The Arnegunde Project:
Conjectural Merovingian clothing construction of the mid 6th century
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. 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 three texts are narrative histories, Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks, Fredegar’s Chronicle, and the anonymous Liber Historiae Francorum (Bachrach, 1973). 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.
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.
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 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.
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. Owens-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 know 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.
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 artworks 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 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, 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 the most similar extant garment available.
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 one gore 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.
Embroidery on sleeve
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)
The decoration is composed of a series of rosettes, which are inscribed in a rectangular box and are accompanied by spherical triangles. On a single page or a frieze runs with triangles that are offset from each other like roof tiles and inlaid with a spiral, which follows the contour of the triangle. 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.
The graphic below shows the draft for the embroidery.
Here is the embroidery before putting it on the sleeve.
More detailed posts will follow when I get them completed…
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.
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.
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.
So, I completed the Arnegunde coat. I’ll post a full accounting soon, but here’s a quick picture.
There are some details to finish, but I’m happy with this.
OK, that’s not me…. here I am….
I’ve been scanning like a mad woman during my yearly pilgrimage to the UC Berkeley Library. I really should have an honorary faculty position for all the money I drop at this activity. These libraries have a very fine staff who have been very helpful over the years.
I am trying to figure out how all this hair stuff works in the Merovingian period.Since my hair while long is a bit thin, I plan to make some false hair pieces to supplement my natural hair. I have some lovely silk to wrap the hair with, ala Bathilde.
So I’m collecting some videos and other information and will post a bit of it here.
To recap, you might check out my other posts on hair….
Here are some other video tutorials that will help. Some are not particularly historical, but I thought they had some interesting ideas on how to get the historical look.
To put the crowning touch (pun absolutely intended) on your Merovingian haute couture ensemble, hair styling is very important. We don’t have a lot of information to go on, but there are some bits of goodness floating around. I found some videos on Roman hairstyles on YouTube and am sharing them with you. They should give you starting points to making Merovingian hairstyles to go with your awesome clothing. Have your slaves watch these videos so they can do your hair correctly.
Empress Sabina: Ancient Roman Hairdressing
Ancient hairdressing: works in progress
ETA: Author’s Note: All of my research on this site comes from what I can glean from books and articles, with a small amount of input from one previous research trip to Chelles. The research trip talked about here is the one I am saving for now. If you want to help send me, stop by and get a t-shirt for friends, family and two for yourself. 😀
In anticipation of my research trip, I put together a Google map to help keep track of where I want to go. Check back to see how it grows as I add locations to my wishlist.
View Suvia’s Fantasy Research Trip in a larger map
I just wanted to jot a quick note to let you know I’m still alive and kicking. I’ve been busy translating “Tresors de merovingienne de basilique de Saint Denis” and will start posting snippets soon.
I sent an email off to the lovely people at the Musée d’Archéologie nationale asking about some of the finds. I was told some are being re-conserved and would be published soon. This is great news as as good as the photographs are in “Tresors”, many of the non-Arnegunde finds are merely sketched over. I’m looking forward to sharing what I learn!
I’ve taught a very basic Merovingian women’s clothing class at a few SCA events. The handout continues to morph, and the last printing somehow got botched.
So I told my students I’d post them here. Right now, it’s mostly my drawings with some short bits of text. Eventually this will be a book, but that is a few years down the road.
Updated: WordPress is not liking my html-fu and the link to the .pdf file was broken. Thanks to Catherine for letting me know!
Here’s the direct url. http://www.alfalfapress.com/dress/MeroWomensclothing.pdf.
I have yet to find an image of the card weaving from the Arnegunde kaftan. I had hoped with the recent conservation work being completed, an image would surface. But no love there. So I will need to piece together the bits and pieces.
The most recent published mention of the card weaving is from Rast-Eicher’s article:
The tablet-woven band is made of at least 100 tablets and is about 6.5 cm wide. Nearly the entire width of one fragment was preserved – with just a few threads missing – but this one is otherwise hardly visible. The band is brocaded with a triple silk thread (z-spun) and displays a pattern of diagonals and lozenges (Fig. 33.3). (2010)
So color me rather intimidated by the “over 100 cards” thingy. I will try a run at the design with fewer cards and make the piece in wool for a test run.
Sadly, Peter Collingwood did not talk about either the Arnegunde or the Bathilde/Bertille weavings in his book. He did describe the similar Snartemo V textiles from the 6th century. For a refresher here are the late 5th/early 6th century card weaving found at Chelles. Both of these were buried with high status women, so would probably be a good source for inspiration.
The following piece has similarities to the Snartemo V finds with the interlaced lozenges.
Links to websites with similar styles of card weaving:
Rast-Eicher, A. (2010) Garments for a Queen. North European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles X. 208-210