Braies, Part 2: A Brief History

Fig 1 Maciejowski fol 12v Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, Ms M. 638. Paris, 1240
Fig. 1, Detail, Gideon, Most Valiant of Men (fol. 12v) Maciejowski Bible, Paris, c. 1250. Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.638. The man on the right has his coulisse hanging down unrolled and it is long enough to reach his knees. The man to his left has his coulisse rolled and the hem of his braies knotted to his braies-girdle with cord through a slit.

The fourteenth century saw a great deal of change in what people wore. As the comments at the end of Part 1 show, these changes could seem shocking to contemporary writers complaining of radical new styles, but such observers were not positioned to see what was in fact a broader pattern of change over time.

By the thirteenth century, braies could reach anywhere from ankle to knee, but in general they began to shrink in length. Fig. 1 illustrates the typical characteristics. The legs were wide, the seat and crotch were very full, and they had no waistband; rather, the fabric above the hips, which when extended was long enough to reach mid-chest, was rolled down over the braies-girdle, or belt, that held the braies up, creating a thick roll. This roll was called the coulisse in French, meaning “slide;” possibly a reference to the way the braies-girdle could slide within the roll. The legs of the braies were not necessarily sewn into a closed tube as pants are today, but could be left open on the inside of the leg. As Fig. 1 shows, one end of the open hem could be knotted and tied up to the braies-girdle with a cord to control fullness.

The wearer could also tuck the hems into the tops of the chausses (Fig. 2), which were in turn tied or pointed to the braies-girdle through slits in the coulisse. Evidence from illuminations shows that this wasn’t as cumbersome as might be thought; in several cases, men are shown defecating and have simply pulled their braies down, with the coulisse and chausses (hose) still in place (Fig. 3). That this style was worn for so long indicates that it worked; braies stayed essentially unchanged for 200 years until the shift in fashions of the fourteenth century demanded a new solution.

After 1340, as tunic hemlines began to shrink and chausses began to fit more snugly, braies began to change shape. They lost their voluminous folds, their full, low-hanging crotch, and the thick roll of the coulisse narrowed. They moved to a low-profile waistband, to legs that fit the thigh more closely, and a crotch that contoured the groin  (Fig. 4). The old and new styles of braies co-existed for some time; intriguingly, the Great Wardrobe accounts from 1343-44 show that Edward III had several pairs of braies in both the new style (de novo modo) and the old style (de antiquo modo) for wear with the appropriate newfangled short tunics or old fashioned gowns, respectively (Newton, 17). This transition from a loosely draped undergarment, gathered to fit the body, into a constructed one resembling, by the end of the century, modern-day briefs began in earnest after the introduction of the cotehardie, pourpoint, paltok, and similar closely-tailored upper-body garments in mid-century (Newton, p. 55). Chausses started being attached to garments rather than to the braies. Now that braies no longer needed to support anything, yet had to accommodate ever- shorter and tighter clothing, they kept shrinking ( Fig. 5). By the early fifteenth century, the coulisse had become a mere casing with narrow ware coming out the front from eyelets; the two ends crossed in front within the casing by a few inches before emerging to be tied, creating braies that fit the buttocks, hips and thighs smoothly, and had a small pouch in front at the groin, achieved with piecing (Fig. 6). Eventually the legs shortened so much that in some cases, they had disappeared entirely, becoming essentially bikini briefs (Fig. 7).

Attitudes toward men’s braies 

To be seen in public in body linens was not something a man of stature would ever allow unless he was intentionally trying to humble himself. Peasants in the fields could strip off their outer layers of clothing in the heat of the day and work in shirt and braies. (Fig. 8) But a merchant or nobleman would not deign to do so. At best a man could roll down his chausses on a hot day, as many of the huntsmen in Gaston Phoebus have done (Fig. 9), but even this level of undress is not seen on men of higher degree.

Visible undergarments as indicator of social inferiority extends not only to peasants and laborers, but also to those being brought low by public execution, intentional social humbling — the penitential walk to Canossa by Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV in 1077, for example, Henry II’s similar supplication at Canterbruy in 1174, or the burghers of Calais’ surrender to Edward III in 1347 — or for those otherwise outside the norm. The Fool in Figure 4 would have been understood to belong to this category by nature of his depiction; Fools were often shown barefoot, or with one shoe, sometimes only in their braies. This connotation of foolishness comes across in literature as well. In his epic poem, Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1170-1220) describes the effort made by Queen Herzeloyde to keep her son from leaving her side to wander the world. Her solution is to send him out “im hemde unde bruoch…daz wart vür tôren cleit erkant.” (in shirt and braies… that was as fool’s dress known) so that, humbled by the poor treatment he’d be sure to get at the hands of strangers, he would turn again for home. As Geoffroy de La Tour Landry made clear in 1370, those who showed their braies were shameful.

Braies, Part 2 Bibliography and Links

Fig. 1, folio 18r:

Fig. 2, folio 18r:

Fig. 3, folio73r:

Fig. 4, fol. 106r:

Fig. 5:

Fig. 6, fol. 287r:

Fig. 7, fol. 18:

Fig. 8, fol. 87:

Fig. 9, fol. 64:

Newton, Stella Mary, Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince, The Boydell Press, 1980

Next: Braies for Women?

Braies, Part 1: Introduction

Name variants include: 

braies (French), breches, brechis, breeches, trewes (English), robae (English Great Wardrobe accounts), bruche (German), brache, mutande (Italian), bragas (Portuguese)

What are braies? 

Execution of followers of Thomas de Marle, Grandes Chroniques de France,1350-1400. Bibliotheque Nationale de france, FR 2813 fol. 200, detail
Fig. 1, Detail, Execution of followers of Thomas de Marle (fol. 200), Grandes Chroniques de France,1350-1400. Bibliotheque Nationale de France, FR 2813

“Thou woldest make me kisse thyn olde breech,
And swere it were a relyk of a seint,
Though it were with thy fundement depeint.”

Chaucer, The Pardoner’s Tale, 1386-1400

Chaucer’s description of an old pair of braies is very much to the point: braies were the medieval equivalent of underpants (Fig. 1), worn primarily to protect clothing from bodily soil. They were the innermost layer of clothes for men and, as will be argued later, possibly for women.They were most often made of linen, a fabric that could withstand frequent washing (though not often the rigors of centuries, alas.) Despite the rarity of extant survivors, we know linen was used through mention in numerous sources such as listings in the Great Wardrobe of Edward III and French royal household accounts, as well as references in more common inventories and literature. Often the term used is “robe-ligne”, literally ‘linen garment.’ Wool and hemp were also used: fourteenth century remnants of wool braies were found in Hull, England, and guild records from Genoa, Italy refer to ready-made hemp underclothes, including braies, sold at market by the thirteenth century (Mazzaoui, 203, note 45). Braies in artwork are usually white or undyed. Brown or black braies do appear in paintings after 1400, but the men wearing them are usually convicts being executed so it is quite possible that the color may be symbolic. In written references it is quite common to find the qualifying term ‘blanche,’ or white, used with braies.

Despite modern-day stereotypes, the written record makes clear that personal cleanliness was important to people living in the fourteenth century. There are many accounts of undergarments being changed on a daily basis. For example, in the household management manual, Le Ménagier de Paris, written circa 1393, a merchant is described as being given white linens and clean hose upon rising in the morning: “Et l’endemain eust robe-ligne blanche, chausses nectes” (Le Ménagier de Paris, First Section, Ninth Article, p.404) and the author’s young bride is encouraged to provide for her husband’s comfort in a similar manner. Braies were worn by everyone from king to peasant, though a poor man might find himself without, as the pilgrim in Piers Plowman (1362-92) goes “in poure cotes for pilgrimage to rome—no breche betwene” (Piers Plowman, MS Harley 2376, as quoted in Cunnington).

Braies were held to the body by a cord or a narrow belt (Fig. 2), and the legs tucked into the tops of the chausses, or hose, which for men were long enough to reach the groin (Fig. 3). As fourteenth century fashions for men got shorter and shorter, braies also provided a measure of modesty, though, if contemporary complaints of fashion-related flashing incidents are to be believed, not quite modesty enough. In 1370, in his The Book of the Knight of La Tour Landry, Geoffroy de La Tour Landry complained about “men that wered to shorte gownes and shewed her brechis, the which is her shame.” In the Grand Chroniques de France from 1346  (cited in Newton, p. 10), blame for the defeat of the French at Crécy is pinned on indecent noblemen, deserving of God’s punishment for wearing the new-fangled clothes so short and tight that they scarcely covered their buttocks, so that when they “bent to serve their lords they showed their braies as well as what was inside them”
(Fig. 4).

Braies, Part 1 Bibliography

The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry, Early English Text Society, Original Series 33: London, 1868

Brereton, Georgina E. and Janet M. Ferrier, eds., Le Mesnagier de Paris, Librairie Générale Française, 1994

Mazzaoui, Maureen Fennell , The Italian Cotton Industry in the Later Middle Ages (1100- 1600) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981

Newton, Stella Mary, Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince, The Boydell Press, 1980

Willett, C., and Phillis Cunnington, The History of Underclothes, Dover Publications, Inc.: NY, 1992


Next: Part 2, A Brief History