Medieval underwear: what did fourteenth-century men wrap around their nether parts?
I write historical romances, and I like to get my historical details right. One of those historical details is underwear (and yes, I write the sort of romances in which underwear needs describing). So far as we know, women did not wear anything approximating to panties, except possibly during menstruation. Men, however, wore undies. That said, modern social taboos about not showing your jocks off in public seem not to have applied in the later Middle Ages. If one is to trust the manuscript images below, medieval undies could double as perfectly decent shorts at a pinch. So are they still underwear? More on that later ...
The sort of documents historians usually read aren’t very helpful on the topic of what men wrapped about their nether parts. Unsurprisingly, medieval written sources tend not to describe undies. Parchment was expensive, and scribes had better uses to put it to than detailing what everybody already knew. Manuscript images are much more helpful, although they still have a distressing tendency to portray their characters fully clothed. What follows is based on evidence plucked from manuscript images.
On the basis of images like the above, it seems reasonable to suppose that men in 1200s and 1300s western Europe wore something like modern boxer shorts beneath their shirts. These ‘boxer shorts’ varied in length, as this image from the Maciejowski Bible (c.1250) suggests. (The man on the left wears something like a loincloth, while he on the right is practically in plus fours.)
Men’s undies seem to have grown ever shorter over the course of the 1400s until they achieved a look akin to a modern brief.
The above detail from ‘September’ in the French Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry dates from 1412 shows the 'briefness' of a lowly grape-picker's underwear.
And later still (c.1477-9), we see Saint Sebastian getting martyred in his briefs, courtesy of Antonello da Messina’s paintbrush. (below)
On the basis of images like these, it seems men in later Middle Ages France and Italy wore a garment of white fabric (probably linen, which doesn’t take dye well, hence the whiteness, and is less itchy against the skin than wool) around their nether regions. The garment may have been rolled about the waist or secured with a drawstring (as seems the case for St Seb above).
English men in this period also seem to have worn such garments. Here’s a detail from the Luttrell Psalter (1325-1340) in which we catch a glimpse of the archer’s underwear. I find this particularly useful as my heroes are generally English.
So, the above images suggest what late-medieval French, Italian, and English men wore about their privates. I would need a lot more evidence to convince me that this clothing trend was universal across the Middle Ages (which spans approximately 1000 years and encompasses a continent, depending on one’s definition).
To answer my earlier question – if one could flaunt one’s underwear with impunity (in manuscript images, at least), are they still undies? Probably. With the exception of Saint Sebastian, all our pictured undies flaunters are lower-class types. They found it convenient to strip down for hard manual work and, besides, the lower-classes were understood to be both vulgar and badly-clad. They are not the arbiters of fashion. I have not encountered any noblemen flashing their underwear in manuscript images. Their undies stay properly underneath. As for Saint Seb, it was de rigeur to be martyred with minimal clothing, especially in Renaissance Italy. We can only be grateful he has the decency to wear anything at all.
I haven’t found many reliable sources on male underwear, as I’ll discuss in another post. But the following books are useful to a degree:
Cole, Shaun, The Story of Men’s Underwear, New York: Parkstone International, 2011.
Cunnington, C. Willett and Phillis, The History of Underclothes, London: M. Joseph, 1951.
Houston, Mary G., Medieval Costume in England and France: The 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries, New York: Dover, 1996