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Anglo-Saxon clothes and textiles - lost forever?

Updated: May 23, 2021

How did the elite in Anglo-Saxon England use textiles and clothes to express their status and power? As an archaeologist, can we ever find evidence of this material culture, or is it all hypothetical?

We looked briefly before at how the thegnly class in Anglo-Saxon England sought to distinguish themselves from the masses through a complex culinary culture. Another important distinction of class is seen in the use of textiles - both for the body, and for the decoration of buildings.

Sociologists and anthropologists acknowledged dress not only as a passive reflection of rank, but as an active tool in navigating relationships of status (and gender, age etc): fashion is ‘fundamental to knowing [...] who we are in the world’ (Corrigan 2008, 14). It is through this model drawn from modern ethnographic comparison, applied as a middle-range theory, that we might understand the contemporary use of clothing as a mark of distinction.

Early medieval clothing is not entirely invisible to the archaeologist. For example, textile samples have been recovered from the 16-22 Coppergate site at York, largely as a function of remarkable survivability through water-logged conditions. However, this evidence is sparse, and our understanding is drawn largely from documentary sources, along with pictorial sources generated particularly in the output of the Benedictine Reform (Owen-Crocker 1986, 132). From this it is clear that there existed in late Anglo-Saxon a complex and ostentatious high fashion. Certainly, royal evidence suggests a careful and deliberate manipulation of clothing to express status. By the reign of the Confessor, it seems that regal use of ostentatious clothing had moved from only ritual and ceremonial purposes to ‘everyday wear’ (Fleming 2007, 138). Fleming suggests that Byzantine silk, with its complex symbolic resonances, was far more frequent in late Anglo-Saxon than historians have previously acknowledged (Ibid., 128). Manuscript illustrations frequently show complex, expensive and colourful designs (Fleming 2001, 9). Archaeologically, finds from the 11th century see increased evidence of gold braid and embroidery (Ibid., 10).

An enthusiastic participation in this new ostentatious culture is evident among the thegnly class. The Life of King Edward recounts the story of Gospatric, ‘a knight’, who is targeted by robbers due to ‘the luxury of his clothes’ (Barlow 1992, 55-7). The appearance of clothing in thegnly wills, as part of an increased evidence for the bequeathing of portable wealth in the tenth century, marks both a lavish fashion and an understanding of the status significance of these items (Tollerton 2011, 180). Furs seem particularly to have been a method of ‘social mimicry’, as royal fashion became increasingly available lower down the social ladder through the increasing market economy (Fleming 2001, 10). Owen-Crocker has identified variation in the length of cloaks in illustrated sources, and the broad linguistic range in reference to them, as a further possible expression of status (Owen-Crocker 1986, 152-3).

The use of textiles is also relevant in the dressing not only of the body but also of buildings. Blair explicitly suggests that Anglo-Saxon grandeur is to be understood not as reflected by space but by decoration (Blair 2015, 186-7). Documentary sources suggest decoration in secular halls too, and ‘textiles [...] are all-pervasive in the narrative sources’ (Fleming 2001, 11). Elite wills reference the bequesting of wahrift and heallwahriftes; are we to imagine long range interiors draped in decorated textiles (Sylvester 2016, 187)? Goscelin’s Miracles of St Ive certainly references the conspicuous textile display of ‘a rich and faithful man’ Godric, including not only ‘decorated tapestries’ for wall hangings, but also ‘the purple and gold decoration of the couches’ (Coatsworth 2007, 6). If, like Tilley, we adopt the guise of the phenomenologist (that is, to move through and experience the environment as the people of the past would have), we cannot ignore the overwhelming visual (and, perhaps, auditory) embodied experienced by people moving through these elite sites (Brück 2005, 47).

Textiles, adorning both body and buildings, would thus appear to have constituted a further deliberate expression of status and differentiation by the thegnly class, often in a deliberate attempt to mirror royalty. As archaeologists, however, we must acknowledge that a great deal of this cultural footprint is lost to modernity, and it is only through a productive synthesis with historical documentary sources that we can better understand these phenomena.

THIS ARTICLE IS PART OF A SERIES - the role of buildings and food point also to a complex system of symbols and power.

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Blair, J., ‘The Making of the English House: Domestic Planning, 900-1150’, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, 19/1 (2015), pp.184-206

Brück, J., ‘Experiencing the Past? The Development of a Phenomenological Archaeology in British Prehistory’, Archaeological Dialogues, 12/1 (2005), pp.45-72

Coatsworth, E., ‘Cushioning Medieval Life: Domestic Textiles in Anglo-Saxon England’ in R. Netherton and G. R. Owen-Crocker (eds.), Medieval Clothing and Textiles 3 (16 vols, Woodbirdge, 2007), pp.1-12

Corrigan, P., The Dressed Society: Clothing, the Body and Some Meanings of the World (London, 2008)

Fleming, R., ‘Acquiring, Flaunting and Destroying Silk in Late Anglo-Saxon England’, Early Medieval Europe, 15/2 (2007), pp.127-58

Fleming, R., ‘Rural Elites and Urban Communities in Late-Saxon England’, Past and Present, 141/1 (1993), pp.3-37

Fleming, R., ‘The New Wealth, the New Rich and the New Political Style in Late Anglo-Saxon England’ in J. Gillingham (ed.), Anglo-Norman Studies XXIII. Preceedings of the Battle Conference 2000 (Woodbridge, 2001), pp.1-22

Owen-Crocker, G. R., Dress in Anglo-Saxon England (Manchester, 1986)

Sylvester, L. M., ‘The Language of Dress and Textiles in Wills of the Old English Period’ in M. C. Hyer and J. Frederick (eds.), Textiles, Text and Intertext (Woodbridge, 2016), pp.27-42

Tollerton, L., Wills and Will-Making in Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge, 2011)


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