There has been great debate over whether or not women wore braies, and the case will be made here that there is in fact evidence that women could indeed wear them. Certainly, one of the major reasons men wore braies–to keep clothing clean from bodily soil—is a need women have as well. It can be argued that women’s shifts were long enough to cover the buttocks and could therefore offer this benefit, but then, so were men’s shirts. Crucially, evidence of women wearing braies exists in both the written and visual record, despite some ambiguity. (Women’s need for extra protection during menses probably had nothing to do with the wearing of braies, as some sort of belt is more likely to have held absorbent rags in place, much as was common practice until the modern-day co-existence of snug-fitting underpants and self-stick pads. That is the subject for a whole other line of research.)
First, what to dismiss.There are plenty of examples of a figurative use of braies with women, and these should not be taken at face value or as evidence of anything other than the enduring presence of misogyny and the power of specific clothing as social markers, literally of “who wears the pants.” In art, this is the two women brawling over the braies, or the woman pulling on braies while her husband is relegated to holding her distaff (Fig. 1). In literature, it’s the hen-pecked peasant whose braies-wearing wife dominates him ( “qui chauce les braies”) (cited in White, p. 193). Some examples are murky, such as in Des Braies au Cordelier, where a wife’s infidelity is exposed when her husband accidentally puts on the braies left behind by her lover, but all is forgiven when she claims to have borrowed them from a friar for the purpose of wearing them herself as an aid to conceiving (quoted in Stillwell, Chaucer’s ‘Sad Merchant’, p. 8). Perhaps here the braies are being accepted as a talisman rather than as clothing, but that her husband sees nothing untoward in her excuse does lend some credence to the idea that braies on a woman are not out of the ordinary and certainly not against the rules.
Further care must be taken in interpreting the written record. For one thing, certain words are fraught with different meaning today than in the fourteenth century. For example, when the Mènagier de Paris relays the story of Patient Griselda, he refers to her as naked (“toute nue”) even though she is still wearing a chemise (Brereton, p. 220). Nakedness in this case refers to a state of improper dress and vulnerability rather than of total undress (Fig. 2). Probate inventories offer another glimpse at clothing norms, but it is also important to be aware of what is not mentioned in them. Rich or poor, the people whose belongings are listed must surely have had some body linens, but these garments are often absent from inventories, perhaps due to lack of perceived value. Piponnier’s work with fourteenth- and fifteenth-century peasant inventories reveals that many peasants had only one robe, one chaperon, and a few pieces of linens (cited in Burns, p. 169, note 10). Similarly, Vigarello’s analysis of wealthier inventories shows an equal absence of body linens: they might be listed with other household linens rather than with the clothing, but even so they are small in number (cited in Mazzaoui, p. 202 ). All this does not mean that these clothes did not exist—it simply means they were beneath mention. This is not a hard and fast rule, certainly the Great Wardrobe of Edward III’s reign does mention a variety of braies in the accounts of clothing purchased, though as a listing of financial transactions rather than of the possessions of the king it is a different kind of record than a probate inventory.
There is, sadly, no mistaking the explicit record of a rape trial. In 1337, Perrette de Lusarche and Perrette la Souplice, both aged twelve, were assaulted by Jehanin Agnes in Paris. The trial transcript includes the following account of the rape itself:
“Là, en un selier, fist entrer, oultre son gré et par force, ladicte Perrete la Souplice, et la jeta à terre, et avala ses braies…”
(There in a cellar he made her go, against her will and by force, the said Perrette la Souplice, and he threw her to the ground, and pulled down her braies…)
The two girls were apprentices, not people of high rank. And at least one of them wore braies. (For the record, Jehanin Agnes was convicted and hanged.)
In literature there are examples of women both with and without braies. Since women’s long skirts hide what is worn beneath, the presence or absence of braies usually comes to light in stories involving that part of the anatomy which braies cover—in tales of forced or consensual sex. For example, the Roman de Renart details a sexual assault that is brought to trial. Called to account, Renart insists the act was adultery rather than rape, because “he did not remove her braies” (“et puis qu’i n’i ot braies traites”) (Le Roman de Renart, Branch I, 1287, cited in Burns, note 23). In other words, since Renart did not have to remove Dame Hersent’s braies, she must have done so, signalling her sexual availability—but this also means that female braies were understood as a mark of modesty. Of course this story is a fabliau with anthropomorphised animals, however braies are specified.
Similarly, in the lay Lanval, written by Marie de France, a seduction-minded fairy is making her availability clear. She is described as follows: “Ele jut sur un lit mut bel…En sa chemise senglement “(vv. 97-99) (She lay upon a bed most fair… clad only in her chemise). In the ambiguity of language and commonly understood assumptions of the day, it is unclear whether braies would have warranted mention or not.
Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale has yet another lady of easy virtue (but evident acrobatic ability) who goes without braies: with her temporarily-blinded husband at its base, May climbs a pear tree in whose branches her lover Damyan waits, whereupon he ”Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng” (line 2353). Clearly there is no barrier to their sexual hijinx. Of course, absence in these cases does not connote presence in others, so the question remains as to whether there ever would have been braies to begin with. Perrette la Souplice, a real young woman and not a fabliau character, might have argued there would have been.
There is evidence for both sides of the “does she or doesn’t she” debate in art as well. The 1375-1400 Egerton Genesis shows the rape of Dinah at Schechem in the marketplace; Dinah’s skirts are hiked up high, her calves are exposed, showing her knee-high chausses gartered in place, but there is no evidence of braies. (Fig. 3, see http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=egerton_ms_1894_f017r) She is a virtuous woman; is the absence of braies an accurate depiction of women’s wear, or artistic convenience? If artistic convenience, why then did the artist include the fine detail of her garters? We cannot know.
In a happier image, a peasant woman warming herself at the fire in the February page of the Tres Riche Heures of Duc de Berry is most definitely NOT wearing anything under her dress. But then, neither is her male companion when we know men did wear braies — clearly, braies could be optional for both sexes (Fig. 4). Is their commando state more indicative of class or condition than it is of garment usage? As the fabliaux described above indicate, lack of braies could be a signal of lack of virtue, as shown by the two very clearly braies-less prostitutes in Figure 5. This is a “historical” scene from Boccaccio, in which the Roman wanton Flora welcomes two prostitutes and their clients, but the clothing is not of the fantastical variety often used to signal scenes from the past. Like for Marie de France’s seductive fairy in Lanval, there is only a shift for the prostitute on the left, and its sheerness displays her complete nudity beneath. Her colleague in the center still has her gown on but has hiked her skirts to the waist, likewise revealing her own sheer shift peeking out from beneath as well as her equally braies-less, and accessible, body.
There is a very inconclusive drawing of gathering sweet apples in the Liége Tacuinum Sanitatis of 1380, which offers a hint of possible knee-length braies (Fig. 6). The drawing is just vague enough to be frustrating; the woman’s hiked skirt clearly shows her right leg with chausses rolled at the knee, and intriguingly the uneven edge of a garment above it which seems to curl around the leg more than a shift would do. The fat, clumsy roll of the chausses peeking out from under her skirt on her left leg means that they could easily reach the top of the thigh, long enough to be pointed to braies when unrolled. Is that fabric peeking around her knee the hem of braies, or of her shift? Impossible to know for sure. But why should her chausses be so long unless they can be unrolled well past the knee to the thigh?
Another example, more convincing, is in the famed Fountain of Youth fresco in the Great Hall of Castello di Manta in Italy, painted in 1411 (Fig. 7). The scene is allegorical and fanciful, but the people in it are everyman— losing their heads a bit in their hurry to get naked and dive into the healing waters where they get frisky, certainly, but they are not mythical or socially coded personages. The woman in Figure 6 is wearing a very sheer shift; her breasts are visible, and there is a definite horizontal line at her hips and along tops of her thighs, as well as a definite solid whiteness painted differently than her skin. There even appears to be a small vertical slit on the outside of the braies leg. In short, they seem to be the same kind of braies as the men in the scene have on. Certainly, other women in the fresco are shown completely nude, but this woman is wearing braies under her shift, and not shown in a dominant or domineering role.
There are a few tantalizing hints in other places as well. Newton mentions that the 1350 Ordonnances des rois de France issued to Tailleurs et Cousturiers to regulate prices for clothes seems to mention braies for women. They specify the price for a chemise (no more than eight deniers), and say that the price for robbes-linges, or underpants (Netwon’s reading), was to be the same as for men’s braies “of the normal style,” which in this context means the fashionable, shorter braies as opposed to the traditional draped style of the earlier century (Newton, p. 38). In addition, according to Rosita Levi Pisetzky (as cited in Mazzaoui, p. 202, note 45) Italian women were known to have been wearing braies from
the mid-twelfth century— and the Fountain of Youth fresco is Italian.
In short, women could wear the pants, quite literally.
Fig. 1, fol. 6v http://ica.themorgan.org/manuscript/page/8/76974
Fig. 2, fol, 48, http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b9059196q/f48.item
Fig, 3, fol. 17, http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=egerton_ms_1894_f017r
Fig. 6, https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/2c/d1/14/2cd1149974997ea740a54ee327c546c9.jpg (Apologies, I could not find images from the Liège Tacuinum online for a direct link, so this is from my own Pinterest board, photographed from Arano, black and white plate 10.)
Fig. 7 http://muckley.us/1386/clothing-men-underwear-2-camille.JPG, (Photographed from Camille, Medieval Art of Love)
Arano, Luisa Cogliati, The Medieval Health Handbook, George Brazillier, Inc.: New York, 1996
Brereton, Georgina E. and Janet M. Ferrier, eds., Le Mesnagier de Paris, Librairie Générale Française, 1994
Burns , E. Jane, Ladies Don’t Wear Braies: Underwear and Outerwear in the French Prose Lancelot, p. 152-174, The Lancelot-Grail Cycle: Text and Transformations , William W. Kibler, editor, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1994
Camille, Michael, The Medieval Art of Love: Objects and Subjects of Desire, Harry N Abrams B.V., 1998
Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Merchant’s Tale, Canterbury Tales
Gravdal, Kathryn, Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law, Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991
Mazzaoui, Maureen Fennell , The Italian Cotton Industry in the Later Middle Ages (1100- 1600) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981 esp. 202 note 45
Newton, Stella Mary, Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince, The Boydell Press, 1980 Nye, Ken, Recreating 14th Century Braies, 1997
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Pisetzky, Rosita Levi, Storia del costume, II, Milan: Istituto Editoriale Italiano, 1964, pp. 22, 293, 363, 376
Rychner, Jean, ed. Lanval, Paris: Champion, 1973
Stillwell, Gardiner, Chaucer’s ‘Sad’ Merchant, Review of English Studies, vol XX, No. 77, January 1944, p. 1-18
Tanon, Louis, Registre criminal de la Justice de Saint-Martin-des-Champs à Paris au XIVe siécle, Paris: Léon Wilhelm, 1877
White, Sarah Melhado, Sexual Language and Human Conflict in Fabliaux, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 24, No. 2, April 1982, pp. 185-210.
Coming soon: Archaeological Evidence