You can't take it with you when you leave

Clothes in Swedish Mediaeval wills 1200-1420

by Eva Andersson,
Doctoral candidate in History

This article was translated and webbed with the permission and assistance of the author

The first preserved Swedish wills are from the beginning of the 13th Century and are written by people within the church. A person of the clerical estate had no children, as he was not married, and therefore the normal laws of inheritance were not applicable; he could decide for himself how to distribute his personal estate after his death. You must expect that the majority of a priest's or monk's property, at least in the case of land, went to the church, but when it came to personal property such as clothing, books, silver and similar these were given to colleagues, relatives and servants. During the early period we are mostly dealing with bishops and priests attached to cathedrals in the larger cities; Uppsala, Lund and Linköping, but from the 14th Century and on we see more wills from country priests as well. Here the conditions of preservation probably play a large part. The cathedrals had their own archives where wills were kept, whereas the will of a country priest was probably only preserved if he had given land to a religious institution and it kept a copy of the will to prove their ownership of the land.

The first "laymen's wills" appear somewhat later; only from 1272 do we have a preserved will that contains a gift of clothing, not specified further, along with a brooch and a ring. Laymen's wills without gifts of clothing do however occur somewhat earlier. Wills were something introduced by the church and were not accepted without resistance. The church's purpose with the wills was to increase its ability to inherit land and other property, something that without wills was almost impossible as children, or if there were none, parents and siblings inherited the land. In this way the land, which was the most important source of wealth and influence, stayed in the family. The Swedish laws from the high middle ages regulate very carefully how much of the dying person's property may be given to the church and that such a gift may only be given with the "rightful heir's" approval. By the time the laymen's wills become common this law has been weakened and often large properties are given to the church, both as bequests and as so called soul gifts during the lifetime of the donor.

During the 14th Century the number of wills increases markedly and in addition it becomes more common to bequeath items of clothing. It's not just a case of the number of preserved wills increasing but it also an increase in the actual proportion of testaments containing clothing and/or cloth. It becomes more common that wealthier farmers and burghers draw up wills, something that previously was only done by nobility and priests. This is also evident in what is bequeathed, as it becomes more common with different types of personal effects such as clothing, bedding, pots, cups, spoons and knives. The very richest and most powerful of the country rarely bequeathed clothing; here we see instead farms, land and sometimes even gifts of money. In their wills we find no clues as to what happened to their clothing after their death. That these were taken care of is without doubt, as even fairly simple articles of clothing represented great value, but they were apparently not seen as valuable enough by the richest men in the country to be included in their wills. Many however valued their clothing so much that they wished to pass it on; of all the wills from the 14th Century about 40% contain clothing or fabric intended for clothing. It is not only the owner's own clothing, however, in several cases it is stated that clothing shall be made up for one or more people in a specified material, usually an imported woollen cloth of some kind.

What items of clothing were bequeathed?
The absolutely most common garment in the wills is the tunica (kjortel/kirtle). In total during the period no less than 247 kirtles are bequeathed. The first is from 1215 and the last from 1420. Despite the fact that not just the number of wills in general but wills with cloth and clothing decreases after 1360 there are still fairly many kirtles from this period, which reasonably leads us to believe a continued popularity even after the period in question. The kirtle was the main article of clothing for both men and women during the whole period. The woman's was always full length while the man's kirtle could be of varying length depending on changes in fashion. It had long sleeves. Other than that there are few details of the construction of the kirtle, but as there are twelve cases from 1215 to 1371 where a man leaves a woman his own kirtle, we can assume that in general the kirtles weren't "close", i.e. particularly fitted. Of course she could remake a man's kirtle to a close-fitting woman's gown, as men are generally bigger than women, but more likely the kirtle, like the finds from Herjolfsnes in Greenland and the Bocksten man's costume, had only a slight suggestion of form-fitting, as they are almost straight down to the waist and then increase in width with the inset of gores. In 1409 a woman bequeaths her new black, lined kirtle to a man, and at least in this case it should be obvious that it is not a fitted garment. In the wills we also find silver buttons for kirtles and sleeve clasps of silver to close the sleeves that during the 14th Century were very tight. The material of the kirtles is mentioned unusually often, compared to other items of clothing. In a total of 89 cases we not only see that the kirtle is of, or will be made imported woollens, but also from where this cloth came. Two kirtles are mentioned only as of good cloth. Three kirtles are of 'silfar', and two of 'sayan', both lighter woollens. Two more kirtles for the same man are made of scarlet, eleven of burello, i.e. worsted and one each of wolf's fur, marten fur and leather. One kirtle is identified as of mixed material from Bruges. The most common colour was blue. Next in falling order of popularity come red, brown, white, grey, green, black and "mixti coloris". Mixti coloris means mixed colours, but if this means some sort of mottled material or if it was patterned we cannot tell from the wills alone. One woman's kirtle from 1331 is "halwskipftan", that is the kirtle is divided in two halves of different colours (parti-coloured). Two red kirtles were lined with marten fur and one grey one with lambskin.

Second on the list of popular items of clothing is the mantle. Information on what shape the mantle has is almost always absent in the wills. The only example to the contrary is a will from 1285 where a dean in Lund gives sir Lars in St Thomas' church his blue, round mantle. All in all no less than 154 mantles are mentioned in the wills from 1200-1413. The last seven years of the survey there are no mentions at all of mantles, but on the other hand there are only two wills in that period. However the number of mantles decreases quite clearly after circa 1340. This suggests that some other type of outer garment has taken over the role of the mantle. Mantles exist in all imaginable colours and with all kinds of linings, most common is 'vair' - that is the winter fur of the squirrel - or marten, but woollen cloth, lynx fur and silk are also present. You often see in different books the statement that the mantle was constructed with a hood attached, but in the Swedish wills there is nothing to indicate that this was the case. Archaeological material and contemporary art on the other hand show many loose hoods worn on top of kirtles and mantles, while there are no preserved garments with attached hoods. There are pictures of over garments of different kinds with hoods from the 13th and 14th Centuries, but these are over garments with sleeves. On one hand kirtle-like garments with hoods and on the other an over garment with loose hanging sleeves and hood. Mantles with hoods are, as far as I know, not present in contemporary imagery.

When the mantle looses its role as the ubiquitous outer garment, some other garment must have taken it over. In the wills a number of different garments occur which might have functioned as outer garments. The most common is the surcote. It is an over garment for both men and women from the 13th Century and through to the end of the 14th Century. Its appearance varies during the period and it could have long narrow sleeves, short sleeves or be completely without sleeves. The men's surcotes were often slit in the front to make it easier to ride. There are a total of 32 surcotes in the material. It is most common during the latter decades of the 13th Century and the first half of the 14th. After 1350 the garment is mentioned only three times. As can be seen from the description above a surcote could be constructed a number of different ways and there is a significant difference between an over garment with tight sleeves and what immediately comes to mind when we hear the word surcote; an outer garment for women with large armholes through which one could see the tight under dress. The word itself derives from 'sur-cotte', i.e. 'above the cotte', which is the French word for the kirtle worn by both men and women, and it gives no suggestion as to how the garment looked at different times. The surcote, based on the Swedish material, seems to be mainly a man's garment. Surcotes for women are mentioned six times, the first in 1316. It happens that women are given surcotes earlier, but then it concerns a man bequeathing his own surcote to a woman. This could suggest that at least the early surcote was of such appearance that it could be worn both as a man's and as a woman's garment. Surcotes appear amongst others in the colours white, purple, green, red and blue and were often lined with fur or cloth, often in a contrasting colour.

Another outer garment mentioned in wills from the whole period is the tabard. Usually a tabard refers to a military and ceremonial outer garment, which was used during the period of 1200-1500 and had open hanging front- and back pieces with short wing-shaped sleeves. This tabard was mainly used at tourneys. The garment is also mentioned as a riding coat, and it is in this shape it occurs in the Swedish wills. There is mention of 19 tabards, all men's garments, even though in one case a woman inherits a man's tabard. In half the instances the tabard is lined and the colours mentioned are blue, red and brown.

In addition the pellicium, which was some form of fur coat and probably an over garment, is mentioned 15 times in the material; the first time in 1201 and the last time in 1372. Six women and nine men receive a pellicium. In one case a man donates his own pellicium to a woman. What kind of fur we're dealing with is identified in four cases. One pellicium is of vair and three of marten. Pellicium occur both as a man's and a woman's garment. The garment is not particularly common and doesn't appear to have survived the turn of the century 1400, at least not under that name.

A fairly late outer garment that becomes common only by the 1330's is a garment called a toga. It is clear it is not the classical Roman garment, which disappeared already in the latter days of the empire, and was in any case never worn by women. Walborg Jonsdotter comes to our aid in our attempts to figure out what kind of garment it is by bequeathing in 1328 "…my toga called aermakapae …" to another woman. This is the first mention of the garment. It is, in other words, a "sleeve coat", an outer garment with sleeves. Toga is mentioned in all 20 times between 1328 and 1374. 14 togas, the first in 1331, are given to men and six to women. Four of the women who receive togas are given the male donor's own toga. In other words it seems to be a garment that is mainly used by men but women can wear also. Most of the togas/sleeve coats lack information on colour, but there are four blue, one red, one green and one brown. Several are lined, one with vair, two with marten and one with green lining, one with a lining of "mixti coloris" and four are just identified as lined. In one case the material of the toga is given and it is a man's toga from 1374 that is made from scarlet.

With the outer garment was often worn a hood, either covering only the head or continuing down into a cape which covers the shoulders and part of the chest. Hoods of this kind have been found both on the Bocksten man dated to the 13th to 14th Century and in several of the men's graves in the cemetery in Herjolfsnes, whose costume finds are dated to the period between 1000-1500. A common form during the 14th and 15th Centuries was a hood with a liripipe. Hoods are very common as gifts, the garment occurs 96 times during the period and there is nothing suggesting it would be on its way out when the survey ends in 1420. Often information about the colour is missing, but brown, red, black and blue hoods are mentioned. Information on lining is somewhat more common, and much suggests that hoods were usually lined, normally with fur but silk is also mentioned. The material of the actual hood was normally woollen cloth, but worsted and lighter woollens also occur in the material. Hoods were, judging by the wills, worn both by men and women.

These are the commonest garments bequeathed, but hose, shoes, boots, shirts and veils and other types of headdress occurred too. There is however a strong bias for more expensive clothing in fine materials, hose and shirts which were considered undergarments are very unusual and those who bequeath them are identified as servants or priests in country parishes. Naturally accessories were also bequeathed, such as jewellery, usually rings and brooches and silver-ornamented belts along with silver buttons.

The wills give a colourful image of the dress of the Middle Ages; something which church painting and archaeological finds cannot give because of different chemical reactions to the dyes over the centuries. Of the bright red, blue and green garments Mediaeval people loved all that remains are brownish remnants, but here in the documents we rediscover the brilliant colours and the variation given by different linings. Specifically these wills only show us the higher strata of society, but green and yellow colours can be had from plants and mushrooms found growing wild in Sweden and these could surely satisfy the common people's desire for colour.

It also happens that a man bequeaths his war equipment; a man named Andreas gives his byrnie and breast plate to his servant and Brynolf Haroksson from Fiskaby in Småland gives his hauberk, his greaves and a pair of mail hose to Nydala convent. You'd think a convent would not have much use for them but a coat of arms represented a great value and the intention was surely that they would be sold.

Who was given the garments?
Most commonly the will does not mention the relationship between the donor and the recipient. It does however seem that mostly relatives outside the immediate family, churchmen, tenants and servants are given clothing. The immediate heirs are rarely mentioned in this type of will, their inheritance was already secured by law. Relatives and servants identified as "faithful" or "old" are among those who inherit the clothes of the deceased, while it is more common for tenants or other servants to be given clothing to be made up. Sometimes we are dealing with a large number of servants, over twenty on one occasion, who are all given the same suit of clothing. You can see a difference in the value of the cloth, fabric from Marienburg (Malbork) in East Prussia and Nivelles in Brabant are more commonly bequeathed to servants, tenants and poor, while scarlet and cloth from Ghent and Ypres, two of the most influential Flemish textile towns, are more common in gifts to relatives and church men. There are of course servants who are given expensive clothing in the wills too, Magnus Nilsson and Ingrid give a mantle of Ghent cloth to the servant woman Ingiburg and Katarina Knutsdotter, widow after the knight Ulf Håkansson gives her son's wetnurse a blue kirtle with silver buttons from her daughter's hood. Here we are seeing servants that the lady or lord of the house has developed special friendships with. This is probably the case when the same Katarina Knutsdotter gives a chaplet and a garment to Ingeburg Bodotter's servant woman Sigrid, who was not even her own servant.

It was not uncommon for women to inherit men's clothing and the reverse also occurred.

What happened to the clothing that was bequeathed?
The most common was probably that the recipient used them as they were, but when women inherited men's clothing and vice versa they could not just use them as they were. In many cases they were probably remade to fit the heir, but if it could not be used as it was or be altered to fit the new owner, you could always sell it on. There was a large trade in used clothing during the entire Middle Ages and garments were sometimes shipped as far as from current-day Belgium to Italy to be sold on. Clothes were much more expensive during the Middle Ages than in our day and each garment represented a great sum of money. Where really exclusive garments are concerned the cloth for these cost more than what the weaver made in a year and cloth from Flanders was only worn by the well-to-do. Not even these could afford to purchase many such garments and to be able to follow the changes of fashion and satisfy your desire for new clothing you sold off garments you had grown out of or got tired of. In addition cloth of good quality was practically indestructible so the "second hand value" of an exclusive garment of good woollen cloth was quite high. This made it worth the effort to ship these used garments far away if there was a market for them, despite the cost of transport in the Middle Ages being quite high.

Clothing was then a valuable gift and it is not surprising that they occur so often in the wills. Among these bequeathed kirtles, surcotes, buttons and hoods (not to mention pots, sheets and pillows) you briefly get close to the people of the Middle Ages, and you can see how the clerk, Tycho Djäkne's, nephew happily received his uncle's blue mantle and blue hood with a red silk lining, and how the young girl Athledi in Linköping liked to make herself pretty in her inherited red surcote with green lining and her hood with a vair lining.