Monday, August 27, 2012

Medieval Women and Bikinis--A Coda

Engraving by Israhel van Meckenem (Wikimedia Commons)
Professor Beatrix Nutz, who is studying the late medieval undergarments found in Lengberg Castle, has written a short, informal article about the finds for the August 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine.  I was able to find a copy of the relevant issue at my favorite local bookstore, and read the article. (Pages 43-46.) Because the article contains some facts I had not run across with regard to the Lengberg finds so far, it seemed like a public service to post about the subject one last time before Professor Nutz's formal study of the finds is published in NESAT XI.

The most interesting information in the article is that, contrary to my previous understanding, there are a few artworks that show women wearing or donning underpants.  However, those artworks are invariably pictures of "a world turned upside down", as Professor Nutz says in the article,  or, more precisely, pictures showing a woman usurping male authority and prerogatives.  The 15th century engraving above (which also appears in the BBC History Magazine article) is one such image.  It boldly depicts a woman literally "putting on the [under]pants" while she lifts her distaff to hit her spouse with it.  Clearly, the issue of women wearing pants of any kind was already a sensitive point in 15th century Europe; apparently,  Western distaste for women in pants did not suddenly emerge in Europe in the Victorian era.  

Professor Nutz's article also discusses the fact that some 16th century women, at least in Italy, wore drawers. She observes that two royal Italian women (Eleanor of Toledo and Maria de Medici) owned one or more pairs. I knew about these undergarments, which were not bikini-like at all; they were more like Victorian pantalettes in shape. Bella has a selection of pictures of surviving Italian women's drawers on the Realm of Venus website.

So the idea that underpants in general were masculine already existed in Europe in the late medieval/early Renaissance period, and suggests that most women wouldn't have worn them--or at least, that a woman might not have admitted to wearing them if she could avoid doing so. 

Finally, the BBC History Magazine article notes that the bikini-shaped underpants I discuss in my last post were "repaired three times with linen patches, now overlaying one another." (Page 44)  Apparently (as one would expect with underwear) that undergarment was washed often and much used, which probably contributes to the absence of visible stains on the Lengberg bikini.   I don't know enough about the effectiveness of testing archaeological fibers to ascertain the materials present in a stain, but I suspect most underwear that is likely to be found will not yield much information from such a test, due to frequent washing as well as the passing of time.  EDIT (8/29/2012):  (struck in light of comment by synj-munki below). Perhaps Professor Nutz's NESAT paper will reveal whether any such testing was attempted on the Lengberg finds, and, if so, what information it yielded.


  1. it's my understanding that the Lengberg bikini was subjected to chromosome testing to see if a male (XY) or female (XX) might have worn them, and the tests came back inconclusive.
    Inconclusive could mean they likely retrieved part of one X chromosome but couldn't verify a second chromosome as X or Y (which can be due to a number of causes. If the donors parents were closely related you might not get a clear view of the two X if female, and the Y chromosome is notoriously fragile and often does not survive archaeologically).

    I was thinking about the menstrual issue, and kept thinking of the sanitary belts you see in the victorian era (remember, their underpants didn't have a crotch!). it would be entirely possible, if they were wearing the long-line bra found in the castle that they could pin a rag front and back through the crotch region.

  2. @ synj-munki You mentioned the chromosomal test before, yes. I was not thinking of blood specifically when I made my remark, though I should have been. Or seminal fluid.

    It would be so enlightening to be able to trace a history of how women dealt with their menstrual fluids. One part of the problem may be that there wasn't so much of an issue, because women spent more of their adult lives pregnant, and often died during their reproductive years in childbirth.

    On the other hand, there were women who lived celebate in convents. Even if some of them practiced such extreme mortification by starvation that they stopped having periods, most didn't, and thus would have had to deal with menstrual protection. I wonder if anyone has undertaken a study of medieval convent records to see whether they contain useful information about how the nuns addressed menstruation?

    1. well, the chromosomes could also be from skin, saliva, semen, hair follicles, poo, urine... but yeah the stuff released so far hasn't said what human cells were found.

      as for how menstruation was dealt with, that's harder to find that premodern abortion information.

      In early historic times, there's some info suggesting Egyptians used a sea sponge on top of linen, help in place by ties as a pad, and would roll cotton and papyrus as a tampon- though i'm having trouble tracing the original source of this info (Egyptians used crocodile dung as pessaries to prevent pregnancy in the 9th, 10th Centuries, according to one of my books on medieval Islamic folklore, so.... feasible?). In Greece, Hyppocrates wrote about women wrapping a bit of soft wood (absorbent) in cotton and using it as a tampon (interesting, but sometimes Hyppocrates went on here-say).

      For early medieval, you might try and find the text of the Trotula, a treatise on women's health supposedly written by a female physician educated at Salerno in the eleventh or twelfth century. it addressed problems of abortion, menses, tumors, cramps, so it might have something in it.

      as for high medieval, should be worth checking out 'The Tudor Housewife' by Alison Sim
      and 'The english Housewife' by Gervase Markham. Some of my readings suggest some nuns might have practiced a form of reduced caloric intake as part of their holiness that would give, essentially, anorexic amenorreah. More intriguing is sphagnum moss, which was used as a toilet paper and antiseptic wound cleaner according to medieval medical tests, was also known as Blood Moss... considering the modern pad evolved from women nurses in WW2 using the new cellulose wound dressings as pads, not too far-fetched (but you'd need SOMETHING to hold it in.)

      one interesting find is a burial at Herjofsnes that had what's been interpreted as an incontinence pad. It was made of sealskin and wool stitched together and stuff with moss. In the grave of a woman (body on back), the strip of sealskin was fastened to a redbrown wool cord that tied to a belt in front and back. the skin, as laying in the grave, covered from roughly the mons pubis to sacral region. this would be a lot like the pad-suspenders-belt setup of the turn of the 20th C.

  3. @synj-munki Thanks for the information you've provided. Very interesting stuff to follow up on.

    I was unaware of the pad found at Herjofsnes. From your description, it *does* sound like the pad-with-suspenders setup I remember using (and detesting) as a girl in the 1970s. Do you remember where you found that piece of information? I don't recall seeing anything like that from "Woven Into The Earth". Thanks.

    1. i found it in a discussion post, it's only published in the original 1920s report...
      The item was mentioned only in the medical section of Norlund's report, written by Fr. C. C.
      Hansen, professor of anatomy, Copenhagen. p. 322.

      I think this should bring up an excerpt from the discussion...

  4. Thanks so much! I can check the discussion, and maybe ILL Norlund's report.

    1. no problem! just keep doing what you do, your apron dress experiments and writings have been invaluable in planning my fighting outfit.

  5. Yes, I'd like to get back to my last apron dress project. Problem is, when you're doing part-time work from home, you never quite have the down-time for sewing, :-(

    Thanks for the compliment, though! I mean to get back to costuming, and more blogging about costume, as soon as I can.

  6. Thank you for sharing this post.