Robin Fleming: Silken Saxons? Medieval England wasn't all wool

Roundup: Talking About History

During England's late Anglo-Saxon period, before the Norman Conquest of 1066, "people of means moved heaven and earth to get silk because it allowed them to appropriate its associated meanings for themselves," reports Robin Fleming, a professor of history at Boston College.

Contrary to common belief in her field that even important figures in communities of the time wore earth-toned woolen clothing, Ms. Fleming writes that "hard, tough, serious individuals" -- including "men who served as royal counselors, oversaw the executions of criminals, bullied peasants, and fought and died at Hastings" -- would, on important occasions, dress "like peacocks, kitting themselves out ... in loud, shiny get-ups, dressing in robes decorated with elephants or wildcats, and sporting garish tunics banded with gold-embroidered trim."

At first, most of the silks came from Byzantium, and were hard for Europeans to come by, she says. English kings acquired them as hand-me-downs from popes or German emperors, who were more commonly given them by Constantinople. But lesser mortals who had the means bought silks of a lower grade that Byzantines made in bulk. And, from the beginning of the 11th century, craftsmen increasingly made the cloth in Italy and other countries....

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