A MEDIEVAL MYSTERY - by Noel C. Brindley


The fashion of the knight, c1370

For of bak and of brest al were his bodi sturne,
Both his wombe and his wast were worthily smale,

Effigy of Sir Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, died 1369. The style of this knights armour would have been similar to Sir John Chandos'. The padded chest, emphasising the flatness of the belly and slim waist, was typical of the fashion of the period and must have been the body form that men aspired to in the 1360/70's. The description of the Green Knight in the Gawain poem resembles the form of an idealic knight of his time, as follows: "For his back and chest were sturdy and strong, both his belly and his waist were worthily small;" (photo: N C Brindley)

The pourpoint - After the middle of the 14th century it was the fashion to stuff out the chest with padding, giving the wearer a pigeon-chested look further accentuated by pulling in the waist.

The paltock now assumed its later name of "pourpoint". The shape of the close-fitting garment, remained much the same, but the breast part was now stuffed.

1360s, description of Pourpoint of Charles of Blois.  Lyon, Musee Historique des Tissues - In what is in effect a padded doublet, its outer layer of splendid silk patterned with gold, the padding has been so disposed that it enlarges the chest, and, by the closeness of its fit to below the hips, it must have maintained a corset-like grip round the body below the waist.  Its sleeves are set onto the body part in the manner known as the grande assiette.

Description of Green Knight's clothes - 'And all arrayed in green were this man and his clothes: a closefitting tunic, very smooth, that clung to his sides,'

Stella Mary Newton - Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince, published by Boydell & Brewer Ltd 1980

Concerned with writing a book on fashion during the time of the Black Prince, Stella Mary Newton almost apologetically, concerns herself with references to a probable dating of the Gawain Poem, she says: 'This is no place to enter into an investigation as to a probable date for the famous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but it is worth pointing out that, among the poets and novelists of the second half of the fourteenth century, apart from Chaucer, it is the Gawain poet alone who appreciated the dramatic possibilities of clothing, and when, very near the beginning of the poem, the mysterious Green Knight appears at the end of a New Year's day banquet in King Arthur's hall, both his physique and his dress are described. Immensely tall and broad, his loins and back were sturdy and strong, but his belly flat and his waist small; entirely clothed in green, he wore a straight cote so tight that it 'stek on his sides', and this is followed by a vivid description of his hood, the length of his hair and his mantle lined with the whitest ermine. The emphasis on the tightness of the clothing - a tunic so tight that it clung to his sides and revealed the flatness of his belly and his slim waist - is a very fair comment on the fashion of the middle of the 1360s, as exemplified, for instance, in the pourpoint of Charles de Blois; (see image above) it is an appearance which would hardly have been remarked on as late as 1370, for by that time it was a composition which would not only have become commonplace but was, indeed, going out of fashion; by 1380, such tight tunics had disappeared altogether from the masculine fashion.'

Stella Mary Newton feels that the poem is infused with constant significant references to items of dress but she feels it would be inappropriate to discuss these as a date has not been attached to the poem. She refers to a time between the middle 1360s and no later than 1380. She says that the Green Knights tight tunic was commonplace by 1370, the year Sir John Chandos had died.

Sir John Chandos, the King's chamberlain, is mentioned on page 54 of Newton's book giving fashionable gifts of tunics to Edward III: In the early 1360s William Hervey delivered to King Edward III, two paltocks, one of them of black cloth, the gift of the King's Chamberlain, Sir John Chandos. PRO E101/393/15, mem. 13: Eidem ad unu paltok de panno nigr dat' dno Reg p Johan Chaundos liniand et stuffanz p man' pda Willi Hervy.' Tout Chyps III, p. 225 'John Chandos, the vice chamberlain...'

Stella Mary Newton explains: a paltock, though different in detail, must have been related to both the aketon and the pourpoint, or it may have been identical to the pourpoint, which as the name suggests, was also equipped with eyelet holes (as the paltock) and laces with metal points to thread through them in order not only to keep the hose up but to keep itself down.


Honi soit qui mal y pense

It would seem that a description of the original Habit of the Order of the Garter, as worn by Sir John Chandos, is described in the poem:-

"He were a bleaunt of blwe þat bradde to þe erþe,
His surkot semed hym wel þat softe watz forred,
And his hode of þat ilke henged on his schulder,
Blande al of blaunner were boþe al aboute."

Modern translation - "He wore a robe of blue, which reached to the floor; his surcoat, which was softly furred, suited him well, and his matching hood hung on his shoulder; both were trimmed all around with Fur."

The above robe of blue with surcoat and matching hood, lined with soft fur, is described in, The history of the most noble Order of the Garter by Elias Ashmole.
Elias Ashmole (23 May 1617 – 18 May 1692) was a celebrated English antiquary, politician, officer of arms, astrologer and student of alchemy. Ashmole became one of the founding members of the Royal Society in 1661. His most significant appointment was to the College of Arms as Windsor Herald of Arms in Ordinary in June 1660.

Ashmole tells us that, at its institution, the original Habit of the Order of the Garter from the Rolls and Accounts of the great wardrobe, was: Garter, Mantle, Surcoat and Hood. The Robe/Mantle, Surcoat and Hood were all of blue material. The surcoat and hood of the companions were lined with Minever fur, (these are usually described as bellies of Minever, the softest fur) the Sovereign's was lined Ermine.
The colour of the surcoat with matching hood (of þat ilke) then varied every year, according to Ashmole. The Mantle remaining "celestial colour" blue as in the French Arms.

Reference to the Garter is not mentioned in the poem until right at the end, but the detail of the surcoat hood and even the colour and length of the robe are. The only added detail in Ashmole's description concerning the garter, is that the surcoat and hood were embroidered or fixed with small garters.

The surcoats and hood were of fine woolen cloth and were provided by King Edward. The mantle having one large Garter embroidered on the left shoulder. The Mantle was expected to be made of the same fine English wool as surcoat and hood. Ashmole explains that because the Mantle was supplied at the knights expense other materials such as silk or velvet may have been used. Also, proxies of foreign Princes could bring over with them mantles of silk and velvet when they came to receive possession of their principal stalls........silk or velvet (velvet at this time being made from silk) being the nobler representation.


The vainglory of the secular knight

It may have been the fashion to wear tight tunics in 1369, but it may well have been Chandos' flamboyantly long robe that was partly responsible for his death -  from Froissart's account of the death of Sir John Chandos: 'That morning there had been a hoar-frost, which had made the ground slippery; so that as he marched he entangled his legs with his robe, which was of the longest, and made him tumble.'

Ironically it was Bernard of Clairvaux, (founder of the Cistercian order) who had derided the vainglory of the secular knight, writing in the 12th century, What then, O knights, is this monstrous error and what this unbearable urge which bids you fight with such pomp and labour … You cover your horses with silk, and plume your armour with I know not what sort of rags; you paint your shields and your saddles; you adorn your bits and spurs with gold and silver and precious stones, and then in all this glory you rush to your ruin with fearful wrath and fearless folly …
Do you think the swords of your foes will be turned back by your gold, spare your jewels or be unable to pierce your silks? … Why do you bind yourselves with effeminate locks and trip yourselves up with long and full tunics?  From: Bloodied Banners, Martial Display on the Medieval Battlefield By Robert W. Jones

Next page: The associations of the forest in the Gawain poem with the biblical desert or wilderness



by Noel C Brindley - May 2012

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