The Early Mediaeval period is usually associated with very rich items like the Tara Brooch and other brooches made of precious metals. These are often seen as the quintessential ornaments for the period, but how exactly representative are they of Early Mediaeval dress? How were status and identities expressed through personal ornaments and garments at the time? In her lecture, Dr. Maureen Doyle gave us a very interesting insight into this fascinating topic, which constituted the main body of her doctoral research.
Our knowledge of Early Mediaeval dress comes from various sources: literary evidence (e.g. the Táin, law tracts), pictorial evidence (e.g. illustrated manuscripts, High Crosses) and archaeological evidence in the form of textiles and artefacts. Each one of these sources has its limitations and problems and only by carefully using them together can we gain a better understanding of what Early Mediaeval dress would have looked like.
In analysing dress in relation with identity, one must be careful not to apply modern concepts: for instance, the most commonly depicted garments are léine (tunic) and brat (cloak), but trousers do also appear, for instance in the Book of Kells. However, they would seem to be associated with warriors or foreigners. Thus, trousers would not be an indication of gender but rather of ethnicity or class. Furthermore, men and women wore the same personal ornaments, e.g. brooches, necklaces, rings.
From the law tracts, we learn that dress was codified: for instance, the sons of kings would wear purple and blue, while the sons of lords would dress in grey and brown. However, how was this in reality? Can we expect these law tracts – mainly dating to the 8th century - to have been widely applied across the country and over the whole Early Mediaeval period. In studying garments, we are faced with the issue of textile preservation and the lack of “dress burials” as they appear in parts of northern Europe.
When we turn to personal items, Dr. Doyle’s study has shown the variety of material used to make brooches, pins, rings etc. Our image of Early Mediaeval society tends to be biased towards dazzling artefacts like gold and silver brooches and pins, but other materials like copper alloy, jet, glass and bone were more commonly used for the manufacture of dress ornaments. Glass beads and jet bangles are for instance extremely common on Early Mediaeval sites, many of them found at locations which also yielded some of the most prestigious and rich items, thus raising the question of status linked to these ornaments.
Dr. Doyle concluded by stressing the complex array of identities potentially displayed by the use of dress and ornaments – eg. gender, status, religious identities, ethnicity – both on a personal and public level. The interpretation of dress is bound to be complex and nuanced, and an over-reliance on text will obscure the complexity of the archaeological record.
By Alexandra Guglielmi