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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Fleece of a Sheep

buckle from Montfort Castle
Gilded buckle from Montfort

The English lawyer, social philosopher and statesman Thomas More (1478-1535), who lived in an age when clothing was more extravagant than perhaps any other time, wrote in his fictional work of political philosophy, Utopia:

"The Utopians wonder how any man should be so much taken with the glaring doubtful lustre of a jewel or a stone, that can look up to a star or to the sun himself; or how any should value himself because his cloth is made of a finer thread: for how fine soever that thread may be, it was once no better than the fleece of a sheep, and that sheep was a sheep still for all its wearing it."*

More must have felt uncomfortable in his official dress, consisting of fine fur, silk, gold chain and ring, shown in the famous Holbein portrait of 1527 when he served as a speaker in parliament. He was not backsliding as it was not his personal choice, but rather the required dress for his position of office.

Above and beyond its fundamental role of providing protection against the elements and preservation of bodily privacy, clothing is a means of self-expression, enabling its wearer to exhibit individuality and confidence. It conveys official rank, financial status, social standing, or the belonging of its wearer to a particular trade or social group, following the customs, traditions and values of that group. Kings, nobles, merchants, monks and peasants; each had their attire. For each there was a degree of the personal touch and there was also the continual, gradual change imposed by fashions (although neither of these aspects was much felt in such groups as the monastic and quasi-monastic orders).

The trappings of wealth can be observed in several descriptions of clothing in the Latin East. Writing about six decades after the fall of Acre, the German pilgrim, Ludolph of Suchem gives some examples of how things had been in that city, probably without too much exaggeration:

"All these princes, dukes, counts, nobles, and barons walked about the streets in royal state, with golden coronets on their heads, each of them like a king, with his knights, his followers, his mercenaries, and his retainers, his clothing and his warhorse wondrously bedecked with gold and silver, all vying one another in beauty and novelty of device, and each man apparelling himself with the most thoughtful care."**

He describes the wealthy merchants as wearing gold cloth, lavish silk, gold and jewels. The Andalusian traveller, Ibn Jubayr observed a Frankish wedding in Tyre in 1184 and noted that the bride was: "…most elegantly garbed in a beautiful dress from which trailed, according to their custom, a long tail of golden silk."*** French fashions were imported, and colour was of importance, noted for example by John of Joinville, who accompanied Louis IX during the Seventh Crusade (1248-54). He describes a varlet in Acre dressed in a red tunic with two yellow stripes.**** In criticising the resident Franks in Acre, the Cistercian prior, Caesarius of Heisterbach wrote: "Pride was ruling them so that they hardly knew how to invent the ways in which their clothes should be cut, sewn and worn".***** The poorer classes, however, made do with simpler costumes. While the wealthy wore the fashionable pointed shoes, clogs with wooden soles were worn by men and women of the lower ranks.

If delight in popular fashions and pride ruled for some, for others dress was an expression of rather different emotions. After the loss of the kingdom of Jerusalem, the women of Famagusta wore black mantles on their heads in order to display their grief over the loss of Acre and other cities of Syria, which had been the former home of many of them.

The rules of military order and monastic houses were very strict on the matter of dress, prohibiting the brothers from wearing colours, fine brocades and furs and fashionable articles of dress. But, as strict as they were in these matters, they took into account the realities of life in the Latin East, and were lenient where the need for leniency existed; for example, in allowing the wearing of linen shirts in the hot weather.

The sixteenth ruling or canon of the Council of Nablus (the earliest known compilation of laws in the kingdom of Jerusalem) prohibited the wearing by Muslims of dress Francigeno more (in the manner of the Franks). This was no doubt a practical requirement, intended to retain a clear segregation between Muslims and Christians, in part a security measure, but also a manifestation of the same medieval discrimination which required distinctive items of dress to be worn by Jews, lepers and other minority communities.

Dress in the crusader states, on the outskirts of western civilisation was as varied and as colourful as anywhere in the medieval world, and while in some circles Thomas More's words would have found a sympathetic ear, in others they would have been regarded as zealous and irrelevant as indeed they were for much of society in More's time.

*Thomas More, Utopia, ed, Stephen Duncombe, Book II, New York, 2012, p. 117. **Ludolf of Suchem, p. 52. ***The Travels of Ibn Jubayr, pp. 320-21. ****Joinville, p. 237. *****Caesarii Heisterbacensis, Monachi Ordinis Cisterciensis Dialogus Miraculorum, ed. J. Strange, I, Cologne, 1851, p. 187.

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