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A travelogue by Gregory Mele, with photos by Nicole Allen

Part of the great fun in designing reproductions and interpretations of historical costuming is, of course, the research. Like all historical costumers, we began with secondary sources, only to quickly realize that we needed to rely solely on those primary sources available to us: painting, illumination, sculpture, relief and the handful of surviving garments still extant. But once you have an historical clothing company you find yourself in the position of being an authority: our customers are trusting in us to make sure that our research isn't just good enough to dress ourselves, it's good enough to dress them. And this means that even high-quality color photos aren't enough; you have to see these sources with your own eyes and immerse yourself in the details to truly get a feel for what medieval artists were depicting. When you live in North America, that means you have to hop a plane and head to Europe.

Now, if it seems like all of this self-sacrificing in the name of authenticity was a good excuse for a vacation, you are absolutely right! So, we did just that: a whirlwind, fourteen-day tour of central and northwestern France in June 2004. We returned tired, with our eyes and minds full, but hopefully wiser. In this article, we'd like to share with you a few of the sights and research finds we came upon on our adventure.

Chartres

Two flights and 11 hours later, we found ourselves in Charles De Gaulle Airport, Paris. We immediately found our rental car and fled the city for our first destination - Chartres Cathedral.

Cathedrals were medieval skyscrapers, and nowhere is that more obvious that Chartres, one of the largest and most famous in Europe. A small town built on high ground in the otherwise flat plains outside of Paris, this magnificent cathedral is in turn built upon the town's highest point. Thus, as one drives towards the town, the Cathedral's twin towers appear to thrust up out of the wheat fields like mountain peaks. It is miles before the shape of the entire structure, let alone the town itself, comes into view. The magnificence of the view instantly re-energized our travel-weary minds. One can only imagine the impact such a magnificent sight must have had on medieval pilgrims, used to their daub and wattle homes and small parish churches.

Begun in 1194, following a fire that severely damaged the original cathedral, principle construction on the present building was finished in 1230 and it was consecrated in 1260, although surface decoration, woodwork and steeples were continuously added until the 17th century. Due to the speed with which the new cathedral was built, it is amazingly homogeneous, and through its extensive decoration gives us a fantastic look at late 12th and early 13th century clothing, arms and armour. While this is hardly France's best-kept secret - photos of the Cathedral's sculptures have been produced and reproduced in many costuming history books - being able to see these pieces firsthand and take high-quality color photography revealed a level of detail that two or three grainy, black and white photos in a book never could.


A view of Chartres Cathedral as you walk up the hill from the town below.

A typical grouping of figures lining the portals.

One of the many portals, each completely covered in sculpture with wonderful examples of 12th-13th clothing.
  
A prime example of a 12th century pendant sleeved or scooped sleeve gown, worn with a cloak and double-wrapped belt.

Examples of men's tunics and undertunics, as well as a women's bliaut worn with a stomacher and double wrapped belt.

A look at the amazingly vertical interior of nave of the cathedral.

Detail of interior sculpture that is slightly later period than the exterior decoration (mid to late 13th century)- showing a back-laced gown, tunics, undertunics and cloaks typical of the period.


One of the original stained glass windows that line the side walls - another usual set of references to 'everyday clothes' of the period.

...The sheer size and detail of the cathedral means that researchers could easily spend a day photographing, sketching and taking notes without exhausting themselves. Alas, we had an afternoon, and had to slip out as they prepared for a wedding to be had that evening (lucky bride!), contenting ourselves with the church exterior and wandering the streets of town. The town of Chartres itself is a wonderful village that retains much of its medieval character, and is worthy of exploring in its own right. For us, the challenge was working it all into one afternoon and early evening. By the time we left for the Loire Valley that night, the sun was already well on its way to bed.

A wonderful 14th century building where we ate dinner that evening - the proprietors told us that the building had functioned as a store and later a restaurant for over 500 years!


The Loire Valley

Having wistfully bid farewell to Chartres, we prepared to spend the next several days in France's Valley of the Kings, so named for the many castles and chateaus that still line the banks of the Loire. While many of the medieval castles now lie in partial or complete ruin, their names, and those of the towns between, are heavy with history, such as Amboise, Angers, Samnur, Orleans, Chinon and Blois. A journey through the Loire Valley is a voyage through the graveyard of the Middle Ages, the glory of the Renaissance and the excess of the French Enlightenment.

Cheverny

Cheverny is a small, 17th - 18th century chateau that is almost unique in France, for it is still owned by the same, noble family. Well-loved by their peasants, they were protected by them during the Revolution, and thus spared execution. Today, they still live in the upper floor of their ancestral home and support themselves through tourism and raising prized hunting hounds. (The feeding of this hundred plus pack by the master of hounds is a daily spectacle not to be missed.)


A shot of one wall in the small, but impressive, armour gallery. Many of these pieces have belonged to the family since the 16th century.


Detail of the hilt of a very nice and very substantial complex-hilted rapier.


Detail of the leg harness of a Maximilian-style suit in the armour gallery.


Greg and Nicole walking the grand path to the entrance of Chateau Cheverny.


The entrance hall of the chateau - the ceiling is painted and the walls are covered with tooled and painted leather.

 


Detail of an original polearm haft and butt cap that we liked, because it impressively preserved the detail often lavished on these simple weapons.


The Master of the Hounds feeding the pack their daily ration of kibble and raw chicken.

 

Chambord

The next day we visited the royal hunting lodge of Chambord. Sitting in the middle of Europe's largest wild game preserve, Chambord is almost impossible to describe; it is a castle out of fairyland. Built for the ambitious Francois I in the early 16th century in the form of a fairytale castle, he only spent a total of thirteen days there during his long reign, although the chateau became a favored retreat amongst many of his successors. Begun in 1519 and completed a century and a half later, it was a massive undertaking; in 1533, the completion of the keep cost 444,570 pounds or 1% of the kingdom's annual budget. Chambord is filled with wonders, from its numerous, slate-tiled spires and domes to the double-helix central stairwell, the first of its kind, reputedly designed by Leonardo Da Vinci. A supposed place for many a tete-a-tete, it is actually two separate staircases intertwined so that a person going up one side can see another going down the other staircase but will never meet.


Looking up through an archway of the courtyard to one of the countless exterior stairway/turrets.


The bed chamber of Louis XIV.


The colossal chateau of Chambord - described by the tour books as 'the skyline of Constantinople on a single roof'.

    
The famed double helix stairway in the center of the chateau attributed to Leonardo DaVinci, and a view from the staircase.


A portrait of Chambord's founder, Francois I - showing a great example of French Renaissance costume
   
L: Looking down from the roof to the moat. R: Nicole enjoying the view from the roof.
A 17th century map of the entire estate of the chateau.

 

Fougeres-sur-Bievre

On the way home from Chambord, we stopped at the far more modest chateau of Fougeres-sur-Bievre. Originally built during the 14th century, the castle was largely destroyed during the second phase of the Hundred Year's War, and became the rather shabby inheritance of a young noble woman in the court of the Duke of Blois. During the early years of the 15th century she successfully renovated and rebuilt Fougeres-sur-Bievre, which survived the succeeding centuries and the French Revolution, even when its noble family did not. The chateau passed into the keeping of the attached town. After serving as a work house and factory in the 19th century, in the early years of the 20th century the town determined to restore the castle to its former glory, and it is now a historical attraction that gives a nice look at the living conditions of a minor French lord during the late Middle Ages.


A wonderful demonstration of the layers of daub-and-wattle construction used on this building and all through medieval building construction.


A room that shows the timber part of the construction.


A smaller, but still imposing exterior.


A tower room showing the room support.

   
A room with a fireplace and paned windows.                                                                                  A beautiful period chest.


Looking down the narrowly spiraling staircase


Looking up the staircase at the circular support of the roof.


The attics

 

Chinon


The ruins of Chinon Castle - the location of Henry and Eleanor's famed Christmas court that is the subject of the movie (and play) The Lion in Winter.

Now in ruins, the royal castle of Chinon has been tied to a number of great and infamous deeds of the Middle Ages. The honeymoon suite of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, it was the birthplace of the future Richard I (the Lionheart). In the early fourteenth century the castle fulfilled one of its grimmest functions as a prison of the Knights Templar, including Jacques de Molay, the Order's last Grandmaster, whose name can still be seen carved in the wall of his cell. A century after that, a certain young Maid named Joan appeared at Chinon to implore the Dauphin to take up the crown and the French cause against the English.

For a castle with so much history, it was truly tragic to learn that most of its ruin is not to be blamed on the Revolution (although it played its part), but upon its last noble owners, the Richelieu family, who intentionally allowed it to decay after it came into their possession for no reason other than revenge, as Chinon had long overshadowed their own hereditary keep. Nevertheless, these old bones still look down upon their lands with an undeniable majesty.

    
L: The moat and gate. R: A fragment of an original wall showing two stories with connecting fireplaces that share a chimney.


A reconstruction of the castle in its hey-day.


A reconstructed room in the castle decorated much as it would have been when it was in use.


A reproduction of a period piece depicting Joan of Arc confronting the
Dauphin and showing nice examples of 15th century clothing and Armour.

  
L: Inside the first floor of the tower with the missing roof. R: A lower chamber of the tower prison.


This grim tower was converted from a storage silo to the prison of Jacques de
Molay, Grandmaster of the Knights Templar, until his final trial and execution.

 

Fontrevaud

The great abbey of Fontrevaud was the final home of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who retired their as abbess in her final years. The final resting place of Eleanor, Henry II, Richard I and Isabelle of Angoulème (wife of John I), the convent church is oddly stark, comprised largely of plain, white stone - a result of the extensive restorations required after years of abuse; first in the Revolution, then in the generations it served as both a prison and a home for incorrigible women. While the effigies are famous, both for whom they represent, and as sources for late 12th century clothing, even with its damage and restoration, Fontrevaud as a whole is a rare glimpse into the sheer size, power and complexity of one of the great monastic houses of the High Middle Ages.


One of the exterior galleries of the convent looking out to the garden.

 


The church front, now heavily restored.


A detail of the wonderful door ironwork on the church


The bare interior of the Romanesque church, a victim first of the French revolution and then decades as a prison and a women's work house.

A fragment of the original wall painting in the church depicting the
bottom of figure of a knight and showing his surcoat and chauses.


Above: The tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry I Plantagenet clearly showing clothing typical of the late 12th century

Below: A detail of Eleanor's effigy showing her barbette, veil and the quatrefoil pattern on her gown.


The massive, circular kitchens with their several chimneys.

 

Angers

Traveling west from Fontrevaud, we had time for a brief visit to Angers, seat of the Counts (later Dukes) of Anjou. Famed birthplace of the Plantagenet family, it was also the home of the 15th century nobleman, poet, author and tournament patron, Rene d'Anjou, King of Jerusalem (for whom a large statue stands in a nearby street intersection). Upon seeing the imposing castle of Angers, it comes as no wonder that it never fell in battle or siege; even with its 13th century towers cut down by twenty feet the walls of this great chateau simply dwarf the castles of Chinon or Samnur. Angers is also home to a unique treasure: the Apocalypse Tapestries. Commissioned by Louis I of Anjou in 1364, and completed in 1382, this amazing collection of 76 tapestries collectively represented the largest surviving tapestry from the 14th century and is an invaluable source of reference for clothing of the period.

Wandering away from the castle and into town, we also came upon the cathedral, which was another 12th century work that continued to grow and expand over the centuries that followed. While not of the size and scope of Chartres, its statuary also provided a number of wonderful sources, many reinforcing the examples found at its better-known sister to the north


The impregnable castle of Angers and its moat. The moat was never filled with water but kept the Duke's menagerie. This is also the home of the famed Apocalypse Tapestries.

The largest daub and wattle structure we saw in our travels - very striking!

The intimidating gate.


The Tapestries of the Apocalypse in all of their glory.

     

L: A detail of the panel showing 'The Dragon fights the servants of God, Revelation XII'. This panel shows wonderful examples of cottes, hose, low shoes, a liripipe hood with the tail wrapped around the head to keep it out the way, a short-tailed, dagged hood and a green, quilted gambeson.
R: A detail of the panel showing 'The Great Whore on the waters, Revelation XVII'. A really nice depiction of a backlaced gown with front clasp style of belt decorated with rondel findings.

            

L: A detail of the panel showing 'The Great Mounted on the Beast, Revelation XVII'. Another depiction of a backlaced gown, this time with a repeated pattern of flowers in a thistle-like shape. She also wears a 'turret' hat decorated with jewels and pearls.
R: A detail of the panel showing 'The Sixth Trumpet: The Angels of the Euphrates, Revelation IX'. This panel has detailed depictions of plate and maille armour, a button front cotte, liripipe hoods, tunics and a plaque belt.
  
L: The Cathedral of Angers. R: The transept, covered in sculptures like its counterpart in Chartres.

A detail of the exterior figures showing a woman dressed in bliaut worn with double wrapped belt.
  
L: A detail of exterior figures showing some nice examples of medieval armour. R: The cathedral's interior.

A medieval painting on a panel, showing some good examples of 15th c. clothing.

 

Dinan

Leaving the Loire Valley behind, we turned north and raced across the French countryside to the border of Brittany. Brittany (Bretagne) is a land apart, with its own language (Breton, a Celtic language related to Welsh) and customs. It also has its own unique beverage, an amazing dark cider that came in more variants and varieties than we could keep track of. The capital of medieval Brittany was the walled city of Dinan. Although the Counts of Brittany began as English allies during the Hundred Years' War, Dinan gave birth to a hero often credited with preventing Edward III and his son the Black Prince from completing their conquest of France - Betrand du Guesclin, a common born guerilla fighter who went on to first be knighted and ultimately become the marshal of France. While his heart is buried with the other marshal's of France in St. Denys in Paris, du Guesclin's heart is buried in Dinan, and to this day the town places flowers at its tomb on his birthday and the anniversary of his death.

The castle of the Counts of Brittany is largely gone, reduced to the donjon, which now stands as a lonely sentinel with a half-open drawbridge leading nowhere. Today it is a small museum, below which is a rather dank, leaky crypt, which the museum lights for maximum moodiness. Most visitors skip the crypt (and our tour books said to skip the entire museum), but for we medievalists it was a real treasure, containing several detailed, and reasonably intact, funeral effigies from the 13th - early 15th centuries. With the dim light, getting decent research photos was no small task, but we persevered.

While its keep has been reduced to a single tower, Dinan remains a walled town, and it is possible to range along those walls to the several gates which still are the only routes allowing access to the old town. Near the keep is the square of Du Guesclin, which is cleared every Wednesday for market, just as it has been since the early 14th century. With limited car traffic, wandering the narrow, cobbled streets of 14th, 15th and 16th century buildings lined with heraldic banners it is simply impossible to not play tourist to the fullest and allow one's self to picture the city as it was centuries ago.


The medieval walled town of Dinan in Brittany

 

 


Since taxes were based on the footprint of a building, medieval town buildings grew wider in successive stories….

… nearly touching at their eaves.
  
L: The hero of Dinan - Betrand Du Guesclin. R: A detail of his armour
     
1: The walk along the top of the walls. 2: The view down from the top of the walls. 3: The town below the walls, along the river.

The old donjon, all that remains of a once much larger castle.

The stairs down to the crypt below the donjon.


Effigies in the crypt - the far one shows a full suit of late 14th century harness.

 
An earlier effigy shown wearing a maille hauberk (complete with maille mufflers for the hands) and chauses.


An effigy of knight and his lady - she is wearing a snug cotehardie with tightly buttoned sleeves and a sideless-surcoat.

 

Mont Saint Michele


Mont St. Michele as you come up from the man-made causeway.

Crossing from Brittany into Normandy, a short turn north leads out onto a long, narrow causeway juts out into miles of salty mud flats that fade into the English Channel, beyond which lies a small rocky island. On this island, which has been a religious sight since the late Neolithic era, is the famed monastery of Mont St. Michele. There is little that can be said about this place, which has been hermitage, monastic powerhouse, fortress, prison, and tourist attraction through its long history; it needs to be experienced. All of the kitschy stores filled with useless knick-knacks that line the single road spiraling up the rocky slopes do not take away from the place's majesty, nor do the more gothic than gothic 19th and 20th century renovations and restorations (including the famed statue of St. Michael that adorns the highest spire). Standing atop the monastery's walls, looking out to sea, and watching the tide come in with the speed of galloping horses (horses must have been slower then, nevertheless, five miles of mud flat fills in under an hour) is simply magic. As a stop along the way for costuming researchers, Mont Saint Michele was largely irrelevant. But as tourists, let alone medievalists, it was mandatory.


Nicole and Greg making the last leg of the climb up to the church.


Another one of the common rooms of the monastery that was used as a scriptorium at one point.


The pinnacle at the top of the church.


The tip of the steeple appears above a very medieval wall.


One of the common rooms below the church.


The tide coming in as seen from top just outside the church.

 

Paris

Leaving behind the magic of Mont Saint Michele, we drove the rest of the afternoon to Paris. A magnificent, fascinating place in its own right, it is a decidedly un-medieval city. Historic Paris is a city that the Enlightenment built, and both the Terror and Napoleon redecorated. Nevertheless, if one knows where to look, such as the breathtaking beauty of the 13th century Saint Chapelle or the famed Cluny Museum, glimpses of medieval Paris can still be found. After all, the old wall and foundations of the 13th century keep were literally discovered in the Louvre's basement; how more hidden can you get?

Notre Dame

The Revolution was particularly unkind to Quasimodo's famed home; after sending a number of the altarpieces (and according to legend, the altar itself) to the bottom of the Seine, the cathedral was declared the Temple of Reason. Since it turned out that no one had much use for a Temple of Reason, it then became a stable. It was only because Napoleon Bonaparte chose it as a coronation site that the Cathedral rose from its ignoble fate. As a very early example of Gothic architecture, the stained glass windows are high set and cast very little light into the nave. This may be just as well, as it obscures the cartoonish medieval artwork painted on the walls by the study of Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century to replace the original artwork that was lost. The real highlights of Notre Dame lies in climbing amongst its famed rooftop gargoyles, and for costuming mavens, in one of the relics on display in the treasury - the 13th century undershirt of Saint Louis!

  
L: The St. Louis shirt - it was very surprising how long it was and generously sized; really more of an undertunic than a shirt. R: A detail of the shirt - showing the frayed hem and gore.


Notre Dame on the Il de Cite - an island in the middle of the river Seine, and oldest part of the city.


Another detail of the shirt - showing the bound 'V' shaped neckline and the unique 'X' finish binding at the point of the 'V'.

 

The Cluny Museum of Medieval Art

Finally, we come to the wonderful Cluny Museum, built in the ruins of the famed abbey of the same name. The Cluny is considered without peer in the variety and depth of its collection, and a simple walk through (were such a walk through possible), demonstrates why. We lost most of a day in the Cluny, and would have been there longer, if time wasn't pressing.

 


A 15th century tapestry with beautiful examples of early Renaissance clothing


The inner courtyard of the museum


An amazingly intact pair of late 12th century polychrome (painted) wood sculptures depicting cloaks and clothing typical of the period. The man in wearing a long sleeved undertunic and supertunic with a ¾ length sleeve and wide bands if trim or embroidery.


14th century embroidered cloth of si
lk, silver thread and pearls , probably originally a part of a horse trapper, converted into a chasuble in the 18th century

A rare extant 14th century stocking said to have belonged to the archbishop of Bayonne. It is made of a variegated silk brocade, depicting eagles and antelopes, that was woven in the 13th century, and made into a stocking in the following century.

A 15th century tapestry depicting the grape harvest - of particular interest to us are the men (like the one in the center stomping grapes) wearing sleeveless pourpoints.

An extant piece of 12th century Spanish Silk Brocade from the shroud of St. Sernin of Toulouse, showing medallions in alternating red and yellow depicting peacocks and a stylized a palmette. The palmette is a common motif, often repeated in medieval textiles.


Extant medieval shoes


A pair of late 14th c. St. Georges' Pilgrims Badges.



The incomparable 'Lady and the Unicorn' tapestries

Several extant early medieval buckles and findings, including a beautiful 6th century plaque from a belt decorated with enamels.

A 14th century silk alms purse embroidered with centaurs wearing clothing of the early part of the century, including tunics with a slightly flared, ¾ length sleeve and front slit, linen coif and short tailed hood

Two leaves from two 15th c. illuminated manuscripts showing nice examples of 15th c. harness.

The modest arms and amour display, with a rare, excellently preserved, pig-faced bascinet, likely from the close of the 14th century.

Paris held a few more wonders and lucky finds, not least of which was the Paris: 1400 special exhibit at the Louvre, which we happened upon by mere chance. I've never seen such an extensive special exhibit, which combined illumination, sculpture, metal work, enamels and ceramics in an amazing display (who would have thought to see four copies of the Duc de Berry's Hours all in one case?). Alas, this was one area where photography was strictly forbidden and the ban rigidly enforced. Thus, while we bought the extensive catalog for our library, we regret that we can't share those sights with you. After Paris, it was time to return home.

_____________________________________________

For the medievalist, France was an interesting journey. For a land so central to chivalric culture and so dominant in medieval history, many of the artifacts and locales of the period we love are badly scarred by the rage of the French Revolution. Especially in Paris, the researcher sometimes needs to squint and cock their head to imagine things as they might have been, while in places like Chartres Cathedral it seems as if the Middle Ages never ended. Besides an amazing vacation, this was a trip with a mission - to better immerse and educate ourselves in the material culture of the Middle Ages. Many of the things we saw and documented have already found their way into our designs, especially the 12th century line, which had begun design months before we left, but was already refining in the car-ride from Chartres Cathedral, and it was a delight to see many things we had already done be confirmed time and again, in new sources.

 

 


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