric was thought to be washable, it appears that peasants washed their clothing every week at most. Linen was one fabric that was washed in water using lye; then it was laid in the sun on a rock or the grass to dry. (Clothespins are another modern invention.) Wool was, however, probably the most common medieval fabric, and it was normally brushed rather than washed to remove dirt. In the rare cases that medieval peasants cared about wrinkles, a heated stone was run over the cloth. Laundry and bathing were both extremely laborious processes. Peasants generally washed their clothing in nearby streams and needed to carry it there. If hot water was used for washing, it had to be carried from the village water supply to a cauldron—itself a valuable commodity that not every peasant owned—and enough firewood had to be gathered to heat the water to an acceptable temperature. The effort and expense of generating hot water helps to explain the medieval reluctance to take full-immersion baths and even the insistence in some treatises that such baths cause sickness. Imagine taking a bath in a river when the water is near freezing, when it is 30-40 degrees outside, and the house is barely heated. Medieval people did wash parts of their bodies with some regularity, but peasants were often criticized for excessive odors. Hair was washed using a solution like that used for clothes. It also appears that medieval Europeans tried to clean their teeth; at least there are reports of people using woolen cloths and hazel twigs for this purpose. Shaving was also difficult because of the lack of hot water, mirrors, and skin softeners. It was a weekly occurrence at most and done with the all-purpose, long knife that most peasant men carried. Some peasants just settled for beards, and being clean shaven was often a mark of status.

Human Waste. Because they had no running water, there was no such thing as a flush toilet. Generally the most sophisticated plumbing facility available to a peasant was an outhouse built over a cesspit. Those living more comfortably might have a chamber pot in the house to use in the evening and be emptied into the cesspit in the morning. After defecating, people used hay, straw, grass, or some other vegetation to wipe themselves. Because of a relative lack of privacy for grooming or attending to basic bodily needs, medieval Europeans seem to have had a higher threshold of embarrassment than modern people about bodily fluids. According to Jeffrey L. Singman, “Medieval people were not very squeamish about urine: not only was it an essential element in tanning leather and fulling cloth, but the medieval physician’s analysis of a patient’s urine was expected to take into account taste as well as appearance.”


Hans-Werner Goetz, Life in the Middle Ages: From the Seventh to the Thirteenth Century, translated by Albert Wimmer, edited by Steven Rowan (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993).

H. E. Hallem, Rural England, 1066-1348 (London: Fontana, 1981).

Jeffrey L. Singman, Daily Life in Medieval Europe (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999).

John Storck and Walter Dorwin Teague, Flour for Man’s Bread: A History of Milling (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1952).