On Practical Matters
Updated: Sep 6, 2018
It is today possible to talk about matters that would once have been regarded as risqué, or simply distasteful; not the sort of thing one discussed in polite society. I cannot imagine my father's generation, for example, having a stimulating discussion on the question of what a knight wore beneath his armour.
I got to thinking about this when reading an article published not long ago in a certain international journal that informed its readers that the American Space Agency, NASA, was turning to the public for ideas for what they termed a “fecal, urine, and menstrual management system". Scientists had not been able to come up with an effective means of resolving the difficulty face by astronauts wearing space suits for extensive periods. In conditions of microgravity (zero gravity) solids, fluids, and gases float around, and the aim was to find a way to collect human waste and route it away from the body, without the use of hands. The method that had been employed up to that time involved the wearing of diapers, but this created difficulties, particularly during launching, landing and space-walking, as these diapers could not provide adequate protection for longer than one day, whereas astronauts are on occasion required to wear their spacesuits for up to 10 hours at a time, and considerably longer in an emergency situation.
This brings us back to the medieval knight who would have faced a similar problem. He could be in the battlefield for many hours at a time, without the opportunity to relieve himself in the normal fashion. A knight’s armour and weapons weighed around 30 or more kilograms. Although that is not excessive when compared to the modern infantryman who often carries fifty-five to sixty-five kilograms of equipment, with both hands occupied with a sword or axe and a shield, and his head covered with a heavy and sometime visually-restricting helmet, he would have been somewhat encumbered when the urgent need arose.
Contemporary chroniclers not surprisingly steered well clear of this topic, and it is unlikely that archaeological remains will ever shed any light on it. How fortunate then that we can turn to another source, an unexpected one perhaps, to help resolve such an earthly subject. That source is nothing less than a bible.
One of the most important medieval manuscripts surviving from the thirteenth century is the Maciejowski Bible, today known as the Morgan Bible and located in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. Its full-page illuminations show scenes from the stories of the Old Testament, but in a medieval setting and with the characters in typically thirteenth century dress. In a number of scenes, knights without their armour appear wearing a diaper-like cloth garment tied around their waists. This was a type of loosely-fitting medieval underwear, known as braies. It was made of cotton or linen, and it was perhaps not as absorbent as modern diapers and, so, like those of the astronauts, probably not an ideal solution. But, at least so equipped, our knights in the battlefield would remain, as the modern advertisements promise, clean, dry and comfortable.