In which medieval men found practical undies to be an essential part of the wardrobe (and hygiene).
The pandemic has freed many of us to get in touch with our primal selves—or at least, our ungroomed, non-stop pajama-wearing and, most notably, unbathed selves. Our lives devolved into “Netflix and chilling” in our own filth. Experts are divided on the issue: many say we should shower and bathe less frequently (even coming up with cute new terms for less water-intensive cleaning), while others are encouraging us in the New York Times to wheedle our smelly teens into the shower.
We’ve already talked about the importance of a good bath to medieval people, but for most people this wasn’t practical for everyday living. How then could a socially-respectable medieval man avoiding getting too funky in the nosehair-singeing sense? The answer is quite simple: by owning a good set of underpants.
Underneath Your Clothes There’s an Endless Story
Fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy know you should never leave home without your towel, but a good male medieval traveler knew the most important thing to pack were underpants.
Braies were, compared to modern briefs, relatively loose linen garments (the breeches of some peasants were made from less-expensive hemp) that extended from the waist to either mid-thigh or the knee. Cinched at the waist with a drawstring or belt, a long tunic could be tucked into the top for convenience (and, since most people were dressed similarly, it didn’t make you stand out like dork). Until the fifteenth century men also wore long socks—which were later replaced by pants—that were fastened to the braies.
While braies were primarily worn as undergarments, they could also be worn by laborers as the primary—or only—garments, much as an athlete might wear shorts or a worker might strip down only to blue jeans in hot weather. In an illuminated manuscript known as the Morgan Bible, for example, we see workers dressed only in braies engaged in labor (and, in the case of one laborer wearing a tunic, with the top stylishly tucked into his knickers).
Considering Second-Hand Underpants
Men’s underpants were more than simply a protective garment or receptacle for inconveniently flapping tunics, however, but were also instruments for hygiene. Illuminated manuscripts depicting baths not only show men wearing braies in the tub (even when, notably, the women are depicted stark naked), but the cleanliness of undergarments was often used as a gauge for the cleanliness of the individual wearing them. This linkage between underwear and hygiene was later extended by the 17th-century Puritans, who believed it was the absorbing of sweat and dirt by their underpants that kept them clean and thus foresook regular bathing for consistently changing their bloomers.
Your mother might have exhorted you to make sure you put on clean underwear before going out (she would be saddened if you died in an accident, but mortified if your undies were stained), but otherwise we no longer necessarily directly link cleanliness and underwear. As Flight of the Conchords tell us, we nonetheless can judge the financial state of individuals by their underpants ownership:
Image: Two men threshing sheaf — Luttrell Psalter (c.1325-1335), f.74v – BL Add MS 42130 (Source)