Medieval London


The Glove.jpg

Figure 1: A leather workman's glove used at a riverside labor site, probably in shipbuilding or dockwork. Shows signs of heavy wear since it was repaired with stitching. Museum of London.

The most mundane items from the past can tell the richest stories. Such is the case with this leather glove dating from the fifteenth century, found in Southwark, London. Made from thick, tanned cowhide, this glove is a simple mitten with no interior lining. It was heavily used; there are tears on the thumb and at the rest, and stitching in the palm. There is a substantial amount of wear, especially on the inside palm, that indicates the glove was used to handle heavy tools and rope. The form and physical state of the glove point to usage by a laborer on the waterfront. It is completely unornamented, with no separation between the fingers - this is not the glove of a clergyman or noble. Mittens were much easier to make than fingered gloves; this particular example uses a single piece of folded leather with the thumb sewn on separately.[1]This simple construction made mittens practical, simple to manufacture, and ideal for heavy manual labor. 

Medieval Dutch Glove.PNG

Figure 2: A nearly-contemporary Dutch workman's glove, showing similar construction, wear, and repairs.

This glove was perhaps employed in a waterfront industry such as shipbuilding, a job that would have required hand coverings for safety purposes in the handling of tar, rope, and nails. The location of the glove - found on the south bank of the Thames - supports this hypothesis. This specific glove, though found in London, bears an extremely close resemblance to contemporary gloves found in the Netherlands, which were used for the same purpose.[2] This indicates a somewhat universal design for gloves used in dockworking and waterside labor, driven by shared requirements and material cultures even across contexts. 

As an artifact, this glove represents the strong mercantile and maritime culture that came to define London in the late medieval period. Doing a bustling trade with the Hanseatic cities of the Baltic and North Sea, London was also a hub of domestic commerce, especially river trade using smaller vessels and barges.[3] The location of the glove is again telling - it was found in Southwark, the location of many riverside docks at this time, [4] on the opposite bank of the Thames from the most dense part of the medieval city. This means that, during this period, the types of industry and trade in which this glove could have been used had begun to expand outwards from the city walls, reinforcing the image of a prosperous city fuelled by maritime trade and industry. 


Figure 3: Detail from an illumination in  he Luttrell Psalter, showing a peasant laborer working while wearing leather gloves of the same type. (British Library, Add MS 42130, f. 87v)

The history of this item begins in the process of its manufacturing and sale. Tanning occurred in London (mostly in the suburbs because of the foul smells associated with the process), on account of the number of cattle and other livestock being sold and killed for meat consumption in cities and towns. After the animal hides were purchased from the butcher, they were cleaned, treated with lime or wood ash, and any remaining hair and flesh were carefully scraped from the hide. Then came the actual tanning process, which had two steps. The treated hides were submersed in tanning liquor and moved around continuously, until they had a uniform surface color. Then, they were stored in underground pits filled with water, tanning liquid, and bark for up to twelve months before removal for final treatment and drying, which was done in a controlled environment by staking the tanned leather, which stretched it. [5] After this, the leather was sold to curriers, who treated the leather further using oil and fat to manage the thickness and texture. [6] The tanning profession in medieval England was generally split into two distinct trades, tanners and tawyers, sometimes called whit-tawyers; tawyers often used alum to treat the leather, resulting in a distinct white coloration to the finished product. In medieval London, however, the term “tawyer” was more closely linked with the treatment of fur; it is thus likely that the material for this glove was prepared by a tanner. [7] 

Gloving was a valuable and respected profession in medieval England, as it took a great deal of skill to cut and sew leather so that the fingers had the correct flexibility and form. [8] Straightforward work like this mitten, however, would not have been done by a master glover, more likely being the work of an apprentice or lesser craftsman who would have been able to manufacture this comparatively simpler mitten.

glove thumb stitching.jpg

Figure 4: Another angle of the Museum of London Glove, showing in detail the stitching on the thumb and repairs made to the palm.

Gloves like these were used almost exclusively in a labor-heavy context; laborers would not have been able to afford expensive craftsmanship and would have extensively reused and repaired their items when possible. This glove exhibits heavy wear and restitching, common to many gloves of the same type. Workmen in especially labor-intensive riverside industries like shipbuilding would wear through gloves quickly, and continuously repairing them would have been more economical than simply purchasing a new one. [9] In keeping with the medieval mindset of frugality and reuse, it is unlikely that this glove was simply discarded into the river where it was found; it was most likely lost, as even a worn-out glove’s material could be re-used to repair another item. 

--Timothy Kyle


1 Willemsen. “Taking up the Glove,” 8.

2 Willemsen. “Taking up the Glove,” 8.

3 Dunkley, Ships and Boats: Prehistory to 1840, 9.

4 Egan, Material Culture in London in an Age of Transition, 1.

5 Grömer et al., "Products of Animal Skin from Antiquity to the Medieval Period," 73.

6 Cherry, “Leather,” 299.

7 Cherry. “Leather,” 307.

8 Cherry. “Leather,” 316.

9 Willemsen. “Taking up the Glove,” 11.

Works Cited


Cherry, John. “Leather” In John Blair, Nigel Ramsey, and John Cherry, eds. English Medieval Industries: Craftsmen, Techniques, Products, 295–317. London: Hambledon Press, 2001.

Dunkley, Mark. Ships and Boats: Prehistory to 1840. Introduction to Heritage Assets. History England. English Heritage, 2012.

Egan, G.. Material Culture in London in an Age of Transition: Tudor and Stuart Period Finds c. 1450-c. 1700 from Excavations at Riverside Sites in Southwark. London, MOLA, 2005.

Grömer, Karina, Gabriela Russ-Popa, and Konstantina Saliari. "Products of Animal Skin from Antiquity to the Medieval Period." Annalen Des Naturhistorischen Museums in Wien. Serie A Für Mineralogie Und Petrographie, Geologie Und Paläontologie, Anthropologie Und Prähistorie 119 (2017): 69-93. Accessed October 19, 2020.

Willemsen, Annemarieke. “Taking Up the Glove: Finds, Uses and Meanings of Gloves, Mittens and Gauntlets in western Europe, c. AD 1300-1700” Post-Medieval Archeaology 49, no. 1 (2015): 1–36.

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