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

 

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