Dress and identity in Earliest Medieval Europe, by Toby Martin (Winchester Comparative Seminars, 27/2/2014)

This are some of the notes we took at the fascinating talk organised by the Winchester Comparative Seminars back in February.

The following are a compilation of the thoughts and ideas we captured from the speaker.

-This project is only a few months old, but it’s part of what will conclude in a three year investigation. “Origins of a European Community: Creating Identity and Networks with Dress in East-Roman Europe”.

-During the 5th and 6th centuries high elite women started wearing brooches. This coincides with the end of the Roman Empire and the embryonic period where the peoples of Europe started forming their new identities and elites, and forming new settlements and areas of influence. Germanic people did not have a coherent organisation: they were in constant renegotiation of their identities and this reflects in their material culture. However, little survives in the archaeological record.

-The size of some brooches probably hinder their function. Perhaps meaning in funerary terms: the implications of dressing and undressing the body of the deceased. But there are regional variants. Focus of this seminar on the Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooch: c. 2000 examples, around 1100 found due to metal detecting. 15% of these ones belonged to women in eastern England- perhaps reflection of the migration of the Angles to the British Isles.

-The association of body and clothes is natural, however its a material construct. It is not a synchronic phenomena, both shape and meaning change and could be associated with their geographical dispersion. But from the mid 6th century onwards, the original distribution disintegrates.

-earlier brooches were a fairly generic way of fastening clothes in Northern and Baltic Europe.

-Those belonging to the final phase: lavish and large, although lower in number. Related to prestige? or maybe to kingdom formation? Could they be a sign of gift exchange? This would be a way of showing networks and friends in the high spheres of society, and that’s how this brooches would reflect power and identity formation.

-They were only worn by women above the age of 18.

-Woolen woven cloaks: female wear. In Rome previously associated with men, the military and imperium. Iconography perhaps inspired on military belts? But how did this pass from one thing to another? Women agency?

-2 theories about spread and relationship:

  1. internal development within the regions- intrusive nature debatable. Stylistic relation due to networks between their people. Inheritance of Roman territory? Not necessarily Germanic cult but new way of being “roman”- legitimization. Reason why it doesn’t happen in Baltic and Western Scandinavia, may be related to frontier link.
  2. from northern Germany to the south. What was so important in the north? Needed to find a new homeland; perhaps brooches were material means to find a home: legitimizing Northern cultural tradition.
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