Gaelic-Dress-art - 11/30/13
"Gaelic Dress" by HL Finnacan Dub.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
by HL Finnacan Dub
There may be no other culture in historical reenactment more given to debate and passionate discourse as that of the Gaels, namely Ireland, Scotland and The Isle of Man. So many have an affinity for these countries and their heritage, yet in historic reenactment and living history groups there is much heated exchange concerning the evolution of Gaelic fashion. Agreement is difficult to find and so much misinformation is paraded as truth to the newcomer that these cultures eventually become almost a satire of themselves. Those seeking to declare "kit" guidelines sometimes dismiss new or overlooked information in an attempt to maintain order and a type of uniformity not found in history. Some turn to fantasy literature, though some is more researched than others, forgetting that even a surprisingly accurate description in a fiction is still not a dependable resource.
I once had this terrible headache. The pain appeared at the back of my skull in the early nineties, when I asked myself what an Irishman might be wearing when King John visited Ireland during the Norman Conquest. Everyone had an answer. Some were better than others. One person might say "I don't know". Another would say "I don't know, you won't know, no one ever will, so let it go."
He was cheerful.
Another would attempt some logic and suppose that Ireland simply went Anglo-Norman in it's dress within a decade, so dress Norman. "Ooo, and put knotwork on your clothes, Irishman love knotwork!"
They do? Was there a meeting? The headache was getting worse.
Finally, there were the few that told me to go, found out, return and bring them back whiskey while I was at it. They also insisted I share whatever I had learned, no matter how fragmentary or disorganized it may seem to me. They felt that I could put together something both a newcomer and an old-timer could use, especially since a movie is eventually going to attempt to define early Gaelic dress for us. So I have composed this guide in an attempt fight off any future Hollywood historic horrors, as well as ease the frustrations of a sincere newcomer.
This guide is not intended to be a source in and of itself, but more of a torch lighting the way to more comprehensive material for those who truly wish to honor the history of the Gaelic nations. I know what it is like to lose sleep wondering what sort of shoes they wore as they fought the Battle of Clontarf, or what kind of wool to buy while standing in a discount fabric outlet. If this guide helps just one of you sleep a little better, I consider it a success.
The headache is gone now. The cure, I discovered, was to keep learning, searching, asking and sometimes letting go of beloved yet flawed ideas on the subject. It is my hope that once you read this guide you will feel confident enough to attempt your first ensemble of appropriate clothing from the Early Christian Era through the Viking Invasions up to the Norman Conquest, be you Irish, Scot or Manx.
This guide is not the end of your path, just the beginning. Relax, it will be a fun journey.
A Few Terms
Before getting to the really juicy stuff, I need to establish some terminology. First let me clarify what Gael and Gaelic means. The Gaels were those tribes and nations that spoke a language called Gaelic, a language that is part of the Goidelic group of early European languages. It was once a more singular language then it is today, as each Gaelic country now has its' own dialects.
The Gaels were the early peoples of Ireland, called Eire, and quite possibly conquerers of the island in the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age. Historians believe the island had a native culture that was interrupted by the arrival of these European people, yet debate rages as to precisely when this occurred, or how quickly the invaders changed the predominate culture. One thing that is certain is the sudden appearance of more European objects and jewelry in Ireland that correlate to later Bronze Age art and ornament found on the continent. As the Iron Age gave way to the Dark Ages, the Irish had developed an original framework of art, spiritual thought and social interaction. By the time the SCA begins the countdown of the Medieval Era, i.e. 600 AD, the Gaels are the established inhabitants of all Ireland and have been for centuries. Their language, the Old Irish Gaeilge, is probably the root tongue for the Manx and the Scottish dialects.
As the Irish traded with and raided their neighbors, they established their culture on The Isle of Man in the middle of the Irish Sea. Man had a native farming and fishing culture before Iron Age Gaelic influences appear. Most Manx historians conclude that the native people were originally from Europe, via Britain. As Irish missionaries settled in Man, the natives became more Gaelic. This culture was heavily influenced by Norse settlers, however, more so then any other in this guide. Manx Gaelic, called Y Gailck, borrowed some from the Old Norse and is a language unlike any other, with both Goidelic and Brythonic roots.
Scotland has long been considered a Gaelic nation, but its' origins are a dangerous subject, leading to raised voices and angry dispute. Before the influence of Gaelic culture, Scotland was the native home of a people called the Picts. The Picts were the reason the Emperor Hadrian built the wall, to defend Roman Britain from the Picts as well as control trade and commerce. What little remains of Pictish art shows a people engaged in original religious and artistic expression. Ancient chronicles state that an Irish dynastic clan called the Dal Riada arrived in western Scotland in the 5th century and ruled a kingdom called Argyll, eventually uniting with the Picts under a king named Kenneth MacAlpin about 400 years later.
However, new theories concerning the arrival of Gaels have appeared. These new theories suggest that Gaels were not only in western Scotland much earlier than assumed but that they also were not as dependent on Ireland and it's customs. In fact, it may very well be that the Dal Riada were the ones who introduced much of the fashion and social norms to Ireland, inspired by Roman, Pictish and even southern European influences. Grave findings and archaeological discoveries appear to support these positions so far.
History learns something new every day. The Isle of Iona, situated between Ireland and Scotland in the Irish Sea, became a bastion of Insular Christianity, and the new religion spread throughout Scotland with all of its distinctive Gaelic trappings. Picts converted, fought with the Scots of Argyll, married them as well and soon began to mix their culture and language, despite regaining control of much of Scotland in the last years of their existence. Within a generation of the first Viking settlements, the Picts were no longer a distinct and separate people. Scotland was by then a predominately Gaelic country, though home to many Norse and Scandinavian folk. Scots Gaelic, or Gaidhlig, would arise from a sprinkling of Norse and Pictish terms with the original language of the Argyll Scots.
So when I refer to Gaels, I'm referring to the Irish, the western Scots and the Manx.
I don't use the term Celt or Celtic because these words don't clearly identify these cultures.
Goidelic tongues were just one language group in a whole family of Celtic languages. It's also important to remember that the early Irish and Scots did not call themselves Celts.
This next set of terms are of use when approaching any subject, not just historical dress.
Learn to distinguish your sources. Having a source is an excellent way to avoid unsubstantiated conjecture. Better still is being able to spot the different types of sources and knowing which carry more weight. A primary source is exactly what it sounds like. It's a shoe, or a brooch, or any other extant item that can be examined, measured and possibly replicated. A primary source may not solve every archaeological mystery.
Certain items are an enigma. We aren't sure how they were used or what their significance was. As our body of knowledge grows, the mystery item may reveal itself in the bigger picture. It could remain a thing of conjecture for centuries, mute and never giving up it's secrets. However, sometimes it's a shoe after all. A secondary source is less specific, yet still can be of immense help is historical research. It is usually a direct recording or accounting of an item or event. Examples include paintings and sculptures, literature and poetics that describe the event or item, similar events or items in the same timeframe and area, even excavation reports on findings lost or destroyed. Multiple secondary sources are generally considered a substantial body of evidence in the academic community, if those sources withstand scrutiny.
Tertiary sources are a distillation of information and commentary, like this guide. Fact and trivia books, encyclopedias, beginner's guides, these things are all considered tertiary. They can be very useful but should not be looked upon as an authority. They don't qualify as good documentation. In fact, if you write documentation, that documentation becomes a tertiary source and should be considered an outline of evidence, not the evidence itself. I'll warn you right now, most of what is presented in this guide is based on secondary sources. We have not found a 9th century Scottish prince in near perfect condition buried in the peat. It looks unlikely that we will anytime soon. Textiles don't survive burial well. Then again, a royal poet and his wife could be found tomorrow, the embroidery still shining on their garments. Who knows?
Finally, a quick comment on that most abused of SCA terms, 'period'.
Technically, anything falling between 600 AD and 1600 AD is within the SCA era. It would be period. However, wearing an Elizabethan doublet with a Saxon spangenhelm is not accurate or appropriate. Both are period, but not appropriate to each others timeframe. I bring this up in hopes that 'Celts' stop painting woad on their faces while carrying 16th century Scottish Claymores on their backs. Yeah, I know, but I can dream...
Years ago I made the decision to try and emulate accurate Irish wear to the best of my ability and thereby honor the history of Ireland, not my preconceived notions of what it should be, or what I wanted it to be. Once I made this decision, I found myself not knowing where to turn. I ran into a number of frustrated Scotsmen as well and I empathized with their plight. The Internet was just starting to take off and become available, so I was able to track down a few resources within a year of finally getting online. Still, pickings were slim.
What little I could locate has proven invaluable, especially two works in particular. These two books form the core of this guide, as well as museum pieces, art, archaeological reports and poetics from the timeframe. I have decided to mention these two resources here at the beginning so that you have an idea what is being referenced as you read this guide. I will refer to other sources throughout this guide and include a bibliography for your future endeavors, yet these books are so heavily used that I wanted you to be familiar with them at the beginning. They should be yours to read at your leisure as they will lead to your own speculative experiments and conclusions that archaeology may verify for you in the future. They will also provide you with a level of investigation and detail I cannot offer you.
"Dress in Ireland: A History" by Mairead Dunlevy The Collins Press, 1989 ISBN 1-898256-84-5
This is the only book currently dealing with this subject still available, at least at the time of this writing. Though it doesn't cover Scotland and Man as separate cultures, it does provide a large amount of detail for the garments and items worn by the Irish through many periods. It is more comprehensive and linear than McClintock's earlier work, covering differences between native dress and foreign fashion. It can still be located on Amazon.com as well as through interlibrary loan.
"Old Irish and Highland Dress, with notes on that of The Isle of Man" by H.F. McClintock Dundalgan Press, 1943
Well, the bad news is that this work has been out of print for quite some time. Even an interlibrary loan has a hard time finding it. It may still haunt some old bookshelf in your area, but good luck finding it. Now, here is the good news.
www.Scotpress.com has not only this entire book for sale on CD, but many others as well, most of which deal with Scottish and Irish history. So you may very well be able to get the sweat-drenched work of Old Man McClintock for yourself. It is worth every penny. McClintock is the pioneer in this field, charged with determining historic Irish dress for the Irish government in the forties. Before him was P.W. Joyce, author of a text called "A Social History of Ancient Ireland", which was based on the Victorian work of Professor O'Curry, "Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish" published in 1873.
O'Curry was a sound scholar but he proposed possible translations that simply didn't pan out when investigated, especially concerning fashion, so McClintock started over. He gives the reader sculpture and shrines, art and literature, sacred texts and even Brehon Law to back his conclusions. Though some of what McClintock wrote is now a little dated, his writing remains the foremost resource for this topic.
Neither of these works are static. Discoveries and more detailed understandings of daily life and dress are coming to light every day. However, these books form a strong foundation for any scholar or enthusiast to begin their dabblings and should be sought with haste. I also have turned to a few sources these authors used, primarily the Book of Kells and Durrow, which date from the 7th to the 9th centuries and can be found scanned online.
These artifacts of illuminated wonder have had numerous books written about them as well, one of which is,
"The Book of Kells" by Peter Brown Thames and Hudson, 1980 ISBN 0-500-27192-5
I also explored the "Tain bo Cuailnge", an Irish epic first penned in the 1100's and translated by numerous authors. My favorite translation of this work is,
"The Tain: From the Irish Epic Tain bo Cuailnge" by Thomas Kinsella Oxford University Press, 1969 ISBN 0-19-280373-5
The Leine (Tunic)
The leine (lay-nah) is the Gaelic tunic, or shirt. The plural form is leinte (layn-tah).
This garment, worn against the skin, is the primary wardrobe item. Though perhaps made of wool in the Late Bronze Age, it is usually made of linen by the early Christian Era, linen being abundant in the Island nations. Although the leine was worn throughout the entire SCA timeframe, it changed drastically in shape as the centuries passed. The early leine is still within our grasp to picture and even fabricate, though we may never know it's exact construction or finishing since linen almost never survives burial.
McClintock, describing ageworn figures on the Cross of Muiredach in Monasterboice, says; "The leine as it appears on the cross is a long smock-like garment, not unlike the "galabeeah" worn by the natives of Modern Egypt, rather narrow in the skirt and decorated round the lower border with a band of embroidery" (p.4).
Dunlevy gives her interpretation of the early leine as a sleeveless, ankle-length garment worn by both sexes (p.17). It should be noted that by the 9th century (800 AD), leinte illustrated in the Book of Kells are long-sleeved and tapered to the wrist, not sleeveless. It may be that the leine, once a simple rectangular or tube-woven garment held onto the body by brooches at the shoulders, became a more tailored and formfitting garment by the beginning of the 6th century.
It appears to have been slipped over the head, belted at the waist and worn ankle-length, though McClintock notes that the Tain Bo Cuailnge, The Cattle Raid of Cooley, or just the Tain, sometimes describes it as "girt", or drawn up to the knees for more physical activities. The Book of Kells shows a variety of necklines used on the leine, including round, oval, triangular and square. It also is sometimes described as having a culpait (cul-page), which can mean either a collar or a hood. Dunlevy states that; "It often had a culpait, or substantial collar, which later became a hood." p.17
A hooded leine was called a culpatach, or culpaideach (cul-pay-jeek). We don't know how this collar or hood was constructed. Dunlevy indicates a possible hood on the Virgin's leine in the Book of Kells (p. 21) If this is indeed a hood under her veil, than it may be that the hoods on early leinte were constructed as simple rectangles of fabric that draped down from the neck as one might imagine on a greek Doric chiton.
There is no indication that the culpait was a separate item like a cowl. This early leine was likely clasped at the shoulders. It seems reasonable to assume that the leine improved in form as tailoring advanced in northern Europe. Though no intact leine has been found, the probability that it was made to comfortably fit the wearer seems evident. Gores in the skirts and gussets under the arms may not have appeared until well into the 8th century, yet sleeves and necklines in the Book of Kells indicate a quality garment that was neither skintight nor loose.
It wouldn't be proper to think of the leine as an 'under-tunic'. That implies a garment always covered by another. Think of the leine more as a tunic. It was often worn alone. Anything worn over it was considered outerwear.
It can be a little confusing trying to decide what fabrics to use when making a leine. The Tain, mentioned above, describes a number of leinte as silk or "glossy" in appearance. It makes reference to a linen leine once (McClintock p.3). Both Dunlevy and McClintock concede that the leine was almost always a linen garment, and that the Tain is given to heroic excess in it's descriptions.
However, it should be noted that the Irish had silks available to them, especially after the appearance of Norse settlements, and that it was likely a status symbol to own as much as possible. Markets in Limerick in the 10th century had silks and silk satins of many colors available, as well as many other rich fabrics. The vast majority of this fabric would have been used for trim and decoration, not entire garments (Dunlevy p.22).
Though linen may seem an extravagance these days, many medium-weight linens are available on the market, often for less then many cotton/poly blends. One of the most popular sources for 100% linen among reenactors is this website: www.fabrics-store.com . I highly recommend them and I am not alone in my enthusiasm.
Before you head to the local discount fabric outlet, consider this; most linen in such locations is not 100% linen, (which you will want for any summer outdoor event, trust me!) and the linen that is pure is usually astonishingly expensive. So you'll find yourself settling for muslin, which will wear out in a few years, or a polyester blend that won't breathe and is likely to melt when accidentally exposed to a campfire. Cotton can be more expensive. Nothing looks like linen but linen. You'll love how it softens and you'll save money being accurate and comfortable. I'm not talking handkerchief linen here, but the simple twill weave linen you will see at the fabrics-store website.
Despite the lack of patterns for the leine, it is not too difficult to piece together how a leine may have been made, especially if you look at evidence for tunic construction from surrounding countries and the traits those tunics shared. The garment is basically a tunic seamed at the sides with hems and a finished neck opening.
It may have been joined at the shoulders with a seam as well. It could be sleeveless or sleeved, with sleeves attached at the shoulder. It may have once had a center seam running down it's front and back to allow for more volume in the body, as early fabrics were rarely wider then 25-30 inches. It may also have had center or side splits for movement, though descriptions of girting up the leine seem to undermine this idea in my opinion.
As the Viking Age began, this possible center seam would have likely been replaced with gores in the sides of the skirting, with center gores appearing soon after. Gussets may have appeared at the armpits for better fit. In length, it is described as varying from thigh to ankle. Longer leine seem to be a wealthier choice and may have indicated status.
A common term used to describe leinte is gel which means bright. This could mean a number of things. Dunlevy notes that leinte are white or gel, which may mean unbleached or natural in hue (p.17). McClintock noted a number of interesting descriptions of the leine in the Tain such as white, yellow, brown-red (madder?) and striped (p.3). General consensus seems to be that white, natural and yellow were probably the most common colors for a leine simply because these hues are easiest to achieve in linen.
Though it is true that linen does not take dye as deeply as other fabrics, it will certainly hold a wide variety of colors, and a well-made leine would have been dyed multiple times as color faded due to washing and sunlight. The Book of Kells illustrates how varied the leine could be, as angels and saints alike wear blue, green, purple, red and golden leinte. The Virgin Mary wears a pink leine, a color easily achieved with period dyes. Color choices should be conservative. Modern dyes are able to achieve more bright and brilliant shades in linen then what would have been seen in the Dark Ages. Choose more muted and subtle colors when shopping for linen. Better yet, look into period dyes and color your linen at home. That is one of the best and simplest ways to get the color you want.
Sculptures, illustrations and literature all indicate a consistent addition to the leine, namely trim. Bands of trim can be seen on most every single leine in the Book of Kells, at the hem, the cuffs and the neckline. Dunlevy mentions that as the leine became more fitted, so too it became more ornate (p.21) As noted earlier, McClintock mentioned bands of embroidery while describing the Cross of Muiredach.
That is not the only sculpture McClintock studied. In fact, the majority of those he examined have visible decoration on the garments, such as the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois and the Shrine of St. Moedoc in the National Museum at Dublin. He also notes that the Tain seems to focus more on decoration than any other feature, the most common being embroidery of some sort that is gold, red-gold or merely red (p.3). This could have referred to a couple of techniques known to have been used in the early medieval period. One possibility is that gold thread, which was gold flat wire wrapped around a linen or silk thread, was couched down to the fabric using red thread. The other technique would be red tablet woven bands of silk or wool with gold brocade. These two techniques appear to be the most common ways of displaying metallic threads. The Leabhar na h-Uidhre (the Book of the Dun Cow, about 1100 AD) gives mention of the High King Conaire Mor in a poem.
In this piece he is wearing a leine with silken trim around his neck so filled with metallic threads it reflected his face like a mirror. This garment also sported embroidery from his chest to his knees! Granted, the Ulaid or Ulster Cycle stories and poems (which include the Tain) contain many such vivid descriptions that are likely epic freedoms taken with epic figures engaged in epic deeds. It does indicate how important such decoration and display was to the early Irish, so decorating the leine seems a foregone conclusion.
So how should you decorate your leine? Well, lacking extant garments, most historians look to the common textile arts of Ireland's neighbors at the time, MClintock and Dunlevy among them. The most common form of decoration is presumed to have been embroidery. This would include numerous stitches found all over the region, such as running, stem, whip, split and satin stitches, as well as techniques like appliqué and the previously mentioned couching. Bands of embroidery may have been sewn directly onto the garment, or they may have been finished on a strip of linen, wool or silk to be applied later.
Another option is tablet weaving, also called card weaving. This technique was widely used all over northern Europe and is a common craft in the SCA. You can make numerous bands of highly complex trim with a variety of patterns. Combinations of tablet-woven trim, embroidery and appliqué may have all been used on a single garment, especially among the wealthy. As to what motifs to use, most refer to extant manuscripts and metalwork for inspiration. Bands of color, key patterns, Christian Era spirals and Norse-influenced knotted beasts may be appropriate, depending on your chosen timeframe. Some may argue that no interlace, or 'knotwork', was used on Gaelic dress.
This brings to light a distinct problem in certain SCA circles. Avoid any historic discussion where the terms "always" and "never" are used. That kind of absolute position is not proper in academic circles. Here's an example of why. The argument against interlace is fairly strong, as supposedly no illustrations or sculptures show it being used with any regularity. Yet, a closer examination of the topic pokes holes in the position of the always/never types. Interlace is visible at the neckline in the image of the Virgin in the book of Kells. It can also be found on the cloak of St. Matthew in the Book of Durrow, which dates from the 7th century. A member of the Ulster forces in the Tain named Loegaire Buadach is described as wearing a yellow leine with interlace.
This reference has been used to actually try and show modern-style lace being used by the early Irish. If it was, no other mention of this complex craft has ever been found in the literature of the period, nor has any physical evidence appeared showing actual lace being made during the Early Medieval timeframe in Ireland. The word is interlace when translated and is used in a descriptive fashion. So if you want interlace, I see no reason to completely avoid it. However, it would appear to have been used sparingly. It also would have been less complex before the Viking age, when Norse settlers adopted the native interlace and brought it to new heights with their own contributions. I would encourage more distinctly Irish motifs such as the Christian Era spirals (not Bronze Age La Tene spirals) and the key patterns so prevalent in the sacred manuscripts and sculptures of the age. These are beautiful, very Gaelic and far too rare in the author's opinion.
The simplest form of decoration is not only the most expedient but is also very striking and attractive. As I mentioned earlier, the Book of Kells has simple bands at hems, necklines and cuffs, some of which were very likely strips of colored silk used as bias tape. This in and of itself is a magnificent finishing touch to richer garments, and appears to have been a standard practice among the wealthy of many early cultures. The trick is using the appropriate silk. The silks used would not have been 'raw' or silk noille, the nubbly terry cloth stuff found in today's fabric stores. It would have been a tabby or twill weave with a fine finish to it. This is the classic weave of Byzantine silks, patterned or monochromatic. As an author's suggestion, consider putting in the accurate seams for the leine. It fits more comfortably and looks more accurate. Avoid the 'T-tunic' cut. Attach sleeves separately. Use gores if appropriate. Even if you have 60 in. wide material, adding the seams makes a huge difference visually. Finally, matching the construction thread color with the garment color is not always a given in this timeframe, so creativity with contrasting hues might be an option.
The Brat (Cloak)
The most distinctive piece of Gaelic dress may well have been the brat (braught) or the cloak. It showed status, provided protection, gave warmth and was so important both socially and for practical purposes that most Gaels were never without one. Like the leine, the brat stayed in use throughout the SCA timeframe, changing somewhat in form but never really losing its hallowed place in Gaelic fashion.
Dunlevy gives an excellent description of the brat, saying; "The brat was the most colorful, versatile and warmest garment in the early Irish wardrobe. It was four-cornered, roughly rectangular in shape and being of wool was probably treated or 'fulled', to a dense finish." (p.18) A large amount of attention is given to the brat in the literature, as noted by McClintock when he studied the Tain for reference. They are green, a variety of grays, purple, black, red and yellow, just to name a few. Some are striped, some sport fringes of a different hue than the brat itself, some are described as shaggy or hairy. They are even sometimes described as having many hues or 'speckled'.
The Old Irish breaccan was used to denote speckled or checkered, so most historians consider this a description of a small simple plaid. I use the word plaid simply for the modern reader. Plaid or plaide merely means blanket or rug, which a fair approximation for some of the brats described. The majority of the brats in medieval Irish literature are described as having a single color. The brat was worn around the shoulders and held in place with a brooch or pin. Some argue for men wearing the brat pinned at one shoulder and women wearing them pinned in the center, over the torso. The Virgin in the Book of Kells seems to disagree, as her brooch is toward the shoulder, while Christ arrested on the Cross of Muirdoch wears his centered. To each their own seems the safest bet.
The brat also seems to have been draped over the shoulders and the arms casually if one looks at the many figures in the Book of Kells. It may also have been worn so that the top was thrown back over the shoulders like a small cape, to be used as a hood when the weather turned foul. As time progressed, the brat evolved, but not in the linear fashion the leine appears to. Semicircular and shoulder-fitted cloaks may have appeared around the time of the Norman Conquest, yet so popular was the classic Irish brat that it was exported and worn in other countries, such as France and England, especially the shaggy Irish mantle.
The brat had such an important place in Gaelic society that it was accorded the same value as livestock and it was included in inheritance law. It was given plenty of attention by it's maker or owner, often described as being heavily embroidered with gold and fine needlework, bands of color and rich fringe. High status in early literature was sometimes indicated by the length and breadth of a brat.
Occasional references to a brat being 'fivefolded' can be found, which confounded me. What did early authors mean by 'five-folded'? It is not so simple to say it was folded five times and then pinned on. We don't know how it was folded or even what qualified as a fold. Did it sport folds in its width or length, or was it folded corner to corner, again and again? Was the fold the amount of times it could wrap around the body, as Dunlevy suggests? If those folds were more like pleats, how were they worn or placed? The following is an example of what happens when you spend too much time staring at a wool blanket with a brooch in your hand, and is provided merely for your approval or dismissal.
I have a hypothesis concerning five and even seven-folded brats that may be of use to you. Understand that I in no way claim that this hypothesis is the last word on the subject. In fact, we could find a well-preserved body from the 8th century wearing a cloak in this exact fashion, yet we will not know if that is what early authors meant to describe. I include this to show how a sizable piece of wool fabric might be worn without dangling corners while staying true, at least in spirit, to early Irish literature.
The first issue anyone has with a rectangular cloak is getting the thing to sit comfortably on the shoulders. Folds can help to create a more snug fit. The trick seems to be treating folds as a primitive pleating and not so much layering. If a fold qualifies as a layer of bent fabric, not the bend itself, then odd numbers such as the aforementioned five and seven are easy to achieve with this method. First, lay the fabric flat. Next, turn the sides in toward the center. That could be called three folds, the two turned sides and the center. If the two turned sides are then folded outward again, five folds have now appeared. These folds could easily be held in place with a brooch and they provide a simple yet effective pleating for a wide piece of wool. Turning the sides once more achieves seven folds. The width needed to wear seven folds using this method would qualify the brat as a truly rich garment.
The construction of a brat is fairly simple. It is a rectangle of wool, about two or more yards, much more if you wish. The wool is your primary concern. Fine weaves were common in the Dark Ages, so don't think you are stuck with heavy blankets or friezes. Light to medium weight wool flannel is considered by many to be the best choice medievalists can make for any culture or period. It is certainly appropriate for a brat. Tabby, twill and herringbone weaves were used with regularity. Finishing the edges with a seam is all that is really required before wearing a length of wool as a brat. Remember that fabrics would only have been about 25-30 inches wide, so add seams to achieve the drape and look of period construction.
Washing your wool is safe, but try to avoid hot water and only use gentle soaps, like Ivory flakes. You can tumble dry wool, though most folks hang dry to prevent shrinking. One thing to look for when washing wool is fulling, which adds to the strength, softness and water protection you'll want in a brat.
The brat was your rank, status and position in society. That said, it would receive tons of decoration if the wearer were so entitled. I mentioned a few examples of this from Irish literature.
To recap, brats were color and richness. Most are described as a single color, some with a contrasting fringe. That fringe would be added lengths of wool, not the modern fringes you see in most fabric stores. They may have been tied, braided, tasseled or simply left to snarl and thicken at the edge of the brat. Certain brats may have been piecework. A cloak in the Tain is described as being made of choice pieces of a certain color. That pieces of different colors may have been joined to form a brat doesn't strike me as implausible.
Appliqué and embroidery were almost certainly used on brats, as well as metallic thread. A cloak of particular interest was the tugan, which was reserved for poets of the highest station, the sort of masters that had a hundred poems committed to memory. This brat was covered in duck feathers, the shimmering neck feathers of drakes. Though I doubt any in the Society will ever feel entitled to wear such a garment, the Ulster cycle records a story wherein the women of Emain Macha wished CuChulainn to slay herons at a pool for their feathers. It may be that feathers were an accepted decoration, perhaps in the fringe or at the neck.
Many people picture the brat as checked and rightly so, as it was the forefather of the kilt. The trick is to avoid overly modern 'tartans' but look instead for simple bold checks of two to three colors. Stripes are also mentioned.
The Shaggy Mantle
Though also considered a brat, the shaggy cloak that the Irish made became so famous a garment that it deserves special attention. Most early brats are not described as shaggy or hairy, but a few appear in the literature. It seems to have become more common at the end of the Viking Age. Dunlevy notes that the famous Mantle of St. Brighid was probably not a 6th century garment but was actually acquired by the brothers of Princess Gunhild of England in the mid 9th century, around 1051. This is the best surviving example of an Irish shaggy mantle, though only a fragment remains.
Shaggy mantles were prized due to their ability to keep moisture well away from the wearer, allowing rain to be literally shook off. It held more heat than a simple cloak and was presumably a very soft garment to wear. They appear to have been made using two methods, though these two methods might have occasionally been used to produce a single cloak, as you will see.
The first technique may have been introduced to the Irish by Norse settlers, and so would have been well known to the scribes who first penned such epic tales as the Tain. A cloak, called a roggr, was developed by the Norse and was made by weaving wool on an upright loom while inserting lengths of combed wool into the shed of the fabric. This produced a wool fabric that was thick with soft and shaggy tufts of hair. This technique may have been the origin of the shaggy mantle, and such fabric is still available for purchase today, which is a relief for those of us who lack a loom of any size. You simply have to turn to the Greeks for this treasure. The Flokati rug is hand woven with pure wool. The rug is made by inserting strands of wool into the weft during weaving, which gives the rug a thick soft pile.
Observers say the Mantle of St. Brighid looks almost exactly like a Flokati rug, with just a little more curl in the nap. Many reenactors use Flokati rugs for brats, especially undyed rugs that can be given any color the wearer desires.
The other method begins with the choice of a long wool hair fabric, such as mohair. Once the nap was combed out even longer with teasels the garment would be drizzled with honey or coated in a mixture of sugar and vinegar. The surface would then be rubbed in a tight circular motion with a pad or a bag of small round pebbles or beads. This creates layers of tangles and curls that, once fulled just a little from washing, becomes a mass of shaggy hair similar to the coat of a poorly groomed wolfhound ('fulling' is the locking of individual wool fibers due to friction, which strengthens wool material).
This method would be applicable not only on longhair fabrics but on a woven shaggy fabric as well. I intend to attempt this on mohair, though I will probably use a moisturizing hair gel or corn syrup instead of honey, simply to keep my expenses down. Honey isn't cheap, I have no idea what the sugar/vinegar ratio would be and I prefer to use only those products on wool that I would feel safe using on my own hair. I'll want to raise the nap before I apply any viscous products to it.
When raising the nap on wool, you can use a handful of teasels if you wish, but a short wire-hair brush or a pad of Velcro will work just as well. Avoid trying to raise the nap on wet wool, as the fibers are more prone to pull away from the wool completely. Dunlevy states that scholar A.T. Lucas first stated that this method was used at least as far back as the eleventh century and continued into the early twentieth century. Though the technique is quite possibly earlier in origin, this cannot be completely verified. It may be that the hard curls on the surface of the Mantle of St. Brighid were achieved using another unknown method.
A few final notes on the Shaggy Mantle
My attempts with honey, hair gel and a sugar/vinegar mixture were not overly successful.
The hair gel and the honey gave me a good hard finish but didn't survive washing. The sugar and vinegar, which I mixed until I had a sticky concoction, proved too thin to be of much use, though I doubt I had the proportions correct. Be aware that this was attempted on mohair and not pure wool. Wool might take this treatment with much better results. Experiment and let your fellow Gaels know how you fared.
Few Kingdoms in the SCA have the climate of the Isles, so people are not inclined to have wool draped over their shoulders all the time, especially in the summer months. That is understandable, but remember that your brat is your calling card and your identity. Try to keep it handy, draped over one arm or in your chair.
The Ionar (Jacket)
There was until recently a commonly accepted view that there were two distinct classes of dress in early Gaelic culture. The first was the dress of the upper classes, the leine and the brat. The second was the lower class wardrobe, consisting of two garments called the ionar (eye-nar) and trius (trews) or osain (au-shin).
The ionar, sometimes spelled inar, was a jacket, a short coat or tunic. It was likely made of wool, though it may have been fashioned from leather occasionally for martial reasons. Very little is known of this garment and much speculation abounds, such as it's association with the working folk and the military. McClintock is generally credited with this hypothesis, and his reasoning is sound. A study of sculptures and painted figures reveals a fairly consistent image of the soldier in shorter garments than his nobler companions. Knees are visible below the hemline and sometimes arms are bare or show a distinctive cuff at the elbow.
McClintock concluded that the status conscious Irish reserved long garments and rich cloaks for the wealthy while the military and the laborers made do with short tunics and trews. This is a good guideline but should not be considered sacrosanct.
Close examination of the Virgin in the Book of Kells shows that the pink leine has a garment over it, yet under the brat. The Virgins cuffs are not pink and her neckline shows what may be numerous layers. Dunlevy concluded that this image does indeed show the nobly painted Virgin wearing an ionar. Other examples appear in the Book of Kells that may indicate the presence of an ionar. St. John appears seated in a blue chair, a book in his left hand a quill in his right. His leine skirts are dark, his brat burgundy, but his sleeves are covered by a garment with an almost lavender hue. The Book of Kells portrait of St. Matthew shows him dressed in a pink leine over which he wears an open purple coat or robe, a knee length garment that may be an ionar. If so, the ionar was probably accepted by all classes as a basic item of dress, or came to be by the time the Book of Kells appeared.
Dunlevy gives this definition; "It was a tunic which was worn by both men and women over the leine but at such a length that both garments were visible" (p.21) So, in the modern mind, a short 'over-tunic'. Care must be taken with descriptives like that, as ionar means jacket, which implies occasional outerwear.
'Over-tunic' would reduce the leine to an under garment, which it certainly was not. However, thinking of the ionar as a coat or jacket leads people to believe the garment would open in the front. McClintock thought so, and concluded that the brooches he spotted on soldiers' chests were closures for a jacket. Considering the garment St. Matthew wears in the Book of Kells, this seems plausible as does a simpler, more tunic-like garment that simply slipped over the head like many tunics of the age. The brooches may be closing large neck openings. If it did open in the front, it may have been both belted and brooched closed, or allowed simply to hang open at the neck, like a jerkin. We don't know yet and may not for some time.
McClintock went so far as to suggest that this garment may sometimes have been constructed like a small bathrobe or smoking jacket. The only source for this that I can find is a jacket of Norse origin, which was trimmed in faux fur and crossed over the wearer's front like a double-breasted coat. McClintock may have been looking for anything similar in history to describe what could be worn by the soldiers arresting Christ on the Cross of Muiredach.
No existing artwork remains that gives the ionar that kind of detail. One thing we can determine is that the ionar had both long sleeves, as on the Virgin, and short sleeves, as on numerous soldiers. We lack any real hard evidence concerning the ionar, but it appears to have been a sometimes colorful garment. The Virgin's is blue with trim at the cuffs, while a soldier sporting a javelin in the Book of Kells wears a green ionar with sleeves that reach to just below the elbow. Both McClintock and Dunlevy believe it likely the ionar was made of wool and dyed.
It probably received decoration befitting the status of the wearer. This is a garment that could be worn alone if the wool is soft, or over a short leine for casual wear. For more formal occasions, it could be heavily decorated and cut with more length, though it would appear to be consistently shorter in length than the leine. The reenactor has lots of room for personal expression with this enigmatic garment, and it provides for experimentation using the decoration techniques described earlier. One suggestion I make is to remember how effective layers can be in keeping warm. Better to have a lightweight wool ionar with a brat over the shoulders even in chilly weather so that you can control your comfort level more easily. Avoid thick wool and friezes for a close fitting ionar, as they can have you sweating even when snow covers the ground.
Some try to differentiate between the ionar and the inar, claiming that the ionar was the coat worn over the leine while the inar was a short working jacket worn against the skin. I have found nothing to support this thus far. It appears to me that ionar is simply a variant spelling for inar, and that both words equally translate as jacket, a rather non-specific word. As mysterious as the early Irish jacket remains, we know that wearing a jacket was an accepted fashion statement in Ireland and Scotland for centuries. By the time the Tudor Era arrived, the jacket had become the familiar pleat-waisted coat with its hanging sleeves, its Dark Age forebears forgotten and lost to time.
Before discussing leg wear in detail, I should first give some explanation as to the wearing of anything on the legs. It was common for the people of the Gaelic nations to go about barelegged. This was an accepted fashion from the beginning of the SCA timeframe to well after 1600 AD, even longer among Highland Scots, as the kilt appeared at the turn of the seventeenth century and has enjoyed a lasting popularity.
Bare legs appear throughout the Irish Book of Kells and the fashion was still common throughout the Gaelic nations four centuries later. The grandson of Harald Hardrata, King Magnus (1073-1103 AD) was nicknamed 'Barelegs' when he began to go without leg wear after visiting the Hebrides, letting only his tunic cover his nethers. The French historian Guibert of Nogent described Scotsmen traveling France on their way to Jerusalem sometime around 1110 AD. In his autobiographical account he wrote; "You may see the Scots...barelegged with their shaggy cloaks, a scrip (pouch) hanging down 'Ex Humeris', coming from their marshy homelands."
When Mac Roth is charged to describe the forces of Ulster in detail to Fergus (a section of the "Tain bo Cuailnge" that every gaelophile should read) he describes hair, brats, leinte, weapons, footwear and even the shapes of brooches, yet not a single mention of hose, leggings, stockings or trews is uttered by the scout.
Leg wear was certainly worn, make no mistake. Trius (Irish) or Triubhas (Scot) are anglicized into 'trews' a word that springs from the old French 'trebus'. This makes the word trius no older than about 1200 AD. The term in use before that was Broc, meaning "breeches or trousers". It is similar enough to brog (shoes) that many wonder if it sprang from the need to describe those trousers that reach 'to the foot', for some only reached to about the knees. Both broc and brog come from the Old Norse 'brok'. Another term found is Osain which seems to be the oldest.
Today some reenactors use osain to specifically refer to trews with stirrup straps under the foot, though Dunlevy makes no real distinction, treating it as just another word for trews. These days osain is generally used to describe stockings. Despite this multilayered linguistic mess, trousers were certainly seen in a variety of forms.
Blue knee-length trius appear in the Book of Kells on our ionar wearing soldier with the javelin, while beard-tugging men can be seen in the panels from the canons, also dressed in these short trousers. The Book of Kells begins the Gospel of St. Mark with a detailed color plate that depicts a man being devoured by a monster in the upper right hand corner, a man McClintock spotted and highlighted, for he wears long trousers with straps under the feet to keep the legs from riding up. It is apparent that the vast majority of those depicted in leg wear aren't noble. Most have no brat, and those that do wear a fairly short one. Many are engaged in the work of underlings or the military. It is easy to say that there is no evidence that the highborn wore trius, but a closer look reveals again the danger of using the terms 'always' and 'never'.
The Book of Durrow, written about 650 AD at Durrow Abbey near the town of Tullamore, has a carpet page (a page of pure artwork) depicting St. Matthew in a heavily detailed and rich brat that reaches below his knees and is covered in intricate weaving and embroidery, a wealthy garment indeed. Yet below the brat Matthew wears checkered trius, undermining the hypothesis that only the servants wore leg coverings. It may very well be that lower classes of men wore trius more often as they simply had no wish to wear the few longer garments they possessed, for fear they may be stained or damaged during their labors. It's possible that all classes wore them for protective reasons on occasion.
There is no indication that women of any station wore leg wear, as even servant girls wore ankle length leinte. If the women of the age did wear trius, say underneath their leinte, they cannot be seen, they are not referenced and no evidence has ever been uncovered. How these trius, long or short, were constructed is a matter of conjecture. The only trius ever found that date to the medieval timeframe were made in the 1500's.
These trius can be used to provide us with an idea of how they may have been constructed centuries earlier. They were both ankle length. One pair, found in Kilcommon, Ireland, had coverings for the feet and may have sported stirrup straps. It may also have covered the wearer's feet entirely, making these trius like a pair of modern hose. The other pair, found near Dungiven, Ireland, had the stirrup straps. Both trius had a waistband that accommodated a drawstring of twisted yarn or leather to act as a belt. This is a feature recorded in 1200 AD by WelshNorman chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis in his "Topographia Hiberniae". Trius were almost always made of wool and the legs were cut on the bias to give the legs better stretch and fit, which was a common technique throughout the Middle Ages.
Concerning Checkered Cloth
Also of note is a description of trius that can be found throughout the centuries. The word breacan was used to describe anything parti-colored, checkered, speckled or variegated. It was also one of the most common terms used to describe trius. Giraldus described many of the trius he saw as parti-colored. Breacan or bracan is still used to describe what we commonly call plaid or tartan. The trius found with the Kilcommon and Dungiven clothes were checkered, as were later trius from Killary, Ireland. Recall that St. Matthew in the Book of Durrow from 650 AD wears checkered trius.
Plaid is actually a term for a blanket or rug, something you wrapped up in, which is an apt description for some brats, as I mentioned earlier. Tartan is actually french in origin, the actual word was 'tiretaine', referring to a type of cloth, usually a wool/silk blend. Solid color trius are seen in the Book of Kells and were described by Cambrensis, but should you wish to have the traditional checkered trius, keep a few things in mind.
First of all, modern 'tartans' are often far too complex and not representative of the checkered wool seen in the medieval timeframe. Even so-called 'ancient tartans' can only be dated to the late seventeenth century, well after the SCA period has ended. Looking at both the Book of Durrow and the Tudor Era trius we have found, simple checks and stripes seem to be the standard. Worn on the bias, they form a distinctive series of subtle diamonds running down each leg. Examples of simple checks like this date all the way back to what may be the very first 'tartan' in Gael country, the Falkirk plaid. Dating from 325 AD, this simple brown and tan checked cloth was found as a stopper in a bottle filled with roman silver coins.
The modern Falkirk pattern is nothing like the original, which now sits in the National Museum of Edinburgh with the coins it guarded. It is almost exactly what we now call shepherd's plaid, what my mother called kitchen plaid. If you find such a material, chances are it will be black/white, red/white or red/black. Overdying these patterns can help provide you with more options. You can turn a red/white into a blue/purple.
When looking for an appropriate wool for trius, consider the same weaves and weights you would for an ionar or brat. Wool flannels and simple twills of medium weights or lighter are the best. Washing suit wool to remove their modern sheen is also an option.
The girdles and belts of the Gaels were called Crois (Kris), which is still the term used in the Aran Islands. Both leather straps and woven fiber belts were worn. Numerous buckles have been found with leather remnants still clinging to their clasps and rivets. These buckles may also have been used on woven belts, which were likely made as they are today for the tourist trade in Ireland, by card weaving, though braiding was possible. Certainly naalbinding and sprang were known once the Norse arrived and settled. The woven belts today are springy, thick and strong, often colorful and tied with fringed tips left dangling. In the "Tain bo Cuailnge" Mac Roth describes Senchas the orator as wearing a silver belt.
This could either be a leather strap belt set with silver facings or, more likely, a silver brocade woven belt. In the same piece Ferdiad is bribed by the Queen Maeve with armor and a purple belt, which Cuchulainn later describes as "leaf-like". This would accurately describe the texture, pattern and possible hues of a woven belt.
Famed Irish historian Susan Young, author of "The Work of Angels", wrote an essay entitled "Recent Finds of Insular Enameled Buckles" for a collection called, "The Insular tradition" Edited by Catherine E. Karkov, Michael Ryan and Robert T. Farrell, State University of New York Press, 1997 ISBN 0-7914-3455-9
In this essay we see a sizable gallery of Gaelic buckles and they can teach us much about the crois of the Early Middle Ages. For one thing, they accommodate straps from 1/2 in. wide to 1 1/4 in., smaller than the SCA usual of 2-3 inches. These buckles tend to be bronze with the mouth and the back plate cast as solid pieces with a tongue that swiveled to allow the buckling of the strap. A few have swiveling mouths with stiff tongues on the back plate, and one has a hinge to allow both to swivel separately. Most of these buckles have long back plates covered in enamel and sculpting.
An entire book could be written concerning brooches and still not cover every detail possible, so I will simply discuss the basics to give you a starting point in your studies. There may be nothing more symbolic of Gaelic culture than the brooch. They were accorded special mention in the literature of the time and were sometimes treated as the embodiment of the wearer's wealth and station, much like the brat in which it nestled.
Originally the brooch was probably little more than a straight pin made of bone. Examples of this style persisted into the SCA timeframe, often with carved heads and holes through which a securing cord or leather lacing might be threaded. This eventually developed into the Irish ring brooch or ring pin, a brooch the Norse quickly claimed and made their own. It became quite popular throughout the Isles, showing up even in Jorvik (Norse-occupied York in northern England).
This brooch was usually a long bronze pin with a swiveling ring set in its head that would allow for a cord or small chain to be attached. This cord would be pulled to the pin's tip and under it once it was protruding from the fabric, then secured back to the ring, making a loop that kept the cloak from pulling free of the brooch pin, which was likely worn horizontally. In the "Tain bo Cuailnge" Mac Roth describes a warrior called Celtcar mac Uthecar, who wears an iron pin in his cloak that is so immense it reaches from one shoulder to the other.
This brooch style and the technique it used inspired a wide variety of brooches. The kite brooch used this technique. Kite brooches were made like ring brooches but had a flat diamond shaped flap with a usually decorated face that pivoted on the pin's head. These diamond flaps tend to sport small metal loops on their tips or just behind their tips to accommodate a securing cord. A brooch of this sort is in the oft-mentioned illustration of the Virgin Mary in the Book of Kells. The Waterford Kite Brooch is an extraordinary example of this classic and sadly ignored brooch.
More familiar to fans of medieval jewelry is the penannular brooch. Shaped like the letter "C', a penannular brooch sported a pin that could slide all about the interior of the brooch head and so allow it to be locked into place.
This practical style persisted until the Norman Invasion, and numerous examples sit on display in museums. A few examples include the Ballyspellan brooch and the Ballinderry Crannog brooch. Of particular interest is the coil of wire found on the Ballinderry brooch.
Dr. Niamh Whitfield, in her lectures and essays concerning Irish brooches, has proposed that this wire coil may have been pushed though the fabric to further secure the brooch, or that it was perhaps sewn to the garment. You can find her theories concerning the wear of Irish brooches in; "Irish Art Historical Studies in Honour of Peter Harbison" Colum Hourihane, editor, Four Courts Press, 2004 ISBN 1-85182-847-8
Most beautiful and debated of all the brooches is that style generally referred to as pseudo-penannular brooches. These are the royal brooches known for their amazing detail and impressive size. The legendary Tara brooch falls into this category. As the ring brooch and the penannular brooch evolved side by side, they eventually began to merge.
Ring brooches began to take on the shape of penannulars, including pronounced terminals, the tips of the letter "C" on penannulars, yet they were joined by small panels, many of which were gilt or enameled. This stopped the pin from being passed through the mouth of the head and turned to lock it into place. Pseudo-penannulars began to be designed like ring brooches, to allow small chains or cord to be added. These cords were not haphazardly lashed or tied to the head of the pseudo-penannular, but were instead joined with small hoops cast into the head in the manner of kite brooches.
A small hoop can be found at the bottom of the Roscrea brooch behind the lower central panel, as it can on the Ardagh hoard brooch. The Tara has a hinged joint for it's broken braided chain that appears to have been added later. Dr. Whitfield proposes that this chain sported a smaller pin at it's end. This pin-tipped chain would have been wrapped several times about the brooch pin and then pushed through the fabric like an embroiderer's needle left unattended. Dr. Whitfield also proposes that the twin hoops on the lower edge of the Tara Brooch head were intended to provide thread anchors for sewing the brooch directly to the garment.
Despite Dr. Niamh Whitfield's years of experience, I remain undecided concerning this theory and I hope to read more from her in the future. My primary concern is that no evidence is given to support a small pin on the tip of the now broken chain. No such feature was found on the brooch chain. Also, the hoops on the lower edge of the head are evenly spaced and would take a chain or silk cord in the manner of other pseudo-penannulars. Whitfield's reasoning is understandable in that the Tara was worn horizontally with the terminals facing down, the pin laying the same direction as the placement of the chain hinge. The Tara brooch is one of the earliest pseudo-penannulars and is considered a transitional piece, gorgeous but experimental when it was first crafted. Another early experimental brooch is the Hunterston Brooch.
Like the Tara, it is a pseudo-penannular brooch. It approaches the problem of its joined terminals using a different method. Instead of requiring chain or cord to secure the pin to the garment, the Hunterston has a removable pin. Once removed, fabric would be pulled through the head of the brooch, the pin would be pushed through the fabric bulging up through the ring, then locked back into place. The Hunterston was also a transitional piece. Once the Normans had established communities and strongholds in Ireland, the annular brooch was well on it's way to becoming the only standard brooch throughout Northern Europe, the Gaelic nations included.
Penannular meaning 'almost a circle', annulars were complete and unbroken. Annulars came in a variety of shapes and sizes, though none were ever as large as the pseudo penannulars. Annulars were circular of course, but also four, five, six and eight sided. Some were shaped like flowers or long diamonds. All were essentially open rings or geometric shapes that sported swiveling attached pins. Fabric was pulled through and pushed down on the pin, like the Hunterston Brooch, though annular brooch pins were generally not removable. It would be fairly uncommon to see annulars in the timeframe this guide covers. Annular brooches would be the standard afterwards.
Brogs, later called brogues, are sometimes overlooked or considered secondary to a Gaelic wardrobe due to the widespread belief that Scots, Manx and Irish folk went about barefoot all the time. Though it is true Gaels had a recurrent habit of going about barefoot, brogs were worn with pride and a sense of decorum. Dunlevy paraphrases a quote from the Rule of Ailbe of Emly when she writes; "..no matter how ascetic a respected person became he should never go barefoot." (p.20) That being the case, styles of shoes and their construction need to be considered.
In 1956, A.T. Lucas wrote an in-depth article detailing many styles and patterns of shoes in an article called "Footwear in Ireland" which he wrote for the Journal of the Archaeological Society of County Louth, Volume 13, No. 4. This work is available through interlibrary Loan from the Boston College O'Neill Library, appropriately enough. It is a vital resource for any with a serious commitment to period shoemaking for Gaelic cultures, but I defer to the more capable I. Marc Carlson, known in the SCA as Master Diarmaid O'Dunn, OL. Master Dairmaid's website is considered by many to be one of the most vital in the SCA.
It details his research into various hands-on trades but is best known by its title, "Footwear of the Middle Ages".
At the above URL you will find every shoe I will mention discussed in better detail with patterns included, not to mention the immense amount of knowledge Master Diarmaid has amassed in leatherwork and shoe making. He is, in my humble opinion, a true cordwainer. Each shoe mentioned is well within the timeframe of this guide, yet many were still made and worn well into the latter Middle Ages and a few even to the 20th century. These shoes are distinctive in that they were all made from a single piece of hide or leather, either gathered about the foot for form or cut into more specific shapes to fold over the foot.
The first is a shoe shown not only in Dunlevy's "Dress in Ireland"(p.19) but it also appears on the feet of an unnamed blonde scribe wearing a purple, gold-trimmed brat holding a red book in the Book of Kells, folio 29r, "Liber generationis". This is an elegant slipper, no doubt worn by someone of wealth or importance. It has almost a loafer look due to its horizontal seam around the front and it's decorative tongue. Lucas refers to it in his work as Type 1.
What Lucas called Type 2 is also a slipper, one of many similar shoes found. Unlike Type 1 it has a center seam and a wider, more utilitarian tongue. Both Type 1 and 2 are dated to roughly 700-900 AD and were just as likely worn by women as men.
The Drumacoon Bog Shoe, Lucas' Type 3, is a shoe that is gathered up with gut, lace or cord, like many of the shoes found. These 'gathered' or 'cinched' shoes tended to be made of scraped and air-cured hide, often with the hair left on the exterior. This particular shoe has a single lace that cross over the top of the foot many times and is then cinched tight to form a solid covering the top of the shoe. Its heel is cinched in the same way. It's worth noting that this particular style shoe has been found in Scotland and the outer isles.
The Ballyhagan Shoe, which Lucas called Type 4, is made almost exactly as the Drumacoon Bog Shoe but instead of the lace crossing over the foot to pull the edges of the leather up, the lace in the Ballyhagan runs along the edge of the leather and cinches the shoe into a more open pucker.
A more popular shoe to reenactors is the 'Cuaran', which were called 'Rivelins' in Scotland and are still called 'Pampooties' today in the Aran Isles in Western Ireland. The pattern at Master Diarmaid's website will show how this simple shoe is laced, but for now this shoe cinches at the toe and leaves lace for tying the shoe to the foot. Also worth mentioning are 'Ghillies', the inspiration for today's Irish and Scottish dancing shoes. These may not have been a Gaelic invention but a Roman one, brought into England and up to Alba when Hadrian went north. These shoes are a common sight at SCA events and medieval fairs. They have a sometimes stiff sole from which spread 8-10 strips of leather, all of which have lace holes at their tips. When cinched up, these strips of leather come over the foot like fingers, tip to tip. Roman versions sported hobnails in the sole for better protection from rough ground. I remain uncertain as to whether or not this shoe saw widespread use in the Early Middle Ages. One final option for the reenactor is the Norse influence in the Islands. Once the Northmen began to settle in Eastern Scotland, the coasts of Ireland and the entire Isle of Man, they traded with and married the locals and claimed many native styles for themselves, while giving the natives inspiration for new things. Norse footwear shouldn't be discarded as an option for anyone looking into the Viking Age, especially shoes like the Coppergate, which has been found in variation throughout the digs in York, England.
For The Ladies
At first glance, Gaelic dress doesn't appear to be very gender specific, but a closer examination reveals that women did have a few differences in their wardrobe. It would seem that women wore almost every garment men did. The one exception is the trius. They wore leinte yet they seem to have consistently worn them to the ankles and not higher. They belted their clothes and wore brats. Occasionally their clothes are described as more form fitting, or 'tight', which may be an indication of an unknown form of cinching in the leine or simply quality tailoring. It may be that the ionar, if worn, was also longer on women. One description of a woman, a rather extraordinary woman at that, appears in the "Tain bo Cuailnge". The king Eochaid Feidlech was wandering and met her in a glen... "A beautiful purple cloak she had, and silver fringe to it, and a gold brooch, and she had on her a leine of green silk with a long hood (remember that this may be more like a draping collar and not a true hood) embroidered with red gold, and wonderful clasps of gold and silver on her breasts and shoulders. The sunlight was falling on her so that the gold and green silk were shining out. Two plaits of hair she had, four locks in each plait, and a bead at the point of every lock, and the color of her hair was like yellow flags of satin..." Of note in this description is that, despite the otherworldly nature of this lady, her hair is uncovered, indicating she was unmarried. Married women wore their hair covered by a Caille (caul) which was usually made of linen or silk. It's early shape is debated, though likely is was a long rectangle of material that lay over the head. It would have probably reached from above the eyebrows down to below the shoulders. It's tail end may have been draped under the chin and over the opposite shoulder. It may also have been held in place with a thin circlet. It was probably dyed and given decoration with embroidery, though some may have been plain linen. Also, unbound hair is rarely mentioned in early Irish literature. Hair is described either merely by it's color, or by describing the plaits and braids as well as it's hue. This applied to men as well as women. Hair was groomed with dedication and was a source of pride. To this end most women had on their persons a comb, usually kept in a purse or pouch intended just for it's transport. These were called Ciorbholg (keer-wolg) based on 'cior' for comb and 'bolg' for bag. We have no idea how these were made. They may have been small drawstring leather and cloth pouches or flat purses with a flap. Either way, ladies, make sure your man has one, for this item was considered essential for both men and women, though women are mentioned with them more often. Another item of interest is a Scathan (ska-han), a mirror. From the Bronze Age to the early Middle Ages these were usually made of highly polished silver or bronze, small oval affairs with short handles. Darkened glass mirrors in lead tin cases of about 4 inches in diameter were to be seen in northern Europe but wouldn't be common until well after the middle of the thirteenth century and not valid for the timeframe of this guide.
We do know that cheeks and lips were likely blushed with elder berry juices. Nails were "crimsoned" as Deidru describes in her lament from the Tain, probably with the elder berry as well, though animal blood and alder extract may have been used. Eye lining may not have been accepted or well known. The Culdee monks of Ireland darkened their eyelids in the old Coptic fashion, and the Irish apparently found this very odd. Yet women did darken their eyebrows and various dark berries grow in the region to accommodate the fashion. Perfumes were known to these cultures. Steeping flowers and spices in oil or wine provides a wide range of scents, which might have been applied not only to skin but combed into the hair, dabbed onto clothing and even added to food, as it was edible. Jewelry was worn by both sexes, but rings and necklaces are mentioned on women more often, with bracelets, bells and beads a close second. Pagan extravagance may have toned down with the arrival of Christianity but it certainly remained a part of Gaelic fashion. Jet, amber, glass, gold, silver, bronze and enamels were still very popular as personal adornment when the Normans arrived. Women in these cultures retained far more rights and privileges in their society than their neighbors. Brehon Law, the ancient legal system that was embraced by the Gaelic church despite it's pagan origins, protected women for centuries and was still honored despite the rise of English rule in Ireland and Scotland. They were given status and were allowed broad property and marriage rights. A clue to their position in society can be found in what is commonly called the Grave of the Pagan Lady in Peel, St. Patrick's Isle in Man. This woman was buried with a pagan husband of presumably Scandinavian ancestry but she was buried with a cooking spit, a symbol of domestic authority not encountered in Norse culture. The woman may not have been pagan at all but merely married to a pagan husband. She may have been Christian while he retained his native faith. Though her burial style honors him, she appears to have been wearing native dress and not Norse fashions. This shows the unusual independence of women in Gaelic culture. It also makes a strong argument for the retention of Gaelic dress despite outside influences and foreign settlements.
There is a large amount of debate and disagreement on the subject of Gaelic dress, which is usually reinforced by strong emotional attachment or misinformation from those claiming authority. Certain misconceptions have become accepted simply because they have been repeated by others for so long, the idea of questioning them seems fruitless. Others seem plausible until examined closer, so that what was concrete is reduced to only one of several possibilities. Dunlevy, McClintock and those that follow in their footsteps are collectors of fragmentary information trying to construct a complete picture for our benefit.
I am not an authority in any sense of the word. I am a student eternal. The information I have presented should be taken with caution and with the understanding that more information awaits you who wish to continue researching this frustrating but fascinating topic.
You will find a few illustrations in a gallery of my own creation at the end of this guide.
Originally this was all I intended, a detailed gallery focusing on Gaelic clothing. It was soon pointed out to me that many might not understand what they seeing and I should include descriptions. Thus was this guide conceived. This artwork should be approached with the same caution as the text of this guide. They are intended to provide only the simplest and most basic visual reference to items I have described. There are also illustrations of folk wearing my interpretations of the garments either as described or as they might have looked had they been drawn by a contemporary witness.
The Gallery key
A- Two possible variants of the leine. The sleeveless is likely disappearing in 600 AD.
B- Possible culpaits. The hood is likely the more common in the SCA timeframe.
C- Various necklines visible in the Book of Kells.
D- The speculative 5-folded and 7-folded brat.
E- Possible ionars
F- Trius, both short and long with stirrup straps. The longer pair are 'shepherd's plaid'.
G- Various buckle shapes from Ireland, all from 700-1000 AD
H- Brooches (from left to right) Straight bone pin, Ring pin, Kite Brooch,
I - Penannular Brooch
J - Annular Brooch
K- Brogs (shoes) Lucas Type 1
L- Lucas Type 2
M- Lucas Type 3
N- Lucas Type 4
Q- The Coppergate shoe
The Soldiers- Here on the left you see my attempt at the javelin and buckler bearing soldier from the Book of Kells. He wears a soft wool ionar with baggy sleeves to just below the elbow. It has a deep neckline that he has closed with a ring brooch. I have shown him barefoot. His trius are a solid color that reach to just below the knees. His companion on the right with the spear and long moustache wears a long sleeved ionar over a short, simple leine. His trius are checkered and have stirrup straps. His shoes are cuarans. Both men wear simple thin leather belts that are as likely tied as they are buckled.
The Fey Maiden and the Virgin- The woman on the left is an image inspired by the otherwordly woman mentioned from the Tain. Her leine is clasped at the shoulders with small penannular brooches and the long shawl-like collar is visible hanging down her back. Her heavily fringed brat is draped over her arm so that her garments are visible. I have given her a thick woven belt that might have sported metal threads, considering her nature. Her clothes represent a style that was probably fading away if the Book of Kells is a guide, though it may have survived another century or two as summer wear for both men and women and shows a certain amount of Mediterranean influence. It is certainly gone when the Normans arrive, for no such clothing is described by Giraldus.
Mary, if allowed to stand and let Joseph hold the baby awhile, may look like the woman on the right. As pictured in the Book of Kells, she wears a long-sleeved leine under a brat that is closed with a kite brooch. A hood, most likely from her leine, covers her head and over that she wears a caille, its tail tucked under her chin and over her shoulder. Based on Dunlevy's conclusions, I have put a long-sleeved ionar on her, a long one with an open front similar to the garment St. Matthew wears in the Book of Kells. Her belt, or crios, is simple and card woven. Though she is pictured barefoot in the original, I have given her footwear, the Lucas Type 2 slippers. Mary's outfit is most likely the accepted women's wear of the timeframe for this guide, whether or not an ionar is included.
The younger man wears a short-sleeved leine with silk trim to his knees. He wears no trius but does wear the Lucas Type 1 shoes. His striped brat is over his shoulder, also decorated with embroidered edges. His belt is fine leather with a bronze buckle. His bearded father on the right is more likely to take a chill. He wears a long-sleeved leine with the skirt below his knees, which is also decorated. He wears trius of a solid hue and has an old pair of Lucas Type 4 shoes on his feet. His brat is heavily fringed and held at his chest by a pseudo-penannular. His belt is a multicolored woven crios.
By Brehon Law, the number of colors these people wore were determined by their station and status. This a difficult issue for the SCA, for sources disagree as to what colors they wore and who in the SCA is entitled to wear what. This is a personal decision you have to make for yourself. As for myself, I felt that as we are all gentry in the Society we are allowed at least four. Once you have shown yourself a champion, artist, administrator or anything else in the eyes of others, I see no issue with wearing five. I reserve six for the peerage in my own mind, and seven only for landed nobility and the royals.
Copyright 2005 by Scott Barrett. <Barrett1 at cox.net>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.