Would medieval women wear knickers?

As a reader of historical fiction I find that occasionally a slip in details will cause me to question the reliability of the writer. I recently read a book in a popular, historical fiction series, where the author’s hero (involved in a mission for Queen Eleanor) is on a ship when a sailor uses the phrase ‘You can not swing a dead cat down there’, it jarred, firstly, this is an American corruption of an English phrase that does not contain the word “dead” as it refers to the cat-of-nine-tails, secondly, this was a punishment used on Royal Naval ships around 18th century, when phrase originated, therefore would not have been uttered by a medieval sailor. Once I have encountered an error of this type the author loses a bit of credibility and, although I finished this book, I have been reluctant to read others. I do except it is difficult to be entirely accurate when writing historical fiction and unless you are a medieval historian you are likely to make some slip-ups, but I think it is important to try to eliminate them.

So I have spent the morning trying to locate medieval weather reports having written about snow fall on Boxing Day in 1192, with no success. Winters were colder in medieval times, so snow was more likely. I have also watched too many films/TV scenarios where snow falls at Christmas so I have a strong, romantic connection to snow scenes, to me there is something about snow covering everything that allows us to view the world differently, a blank canvas on which something new and even, magical, can occur. In this case I was inspired by a medieval painting of a snowball fight and I wrote it into my story before questioning whether it had snowed on that day. It now niggles at me that someone reading will know it rained all day and I will lose that bit of credibility.

I titled this blog with the question, “would medieval wear knickers?” because I read another book called City Of Secrets by Christine Jordan, this is set in Gloucester around 1450’s (I can’t quite recall date), as I am familiar with Gloucester I felt she had researched the layout of the city and the  period and I was immersed in the story. Then a servant girl is attacked by a man whose attempted rape fails due to her underwear. But surely, I thought, she would not have worn any. The painting illustrating this post is a 18th-century oil painting by Jean-Honore Fragonardis  and in the heft corner is a young man  happily peering up her skirts because she would not be wearing knickers. Underpants for women was mainly a Victorian concept which many thought “unhygienic”. Logically, before the introduction of elastic wearing such garments would have meant drawstrings, so there you are desperate for relief about to squat in a field, or over a pail, and having to lift your dress to undo a drawstring, it just seems too much hassle, plus there would be the laundering and even the extra cost of them. However, there would be times of the month when a girl would  need some sort of bandage, or protection, which means that medieval women would have worn something at  least for a few days each month. So Ms Jordan’s seemingly fleeting obstacle to rape had me stop and consider its possibility before concluding that the young servant was wearing menstrual protection which thwarted her rapist. Probably not the author’s intention. .

Following a friend’s comment I decided to clarify the wearing of underwear.

It was the crinoline in 1830s which caused women to wear draws or pantaloons. Due to its frame construction women were subjected to red-cheeked moments, either due to problems sitting or to a sudden gush of wind, (meteorological not self-produced) underwear became essential. They were long in order to cover legs and tied around the waist by a drawstring, hence the name draws. Like the wearing of mini-skirts in 1960s meant the need to wear tights (not stocking and suspenders), women needed these undergarments to maintain decorum.


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