05 April 2016

What Did Jewish Women Wear in 12th Century Germany?

The answer -- more or less -- to that question.
This post is about clothes.

 I don't agree with the costumers who believe that recreating a person's clothes is an honor for that person, unless clothes were that person's life work. If you want to honor Charles Worth, by all means, sew dresses. But to honor the baalei tosafos and their families, learn the tosafos (or, in this case, the Sefer haYashar), and seek to live accordingly. The life-work of the Jews of 12th century Ashkenaz was their Torah, not their clothing. Researching and sewing a 12th century dress is an efficient route to nowhere except to a 12th century dress.

I chose, somewhat arbitrarily, the late 12th century Rhineland.

Q. What did Jewish women wear in 12th century Rhineland?

Here's a short answer which may well be inaccurate, because...

Image source

...this image is not of a Jewish woman. The earliest illuminated Hebrew manuscript from Ashkenaz (=England/France/Germany) is from c. 1300, so for the 12th century we have only images from non-Jewish manuscripts of generically Biblical, etc. figures -- no figures that I am aware of intended to look like contemporary Jews.

Here's a long answer. Bibliography is at the end.

12th century women who could afford it wore two layers. (In the Prufening Miscellany some of the allegorical figures wear three – look at Humilitas.) The undertunic was linen for those who could afford it and wool for the rest; and not infrequently white. The overdress was wool or linen or, for the wealthy, silk or cotton and possibly velvet.
My neighbor says that his rav says that one may not wear a linen shirt under a wool coat (or vice versa) due to shatnez, so if they paskened like that in 12th c. Ashkenaz (did they?), the Jews would have worn wool OR linen for both layers, not one of each.

For actual construction, see Teffania. She also says
--finish seams with flat-felling.
--binding with straight-grain tape rather than bias tape.
--sew bias edges to straight edges when inserting gores, otherwise they stick out oddly.

If you look at German images of the time you find that women's overdresses are sometimes short with embroidered hems, like that above, and sometimes floor-length. Dresses are sometimes loose and sometimes (often but not always coincident with huge sleeves) laced to fit. You can tell by the wrinkles that the dress above is one of the latter. Some of the literature of the time (not Jewish) criticizes women for lacing their dresses too closely. Sleeves flare in various shapes and lengths. (The insanely long ones were probably an upper-class luxury: fabric is expensive, and you don't want to deal with sleeve tippets when you're stirring your own dinner over an open fire.) There is a variety of necklines. There are bands of trim in various places; in some pictures it is clear that the trim is a separate collar. 

I'm going to guess, based on the example of slightly later eras, that Jewish men, then as now, wore “the dress of the nobility of the previous generation”* and particularly curious hats and due chiefly to the latter stood out as Jewish; and that Jewish women wore the more formal and classic end of what contemporary women wore and did not stand out. (Contemporary dress was in accordance with Jewish laws of dignity.)
(Women seem not to have worn the Jewish hat, Sir Walter Scott notwithstanding. In later manuscripts where the men are wearing it, the women are not.)
(*Rav Bulman zt”l's characterization of traditional Jewish dress)

Among the 12th-13th c. takanos issued by and for the Jewish communities of Shu”m (=Rhineland), of which I haven't found a Hebrew copy (anyone in Israel want to mail me one?) there is an injunction not to dress in non-Jewish styles, and another not to wear “sleeves,” which I'm guessing is directed toward women and means the insanely long ones.

Married Jewish women cover all their hair; that was not uncommon among the non-Jewish population of the time, either. In the manuscripts you see all sorts of veils and hats and turbans.
I also found some sources that mention Jews wearing round cloaks and grey cloaks and brooches – rather like the Fellowship of the Ring.

So now, what do I sew?
I'm going to copy the dress worn by Synagoga in a manuscript from 1188 in Hessen, which is floor-length and apparently side-laced, because
-it's on the slightly more formal and classic end of what everyone else was wearing, which accords with my theory about Jewish dress; and
-I like it, and it does not require hours of embroidery; and
-the idea of copying a dress from what is essentially anti-Jewish propaganda is attractively insane; and
-this particular dress is subtly different from other dresses in contemporary art (the lacing is in a different place; it's extremely simple despite being somewhat formal), which makes me wonder whether it indicates anything about what the Jewish women of the time actually wore (almost certainly not – the figure is allegorical).

This is the quick summary of conclusions. Feel free to comment if you want sources.


1. Costume historians have adopted the habit of French literature of the time of distinguishing between two shapes of overdress, the bliaut and the cotte. Looking at the source images, I think the distinction is the same vague one we make between a gown and a dress; that is, a gown or bliaut is usually long, fitted, shiny, and expensive; but a dress or cotte may be any or all of these things also.

2. Isaac Abrahams, whom I don't trust (how can you trust a man who cites Graetz?!) claims, speaking generally of Europe and the medieval era as a whole, that Jews favored black. I don't have access to his secondary sources but when I checked his primary ones I found them unconvincing: in his first, Benjamin miTudela is speaking of a particular group of Yemenites in Yemen; of his second and third sources (each much too late for my purposes), one observes that Jews were compelled to wear “sad-colored raiment” to avoid getting beaten up by non-Jews and the other is a mussar exhortation about extravagance in dress that says that to mourn the Exile we should all be wearing shchorim (lit., blacks; i.e., black clothes), which I'm not convinced was intended literally. Putting together these sources I just do not get the picture that for five hundred years Jews across Europe wore black...!

3. It is by now well-known, though not as well-known as it should be, that Graetz has a nasty habit of deliberately misquoting or even fabricating sources to support his theses; but I had the unpleasant experience of catching him at it myself this time (not between his own two covers; the wretch was quoted at length elsewhere), quoting the half a sentence that supported his thesis, omitting the half which contradicted it.

4. Alfred Rubens quotes a 13th c. takanas Shu”m that “'No one shall go to the synagogue otherwise than with a cloak or topcoat but one should not wear a suckenis' (sargenes)” (94).

A sargenes in modern Yekkishe parlance is what everyone else calls a kittel, a white robe worn by men on certain occasions. I strongly suspect that that takana is talking about, not a sargenes as we know it, but a suckenie or suckenis, the sleeveless surcoat which entered popular fashion around this time for both men and women (over the protestations of the Church that --iirc for women only-- it was immodest). I suspect this because I can't think of any reason (other than a sumptuary law, and those came later) to prohibit men's wearing a kittel to shul, whereas the suckenis was just the kind of crazy in-your-face novelty that I can see the Jews finding objectionable.

I wish I had a copy of this takana in the original so I could check the wording, to see whether the translator had any grounds for throwing in the word "sargenes"; and I am also curious to see whether the takana was addressed to men, as seems probable, or to women, since later centuries have lots of takanos that women should wear an overcoat to shul -- why, I am not sure; it may be sumptuary again.

(It's Internet-heavy, sorry: if there's a scholarly tome out there somewhere on medieval women's dress, our local library does not have it.)
-a French blog which I can't find now
-A History of Costume by Carl Kohler (d.1876), now published by Dover.
-The Wardrobe of a Twelfth Century Frankish Noblewoman by Mistress Roheisa le Sarjent. Her focus is the clothing of the French, not German, nobility.
-A History of Jewish Costume by Alfred Rubens (1967).
-Jewish Life in the Middle Ages by Isaac Abrahams; but how can you trust a man who cites Graetz?!


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