Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Medieval: History vs Fantasy

Lets get something clear about what Medieval Costuming is and is not. Seriously, There are so many misconceptions, it drives me crazy (especially considering what I saw at Fête médiévale de Saint-Colomban!) . So today I'm going to rant a little.

For instance:

Question: How to make your dress poof, like in the medieval times?*
Answer: I don't know in your alternate reality what the middle ages looked like, but in mine, there was no such thing as poofy dresses.

Question: Where can I find authentic medieval elf clothing?*
Answer: There is no such thing as an elf (we are not getting into a metaphysical debate here), so there is no way you can find "authentic medieval elf clothing".

*These questions were really asked on
Yahoo! Answers; I did not make them up for the sake of argument.

Another misconception is that any natural fabric is fine. One of my teachers, for a Fibres class, actually told us Cotton was for the poor and Linen was for the rich. WRONG! Cotton, in medieval Europe, was almost unknown and exceedingly expensive. It only became cheap and accessible when it started being mass produced in the Americas. Before then, Cotton was used to describe a type of fabric (like flannel) and not a fibre.

Linen, Flax and Wool were accessible to all in the Middle Ages. Anyone could grow Linen or Flax in their garden and wool grew on sheep. The Silk market was an important one, so Silk could also be obtained, but for a price!

And once and for all, "Medieval" or "Middle Ages" generally refers to the time period between the Fall of the Western Roman Empire (5th century C.E.) and the Fall of Constantinople (1453). Are we clear on that? (That means no more telling me that Middle Ages lasted until the French Revolution - you should have paid attention in school!)

Having said that, Medieval fantasy costumes are really cool, and I like them too, I just like to be specific and clear about Semantics.

Here are some examples of Historical Medieval costume sources:

From extant medieval clothing:

Pourpoint of Charles de Blois (1364), Musée des Tissus de Lyon

From mortuary statues:

Jeanne d'Armagnac, died 1387

From period Artwork:

Bayeux Tapestry (11th century)

Manesse Codex (1304)

For Medieval-Fantasy costumes (including LARP, Fairytale, Pre-Raphaelite, etc.), the sky is the limit. Use your imagination, be creative, but know that what you are making is Fantasy, not Historical. Here are some examples of Medieval-Fantasy costume sources:

From Pre-Raphaelite paintings:

The Lady of Shalott, John William Waterhouse, 1888, Oil on canvas, 153 cm × 200 cm, Tate Gallery, London.

Spring (The Flower Picker), John William Waterhouse, c. 1900, Watercolour, 46.2 x 29.2 cm, Private Collection.

From Video Games:

From Movies:

Liv Tyler as Arwen (Green Coronation Gown), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Kristanna Loken as Brunnhild and Alicia Witt as Kriemhild, Ring of the Nibelungs (2004)

Kristin Kreuk as Tenar, Earthsea (2004)

Now that you have read "Gwenyver's guide to differentiate Medieval-History from Medieval-Fantasy", you have no more excuses to get it wrong!


  1. We are so on the same way of thining you and I ^^

    I'd like to add: If you dress yourself in commonly called "medieval shops", you are not dressed medieval. It's anything but that, but you may call it "medieval inspiration" if you want, it's just that it can be inspired by a whole lot more things, including actual fashion.

    Also, although I am a 100% with you on what is studied to be the Middle Ages, we could have a long debate on this, because great historians such as Le Goff, Martin and Merdrignac tend to say that there really is no division between Renaissance and Middles Ages, because the Renaissance would only be one of the multiple "renaissances" of the Middle Ages... which I would tend to agree, but that doesn't change the fact that yes, people tend to mix the costumes between the different eras. Ah well, my english is poor when debating :p Sorry about ranting myself.

  2. Whatever comes from "Medieval stores" I personally call "Modern Medieval".

    I get what you mean about dates for the Middle Ages not being set in stone, but one has to draw the line somewhere, and besides, I wrote that because I once had a debate with someone who insisted 18th century was still Medieval period.

  3. Modern medieval.... that's good :p I'll translate that for my next use. :)

    And.... yeah, 18th century is no way medieval. haha

  4. The cotton thing does vary, though. It was more likely to be found later in the period you gave in Italy as they had such extensive trade with the middle east where it was more common. It was still a fabric of the rich and elite, though.

  5. Perhaps. I don't know much about Italy, so at this point, I couldn't (and wouldn't) confirm or deny what you have written, but one has to remember that Italian Renaissance began before it did in the rest of Europe, and they were nottable fabric merchants. Italy was really a world of it's own.