9 March 2013

The 14th Century bust: part 4

So, last time I finished up covering the female silhouettes we see in manuscript illustrations and effigies in the 14th Century. Now, drawing heavily from various websites and blog posts regarding the Lengberg bra finds, I'm going to discuss the few textual sources I'm aware of.

(Please note: being an amateur enthusiast, primary texual sources are one of my weakest points and I am currently reliant almost totally on other bloggers as I do not own or have access to the relevant books. In many cases, I don't even know what the relevant books would be! I am also a monoglot English speaker. Despite  because of this, if you have any further sources that could add to this topic, I would love to hear about them.)

~ Part 4: The 14th Century bust in text ~

As I covered in my introduction, there are several current (not mutually exclusive) theories of what 14th Century women used for bust support. These include a supportive dress (as proposed by Robin Netherton), breast binding or some sort of bra or shift with 'breast bags' (inspired by the recent Lengberg finds). 

Following the announcment of the Lengberg finds, several bloggers and other web authors have posted various quotes relating to medieval bust support. The largest compendium of quotes is provided by Isis Sturtewagen at Medieval Silkwork. She provides quotes that support the use of all of these theories. I will use one full quote per theory and leave you to read her blog post for the rest.

'Breast bags' and tight tunics:
Et aliquae mulieres non potentes aut non audentes habere cyrurgicum aut nolentes suam indeoentiam revelare faciunt in camisiis suis duos saccules proportionales mammillis tamen breves et eos imponunt omni mane, postmodum quantum possunt, eos stringunt cum fascia competenti. Et aliae, sicut illае de Montepessulano, cum strictis tunicis et laqueis ipsas stringunt, non stringentes muliebria, quamvis sit ibi majas periculum, attendentes propter casus fatuitos et diurnos, quod non faciunt anni quod facit una dies, et ideo faciunt suas tunicas inferios laxiores. 
Some women unable or unwilling to resort to a surgeon, or not wanting to reveal their indecency, insert two bags in their chemises, adjusted to the breasts, fitting tight, and they put them [the breasts] into them [the bags] every morning and compress them as much as possible with a matching band. Others, like the women of Montpellier, compress them with tight tunics and laces...
Henri de Mondeville, surgeon, in his medical text Cyrurgia (1306-1320).

Breast binding:
The breasts are most pleasing when they are of moderate size and eminence… they should be bound but not flattened, restrained with gentleness but not given too much licence.
Gilbert of Hoyland, an English Cistercian abbot, in his Sermones in Canticum Salomonis (12th C).
Quote from Umbert Eco,  in his book Art & Beauty in the Middle Ages.

I find two things interesting in the quotes Isis presents, which I think others have not noticed. 

Firstly, two of the three quotes that mention of shirts or shifts with 'breast bags' also refer to binding the breasts down with cords or bands. Thus, the breast bags, even when used, were not the only means of supporting or restraining the bust.

Secondly, and rather more importantly I feel, is the language used by the authors. Of all Isis' quotes, only one recommends gentleness: Gilbert of Hoyland states:
 ... they should be bound but not flattened, restrained with gentleness but not given too much licence.
Most of the other authors are rather more violent in their language, as is the other quote by Gilbert of Hoyland, which notes:
Therefore they constrain overgrown and flabby breasts...
The Old Woman character of Guillaume de Lorris' Roman de la Rose tells of how women use shifts with breast bags and:
compress them as much as possible with a matching band.
 Eustace Deschamps, in hiBalade sur Les Femmes Qui Troussent Leur Tetins / Ballad about Women Who Truss Their Breasts described women wearing shifts with breast bags and:
Squeezing with cords and knots:
Lady, have pity of breast!
Overall, the picture given from these quotes is that each of these authors was familiar with the concept of women using various forms of clothing or binding on the bust. However, in many of the quotes the concern is not with support and comfort but with beauty or social acceptability. As the ideal figure was for much of the medieval period one that was slim and only just post-pubescent, often with breasts described as being 'like apples' or 'like nuts' (!?), the majority of quotes are concerned with binding for bust reduction not for bust enhancement.

Another important consideration is the shape and state of the female body in 14th Century Europe. It is often easy to forget in the modern era, with laws concerning the age of marriage and the age of consent, plus efficacious contraceptives often being freely available, that almost every adult woman would have had her body shaped by at least one pregnancy and (at least for the lower classes) its associated breast feeding. [Or perhaps not, see comments.] Thus, perhaps, the concern with 'overgrown' and 'flabby' breasts.

Personally, I would conclude from this (admittedly highly incomplete) set of quotes that the point of breast binding, shifts with breastbags and/or tight dresses was to more often restrain than enhance the bust and was more often driven by social acceptability than comfort. Thus, even if it is technically possible to produce Wonderbra-like effects with any of these methods, it is probably unlikely that the majority of medieval women used them in this capacity. 

Conversely, the quotes show us that there are authors in England, France and Germany, ranging from the 12th to the 15th Century, all of whom are quite familiar with the concept of these garments despite being male. Thus, one can conclude that some sort of bust restraint (not necessarily support) was commonly used throughout the medieval period. This rather defeats the argument given by some reenactors that every woman 'just went without' and validates the use of some sort of bust restraint by reenactors and others who wear medieval costume and feel they need it.


  1. I'm assuming you refer to Middle Ages here?
    "almost every adult woman would have had her body shaped by at least one pregnancy and (at least for the lower classes) its associated breast feeding"
    This might be true for later periods, (our main association being the slums of Victorian London), but in reality, people didn't found families until they had means to support them. Peter Hajnal has researched the social history of the family in Europe, and it is most fascinating. Take a look here:
    Due to the lack of written records in Early and High Medieval periods his data starts in 14th C. But there is no evidence that it would have been significantly different a century, two or even three, earlier, based on what else we know of the society in EMA and HMA.

  2. Sorry, I cut myself short here. My point being that not every adult woman would have had her body and breast shaped with at least one pregnancy, simply because marriage rate was rather low, number of children was low and children out of wedlock were socially extremely unacceptable (except for certain Alpine regions where they were needed as supplementary work force, which of course fed this kind of behavior).

    1. I had never heard of Peter Hanjal, or the Hanjal line. Evidently this is something that I need to do more reading about! Thank you for the comment and the information.