Anglo-Saxon Cloaks

Lady Eowyn "Eo" Swiftlere, Kingdom of Aethelmearc, Shire of Hartstone, A&S Minister

A simple cloak can be recreated without much effort to be worn today, based upon linguistic and literary evidence of the Anglo-Saxon period in England.

The men's version of this cloak was rectangle in shape, and clasped by a pin or brooch at the right shoulder. Women are most often shown wearing a cloak that fastens in front, or is left open like a shawl. This garment is shown in illustrations and sculptures, worn by both sexes, both indoors and out. The length of the cloak was directly proportional to the status of the person illustrated. Kings and goddesses have long, calf or near-floor length cloaks. People performing agricultural tasks and trades are shown with shorter, midriff or thigh-length cloaks.

Men's Cloak (after H. Vierck)
Bottom front corner can be
thrown over left shoulder.
Women's Cloak
(from Stuttgart Psalter)
Men's Cloak
(King Aethelstan from cccc MS 183)

The women's cloak was most often called a "hwital", and this garment name survived in England as "whittle" as late as the nineteenth century, signifying a woman's shawl. Interestingly enough, the Saxon word "hwit" means white, so it is assumed this garment was of undyed material. Only very early representations of sculpture show the woman's cloak clasped at the shoulder. A sculpture in Rome depicting Germania shows this arrangement. But the fact that this monument is Roman, may be a misrepresentation of what was really worn.

Most cloak brooches found in women's graves in the pagan period are found in the center of the chest. These brooches varied in shape and size, from cruciform to simple long pins to round brooches. It seems this piece of jewelry, called a preon, changed in style and shape more than the cloak throughout Saxon times. Typically the hwital was long, knee- to calf-length, and made of heavy wool material. The excess fabric at the back of the neck could be pulled up over the head as a hood as well. The cloak was of sufficient size to be used as a blanket as well if need be. This type of cloak would be very easy to make on a loom, due to its rectangle shape. It could be lined in some representations, as the inside and outside of the cloak, in some works of art, are colored different shades.

Cruciform Brooch Long Brooch Ratiate-headed Brooch

Men wore a cloak most often referred to as a "mentel", the name having survived as "mantle" thoughout history. Men's cloaks were generally pinned at the right shoulder, and on average.2.5m long by 1.5m wide. (N.B.--In some Dark Age cultures, pinning the cloak on the left means you are in rebellion against your ruler) Some were much larger, and were folded in half, then clasped. Once clasped, the excess fabric is thrown over the left shoulder to allow free movement of both hands. They were dyed, sometimes striped, and edged with a fancy tablet woven trim. Some are shown lined with a contrasting color. English cloaks were used in trade to Charlemagne in the Frankish Empire, in return for dressed stones the English needed for building. Charlemagne was concerned at one time about the shrinking size of the cloaks he received from Gaul and England. He writes cynically: "What is the use of these little napkins? I can't cover myself with them in bed. When I am on horseback, I can't protect myself from the winds and rain. When I go off to empty my bowels, I catch cold because my backside is frozen...But as you have intimated your wishes considering the length of the stones, so our people make a demand about the size of the cloaks, that you may order them to be such as used to come to us in former times." Again, the pins used to clasp the mentel saw more change in fashion throughout time, than the cloak itself. Most often, for simplicity, manuscripts and sculptures show a round, disc-like brooch. But again, cruciform, roundel, long, and other shaped-brooches have been excavated in graves.

Penannular
Circular Disc
Equal-armed

Now, for recreating the Saxon cloak for simplicity, comfort, and versatility today: I use a wool blanket, clasped by a penannualar brooch on the right shoulder (see drawing). I then throw the extra fabric over the left shoulder to free my hands. Wool blankets can be found cheaply at second-hand stores or military surplus magazines. I wear an undyed, cream colored one that can drag on the floor when I am feeling luxurious. It keeps me sufficiently warm in the car and to and from the house, that I wear no other outer clothing. I can wrap it around me when I sit, like a blanket. My red one is edged with gold trim and is much shorter and thinner-piled, better for warmer climates and indoors. I just purchased a brown wool blanket from a military supplier that is between the two in length, and much thicker. These can be purchased for around ten dollars, and are new, never-issued surplus. For those with sensitivity to wool fibers, any woven, thick material can be used, or the wool blanket can be lined with a softer material. Women can also utilize the wool blanket for a cloak clasped in front as well. There are a few companies who sell recreations of excavated Saxon, Celtic, Frankish, Scottish, or Viking pins and brooches in all shapes and sizes. They are not all inexpensive. I purchased both my penannualar brooches from the same press, and paid under $15 for each.

I hope you all can get a simple cloak to keep you warm throughout the long New York winter. Here's a simple starting place. Have fun creating your own.

SOURCES

Owens-Crocker, Gale R., Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, Manchester University Press, 1986.

 

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