Medieval Anachronisms, Part 1: Corsets

Visit the “Post Series” page for the full series.
Movies frequently present medieval women wearing (or being upset about) their corsets. Clearly, these costume designers have never bothered to look at the flowing clothing in medieval art, or if they have, they misinterpreted it.

Before the twelfth century, women generally wore very loose gowns with long sleeves with so much fabric that in art, their clothing looks several sizes too large. [1] As the twelfth century drew closer, dresses became fitted to the body on top by means of lacing up the back or under the arms, leaving sleeves and the skirt still very loose. [2]

In the twelfth century, “The outstanding new features of women’s…costumes were the accent on vertical lines and the sheer supple texture of the fabric which made those lines possible.” [3] Standard was the bliaut, a two-piece dress with a tight-fitting bodice, long, wide sleeves, and a full skirt. [4] The word “corset” used in this period refers to a girdle (girdle meaning a type of wide sash). Such “corsets” could be several yards long and could be wrapped tightly around the waist in a constricting manner [5], but this is nothing like the tight-lacing of later periods.

In the thirteenth century, clothing became simpler; women frequently wore loose-fitting gowns with long, narrow belts. [6] The cyclas, an outer garment that looked something like a long rectangle with a hole for the head, was worn by both genders. It may or may not have been sewn along the sides, as fashion dictated. [7]

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New Shirt: Ic Sprece Ealde Englisc

This will be my last new shirt design for a while. Here we go: “I Speak Old English.” (As always, if I’ve mistranslated, please let me know!)

The word “Englisc” is an adjective, but it is commonly used in OE to refer to the English language. With that said, declining an adjective to go with an adjective was tough. I declined “eald” in the neuter accusative since “Englisc” used as a noun referring to people is a neuter and “Engliscgereord,” the English language, is also a neuter. As always, my designer made this with the Book of Kells in mind, but she stuck to shades of gold rather than the vibrant hues found in Kells to highlight the importance of gold in Anglo-Saxon culture.

Church History by John C. Dwyer

Church History: Twenty Centuries of Catholic Christianity by John C. Dwyer was the assigned textbook for my freshman-year theology class, and though it was an excellent textbook, I sometimes wonder how much use it will be for independent study. Church History gives a complete history of the major events in the Catholic Church in 421 pages. Since this is a small space to cover 2000 years of history, the information is not detailed. Most periods of history can be treated only in a cursory manner.

Church History is an excellent resource for understanding the general history of the Church before the Middle Ages and for a brief summary of the medieval Church. However, Dwyer covers the entire Middle Ages in only 33 pages. This is valuable as a quick reference, but since this short space cannot cover medieval social structure, intellectual climate, politics, or cultural relationships, these chapters are too short to be a primary reference for a medievalist.

However, Church History is valuable for the big picture. If one reads the entire book, it is useful to see (in general terms) how the post-medieval reformations help to frame medieval thought and to understand how the modern Catholic Church differs from the medieval Church. Treat this book as an introduction, but for research purposes, look for books that focus on the Middle Ages. The book is written for undergraduate-level work and has an easy, casual style, so it’s not a difficult work to engage with.

Advice for Starting College

This is an example of a philosopher.

1. Take a basic course in philosophy.

Take a basic course in philosophy, but take it during a semester when you can dedicate a great deal of time to the subject. Many people are misinformed about studying philosophy—they think it’s about asking enormous questions that have no real use for everyday life. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Studying philosophy is about learning how to think. (But I know how to do that already! Do you really?) Philosophy teaches how to approach a problem in the most efficient way. It teaches how to order one’s thoughts, how to pursue a problem to make sure all factors have been considered, how to select the most appropriate answer, and how to check said answer for mistakes. Studying philosophy will benefit every area of study because every subject requires advanced thought. It also helps learn how to read dense, long texts without losing focus. I do not know how I was able to think efficiently before I studied philosophy, and this is the most important piece of advice that I give all of my students. If you are unable to take a basic course in philosophy, then at least read Sophie’s World.

2. Read the footnotes.

Also, read the captions. This is where authors put all the tiny bits of information that are of lesser importance, so they could disrupt the flow of the full text, but for students, this information is vital. When reading literature, the footnotes contain all of the cultural details for making sense of the text. In sciences, captions are a quick reference for information. I’ve had professors who make sure to put footnote/caption information on the quizzes to train us to read them. It adds more time to the homework, but footnotes are there for a reason.

This is an example of “morning.” Try to experience it regularly during your college career.

3. Take the early classes.

College students are stereotyped as lazy and as refusing to wake before noon. This stereotype has much truth to it. However, taking the early classes will train you to order your life. Arriving to an early class fully prepared takes discipline, so maintaining such a schedule is good training. Once morning classes are completed, the rest of the day remains for doing homework and engaging in recreation. Most of my friends who swore to rise early and complete homework before class rarely did so. Taking the early classes will also prepare you for when you have finished your degree and must begin rising early for your job.

4. Buy the bilingual edition.

When offered a choice between a work in translation and a facing-page bilingual edition, I always choose the bilingual, even if I don’t read the language. When studying literature and history, having access to the original is vital. Since bilingual editions usually have numbered lines, it provides the reader with an efficient way to compare lines and look up words for translation even if he is not familiar with the original language. A glossed text is usually superior to a bilingual edition, but unless one is working with Middle English, a bilingual edition will be the most advantageous. Try to find these even if the class doesn’t require it.

Few can achieve this level of coolness without sunglasses.

5. Purchase mirrored sunglasses and headphones.

The quad can be an obnoxious place. A stroll through on the way to class results in dozens of people trying to get you to join/buy/sign something. If you wear mirrored sunglasses and headphones, most people leave you alone because they assume you can’t hear them and they cannot make eye contact for your attention. Since you cannot make eye contact and cannot be heard, nobody will perceive you as rude because you are blatantly ignoring their advances. Since quads are always outdoors and headphones are commonplace among college students, neither item will be remarkable. The headphones don’t have to be plugged into anything—as long as they were in my ears, I was always safely ignored. Those living in rainy climates may have a harder time getting away with the sunglasses, but I still recommend them. Even if it’s dark out, you’ll just look extra-cool, right?

New Shirt: Medievalist

MedievalistA new shirt design is here! T-shirts abound for political groups, sports teams, universities, fandom, bands, and organizations—it’s about time medievalists had our own T-shirt. My designer patterned this image after the text in the Book of Kells, but with more subtle detail than she has used on some past designs. The background is parchment, so this design should look good on a number of different colors, but note that the text is an aged dark brown, so you may not want this one on a black shirt.

future medievalist

Here’s something else for the descendents wobbling in their parents’ footsteps. Children’s sizes only.

Antique Books, Part 4: Storage


Light is damaging to old books, so they are best stored in a dark place. Book boxes are a good option, but they can be expensive, so I store mine in Ikea bookshelves with opaque doors.


Never put antique books in plastic or seal them in a closed container. They need to be allowed to breathe and kept away from moisture. If using book boxes or closed storage, put packets of silica gel (the kind that come in shoe boxes) with the books to absorb extra moisture. After having particularly humid weather, remove them from the book storage, allow them to dry, then replace them.

Acid-Free Paper

Modern books are printed on acid-free paper that withstands aging, but antiques almost never are. Protect books by wrapping them in acid-free paper. This is easily available in big tablets that are easy to wrap around books, but make sure to leave an opening at the top—books don’t like to be sealed. Write the book’s title, author, and publication date in pencil. Pencil is far better than pen for archival purposes and will not deteriorate the way ink does. In college, I spent some time developing glass-plate negatives from the turn of the century, and all archival writing had to be done in pencil.


To prevent spine/cover damage, the best way to store antiques is to stack them on their sides. However, books seldom fit in bookcases this way. If storing books standing up (the normal way), you must deal with that gap between the bottom of the pages and the bottom of the spine. Fill this gap with acid-free cardboard or folded paper of appropriate thickness. If you are wrapping your books in paper, then the wrappings will easily keep this support paper securely in place.

Antique Books, Part 1: Handling
Antique Books, Part 2: Making Meaning from Text
Antique Books, Part 3: Purchasing

Flān tō Þām Cnēowe

EDIT: Many thanks to Nelson for helping me revise. Any remaining mistakes are my responsibility.

I was a hero, then I took an arrow to the knee.

Ic/æðeling: “Adventurer” is a French word, so I had a difficult time translating it. The closest approximations I could come up with were “hero” and “wanderer.” Since “wanderer” usually has an elegiac tone in OE, I went with “hero.” “Ic” and  “æðeling” are both in nominative singular case.

wæs: “Wæs” is first person simple past tense, the only grammatical tense OE uses in the past tense. The simple past can encompass a number of meanings. While it is possible to use the verb “to use” as an auxiliary for the infinitive “to be,” such constructions in OE are technically adjectival, and the verb “to use” is only used in the sense that one would use a sword, so it would not be a good equivalent.

nom: On recommendation, I’ve used the first person of “nimian.”

flān: “Arrow.”

þām cnēowe: The preposition “tō” is best used with the dative case to indicate “to” or “toward,” though considering dialectical differences, genitive case would be just as accurate. “Cnēo” declines as a strong noun; the definite article is declined accordingly.

Ic wæs cyning, oð ic nom flān tō þām ēagan.

I was a king, then I took an arrow to the eye.

The picture here is Harold Godwinson from the Bayeux Tapestry, the last Anglo-Saxon king who was slain by an arrow in the eye. The same rules apply here as above, save that “ēage” is a weak neuter noun of the –e ending class, which is declined the same as a strong neuter noun, save that the nominative and accusative cases are identical.

New Merchandise, and Why One Should Never Translate Old English with Insomnia

A popular math joke on the internet has the punch line “don’t drink and derive.” I’ve been trying to come up with a joke that would work with a similar punch line: “Don’t translate with insomnia.” No success yet. I have occasional bouts with insomnia, so when I really can’t sleep, I use my time to translate Old English for blog posts. I found out the hard way that translating store merchandise at 3am is a bad idea.

Preterit/present verbs and weak verbs of class 1 have imperative cases that end in “-e.” As I was translating “Wes smylt ond feoht forð,” I saw the subjunctive case on the charts for strong verbs, which also ends in “-e,” and immediately used it without reading closely. I also used an adjective ending with “-e,” “smylte,” and failed to see the note about the proper way to decline an adjective ending in “-e.” Shame on me. I checked my translations several times, most of them with insufficient sleep, and made the same mistake every time. Next, I put up a fabulous new shirt on CafePress that said “Wes smylte ond feohte forð.” Finally, I bought one. This experience has taught me several things:

  1. Strong verbs take the imperative with the consonant stem.
  2. Adjectives ending in “-e” decline the same way as strong nouns ending in “-e”—that is, they drop the ending vowel and decline as a regular strong adjective.
  3. CafePress customer service representatives are really nice. They let me cancel my order since it hadn’t been printed yet.

I’m still not entirely confident in my translation. Since “feohtan” is a class III strong verb, I don’t know if the imperative case has vowel mutations in the stem. In all of the examples in my books, the stem changes apply only to certain present or past tense conjugations, while an alternative from the infinitive’s stem is never given for the imperative, so I’ll accept the delusion that I’m correct.

Chances are, even if I’ve made mistakes, I won’t get caught. The number of people who are both capable of translating Old English and interested in reading what I have to say is miniscule. The invitation to correct my mistakes still stands—I don’t have the benefit of an instructor, so I’m eager to find out what I’m doing wrong—but I’ll secretly be praying that I don’t have to change the shirt again.

And…hey…new merchandise!

Antique Books, Part 3: Purchasing

Hunting for antique books can be a lot of fun, even if one never plans to purchase. Unfortunately for Americans, one usually has much more luck finding antique books in Europe. When purchasing antique books, a primary concern is paying an appropriate price for the value of the book.


Antiques can run from half the price of a coffee to thousands of dollars. As I left to study in London, a friend informed me that a good rule for estimating prices in England is that one can expect to pay £10 per 100 years. I purchased a book published in the late 1700s for about £30, so I suppose this is a good place to start.

To figure out if a price is fair, you must do research. First, early, and rare editions are more valuable. Admired writers are valuable. High-quality binding is valuable. Books owned by someone famous are valuable (and often not for sale). Because of improvements in mass printing towards the end of the Victorian era, one can often find later editions of Dickens and other popular authors that are 100+ years old, but practically worthless. The best way to get an estimate is to look at half a dozen books that are the same or similar, then see what the average is.

Reason for Interest

Consider your reason for purchasing antique books. Do you plan to resell? Are you using them for research? Are you studying the binding? Do you just think they’re awesome? All of this will affect the price you are willing to pay for the book.

If you’re looking at antiques as a monetary investment, be prepared to pay. Most people in this category want well-preserved books and can easily pay several thousand dollars for a 3-volume Victorian original. Books that are highly damaged are much less valuable than undamaged books, but they allow great insight into the binding process because much of the inside bits are exposed.

I buy many cheap antiques because I love the smell of old books, and I love to read the inscriptions and consider the previous owners as I read their books. I sometimes feel guilty about sitting down to read my first edition of Dombey and Son, but I don’t feel guilty about reading my cheap antiques because I’m not risking damage to something of irreplaceable value.

Book Care

Look at the way your potential purchase has been stored. This is of greatest importance when purchasing from the internet. Run away if you see this:

This book has suffered like a Dickensian orphan.

This book has been damaged in the scanning. However, scanning one side of the cover and the spine is appropriate since the book is tilted to preserve the spine:

This book enjoys great care and prestige.

This is even better:

This book is admired as an upstanding member of its community.

Books sold by a knowledgeable seller will offer all information available on the book’s title page. If dates are unknown, a good seller will state that the publication date is unavailable, then will give an estimate. A good seller will also give detailed descriptions of foxing or damage to the book and pictures of the most problematic areas if something is particularly damaged. Most good sellers will avoid scanning pages because of light damage, but some may give photos of an average page to help the buyer see the quality.

If buying from a store, look for antique books that have been stored neatly on a shelf in a low-moisture environment away from direct light. A seller with a bookcase that faces the window does not know how to care for old books. With this said, one is likely to find better deals from sellers who don’t know how to care for old books because they often aren’t aware of the worth. It’s best to find a seller somewhere between knowledgeable and ignorant—one who won’t do too much damage to the books, but will also give good deals.


When researching antique books, Ebay and are the best general resources. Research the same title from a similar year and see what others are charging for the book. Take into account descriptions of damage. Ebay is more valuable because it allows for pictures, unlike Amazon, but some of the better Amazon sellers give detailed descriptions. If you can’t find information on a particular title, look at other titles of similar popularity from the same decade. Unpopular books are often very valuable or very worthless. Most importantly, take your time. Unless you’ve found a rare deal that’s about to leave the market, it’s worth the time to research your antiques and make sure you know what you’re getting.

For those of you worried about the abused book in the first picture, see Antique Books, Part 1 for an explanation.

Antique Books, Part 1: Handling
Antique Books, Part 2: Making Meaning from Text
Antique Books, Part 4: Storage

Change in Posting Schedule

In preparation for the fall semester when I begin teaching, I’m changing the Made of Ƿ posting schedule from twice a week to once a week. I don’t want my research or my students to suffer, so this should allow me to maintain quality in both areas. This should also leave me enough time to continue developing new products for the store. Continue to expect regular posts on Mondays and an occasional Friday post for ideas too small for a Monday post or too exciting to delay.