The first thing one might notice about this object, the dress of the Wife of Bath, a character in The Canterbury Tales written by the medieval poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, is that it isn’t an object at all—merely an illustration. Unfortunately, even though clothing was obviously an important part of everyone’s daily lives, it is rare for textiles to survive to the present day. Wool, cotton, and furs are all extremely perishable materials, and though there are environments that successfully preserve ancient textiles, they are not typically found in London (Crowfoot 2). The Wife of Bath’s dress survives in a different form than many of the other objects studied here, as a medieval illustration (Fig. 1)
The Wife of Bath, named Alisoun, has many notable accessories that Chaucer details, all of which serve to illustrate her social status and physical appearance; the medieval reader would have understood exactly what kind of person she was based on her manner of dress. That said, the dress itself is not specifically described by Chaucer; rather, it is present in an illustration from the Ellesmere manuscript, likely completed within ten years of Chaucer’s death (Beidler 391). Therefore, even if the Ellesmere illustration does not perfectly match the description in the text, it can be assumed that the illustration accurately depicts clothing worn by contemporary women much like the Wife of Bath in status and appearance. More than just an illustration of the text, then, this drawing is a valuable source for a type of artifact that normally doesn’t survive to the present day.
Alisoun’s clothing demonstrates not only the style afforded to those of her class, but also a respectable practicality that a well-traveled woman such as Alisoun would have valued on a pilgrimage. The wimple, hat, and blue foot-mantle seen in the illustration are all practical riding clothes, protecting her and her dress from the elements (and from mud kicked up by her horse). The foot-mantle also allows her to ride astride her horse, rather than side-saddle like the other women illustrated in the Ellesmere manuscript. These garments were not exactly the pinnacle of fashion at the time—wimples and foot-mantles were mostly seen on farmers’ wives, widows, and nuns—but their practicality was such that an experienced traveler (such as Alisoun) would never take to the road without them (Hodges 366). Yet even the most fashion-forward aspect of her illustrated outfit, her dress, served a useful purpose.
Alisoun’s red dress, unlike her traveling accessories, does not sacrifice form for function; the fur trim on her sleeves, for example, displays her status just as much as it provides warmth. Furs were used quite ubiquitously, even by peasants, as a way to make their few articles of clothing warmer. Today, fabric is cheap, and it is a simple process to bundle up in another layer of clothing. Such was not the case for the people of the Middle Ages, for whom cloth-making was an extremely long process.
Most commonly, furs were used to line the insides of garments, where they weren’t visible and thus were more for practical purposes rather than fashion. The Ellesmere illustration, however, is not depicting a dress worn by a peasant woman, as the dress’s wide-brimmed sleeves have a visible fur trim, called a purfelle. In terms of practicality, these are nearly useless, since fur on the outer trim doesn’t provide very much warmth at all (Fig. 3). It is purely a fashion statement, evoking the luxurious trim on the garments of the very wealthy (Kelly).
Some furs are much more expensive than others, and white furs (with or without gray) were typically the most valuable of all due to their relative scarcity (Fig. 4). Brown furs, such as the one depicted in the illustration, were more reasonably priced for someone of the Wife of Bath’s social status: just wealthy enough to begin adorning their clothes.
While the Wife of Bath is, as her epithet suggests, not actually a Londoner, the Ellesmere manuscript’s illustration depicts the character in the clothing the London artist would have been familiar with; clothing that women of her social status and means would have worn in London (though not beyond her position according to the Sumptuary Laws). This is a valuable insight to such a group, since most medieval art shows either the very wealthy, or the peasants working in fields. The style of the clothing, the manufacturing process, and the level of practicality it possessed all reveal the realities of people living in London in the late fourteenth century.
In a world of fast fashion, it can be very difficult for us to understand the value of clothing to the people of the Middle Ages. As Crowfoot (p. 15)succinctly put it, “A lengthy series of processes has to be carried out before fleece is turned into a finished length of cloth; among them are willowing, washing, dyeing, blending, combing, carding, bowing, spinning, winding, warping, sizing, weaving, fulling, stretching, teasing, shearing, and calendering” (Fig. 5). This is still the process of making cloth today—the only difference is that our machines are more sophisticated (and autonomous) than theirs. Alisoun certainly knew the process—as Chaucer notes, she was herself a cloth-maker. Then, when the cloth was complete, it could still take days to sew it into a garment. It should make sense, then, that people typically didn’t have very many unique garments; they were built to last.
What, then, would a dress such as Alisoun’s have meant to the women who wore them? Every tear would have been mended; every hole, patched. Even if a woman could afford a new dress, she would not have simply discarded the old one. Dresses were bequeathed to relatives, friends, even servants. Eventually, when they were thoroughly worn, they could be turned to linens, curtains, and washcloths (Crowfoot 3). A medieval dress lived a very long life, and this life is rarely documented.
The dress in the Ellesmere illustration has no biography; it is merely an illustration, not the object itself. We cannot even be sure that the dress it depicts ever even existed. However, we know it was based on dresses that did. The dresses worn by London women of Alisoun’s social class would have stuck in the artist’s mind as they drew Alisoun. The ghosts of a thousand dresses that were repaired, re-gifted, and re-used until they fell apart entirely live on in this illustration. They haven’t survived to the modern day—they were too valuable to cast aside—but we know they were there, and this illustration tells us what they might have looked like.
Beidler, Peter G. "Chaucer's Wife of Bath's "Foot-Mantel" and Her "Hipes Large"." The Chaucer Review 34, no. 4 (2000): 388-97.
Emmerson, Richard K. “Text and Image in the Ellesmere Portraits of the Tale-Tellers.” The Ellesmere Chaucer (1997): 143-70.
Font, Lourdes. “1400-1409.” Fashion History Timeline. November 22, 2020. https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1400-1409/
Hodges, Laura F. "The Wife of Bath's Costumes: Reading the Subtexts." The Chaucer Review 27, no. 4 (1993): 359-76.
Kelly, Tasha D. “A fur primer for 14th and 15th century European clothing.” La Cotte Simple. November 22, 2020. http://cottesimple.com/articles/fur-primer/
Rosenblum, Joseph, and William K. Finley. "Chaucer Gentrified: The Nexus of Art and Politics in the Ellesmere Miniatures." The Chaucer Review 38, no. 2 (2003): 140-57.