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EDITED: The Arnegunde Kaftan Project: Conjectural Merovingian clothing construction of the mid 6th century

Posted by on February 15, 2013


The Arnegunde costume

The Arne­gunde costume…

In 1959, archae­ol­o­gists exca­vat­ing under the Cathe­dral of Saint Denis in Paris, rest­ing place of the Kings and Queens of France, found a sar­coph­a­gus con­tain­ing the body of a woman. The woman bore a ring inscribed with the name “Arne­gundis.” She is thought to be Arne­gunde, wife to Clotaire I (511–561) and mother of King Chilperic († 584) (Perin et al. 2007, 182).

This project brings together cur­rent research to gain a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the con­text of her bur­ial and the tex­tiles that com­prised her bur­ial gar­ments. This project focuses on the gar­ment called the Robe or Kaf­tan  in cur­rent pub­li­ca­tions. The gold thread embroi­dery on the sleeves stands out as a unique tex­tile apart from the Ger­manic tra­di­tion sug­gest­ing an extra-Merovingian ori­gin. The author does not con­tend that the gar­ments are exact repli­cas of the gar­ments in which Arne­gunde was buried, but every attempt was made to make sure that they would be famil­iar to Arne­gunde and accept­able to one of her station.

Back­ground of Merovin­gian Period

The period from the late 5th cen­tury to the late 8th cen­tury north­ern Gaul is known as the Merovin­gian, after the semi-mythical ruler, Merovech.  We know very lit­tle about their daily lives, hav­ing to rely on the few writ­ten texts that sur­vive and emerg­ing archae­o­log­i­cal evi­dence. The Franks were a group of Ger­manic tribes — the Chatti, the Ripuar­i­ans, and the Salians — who shared sim­i­lar laws and cus­toms. In the 4th and 5th cen­turies AD, they began set­tling in the Roman region of Gaul (which included what is now Bel­gium, France, Lux­em­bourg, and some of Ger­many and Italy). At first they lived in Bel­gium; even­tu­ally most of Gaul would belong to the Frank­ish empire. (Geary, 1988)

Very lit­tle is known about the early rulers of the Franks. A Salian king named Merovech (or Merovee) founded the royal Merovin­gian dynasty, whose kings were notable for their long hair. At that time the Franks were allies of Rome, and Merovech is said to have fought with the Romans against Attila the Hun.

The time period of this study was the mid-to-late sixth cen­tury and is based on a set of grave goods asso­ci­ated with Arne­gunde, queen and wife to Clothar. The Merovin­gian period was one of war­fare, on the field and in the palace. Clothar came to power through vio­lence and mar­ried the royal widow, Gun­theuca, tak­ing the widow as he took the king­dom. At this time, women were a tem­po­rary acces­sory in the king’s bed, and only through the bear­ing of an heir found any hold on posi­tion and power. As Stafford (1983) says, “his wives were taken up and put aside as polit­i­cal shifts demanded rather than pas­sions pre­vailed.” (p. 51–2)

Between the 530s and the 550s, Clothar had a suc­ces­sion of wives and con­cu­bines: Rade­gund, daugh­ter of King Bertachar­ius; Ingunde was in favor in the 520s, and again mid-530s; by 537 she was replaced by her own sis­ter Arne­gunde; before 540 he had another mis­tress, Chun­sina. Very lit­tle is known about the ori­gins of the sis­ters Ingunde and Arne­gunde, and the con­cu­bine Chun­sina. (Stafford, 1983)

Arne­gunde, as the mother of the future king, Chilperic, was afforded a bur­ial place in the Basil­ica of Saint Denis, to the north of Paris.

Arche­o­log­i­cal Evidence

The Basil­ica of Saint-Denis was the bur­ial loca­tion of many of the Merovin­gian dynasty start­ing in the east end of the Basil­ica, near the grave of Saint-Denis, around 475. (Fleury & France-Lanord, 1998) The Merovin­gian graves were exca­vated over a period of about 30 years, start­ing in the 1950s by Eduard Salin and Michel Fleury. The arche­o­log­i­cal finds were pub­lished in French and Ger­man pub­li­ca­tions over the years and only recently have arti­cles been pub­lished in Eng­lish.  (Rast-Eicher, 2010)

At Saint-Denis, a prin­ci­pal bur­ial place for Frank­ish kings, a large stone sar­coph­a­gus was found under the choir.  The con­tents of this tomb con­sisted in great part of a mass of pre­cious tex­tiles, silks, and other organic mate­ri­als.  The large lime­stone cof­fin was found to con­tain the remains of a woman’s body which had been embalmed before bur­ial, so part of the lungs sur­vived.  She was about five feet tall, of slight build, and blonde hair. (France-Lanord, 1979; Fleury & France-Lanord, 1998; Perin, 2007) A mono­grammed gold finger-ring, ARNEGUNDIS REGINE, iden­ti­fied the female buried inside as Queen Arne­gunde. (Rast-Eicher, 2010) She is believed to have died around 580. (Périn & Cal­li­garo, 2005)  New stud­ies have been com­pleted both on the skele­tal remains and the con­served tex­tiles. Rast-Eicher (2010) explains that Arne­gunde was older at the time of her death than orig­i­nally thought and prob­a­bly died from a dysen­tery out­break. She had child­hood poliomyelitis leav­ing her with a dam­aged right leg.

Bur­ial cus­toms of the mid­dle to late sixth cen­tury pro­vide a wealth of metal arti­facts, but tex­tiles are far more rare. For this rea­son, the extra­or­di­nary preser­va­tion of the Arne­gunde arti­facts pro­vides a rare glimpse into the tex­tiles, and pro­vides clues to a con­jec­tural cloth­ing con­struc­tion. By the sev­enth cen­turies, bur­ial cus­tom were chang­ing and grave goods become much more rare. (Owen – Crocker, 1986; Effros, 2002) The stone sar­coph­a­gus pro­vided a pro­tected envi­ron­ment, which allowed the preser­va­tion of some of the tex­tiles, both as frag­ments and as pseudo­morphs (min­er­al­ized fibers) on the metal­lic objects. (Marz­inzik, 2008)

The fol­low­ing sec­tions will dis­cuss selected gar­ment frag­ments found in Arnegunde’s tomb. Addi­tional tex­tiles, pos­si­bly shrouds, were also found but will not be dis­cussed in this arti­cle. Please see Rast-Eicher (2010) for a longer descrip­tion of the most recent inves­ti­ga­tions into the tex­tiles.
Fol­low­ing this sec­tion on the extant tex­tiles, I will dis­cuss the project Kaftan.

Arnegunde’s Bur­ial Clothing


Work­ing from the out­er­most gar­ment, the kaf­tan, we will talk about some of the most recent the­o­ries of fiber, tex­tile and con­struc­tion. Sadly, the gar­ment is incom­plete so there is much left to con­jec­ture. (Perin & Cal­li­gro; Rast-Eicher, 2010) The gar­ment was a front clos­ing kaf­tan or robe, prob­a­bly floor length. Rast-Eicher (2010) calls this gar­ment a “man­tle”.  For the pur­poses of this research project we will use “kaf­tan.” The front open­ing was edged with tablet woven bands and the sleeves had a gold embroi­dered band. The hose and garters found with Arne­gunde have led to a great deal of specuala­tion about the length of the outer lay­ers of cloth­ing. Owen-Crocker (1986) com­ments that the dec­o­ra­tive nature of the garter and shoe beuck­les indi­cate the cloth­ing would have had a lower length of just below the knee. We now know that the outer lay­ers were nearly floor length. (Rast-Eicher, 2010)

The tex­tile of this gar­ment is described by Rast-Eicher as “the so-called ‘vio­let’ piece, a tex­tile with one sys­tem made of ani­mal fiber, the other sys­tem is of plant fiber, but mostly not pre­served.” (2010, p. 209) She does not define the tex­tile struc­ture or col­ors of the fibers. How­ever, past pub­li­ca­tions have described this gar­ment as red­dish or pur­ple. (France-Lanord, 1979; Marz­inzik, 2008)

The lower por­tion of the sleeve was dif­fer­ent fab­ric than the body. Rast-Eicher describes it as “ samite 2/1 Z  … with a warp pro­por­tion of 2:1.” (2010, p. 210)  she goes on to fur­ther describe the embroi­dered gold band as being 7 cm. below the cuff seam. The tex­tile under­ly­ing the gold embroi­dery has not sur­vived, although a few red threads are visible.

Although Rast-Eicher (2010) describes the fiber con­tent of the tex­tiles as ani­mal or plant, other researchers have described the fiber con­tent as silk, linen or wool. (France-Lanord, 1979; Marz­inzik, 2008) Just how these var­i­ous lay­ers of tex­tiles actu­ally were worn is still highly conjectural.

When it comes to col­ors used in the tex­tiles, again much is not known. France-Lanord calls this tex­tile “vio­let”. (1979) An under layer has been called “red­dish”. (France-Lanord, 1979; Marz­inzik, 2008) Both the silk tex­tile and the pur­ple to red dyes were imports to the Merovin­gian ter­ri­to­ries. These would have been imported along the Rhone or Rhine trade routes from the Byzan­tine empire. The pres­ence of these lux­ury items as grave goods marks the high sta­tus of the indi­vid­ual buried in sar­coph­a­gus 49. (Marz­inzik, 2008)

The front edge of the kaf­tan was dec­o­rated with a bro­caded tablet woven band made of at least 100 tablets and is approx­i­mately 6.5 cm wide. Rast-Eicher describes the band as “ bro­caded with a triple silk thread (z-spun) and dis­plays a pat­tern of diag­o­nals and lozenges (Fig. 33.3).” (2010, p. 210) A sec­ond band in a sim­ple tabby/repp, 16 warp threads wide is sewn to the “vio­let” tex­tile. The weft has not sur­vived, except for one bro­cad­ing weft stitch. The wider band was key in iden­ti­fy­ing the lay­ers as it lay under the belt and was found along the skele­tal remains down to the lower leg. (Rast-Eicher, 2010)

Wal­ton Rogers (2007) sug­gests sim­i­lar­i­ties between the Arne­gunde kaf­tan and the Woman’s gar­ment found at Sut­ton Hoo. Both had orna­mented cuffs, although in Sut­ton Hoo the orna­men­ta­tion was tablet woven bands. The style of a front open­ing kaf­tan had cor­re­la­tions in other gar­ments of the period from cul­tures to the east and in art­work from the period.

Two round brooches were found on the body in a posi­tion sug­gest­ing their use as a clo­sure along the cen­ter axis above the waist. The period of the later sixth cen­tury is one of fash­ion change for Merovin­gian women. The ear­lier Con­ti­nen­tal tra­di­tion of four brooches was giv­ing way to the Byzantine-influenced style of a sin­gle brooch at the neck­line hold­ing a man­tle over a brooch-less tunic. (Rogers, 2007; Perin, 2000)

The Project Kaf­tan Reconstructed

The kaf­tan is the out­er­most layer of the ensem­ble I cre­ated for this project. It also took the most time because of the var­i­ous time-consuming pieces such as the gold embroi­dery and embroi­dery edg­ing the front open­ing. It actu­ally assem­bled pretty quickly once the com­po­nents had been fin­ished. It was mostly machine sewn where the seam would be hid­den in order to save time with a lot of hand fin­ish­ing on vis­i­ble por­tions of the garment.

The fash­ion tex­tile is a tabby with a dark red linen warp and a black silk weft. The lin­ing is silk twill with a gold warp and a pur­ple weft. The gar­ment is bag lined, with a cou­ple areas that were pieced together because I didn’t have quite enough fab­ric. The sleeves are lined in the turquoise taffeta that is also on the lower cuff of the sleeves.

The pat­tern was drafted using the rec­tan­gu­lar con­struc­tion method. I made a com­pro­mise on design between a flat­ter­ing fit and a more period style rep­re­sented by the Grande Robe of Bathilde. This front-closing gar­ment is the most sim­i­lar extant gar­ment available.

Figure 1. Pattern and cutting diagram for the Grande Robe of Bathilde (Laporte & Boyer, 1991)

Fig­ure 1. Pat­tern and cut­ting dia­gram for the Grande Robe of Bathilde (Laporte & Boyer, 1991)

There is some ques­tion about whether this gar­ment could be attrib­uted to Bathilde, due to its size being much larger than would fit Bathilde (per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Wamers, 2013). And there is some dis­cus­sion on whether it is actu­ally from a cou­ple cen­turies later, but until new infor­ma­tion is pub­lished, we are using the cur­rent des­ig­na­tion at Bathilde’s Grande Robe. If the aca­d­e­mic com­mu­nity makes a defin­i­tive deci­sion oth­er­wise, I will be happy to make the change to this publication.

The project kaf­tan has wedges on each side start­ing at the sleeve and end­ing at the hem. Bathilde’s Robe has side gores that start at or below the waist, so there is some dif­fer­ence between the two gar­ments in sil­hou­ette. I chose this style because it was more flat­ter­ing on my Rube­nesque figure.

Run­ning along the front open­ing edge of the project kaf­tan, there is a band of silk embroi­dery on a silk/linen tabby woven fab­ric. The silk embroi­dery floss is recy­cled yarn from silk sweaters pur­chased at thrift stores.

The design of the embroi­dery is inspired by the card woven bands in the Chelles museum. In the orig­i­nal Arne­gunde kaf­tan, this was card woven, but the tech­nique is beyond my cur­rent skill level. So, tak­ing a cue from Bathilde who used embroi­dery on a gar­ment as a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of her royal jew­els, I replaced the card weav­ing with embroidery.


Around the neck­line, is a sec­ond embroi­dered band that I had to cre­ate to make up for the fact that I didn’t have enough of the first embroi­dered band to go all the way around the neck­line. I used diag­o­nals which are com­mon in Migra­tion period card weav­ing  as a main design ele­ment. The out­side edge of the embroi­dered band is bound with the same turquoise taffeta that lines the sleeves.

Figure 2. Design for embroidery edging the front opening. Based on the card weaving in the Chelles Museum.

Fig­ure 2. Design for embroi­dery edg­ing the front open­ing. Based on the card weav­ing in the Chelles Museum.

Embroi­dery on Arne­gunde kaf­tan sleeve

The gold embroi­dery stands out as sep­a­rate in look and tech­nique from what is cur­rently known about west­ern Migra­tion era tex­tile tra­di­tions. It is pos­si­ble that the embroi­dery was imported as a com­plete piece, either as trade or as a gift, from Impe­r­ial Byzan­tium. (Crow­foot and Chad­wick Hawkes, 1967, p. 55). The gold embroi­dery on the cuffs was made of a fine spi­ral wrapped thread. The gold foil was wrapped around a core of silk, .25 mm thick and .8 mm wide.  There were about 13 to 14 turns to an inch. The diam­e­ter of the threads of gold reached about 0.45 mm with a length of up to 150 mm. The gold was couched down using a very thin silk thread in very small stitches that were more or less close to one another, depend­ing on the type of pat­tern. (France-Lanord, 1962)

Figure 3. The extant gold embroidery. (France-Lanord, 1998)

Fig­ure 3. The extant gold embroi­dery. (France-Lanord, 1998)

The rosettes show three variants:

Heart flower with round petals and eight trapezoidal-shapes;

Heart flower with round and six pointed oval leaves, which are sep­a­rated by spher­i­cal tri­an­gles inscribed spi­ral from one another;

Cir­cle whose inner edge is dec­o­rated with small tri­an­gles, which are designed with a spi­ral; inside the cir­cle are (from left to right): a small, ver­ti­cal almond, a large, well ver­ti­cal half almond (with the straight side left) and three small seeds that are spread like a fan in the right half of the cir­cle. (France-Lanord, 1962)

Only 17 of the rosettes sur­vived, although there were orig­i­nally 18 or 19 in total. Par­al­lel gold threads run along the edge of the band. The band was 30 mm wide and about 37–38 cm long. (France-Lanord, 1962)

In the project kaf­tan sleeve embroi­dery, the design of the roundels was altered slightly to make one of the designs look more like bees, which are a part of my heraldic device. The base fab­ric of the embroi­dery was a nat­ural linen warp and a red silk weft in a tabby weave. This linen/silk fab­ric is con­jec­turally very sim­i­lar to the tex­tile found in Arnegunde’s grave. I used a syn­thetic metal thread for cost sav­ings and ease of use. The threads were couched onto the tex­tile using a silk sewing thread.

The design of the gold embroidery on the cuff.

The design of the gold embroi­dery on the cuff.

The same turquoise taffeta used to line the sleeves was used as an edg­ing on the embroi­dered band. Nar­row bands were cut and hand sewn to the embroi­dered band to give it a clean fin­ish. We don’t know that the bands would have been bound, but I liked the clean fin­ished edges.



The completed bands before they were put onto the sleeves.

The com­pleted bands before they were put onto the sleeve


This project was the cul­mi­na­tion of a multi-year process. The kaf­tan is one part of the ensem­ble, and the first one com­pleted. Future projects include learn­ing the card woven bro­cade tech­nique for the front open­ing edge, the leather belt with gold leaf and embroi­dery, shoes and garters, gold bro­caded vitta, and if I feel par­tic­u­larly dar­ing, the metal buck­les for the garter and shoes.

One of the con­strain­ing ele­ments of this project is that very lit­tle of the pub­lished resources is in Eng­lish or acces­si­ble to non-academic researchers. It took time to track down and trans­late many of the resources used for this project. And there was always the dan­ger­ous dis­trac­tion of the most recent pub­li­ca­tion find.


Audol­lent, A. (1921) Les Tombes des Martres-de-Veyre. Man, 21. 161–164.

Bachrach, B.S. (1973) Liber His­to­riae Fran­co­rum. Coro­n­ado Press: Lawrence, Kansas.

Effros, B. (2002). Car­ing for body and soul. Uni­ver­sity Park, PA: Penn­syl­va­nia State  Uni­ver­sity Press

Fleury M., and France-Lanord A. (1998) Les tré­sors mérovingiens de la basilique de Saint-Denis, Woippy, Klopp.

France-Lanord, A. (1979) La fouille en lab­o­ra­toire. Dossiers de l’Archéologie 32, 67–91.

Geary , P. J. (1988) Before France and Ger­many, Oxford, Eng­land: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press.

Laporte, J. P., & Boyer, R. (1991). Tré­sors de Chelles: Sépul­tures et reliques de la Reine Bathilde (+ vers 680) et de l’Abbesse Bertille (+ vers 704). Société Archéologique et His­torique de Chelles.

Marz­inzik, Sonja, (2008). “Expres­sions of Power – Lux­ury tex­tiles from early medieval north­ern Europe” Tex­tile Soci­ety of Amer­ica Sym­po­sium Pro­ceed­ings. Paper 113.

Owen-Crocker, G.R. (2004). Dress in Anglo Saxon Eng­land. Boy­dell Press.

Perin, P. (2000). Aspects of Late Merovin­gian Cos­tume in the Mor­gan Col­lec­tion. In From Attila to Charle­magne: arts of the early medieval period in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Museum of Art. 242–267.

Périn P., et al. (2007) La tombe d’Arégonde, Nou­velles analy­ses en lab­o­ra­toire du mobilier métallique et des restes organiques de la défunte du sar­cophage 49 de la basilique de St. Denis. Antiq­ui­tés nationales 36/2005, 181–206.

Périn P. and Cal­li­garo T., (2005) “La tombe d’Arégonde: Nou­velles analy­ses en lab­o­ra­toire du mobilier métallique et des restes organiques de la défunte du sar­cophage 49 de la basilique  de Saint-Denis”, Antiq­ui­tés nationales 37, 181–206.

Rast-Eicher, A. (2008) Tex­tiles et cos­tume du Haut Moyen Âge. His­toires et Images Médié­vales 20, 50–56.

Rast-Eicher, A. (2010) Gar­ments for a Queen. North Euro­pean Sym­po­sium for Archae­o­log­i­cal Tex­tiles X. 208–210

Rogers, P.W. (2007). Cloth and cloth­ing in early Anglo-Saxon Eng­land: AD 450–700. (No. 145). Coun­cil for British Archeaology.

Stafford, Pauline, (1983). Queens, Con­cu­bines, and Dowa­gers: The King’s Wife in the Early Mid­dle ages. Athens, GA: The Uni­ver­sity of Geor­gia Press.





3 Responses to EDITED: The Arnegunde Kaftan Project: Conjectural Merovingian clothing construction of the mid 6th century

  1. Alena

    Lovely post, and even love­lier clothes! You research is mar­velous, and the photo looks just like all the illuminations!

  2. Siglinde

    Lovely! I look for­ward to see­ing how you com­plete this out­fit. It’s on my wish list for my own costuming.

  3. Erin

    Hi! This is fas­ci­nat­ing; thanks for shar­ing it.

    A quick ques­tion — in the paper, you cite Rast-Eicher 2010, but in the bib­li­og­ra­phy there is only a 2008 pub­li­ca­tion. It is a typo or is there a source miss­ing from the bib­li­og­ra­phy? I would love to fol­low up on it.

    Also, a minor note — in the first para­graph about the kaf­tan project, there are a cou­ple of minor typos. Owens instead of Owen and bueck­les instead of buck­les. I know that I never see my own typos, so I thought I’d men­tion it in case you find your­self edit­ing the piece some time.

    I love the over­all look of this kaf­tan on you. It hangs beau­ti­fully and looks lushly rich. What inspired your colour choices? The turquoise is so visu­ally dra­matic! I can be really con­ser­v­a­tive about colour, but I love how this looks.

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