Medieval London

Cook's Apron


Figure 1: This illustration depicts the cook, Roger of Ware, in the Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales riding on a horse while holding a meat hook. From the Huntington Library,  EL 26 C 9, f. 47r (the Ellesmere Chaucer).

An interesting and popular article of clothing that is shared between modern and medieval times that has been dated to be present all the way back to 1600 BCE is the apron.[1] While aprons today tend to be made from materials like cotton, nylon, or sometimes leather, in medieval times aprons appeared to mostly be made from linen, hemp, or wool and were primarily white in color or bleached as depicted in the illustration of the Cook, one of the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (fig. 1). The medieval apron was fitted differently than how we would wear it today; they were mainly worn from the waist down with no major protection of the upper body (fig. 2). Aprons today often take the form of a bib apron, which was also present at the time but less often, the part that distinguishes the two aprons is an extension used to cover and provide protection to the upper body.[2]


Figure 2: A chef is cutting up pork and chicken while wearing an apron and hat while another cook who seems to be under his command prepares the food. A butler on the right side is also seen preparing drinks for guests. British Library, Add MS 42130, f. 114v (the Luttrell Psalter).


Figure 3: Illustration of a cook named Willhelm cwearing an apron as he stirs a pot on a raised open fire. Taken from the Household Books of Nuremberg, Mendel I, Amb. 317.2, f. 95r (1475).

Aprons were not only utilized by cooks, but also by many other popular professions, including blacksmiths, gardeners, cobblers, tailors, clock makers, masons, and others. This was because aprons were used, as they are today, to protect clothing from being damaged while working. Indeed, more medieval occupations required protection provided by the apron than today, which makes it difficult in identifying the purposes and roles associated with the apron in question. However, the color of the apron can be extremely useful in identifying what its corresponding profession would have been. For example, it was known that green aprons were worn by butlers, while gardeners, spinners, and weavers all wore blue, butchers wore blue stripes, and cobblers wore pure black to blend in with the black wax they used. Furthermore, stonemasons and cooks wore white, and English barbers wore a checkered pattern upon their apron which earned them the name “checkered apron men”.[3] The color of a medieval apron could thus provide an occupational, social, and even status context for its wearer.


Figure 5: Chef wearing an apron while cooking on a brick fireplace with the use of jugs, pans, and a wooden spoon. From the Household Books of Nurenberg, Mendel 1, Amb. 317.2, f. 142 (1475).

Generally, aprons were a sign of hard work and respectability as only these professions and a handful more wore aprons. Although dressing in an apron signaled a lack of affluence and a service or laboring occupation, it did imply that the individual was a committed worker and deserving of recognition for his or her efforts. Since aprons represented artisanal respectability, women working within brothels were often discouraged from wearing aprons because it was widely felt that they did not deserve the respect associated with the apron.[4] On the other hand, the cook in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is depicted as being a shady and uncleanly individual. Chaucer makes this point through his description of the cook and his clothing, including his apron, the primary target of is the cook’s leg which has a large wound not covered or protected by his apron.[5] He compares his wound to blancmange which is a dish the cook prepared.  Chaucer represents the cook as indecent and lazy through his appearance and actions showing the other side of the working class in medieval times that are not committed or driven comparatively(fig. 1).[6]


Figure 5: Two people cooking pork and chicken on a rotating skewer over a large fire; the man on the left is wearing a makeshift apron. From British Library, Add Ms 42130 , f. 206v (the Luttrell Psalter).

Unfortunately, due to the materials often used to make aprons, such as linen or wool, aprons often did not withstand the test of time, so we must refer to illustrations of and documents about the apron to understand its place in history. We can infer much from the way we know the aprons were treated and utilized. For example, it was not uncommon to find aprons being repaired to be functional once more, which reflects the socio-economic level of the workers who regularly wore aprons and were not always able to afford to buy a new apron. However, those who could afford to purchase new aprons either were higher class workers or worked for better wages. Aprons were genderless as both genders worked jobs utilizing aprons, however, the professional cook was only a male role in the middle ages which can be seen in the many medieval manuscript images of cooks, all of whom are male (figs 1-4). The exception was women cooking for her family within a home. Similarly, it was still considered questionable for a woman working in the brothels to wear an apron due to the respect surrounding the article even within her own home.[7] Wearing the apron as a cook was a status symbol in medieval times, as being a cook was highly respectable, as represented nicely in figure 2 where the only one wearing an apron is the head cook who is in charge ordering the other servants around (fig. 2).

--Alec Warnock


[1] Taylor, “The Snake Goddess Dethroned”, [78?]

[2] Planché, Cyclopædia of Costume, 41

[3] Steele, Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, 65

[4] Bennett and. Mcsheffrey. “Early, Erotic and Alien,” 13

[5] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, 101

[6] Hodges, Chaucer and Costume, 410

[7] Mount, The Medieval Housewife,  33

Works Cited

Bennett, J. M., and S. Mcsheffrey. “Early, Erotic and Alien: Women Dressed as Men in Late Medieval London.” History Workshop Journal, 77:1  (2014(: 1–25. doi:10.1093/hwj/dbt046

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Huntington Library, EL 26 C 9, the Ellesmere Chaucer)

Hodges, Laura F. Chaucer and Costume: the Secular Pilgrims in the General Prologue. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000.

Planché, James R. A Cyclopædia of Costume or Dictionary or Dress. 2 vols. in 4. London:Chatto & Windus 1876-79. 

Mount, Toni. The Medieval Housewife: & Other Women of the Middle Ages.
Stroud: Amberley, 2014

Steele, Valerie. Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, revised. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2005.

Taylor, Lindsay. "The Snake Goddess Dethroned: Deconstructing the Work and Legacy of Sir Arthur Evans." B.A. Honors Thesis, University of Maine, 2019, at

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