The Merovingian period.
It is rare to find surviving examples of clothing from the early medieval period. In the textile relics of the Chelles Abbey we have the lucky concurrence of well preserved garments and a fairly extensive textual record of both women, St. Bathilde and St. Bertille.
Bathilde was an Anglo-Saxon woman captured in a raid and sold as a slave in Gaul in the early 7th Century. She was purchased by Erchinaold, then mayor of the palace of Neustria. She came to the attention of King Clovis II of Neustria and Burgundy and was made his consort (Harris, 1998). This began her career as one of the most powerful Merovingian queens.
She used her power as Queen to build powerful networks among the patrician Gallo-Roman aristocrats. Bathilde aggressively managed the placing of bishops and established monasteries throughout the Kingdom. Her most lasting legacy was in the Royal villa turned abbey of Chelles on the Marne River (Hen, 1995). This became her domain when she was forced into retirement sometime around the 660s (Harris, 1998). Bathilde died in 690 and was thereafter made a saint. Garments worn by Bathilde form part of the reliquary of Chelles.
Bertille was born in the province of Soissons in a patrician family. Bathilde chose her to be the first Abbess of Chelles after being trained in the Abbey of Jouarre in Brie-sur-Marne (Harris, 1998). Bertilla died in about 700 and many miracles were attributed to her after her death.
Religious dress in late Merovingian Gaul
Merovingian period strategies for creating distinctions between clerics and laypersons through personal adornment provided important precedents for later development of uniform dress in religious orders. (Effros, 2002). In early medieval Gaul, modest clothing and tonsure represented the primary means by which to distinguish clerics visibly from their lay contemporaries. Our most direct sources for these regulations survive in the canons of church councils and monastic Rules. Concern about the appearance of religious leaders constitutes a repeated theme in ecclesiastical synods south of the Loire from the late fifth to seventh centuries. As early as circa 475, the Statua ecclesiae antiqua stipulated two measures that clerics not grow their hair, shave their beards, nor wear inappropriate clothing (Effros, 2002).
Liturgical dress, including the requirement of a belt (cingulum) to tie the tunic of priests based on the precedent of Peter (John 21, 18, Douay Version).
"Amen, amen I say to thee, when thou wast younger, thou didst gird thyself, and didst walk where thou wouldst. But when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee and lead thee whither thou wouldst not."
Surviving examples of leather belts with elaborate buckles from early medieval Gaul, such as the one alleged to have belonged to Caesarius of Arles found at Saint-Trophine in Arles, may have been used in a religious context (Effros, 2002).
In an injunction dated to 589, participants at the Council of Narbonne decreed purple clothing as inappropriately worldly fashion for clerics (Effros, 2002). Men who took monastic vows were obliged to give up worldly clothing. In exchange they received a cowl, tunic, belt, handkerchief, sandals, and shoes from the abbot (Effros, 2002). A variety of monastic Rules circulating in Gaul such as Aurelian's Rule for Monks (548) specified that the garments of monks were to remain un-dyed or be restricted to unimposing colors such as milk white and natural black.
The rule of Caesaria employed after 567 by the former queen Radegund (d. 587) at her monastery of the Holy Cross at Poitiers, admonished the nuns to wear woolen clothing of plain milk-white color and suited to their profession as virgins. (Effros, 1996)
All clothing should be very simple and of a good color, never of black nor of a bright color, but only of a plain color or milk-white. They shall be made in the monastery through the diligence of the prioress and the careful attention of the sister in charge of wool work and distributed be the mother of the monastery to each according to her reasonable necessities. There should be no dyeing done in the monastery, except, as is stated above of a plain or milk-white, because other colors do not befit the humility of a virgin.
(Caesarius, 6th century, McCarthy, 1985)
Embroidery should never be done except on handkerchiefs and towels on which the abbess should order it done.
(Caesarius, 6th century, McCarthy, 1985)
Not only did medieval clothing and jewelry constitute property of significant value, but they possessed non-monetary worth as well. Among the Merovingians as well as contemporary Byzantines and Irish, it was believed that clothing could transmit the curative power of holy individuals even in their absence. The choice of these garments to either bury the women in or to preserve as a relic shows the importance of the textiles. The bodies of the saints, and any objects associated with the burial were preserved and venerated as bestowing miracles (Hen, 1995). The garments reflected the sanctity of their owners or the icons which were depicted upon them and might be the focus of miracles even before those who had worm them were deceased. The popularity of such miracles may have also resulted from the survival of pre-Christian belief in the power inherent in the tasks of weaving and binding, such activities being associated with the female producers of cloth. Merovingian burials included a collection of purposely chosen objects: an ideal projection of reality. (Effros, 1996)
Chasuble de Bathilde
Bathilde, the widow of Clovis II, founded the monastery of Chelles in the second half of the 7th century (Laporte, Boyer, 1991). She was remembered by the nuns in conjunction with a venerated relic of her clothing: a blouse embroidered with an image of a pectoral cross and a bejeweled necklace.
The blouse known as the Chasuble de Bathilde is housed at the Albert Bonno Museum in the town of Chelles. The front of the garment is the only remaining piece and it measures 117 cm by 84 cm. It is a linen fiber in a fine plain weave embroidered with silks in several colors (red, green, two blues and two yellows).
The design is reminiscent of the portrayal of the Empress Theodora with a broad jeweled collar in the mosaic at San Vitale Ravenna. The blouse did not constitute a liturgical vestment but a sign of the former queen's worldly status in the ethos of Merovingian Christian burial. (Effros, 1996) Once Bathilde entered the monastery at Chelles she would have been expected to give up all her worldly goods and dress in the manner proscribed in the Rules. But Bathilde had been Queen and the mother of three Kings. This garment reflected her station in life, but filtered through the lens of religious humility.
The embroidery is executed using chain, running, and satin stitches throughout. The design is made up of two collars with a pendant pectoral cross and medallions with a variety of motifs. The embroideries closely resemble the jeweled and enameled metalwork of the era. On the inner and outer collars, rows of gold stitches surround the red and blue outlines that mimic pearls. A row of blue arrowhead shaped motifs run between the two collars.
Smaller figures in roundels surround the cross, as seen in the following photographs taken by the author.
Figure 5, Close-up of the Pectoral Cross
This close up of the cross shows similarities with the crosses worked in gold and gems used by the Church. Both have pendant stones hanging from the arms of the cross with the embroidered design having additional hanging stones on the bottom of the vertical bar.
This group of smaller figures shows a bird, a musician in a pearled roundel and a pair of lions. The motifs are connected to the collars by gold colored silk embroidery only partially intact mimicking the appearance of a gold chain. These designs show a relationship with other predominant motifs of the Mediterranean area of the time. A common Byzantine decorative method was to thread pearls on a wire and couch them down with another gold wire. This method was frequently used to surround the enameled medallions decorating devotional book cover and chalice mounts of the period (Dalton, 1911).
This close up of the lion motif gives an idea of the placement of the stitching. The lion figures are outlined in a split stitch of brown and filled in with split stitch in a light brown color. Other colors of silk embroidery threads in the design are gold, red and blue. She may have worn this garment during her lifetime, but its intact state indicates that she wasn't buried in it.
Figure # 8 shows a Sassanian textile from the treasure of the Sancta Sanctorum in the Vatican that is remarkably similar to the lions embroidered on the chasuble. The lions face each other across a decorative vertical rod ornamental with abstract floral designs very similar to those found in the Vatican textile.
The human figures in the roundels show similarity to classical motifs dating back to the Hellenistic period. They are a woman playing an instrument called the "tong cymbals" Montagu, 1976). Figure 10 shows a Hellenistic period textile depicting a woman playing the tong cymbals. Even the hair and pattern of clothing is similar suggesting some kind of connection. In the Stuttgart Psalter (f 163v) is another image of a woman playing the tong cymbals, this time the figure is depicted in an open front robe similar to the Grande Robe of Bathilde. The Stuttgart Psalter was written in 830 A.D. (Montague, 1976).
Manteau of Bathilde
Bathilde was interred dressed in a large semicircular cloak (manteau) of red color with yellow fringes with a brooch at her chest; her plaited hair was wrapped in gold and silk bands dyed in the colors of red, yellow and green. The following photograph (Figure #) shows a close up of the fringed edge of the manteau. The manteau is in a state of great deterioration, but you can still see the colors and the fine fringe work.
Le Grande Robe de Bathilde
The garment known as "Le Grande Robe de Bathilde" is made of a very fine linen of a tabby weave. It was open down the front and was likely secured with a belt, similar to Figure # from the 9th century manuscript the Apocalypse of Valenciennes. The body of the robe was cut in one piece with a center opening that extends the length of the front to midway down the back. Triangular gores were added to give fullness to the hem width. The sleeves are wider at the top than at the hem, and are overly long, perhaps secured in place by metal bracelets similar to the Norse fashion. The collar provides a great deal of interest in it's cut and design. It formed a large folded over cowl collar. It is unfortunate that there are not more surviving garments from this period to show whether this is a common design in garments of the period. Nonetheless, this is a very interesting garment in the cut and construction of the cowl collar.
Tunic of Bertille
The tunic in which Bertille was buried is a far more rich and elegant garment, although in a badly deteriorated state. The brown silk of the textile had yellow stripes woven in along the lower edges of the sleeve and body of the tunic.
The sleeves are decorated with a tablet woven braid of yellow, rust brown, and dark brown.
This garment varies greatly from the garments attributed to Bathilde. The Robe and chasuble were not the burial clothes, but rather added as relics. The garment that Bathilde was actually buried in is actually much more similar to this garment in that it is a richly dyed fabric.
There is much that can still be learned from studying these textiles. Chemical analysis can be done on the fibers to determine origin of fiber and types of dyes used. I would like to obtain better quality photographs to examine more closely the embroidery stitches and how they are placed. I would like to see the back of the garment to plot the progression of stitches. I would like to more closely examine the garments to determine how they were constructed and what stitches, and seams were used. I hope to someday complete this study.
This study began as an examination of a single garment and grew beyond that to look at how the context of the women's lives was reflected in the relics associated with them. While it is difficult to truly place these garments in context of the women's lives because of the scarcity of comparison materials, we can compare them with extant images from other media.
There is a marked difference in the clothing that the women were actually buried in and the additional garments that were placed in the sarcophagus with Bathilde as relics. The burial garments were richly colored and made of expensive textiles and reflected the women's status as extremely high status. The two garments added as relics, the Robe and Chasuble, are more reflective of the prescribed wear for nuns. Yet even the clothing more in keeping with traditional nun's clothing was embellished with silken threads using motifs reflecting the Merovingian desire to appear a continuation of the Gallo-Roman tradition.
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