Between the Medieval and The Modern

December 27, 2010

The Devil’s Stripes

Filed under: Uncategorized — Frau Magda @ 9:44 am
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I got a bee in my bonnet this week, and started drafting some costume guidelines for the Guild.  And as I sorted through the rather extensive collection of woodcuts and portraits on my hard drive, I noticed how very many of them contained stripes

I can’t remember when I added The Devil’s Cloth: a History of Stripes to my Amazon wish list, but I suddenly had the overwhelming urge to read it.  I toddled off to the local Barnes and Nobles, intending to order it.  But what to my wondering eyes should appear, but the in-house book search showed that it was in stock and on the shelf!  In the social sciences section, of all places.  Clutching the book to my breast, I did an internal little dance of glee as I scurried off to the checkout.

It’s a slim volume.  And quite scholastic.  It reads much like the sorts of academic articles I had to slog through back when I was in graduate school. Luckily it isn’t a very long book, a mere 90 pages, not counting the 30 pages of bibliography and footnotes.  But despite the dry academic tone, right from the beginning I knew that he was going to have something useful to say to me. 

In medieval dress, everything means something: the fabrics (material, texture, source, decoration), the pieces and forms, the colors (quality of the dyes, solidity, luminosity, tones, and shades), the work of cutting and assembling, the dimensions, the accessories, and, of course, how the clothes are worn.  It is a matter of using conventional and always carefully coded signs to express a certain number of values and to ensure the corresponding verification of them.  Everyone must wear the clothes of his state and rank.  To dress more lavishly or more shabbily than is customary for the class or circle to which one belongs is a sin of pride or a mark of debasement.  Moreover it is a transgression against the social order and thus a cause for scandal….

I have long known that for centuries and across cultures that clothing denotes a person’s place in society.  Because I reenact a camp follower to a Landsknecht fahnlein, 16th century mercenaries, renown for their outlandish dress, the bit about clothing that is both more lavish and more shabby amuses me.  Because the Landsknecht are known for taking rich fabrics and slashing them.  Thus our clothes are both more lavish and more shabby than they should be for people of our rank and status.

But back to the idea of stripes and their meaning to the medieval mind.  The first part of the book, covering the 13th through 16th centuries is devoted to the “bad” stripe.  The author, Michael Pastoureau, describes the demonic stripe, the scandalous stripe, and the heraldic stripe (which, at least for literary figures, often contains negative meanings).

…there are customs, laws, and regulations that require certain categories of reprobates and outcasts to wear striped clothing.  In Germanic customary law of the early Middle Ages, and again in the famous Sachsenspiegal (a collection of Saxon laws compiled between 1220 and 1235), such attire is imposed on or reserved for bastards, serfs, and the condemned.  Likewise in the sumptuary laws and decrees concerning dress that proliferated in the towns of southern Europe at the end of the Middle Ages, it is sometimes the prostitutes, sometimes the jugglers and clowns, sometimes the hangmen who are required to wear either an entirely striped suit of clothing, or more often, an item of striped clothing…. Everywhere, it is a matter of imposing a visual sign indicating a deviation so that those who practice such trades not be confused with honest citizens.

He goes on to include a long list of people who were required by law to wear stripes:

  •  Bastards
  •  Serfs
  •  The condemned
  •  Prostitutes
  •  Jugglers
  •  Clowns
  •  Hangmen
  •  Lepers
  •  Cripples
  •  “bohemians”
  •  Heretics
  •  Jews and other non-Christians

He describes how in courtly romances and other texts, the ignoble characters wear stripes: Treacherous knights, usurping seneschals, adulterous wives, rebel sons, disloyal brothers, and greedy servants.

When the Middle Ages starts making the turn towards the Renaissance, the meaning behind stripes begins to change as well.  We see “the dawn of a ‘good’ stripe, of a status enhancing stripe…At the same time, the predominance of horizontal stripes abates and then disappears. Vertical stripes, which in the Middle Ages had only been used sparingly, multiply.”  He describes a change from the diabolic to the domestic, as stripes begin to be worn by the domestic staffs of great lords: serfs, kitchen and stable boys, table waiters, men at arms and of the hunt, grooms, falconers, heralds, clowns, etc.  He notes that this practice developed earliest in the Rhine area and in the southern German speaking states.

Detail of falconers from the Falconry book of Fredrick II

But despite the fact that the section of the book devoted to the 16th through 19th century talks much more about how the stripe has started to take on positive meanings (the domestic stripe, the romantic stripe, the revolutionary stripe, the hygienic stripe), it still retains that negative association (as we see up until modern times in striped prison uniforms and the pinstriped suits worn by mobsters).

While prowling through my digital archives, I found at least two different versions of the Martyrdom of Saint Catherine by Lucas Cranach, and in both her executioner is wearing stripes. And what most of my Guild-mates would recognize as Landsknecht clothing.

Lucas Cranach the Elder
The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine

And now that I’ve read this book I’m left to wonder about all those Landsknechts who chose to wear stripes.  What did the stripes represent for them?  Because I no longer believe that it was just a simple matter of style or fashion.  Were they signaling their status as “servants of the country” (the literal translation of Landsknecht)?  Or did those that followed the teachings of Martin Luther (as many Northern Landsknecht did) wear stripes as an emblem of their status as heretics in the Catholic church? Or did they choose them for the intimidation factor, hoping to be viewed as executioners when they walked onto the battlefield?

And what does it mean when a Lansknecht wears both horizontal (diabolical) and vertical (domesticated) stripes?

Zeugbuch Kaiser Maximilians I.
Detail from Image 00116

[Thanks to Marion McNealy, who first pointed me towards this volume.]


1 Comment »

  1. What a great sounding book! Totally important for the Landsknecht, both males and females. Thanks for sharing, since we can’t all read everything. Will you put a link to your blog on the guild forum?

    I’m also glad to hear about the clothing guidelines for the guild, I’ll have to get back to the cooking guidelines myself.

    Congrats on the new blog!

    Comment by Alena — December 27, 2010 @ 11:03 am | Reply

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