Peasant Costume

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Peasant Costume

Images of Labor.

The costume of the nobility is fairly familiar to modern historians thanks to its frequent depiction in manuscript miniatures, wall paintings, and tomb art. While such evidence is not as available for the more humble costume of peasants, there is still a considerable body of evidence to offer a rather precise idea of a costume which remained fairly fixed from about 800 to about 1375. Such sources include manuscript illumination, textual sources (including literature), and numerous French wills and inventories of garments in the possession of agricultural laborers. Moreover, some details of female agricultural costume were preserved in poems called pastourelles (from the French word for "shepherdess"), a type of song popular in both northern and southern France during the thirteenth century. These poems told the story of how a knight passing through a rural area tries to seduce or overpower a pretty shepherdess. Since the knight coming upon a shepherdess guarding her flock often describes her clothing as part of her charm, these poems also serve as a source of information about rustic female dress. A variant of the pastourelle called the bergerie (meaning "shepherd" in French) features an aristocratic observer of a group of shepherds in conversation or playing games. Information about their clothing or discussions of clothing sometimes form part of these poems.

Peasant Women.

Regardless of class, women's costume had certain elements in common, although costume for peasants was drab in color and used far coarser materials and less ornamentation than did the clothes of the aristocracy. All classes of women apparently wore a white linen or hemp chemise or underdress with full-length sleeves, fitted at the wrists. There is no evidence that women in the Middle Ages wore underpants under the chemise, though men did. Women seem to have worn hose, though they were only calf or knee high. The chemise's neckline sometimes plunged to show the tops of the breasts, and its bodice was often laced horizontally or criss-cross. The chemise could be pleated on occasion. Over the chemise peasant women wore a long, tightly fitting dress similar to that worn by upper-class women. This dress was called a cote or cotte. The word robe in the earlier Middle Ages referred to an entire female costume made up of a chemise, a cote, and a cloak-like over-garment called surcote (literally, "overcoat"), or sometimes a mantel. For working outside, they wore a kerchief-like headcover or a cap with a stiff brim and mittens. In some cases the cote was tucked up into the waistband of a white linen or hemp apron to keep its hem clean while the woman engaged in "dirty work." By the mid-thirteenth century it became fashionable for women to have the cote and a protective outer garment of a matching fabric called burel, which is both a coarse wool and a grayish-brown color. In some cases, as noted in death inventories of possessions of late fourteenth-century Burgundian peasants, the cote is most commonly described as a shade of blue or, next most popular, a shade of red. Against the cold, the rustic woman would often have a cloak or sometimes a hooded surcote; this was apparently a very desirable garment, since in one anonymous thirteenth-century French pastourelle the practical shepherdess tells the narrator that he must give her a "sorcote" before she will make love with him. Somewhat wealthier female peasants wore cloaks trimmed with rabbit or cat fur. In fair weather female agricultural workers wore neither surcote nor cloak. They are often depicted in medieval manuscripts such as the Très Riches Heures of Jean de Berry (1415), sowing in the fields while wearing a special apron or overdress with a fold to hold the seed with the simplest of smocks underneath. Rustic women are easily recognizable in medieval manuscript painting by the presence of a large brimmed, rather flat straw hat, very like that worn today by farm workers in Asia.

Male Agricultural Costume.

Throughout the period, male peasant clothing was largely similar to the costume that upper-class men had worn in the Carolingian period (eighth to tenth century), when the main concern of the warrior class was to have freedom of movement. Even when male aristocratic costume lengthened, peasant costume remained at the knee or just slightly below. Beginning with the feet, typical male peasant costume consisted of hose of a sturdy white fabric (in good weather) worn inside low patchwork shoes with leather soles and heels. In winter, the peasant wore gaiters or leggings, usually made of canvas or leather, over his hose. His undergarments were the chemise, similar to that worn by women but with long split tails in which he often wrapped any coins he might have, and linen braies (underwear). Over the chemise he wore a sleeveless cote, often with double facings—broad strips added on the chest and shoulders for warmth and resistance to wear. This was sometimes called in Old French the jupeau or jupel and could be made of the coarse


introduction: The only medieval text to describe in some detail the actual dress of shepherds is the treatise by Jean de Brie called Le Bon Berger, or The Good Shepherd, supposedly written at the command of King Charles V of France in 1373. The practicality of the average agricultural costume described here highlights the functionality of shepherds' clothing, which stands in stark contrast to the "luxury" of courtly attire.

The shepherd ought to wear stockings of a sturdy white cloth or of a camel-hair fabric and some slippers with soles and heels of sturdy leather. In winter, he ought to have, over his hose, gaiters or leggings cut from the leather of old boots, to keep off rain. To last longer, the heels and soles ought to be sewn with a stout hempen thread well waxed … And the shepherd ought to be able to squat on his heels, under a bush when it is necessary.

The shepherd's chemise and braies ought to be of a thick and sturdy linen fabric called canvas. The garters or suspenders (brayette) holding the hose to the braies ought to be made of cloth about two fingers wide with two round iron buckles. The chemise should be split into two tails, and these ought to be long and shaped like a small handkerchief so that the shepherd can wrap up his coins inside and tie the bag with a simple knot. Over the chemise he should have a coteron or sleeveless mantle of white linen or of gray camel hair [imitation camelin of goat hair]; this ought to be double faced over the shoulders as far down as the belt in order to protect his chest and belly from wind and storms and to allow him to walk across the fields more surely behind his sheep, for they are of such a nature that they go willingly against the wind.

Over the mantle the shepherd ought to have a surcote, a garment of white linen or of gray camel hair ending in two square bibs. The one hangs like an apron before and the other behind, protecting from cold both belly and loins. It has sleeves and is large and ample enough so that he can get it on easily without buttons. For it is not suitable to have buttonholes or hooks that can annoy him when he is getting dressed. Rather he ought to enter it directly, as if getting into a sack or like Aaron's tunic. Above the surcote he ought to have a surplice of canvas with sleeves and four buttons. This surplice protects the shepherd from the rain, and sometimes he will have to remove it to wrap up a lamb just born in the field. Around his surplice he ought to have a girdle of fine strong cord, braided of three strands, with a round iron buckle. From this girdle he can suspend various things. …

He ought to hang from this girdle a scabbard in old taw or rough-tanned leather or eelskin in which to keep his flail. And he ought to carry a pouch in which to keep his bread and food for his dog. It ought to be of a kind of netting suitably knotted in the fashion of a potter's harness. This pouch ought to be worn on the shepherd's left in order that it not encumber his right side so that he can easily shear, trim, anoint, and bleed his sheep, if need be. And to the pouch ought to be attached a dog leash of about a yard and a half in length which ought to be redoubled back to the pouch. In the middle of the leash he ought to have a piece of leather with a small toggle of wood to attach and unhook his dog and send him easily and quickly against wolves and other annoying animals which wish to seize his sheep. …

It is proper that the shepherd wear a felt hat, round and very large. On the brim and upper part of the crown fabric ought to be doubled a palm's length or more. This doubling is necessary for two reasons. At first to protect the shepherd from rain and bad weather when he goes against the wind behind his sheep. Secondly, for the profit of the master who owns the sheep. For each time that the shepherd goes to anoint the animals against the scab and he cuts the wool away with his scissors to get to the scabbed spot, he puts the wisps of wool and clippings in the folds and doublings of his hat, in order to return them to the master at the house. For he is obliged to look out for his master's interests in doing his offices as a shepherd. This hat is usefully adapted to a shepherd's life as much to protect him from rain, wind and storm as to cover his head. …

In winter the shepherd ought to have some mittens to protect his hands from the cold. He ought not to buy them but make them himself whether he knits them with needles in the fashion of a canon's hood from a skein of wool spun by the hand of a shepherdess, or whether he makes them from cloth of several colors to his own taste; when they are made of such motley bits of cloth they are very pretty. When it is not too cold where the shepherd can work with his hands, he ought to hang these mittens from a small ball hooked to his girdle. …

source: Jehan de Brie, Le Bon Berger. Le Vrai Règlement et gouvernement des bergers et bergères. Ed. Michel Clévenot (Paris: Stock, 1979). Translation by John Block Friedman.

grayish brown wool called burel if undyed, or perhaps dyed dark gray-blue with woad, a pigment-producing plant. The jupeau could also be made of heavy canvas. For many tasks, the peasant would wear a linen or leather apron over the cote. An example of a male laborer with such an apron for seeding occurs in a calendar for a book of hours (daily devotions and prayers) now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The full peasant costume is illustrated in a manuscript miniature from the Maciejowski Bible in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, which shows a peasant at work in a cote, tucked up into his braies. On top of his chemise and mantel against inclement weather was worn the surcote, also of white linen or of matching wool with bib-like extensions at front and rear. This was usually cut large and had no buttons. A girdle or belt on which pouches could be hung to hold sharpening stones, sewing implements, or, for shepherds, salves or even dog food, completed this outfit. Peasant men usually wore a large round felt hat and fingerless woolen mittens, in contrast to the fancier gloves worn by aristocrats.

A Change for Men.

By the mid-fourteenth century (1350–1375), members of the working class less frequently spent their lives confined to manors where they labored and began to have increased access to consumer goods. This new freedom translated into fashion as the male costume changed somewhat and began to imitate courtier garb, which had by then become shorter and more tightly fitted. In particular, the cote was radically shortened, coming just to the buttocks or slightly below, and the plowmen or urban industrial workers wore hose that were tightly fitted and cut on the bias to give them elasticity. The hose were attached to the hem of the cote by laces, sometimes with metal ends called points. For vigorous work involving bending, these laces were left unfastened.


introduction: Shepherd costume is often described in a variant form of the pastourelle called the bergerie, from the French word for "shepherd." These poems were popular in the 1360s; one appearing in a collection of lyrics now in the University of Pennsylvania Library (MS Van Pelt 15) is particularly rich in concrete information about male peasant costume. It also shows the same satiric attitude toward excesses in costume applied to the ornate headdresses of women. In this bergerie, a shepherd named Herman, now 100 years old, offers sartorial and moral counsel to his son Robin—a stock name for a shepherd.

"[Make sure] that you wear a white smock, patchwork shoes laced high and fastened with three iron clasps. Beware of short smocks showing your behind and codpiece in tight-gathered drawers when you squat and crouch, and do not wear pointed and windowed shoes." …

[The dutiful Robin agrees to do just as Herman commands:]

"Father, I will do your will. No poulaines will be my shoes, causing me to trip as I go. I will not walk about with my stomach belted in tightly nor with my hose attached to my smock, for in kneeling when girded thus, all will rip in several places."

Translated from the Middle French by John Block Friedman.


Janet Backhouse, Medieval Rural Life in the Luttrell Psalter (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000): 24.

Monique Closson, et al., "Le costume paysan au Moyen Age: Sources et méthodes," in Vêtements et sociétiés (Actes des journées de rencontre des 2 et 3 mars 1979) (Paris: Laboratoire d'ethnologie du Muséum national d'histoire naturelle: Société des amis du Musée de l'homme, 1981): 161–170.

Jehan de Brie, Le Bon Berger; Le Vrai Règlement et gouvernement des bergers et bergères. Ed. Michel Clévenot (Paris: Stock, 1979).

Alma Oakes and Margot Hill, Rural Costume, Its Origins and Development in Western Europe and the British Isles (London: Batsford, 1970).

Françoise Piponnier, "Une Révolution dans le costume masculin au XIVe siècle," in Le Vêtement: Histoire, archéologie et symbolique vestimentaires au Moyen Age. Vol. 1. Ed. Michel Pastoureau (Paris: Cahiers du Léopard d'Or, 1989): 225–242.