Life in the 15th Century

Life would continue to exist for many people just as it was in the 14th century. Houses were pretty much the same for those that were poor. They consumed the same sorts of food, and water was still dangerous to drink. The plague still was rampant as was many of the other diseases and illnesses of the 14th century. Though there were some changes, things pretty much were the same. Clothing went through a big change though, and some new games started to be played. Architecture also changed a bit.

15th Century Entertainment

The games that were played in this century were played with passion but were also vigorous. Ball games were among some of the most exuberantly played. A game known as camp-ball was a very basic game. It did have different forms that could involve either kicking or throwing, or both, of a ball. By this time, the ball was commonly made of a pig’s bladder and filled with dried peas. The game of camp-ball is an ancestor of the modern-day English football. That term, ‘football’ would also appear in the 15th century. Both men and women of all ages would engaged in ball games and other sports as well. They would also both be spectators, not just participants.archery

What might appropriately be called “the official national sport” at that time was archery. This was a sport with obvious military overtones. The weapon of choice in the later medieval period was the longbow. This bow was much simpler and had a great rapidity of fire than that of the crossbow. The stave would run to about six feet and was made of ash, hazel, wych-elm, or preferably the wood of the mountain yew. The best arrows were made from ash trees and were fired by drawing back a hemp or flax bowstring to the ear before release.

Practice, as well as competition at archery were commonly undertaken at butts, and were often established in churchyards. Archery was also very informal at times. A popular form of competition in archery was a shot from a distance. The distance could have been as much as two hundred yards and one would aim at a wooden stick that was fixed in a target or staked vertically in the ground with the objective of splitting the peg with an arrow. Another form of practice and competition was roving. A group of people would traipse through the countryside shooting at random targets, at times at the dismay of landowners.

Hunting, hawking and fishing were some other physical activities that brought delight to people, as well as sustenance to their participants. Hunting would also have been considered an educational aspect for the aristocratic youths that were destined for military training. In addition to teaching courage, strategy and mental quickness it was also an enjoyable sport, just as many people still enjoy the sport today. Refined hunting for the aristocratic sort would tend to take the form of either pursuing the game with hounds while hunter’s kept up with the chase on horseback, their dogs completing the kill, or by having the quarry driven within range of hunters who would attempt to take the prey with their bow and arrow. These matters and a great deal more would be discussed at a considerable length between the years 1406 and 1413 by Edward, the Duke of York, in his treatise, “The Master of the Game”. This was a translation with some additions based on the experience of “Le Livre de Chasse”, written two decades earlier by Gaston, the Count of Foix.

Edward was devoted to hunting with hounds and recorded that a fine hunting pack would consist of three types of hounds. The first type was leimers or scenting hounds, which were used to locate the game before the hunt, then during the hunt as they might be needed. The second were running dogs. They would form the main pack and were also known as harriers, brachets, or raches. These dogs would hunt with their sense of smell and were the responsibility of servants that were called bemers. The third type of hounds were greyhounds. They would also be a part of the main pack and servants called fewterers would supervise them. Greyhounds would hunt by sight. Edward was of the opinion that the hare was the best game to hunt, as it was available year around and also provided a challenge, though most noble hunters of Europe would likely have named the stag as their preferred game.

Hunting to obtain meat, hides, grease and whatever else an animal may provide was not as rare. To obtain the animals that people would need for these was done with nets, traps, pits, knives, clubs, spears and any other means that might prove to be efficient. This sort of hunting would seem well removed from our attention to things delightful. On the other hand, illegal hunting may well have contained a special element of delight as an “expression of male gender identity. Poaching permits all of the challenges and skills that hunting does, but adds elements of stealth, danger, violence, sexuality, and assertion of independence.”

A highly specialized and aristocratic form of hunting was hawking or falconry. These two terms were, at the time, used as synonyms, even though falcons and hawks are two different types of birds of prey. A 15th century contribution to the literature of hawking was written by Dame Julian Barnes and would be printed at St. Albans in 1486 was the “Book of St. Albans”, which includes information on the different types of birds, their training, care and maintenance, as well as their use in hunting.




The hawker would wear a large leather glove, of which the bird would perch upon and was a strikingly noble sight. A bird set on such a perch was said to be “on the creep”. Hunting on the creep was just one of the ways of using the bird. These birds would also be trained to remain in place while their hunter flushed the game, at which point the hunter would command the bird to attack. The bird could be trained to catch prey, such as hares, on the ground, or to take other birds in the air. This was the most dramatic and popular form of hawking.

Hunting with birds was a delightful diversion whether it be done on foot or from horseback, though it was an expensive diversion. Birds were expensive and their care, feeding and training could also be costly. A far less costly, though more contemplative sport was angling. The “Book of St. Albans” also included a considerable amount of lore on this subject as well.

Rods were made of hazel, willow or ash and were normally of two wands. A sharpened end of one fitting into the hollowed end of the other would give length and flexibility to the rod. A line would be made by twisting together the hairs from some horses’ tails. The number of hairs would vary according to the weight and strength of the fish that were being sought out. Hooks were made of bent wire or needles, the depth of the hook in water would be regulated by floats and weights. Some live bait that was used was caterpillars, minnows, or worms, as well as artificial flies that were made of colored bits of wool, feathers and insect wings. It is also worth noting that when Izaak Walton had written “The Complete Angler” during the later 17th century that he drew exclusively from “The Book of St. Albans”. Though angling was not as popular as hunting and hawking it does seem to have been thought as more appropriate for children. Theoretically it was less vigorous adults like monks and nuns that would have also participated in this.

Even though there was delight provided by the physical exercise and prowess of angling it was far more quiet and less public than that which was associated with tournaments. These clearly had attracted enthusiastic attention. Anthony Woodville, the Lord of Scales and brother of Edward IV’s queen, and Anthony, the Count of de la Roche, also known as the Bastard of Burgundy, would plan on testing their martial skills against each other for more than two years before the tournament that occurred in June of 1467. This tournament proved to have been more show than substance with an arrival of upwards of four hundred Burgundians in England for the opening itself before audience of Smithfield that had included King Edward IV. Contemporary accounts of the tournament would differ, but a plausible sequence of events would be that in riding at one another in the first course, Scales and the Bastard each missed the other with their lances. They then discarded their lances and assaulted one another with their swords. It was during this swirl of action that the Bastard’s horse collided with Scales horse and collapsed, perhaps falling dead, and pinned him to the ground. Having to be extricated from under the horse by his servants, he declined the king’s offer of a replacement horse and preferred to bring the day’s action to an end.

On the next day these two combatants met again. This time they would fight on foot with axes, flailing away at one another until Scales struck a smashing blow against the Bastard’s visor on his helmet. At this time, the king would halt the combat and Lord Scales would have the honor. The main event of the tournament was over, but subsequent contests between Englishmen and Burgundians, in which “the Englisshemen had the worship” seemed to be anti-climatic. The Scales-Bastard contest may suggest that English tournaments of the 15th century would tend to be more ritualized athletic entertainment than they were martial mayhem. However, tournaments were taken very seriously as training for war and they could be highly dangerous. Some though, like that of Lord Scales and the Bastard of Burgundy, were duels between two mounted warriors.20thjoustll

From the 1420s, it was customary to erect a wood barrier, or tilt, down the center of the tournament ground, or lists, to keep the charging horses from crashing into one another. A combatant would ride with the tilt on his left side and his lance held underneath his right arm and pointed across the barrier. His opponent would charge from the opposite direction, on the opposite side of the tilt. These combatants were encased in plate armor, which was heavy and allowed less mobility than the armor that was used in war.

In “jousts of peace”, blunted lances were used to minimize the chance of penetrating the opponent’s armor and doing serious or mortal injury. “Jousts of war”, however, would require lances to be sharp. The third type of mounted combat was known as “at large” or “at random”, in this the tilt would be eliminated. Foot combat would also have its place in English tournaments during the 15th century. The tournaments during this time had changed a great deal since the once that appear to have taken place around 1100 as little more than scheduled wars between two groups of knights. There had come to be elaborate rules, judges, heralds, pursuivants, pageantry, audiences, and other trappings of order, along with entertainment. The element of danger would still remain as an attraction, which was readily appreciated by any participant or fan, including the football hooligan, that was interested in modern contact sports.

There may have also been laments in the 15th century about the decay of chivalry, but the martial spirit was evident as well. One admittedly opinionated Frenchman would write in his journal in 1436 during the English occupation of Paris:

“the English, essentially, are always wanting to make war on their neighbors without cause. That is why they all die an evil death…”

Remembering that warfare and tournaments as well as the entire chivalric ethos had a lot to do with horses, it is fitting to also share a gem of the 15th century wisdom about horses:

“A goode hors shoulde have xv propertees and condicion.

It is to wit, iii of a woman, iii of a fox, iii of an haare, and iii of an asse.

Off a man, boolde, prowde, and hardy.

Off a woman, fayre brestid, faire of here, and esy to lie upon.

Off a fox, a faire tayle, short eirs with a good trot.

Off an haare a grete eyghe, a dry hede and well rennyng.

Off an ass a bigge chyne, a flatte leg and a good houe (hock).”

From the games of physical strength and skill, such as football, hunting and tournaments, we should give our attention for a moment to the presumably more quiet sources of delight such as dice, board games, table games and cards.

Dicing was an ancient game and one of pure chance, as long as it was played honestly. Another game, Hasard, was commonly played with two dice and varying rules. Participants and onlookers would bet on the outcome of the throws. Some dice games like a raffle would utilize three dice. Cross and Pile was a game that was like dicing. American youngsters today still play this game as pitching pennies. The farthing of Edward I had a cross on one side and the other side of the coin was called the pile. Another game that was akin to dicing was Queek. This was played by rolling or throwing pebbles onto a checkered board with bets placed in anticipation of the pebble landing on a light or dark square.

Another game that was known to medieval people was tables. This was an ancestor to the game of Backgammon and was very popular. It would exist in some two dozen forms but had basically players that would use dice to determine their movement of counters over the board. Merrils was also very popular. In its simplest form the board would have nine holes and be played like the pencil and paper game Tic-Tac-Toe. Each player would have three pieces and took turns putting them in holes in the board, trying to get three in a row. By the 15th century, this game evolved into a more complex one with an expanded board called Nine Men’s Morris. It was a sort of triple Tic-Tac-Toe where a square board is laid out with three squares of eight holes each, one within another. Each player had nine pieces and play would involve the capture of an opponent’s pieces. The winner would be the first player to capture seven of their opponent’s pieces. There were simple but precise rules that would govern the vertical and horizontal movement of pieces.

Merrills would become even more complicated with the addition of even more pieces and diagonal movements on an even larger board. This game would be called Fox-and-Geese and at times was played also by King Edward IV.chess

Another game that we still play today that would have outclassed all others during the 15th century was Chess. This was a game of strategy that had reflected real world politics. By this time it would be played by all ranks of society in spite of its aristocratic aura.

A new arrival to the world, that came about at this time was Playing Cards. Whatever particular game was played with them it would require strategy and skill. It would also afford an opportunity for gambling. The cards themselves were made out of ivory, parchment, or wood and had designs or images that were put on them, being colored by hand. A legacy of the medieval design of these cards is that of the queen of all suits and is today a stylized representation of a contemporary portrait of Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV and queen of Henry VII. She is portrayed as holding in her hand the white rose of York. There may also be some connection of the queen card with the fact that by the time of Edward IV there were card makers in England who had been protected from foreign competition by law.

Board games and table games both afforded a delight in mental skill and exquisite anguish of gambling, but there were other sources of delight as well in 15th century England that would touch the aesthetic spirit.

Perpendicular Architecture, Woodcarvings, and Alabaster Figures

The current style of architecture in this time was that of the Perpendicular style. It was a very English phase of the Gothic style that was developed in the 14th century but would come into its full development in this century.


King’s College Chapel in Cambridge


The style would have a restrained dignity in the form given to windows, which are virtually high rectangles, with their vertical tracery from base to flattened, rather than a pointed arch. The perpendicular style is displayed among its other characteristic features of fan vaulting. Wide arches and large windows would give a building its style a sense of space and light, an excellent example of this can be seen in the chapel of King’s College in Cambridge, founded by the last Lancastrian king, Henry VI. It can also be found at Oxford the Divinity School, now part of Bodleian Library and also in the quadrangle of Magdalen College.

In Northern England, York Minster offers an imposing example of the 15th century architecture and craftsmanship. Both of the west towers together with the central tower and central lantern of which it rises were constructed during this century. The stone screen, with its statues of fifteen English kings from William the Conqueror to Henry VI also dates from this time. This is a treasure because of its beauty and its sheer size, it’s the largest single medieval stained glass window still surviving in England, a callous 15th century worshiper indeed who failed to be both delighted and struck with reverential awe at the sight of these new additions to the Minster, particularly in the bright light of a clear summer’s morning.

Besides the collegiate building and cathedral churches, like York Minster, many parish churches were also built in the Perpendicular style as expressions of faith and delight in the current fashion and wealth. A few of very many examples still to be seen would include Long Melford, Lavenham and Southwold, all in Suffolk; or Salle in Norfolk; St. Mary Redcliffe in Bristol; or in Gloucestershire, St. John the Baptist, Cirencester, Northleach Church, and St. James, and Chipping Camden.

This however was not the only architectural style of buildings that would delight the eyes of its beholders. Decorative arts also made a decisive contribution. In the words of a Professor Jacob, “a carver’s rather than a sculptor’s age, in wood and alabaster as much as in stone” choir stalls, roof bosses and beams, screens, pews, pulpits, misericords and many implements of life would be enhanced by the woodcarver’s skill.

To mention just a few examples of wood-carved roofs, the elaborately decorated roof over Wear Giffard Hall in Devonshire, the Law Library at Exeter and the great hall at Eltham Palace in Kent, which was a major domestic building project of King Edward IV and a design of it is credited to the king’s chief carpenter, Edmund Graveley.


The Great Hall at Eltham Palace in Kent, England


Figures would be carved in alabaster and would have been seen by many people in this century. An industry in alabaster sculpture would grow up around a few quarries, especially near Nottingham. These alabaster figures were sold all over England and even overseas and was one of just a few of the English arts that was known on the continent. Alabaster is gypsum, a softer material than what marble is as well as some other stones. It is a moderately translucent stone that would lend itself nicely to the stone effigies, images of saints and altarpieces. The effigies of King Henry IV and Queen Joan in Canterbury Cathedral are among some of the best known alabaster sculptures of the 15th century.

tomb of king henry iv and joan of navarre

Effigies of King Henry IV and his Queen Joan in Canterbury Cathedral made of alabaster.


A large collection of alabaster carvings can also be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum and smaller carvings were also frequently mounted in wooden frames and utilized in private dwellings as well as in chapels and churches. There was also a practice to paint and gild alabaster figures, so that their appearance was vivid and colorful, rather than cool and pale.


Another English art form that was known and appreciated on the continent in addition to alabaster carvings was embroidery, which was also referred to as opus anglicanum. The fame of embroidery was already established prior to the 15th century, but the craft of producing opus anglicanum was centered mainly in London. Embroidery would be done on velvet and heavy silk with threads of many different colors and sometimes even gold. An often mentioned example is the cope in the Durham Cathedral Treasury. This is the semi-circular, cloak-like vestment that was worn by high ecclesiastics reaching from the neck to the floor and closed in the front with a broad tab of cloth, these were even treasured by some popes.

Precious objects of gold and silver-plated jewelry were also being created by the English craftsmen at this time. Cups, patens, mazers, salts, collars, candlesticks, rings, spoons, bowls, chalices, bells and other items still survive and represent examples of the delight of precious things. Among fine jewelry one must mention the gold and enamel Dunstable Swan brooch and gold Middleham jewel that was once enameled and graced with sapphire.

The fine arts of the calligrapher and manuscript illuminator were also alive and well during the 15th century.

Other Arts

Yet another English art form that was appreciated by every English king of the century, and of which, like alabaster carvings and opus anglicanum, gained an audience abroad was music. From highly trained musicians of great households to the more humble ranks of society, music had seemed to be integral to the fabric of life.

Early in the 15th century, the Privy Seal clerk and poet, Thomas Hoccleve had complained about the difficulty of being a scribe, having said that artificers could sing and talk while they were working, but this was not possible for clerks like himself. John Dunstable was the most famous musician of the century and his compositions would further mark the development of polyphonic music. Some compositions that still survive from this time are of Gilbert Banaster, the Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal to Edward IV, Richard III and briefly, Henry VII. The royal York brothers were also enthusiastic appreciators of music at the time.

As for literature, writers of the 15th century would add to the assorted genres of English literature. Many religious lyrics were composed so as to instruct the faithful on aspects of the Christian faith and life. This century was also the time when the carol would come into full perfection. There were secular carols that were written as well as carols for many occasions during the Christian year.

There were some important intellectual and informative literature that would also appear in this century. Sir John Fortescue, the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench would write of governmental and legal theory and practice in “De Natura Legis Naturae”, “The Governance of England”, and “The De Laudibus Legum Angliae”. Another book called “The Libel of English Policy” was written by Anonymous, and had argued that an orderly commercial policy and importance of a navy to control the surrounding seas. Another book by another anonymous person would write a book called “The Babees Book” which was a more domestic focus offered in a poetic form of information on how noble youngsters should behave. The once official Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, John Russell would write in rhyme a book of self improvement that was titled “The Boke of Kervyng and Nortur”. Finally, early in this time period a book by another anonymous author was completed and was the first English handbook about obstetrics and gynecology.

There was also a significant amount of historical literature written during this time. From the anonymous town chroniclers of London, Bristol, and other places, to the writings of such men as Thomas Walsingham, John Capgrave, John Strecche, John Benet, John Hardyng and many others.

Even though all of these books were written, music and other arts were growing, the 15th century in England was not a time of refined intellectual achievement. It was, however, a time that would produce a remarkable number of first generation literates whose tastes would tend to be conservative and accepting of tradition and authority.

A large amount of delight in creativity would be directed towards drama. The popular literary genre had originated far earlier, but it would truly come into its own during the 15th century. The most popular form of drama would be mystery, or the miracle play. This form of drama was based on the Biblical stories from the Creation to the Last Judgment and in its full development plays were presented in cycles. They were also performed on pageant-wagons, which would roll through the streets of towns. They would stop in turn at each station to perform a particular play. Spectators would remain in one spot and would then watch the play as the pageant-wagons came along. These plays were normally the responsibility of the guilds. A normal time for a play performance to come around was during the feast of Corpus Christi, a movable feast that would fall in May or June. Cycles would be performed through London, Chester, Wakefield, Beverly and other places, the largest cycle of mystery plays to survive would come from York. This cycle would consist of forty-eight plays and a fragment.


Pageant Wagon


Pageantry was a source of delight for many observers and would incorporate a powerful element of drama. The kingdom’s great and wealthy would move about all the time, surrounded by followers and presented a display of magnificence that would exemplify their power. At times pageantry would be meant to convey a message that was more sophisticated than just wealth and power. Consider the arrival of King Henry VI into London in 1432 upon his return from Paris after being made King of France. The king was greeted by seven pageants at seven stations as he had made his way into the capital. Each of the pageants had consisted of a dramatic scene with characters. By itself this would’ve been impressively dramatic. For the subtly analytic mind the cumulative effect of the sequence of pageants would have been the suggestion that in King Henry one could see the joining of two dynasties. Each would have been enhanced by a royal saint, and that, imitatio Christi, this new messianic king, the embodiment of justice, would bring peace and reconciliation to the warring kingdoms of England and France and would usher in a glorious age of order and prosperity. However, this would not become reality, but would be the message of the pageantry.

The Printing Press and Witchcraft

In 1450 the printing press would be invented and would eventually lead to the widespread readership of books. In turn this would lead to more women being able to read and educate themselves, if they hadn’t been educated to begin with. A whole generation of women who could read and write without the power of men was on the rise and that was thought to be a dangerous thing.


Gutenberg Printing Press


It was during this century that the burning of witches would become a common practice, a trend that seemed to have been seriously fanned by the printing press. The publication of the witch hunter’s guide, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), at the end of the century and its popularity in print would probably cause a great deal of harm. Witches would appear to have been mostly older women, usually widows that had often lived alone. Often times, witch-hunters would leave a town and then there would be no elderly women left.This century had given women the most freedom that they had ever seen, but in a quick motion it also took those freedoms away.

Women in the 15th Century

During the 15th century women in England would hit a high point, of which they would not again see for another four hundred years. As is often the case, women would start to take over the roles of men after the Black Plague and other subsequent plagues and illnesses that would last into the start of the 15th century.

Women were now able to own property, start as well as run their own businesses, divorce their husbands if they were beaten by them or ill-treated or even if their husband had failed to perform in the marital bed. There were also notable female writers, scholars, warriors and business owners. All of this had previously been unheard of in the country.

Among the first notable female writers was Christine de Pisan. She was a French poet, who had made her living from being a writer. Christine would be viewed arguably as the first feminist. She would question women’s social positions in 1404 by saying:

“No matter which way I looked at it and no matter how much I turned the matter over in my mind, I could find no evidence from my own experience to bear out such a negative view of female nature and habits. Even so, given that I could scarcely find a moral work by any author which didn’t devote some chapter or paragraph to attacking the female sex, I had to accept their unfavourable opinion of women since it was unlikely that so many learned men, who seemed to be endowed with such great intelligence and insight into all things, could possibly have lied on so many occasions….”

–”The Book of the City of Ladies”

In addition to having the aforementioned rights, women also assisted with war in Switzerland, France and England. Many war women would seem to have served voluntarily. The most famous of these empowered women is the French Joan of Arc. Joan had led French troops into the British occupied Burgundy in 1424, but was captured in battle just six years later. She was tried in the English court and would be burned at the stake. Joan was used as an example of what would happen to women who went against the English government.

Though females had these rights, they were still viewed as the property of men, were not allowed legally on the stage, but were allowed to follow the performance careers of a professional. However, they were becoming a more active part of a once male dominated society.


Painting of Joan of Arc


Many of the women who didn’t have the “luck” of becoming Joan of Arc or a wife of a rich husband, of whom they could inherit property from, turned to Convents. For the most part, the best positions in convents were open only to women of high birth. Poorer women could join as lay sister and they would do much of the domestic work of running the convent. The choir was also largely for the upper class women.

There were some women who would exercise a vast amount of political and social influence from convents, hospitals though were still staffed by nuns. The idea of an institution being secular would only come after the Reformation. When the government of Protestant areas took over the social functions of the church they would close convents where the Reform had taken hold, and this would probably have been a considerable loss for many women. The Protestants had felt that they were “liberating” the nuns, but a number of them probably didn’t feel as though subjecting themselves to a husband and having twelve children or more was such an improvement. In the countries that were Protestant, single women with vocation would end up being spinsters, aunties and governesses with considerable less status. Women in convents were able to read, organize, sing and live in peace without the worry of becoming a spinster or living a life in poverty.

Other women would turn to living life on the streets. Some areas, usually cities, where there were a lot of women, there were communal brothels. Women could seek shelter in these places and were also provided very basic health care and mostly be provided with safety from any abusive customers.


For those that would could afford them, the styles of fashionable dress during the century were extravagant, elaborate, colorful and varied. Fashion would be characterized by a series of extremes and extravagances.

European fashion, North of the Alps, was dominated by the glittering court of the Duchy of Burgundy, especially under the fashion-conscious power-broker, Philip the Good. Having added Holland and Flanders to their dominion, the Dukes of Burgundy had access to the latest fabrics from Italy and the East, as well as to English wool exports through great trading cities of Bruges and Antwerp. The purchase of fabrics through Italian merchants that would amount to a noticeable proportion of all government expenditure, especially in Florence.

Sumptuary laws would prevent citizens from wearing the most luxurious clothing on which the city’s fortunes had been built. Materials for men’s clothing in particular would often appear to be plain in paintings. Contemporaries who had understood the difference in the grade of cloth would have very well appreciated the beauty and great expense of a very fine grade.

Wool was the


The Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry


most popular fabric for all the classes of people by far, followed by linen and then hemp. Wool fabrics were available in a wide range of qualities. From rough, undyed cloth to fine, dense broadcloth with a velvety nap. A high-value of broadcloth was a backbone of the English economy and would be exported throughout Europe. Wool fabrics were also dyed in rich colors. They were usually reds, greens, golds and blues, but the actual color of blue that was achievable was with the dyeing from woad, and less frequently indigo. However, these colors were no match for the rich lapis lazuli pigment blues that have been depicted in contemporary illuminated manuscripts, such as the Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry.

Silk-weaving was also well established around the Mediterranean by the start of the century. Figured silks, often silk velvets with silver-gilt wefts were increasingly seen in Italian dress and the clothing of the wealthy through Europe. Stately floral designs would feature a pomegranate or artichoke motif that would also reach Europe from China back in the 14th Century. It would become a dominant design in the Ottoman silk-producing cities of Istanbul and Bursa. Then it spread to silk weavers in Florence, Genoa, Venice, Valencia and Seville in the 15th century.

Furs would be worn mostly as a lining layer by those who could afford it. Grey and white squirrel furs of the Middle Ages, vair and miniver would go out of style except for at court, first for men and then for women. A new group of fashionable furs were dark brown, sable and marten. Towards the end of the century, wild animal furs, such as lynx had also become popular. Ermine would remain a prerogative and hallmark of the royalty class.

One decorative technique that had existed then was slashing. It involved making small cuts on outer fabrics of a garment in order to reveal the inner garment or lining. This technique was performed on all varieties of clothing, both for men and women. The practice would reveal brightly colored pieces of fabric from under an outer garment. Contemporary chroniclers would identify the source of this fashion to the actions of Swiss soldiers in the aftermath of the Battle of Grandson in 1476. Whatever was the origin, the fad for multiple slashings had spread to German Landsknechts and then to France, Italy and England. It would remain a potent current fashion attire into the mid 17th century.

For women’s fashion of a long gown, usually with sleeves, would persist through the century. They would wear this over kirtles or undergowns, with linen chemise or smocks


Example of a 15th Century Linen Kirtle


that were worn next to the skin. Sleeves were made detachable and were also heavily ornamented. The long-wasted silhouette of the 14th century was replaced by the high-wasted style with the fullness over the belly and often being confined with a belt would emerge in the 15th. Wide, shallow scooped necklines were replaced by the V-neck and was often cut low enough to reveal the decorative front of the kirtle beneath. A variety of styles of overgowns were also worn. The cotehardie would fit smoothly from the shoulders to the hips and then would be flared by the means of inserted triangular gores. They would feature sleeves that were tight to the elbow with hanging streamers or tippets. A tight fit would be achieved with lacing or buttons, but the style would fade rapidly from fashion in favor of the houppelande.

The houppelande was a full robe with a high collar and wide sleeves. It became fashionable around 1380 and would remain so until the mid 15th century. Later it would have sleeves that were snug at the wrist and made a full “bag” sleeve. The bag sleeve was sometimes slashed in the front to allow for the lower arm to reach through.

In about 1450, the dress of Northern Europe would develop a low V-neck. As stated before it would show a glimpse of a square-necked kirtle underneath. The neckline could e filled in with a sheer linen partlet. Wide turn-backs, like revers, would display a contrasting lining and frequently were made of fur or black velvet. Sleeves may have been cuffed to match, but were very long, covering half of the hand and often were highly decorated with embroidery. Fine sleeves were often transferred from one dress to another.

In Italy, the low scoop-neck of the earlier decades would give way to necklines that were high in the front and a lower v-neck in the back. This was followed by the V-neck that would display the kirtle or gamurra, at times spelled camorra. Sleeveless overgowns such as cioppa were also popular. Gamurra sleeves were often made of rich figured silks. A lighter weight overgown, known as a giorna was worn along with gamurra or cottas. Towards the end of the century, sleeves were made in sections or panels and slashed. These would allow the full chemise sleeves below to be pulled through in puffs along the arm, shoulder and at the elbow. This was the beginning of the fashion for puffed and slashed sleeves that would last for two more centuries.

The partlet was a separate item that would fill in a low neckline that would appear in the 15th century. It was usually made of a sheer fabric, such as linen or possibly silk. With an open V-neckline, some had a collar and a back that were similar to the upper part of the shirt. Burgundian partlets are usually depicted as being worn under a dress, but over the kirtle. In Italy it would seem to have been worn over a gown and could be pointed or cut straight across at a lower front.

Two uniquely Spanish fashions would appear during the 1470s. The verdugada or verdugado was a bell-shaped hoop skirt and visible casings that would be stiffened with reeds. It would become the farthingale and the earliest depiction of this garment came from Catalonia where it was worn with pieced or slashed sleeves. The second newcomer was the chemise with trumpet sleeves that were open and had a very wide wrist.

The sideless surecoat of the 14th century would become a ceremonial costume for the


Examples of the sideless surecoat


royalty. It usually had an ermine front panel, which was called a plackard or placket, and a mantle draped from the shoulders. It was seen in a variety of royal portraits and as “shorthand” to identify queens in illuminated manuscripts of the time.

Women of the previous century would wear laced ankle-boots that were quite often lined with fur. During this century, women also would wear “poulaines”, which would use patterns to protect their tight shoes.

For men, the basic costume in the 15th century would consist of a shirt, doublet and hose, along with some sort of overgown, a robe that was worn over the clothing. Linen shirts were worn next to the skin and toward the end of the period, shirts would start to be full through the body and sleeves with wide, low necklines, especially at the elbow and the back of the arm. Wealthy men would have shirts that were often decorated with embroidery or would apply a braid.

Over top the shirt was worn a doublet. Around the middle of the century there were very tight-fitting doublets, belted or tailored to be tight at the waist and gave an effect of a short skirt below. These were fashionable at the time, at least for the young. Sleeves were generally full, even puffy and when they would be worn with a large chaperon. This look was extremely stylish but was also very top-heavy. Very tight hose and long pointed shoes or thigh-boots would give a long attenuated appearance below the waist, and a chunky, solid one above. The doublet was quite often elaborately pleated, especially in the back.

In Italy both a shirt and a doublet were often high, tight, and collarless at the front of the neck. Sometimes they are shown higher at the front than in the back. Men of all classes would wear short braies or breeches. These were loose undergarments that were usually made of linen and held up by a belt. Hose or chausses would be made of wool and were used to cover the legs and were generally brightly colored. Early hose would at times have leather soles and were worn without any shoes or boots. Hose would usually be tied to the breech belt or to a doublet. As these became shorter, the hose would reach the waist rather than the hips. They would also be sewn together into a single garment, with a pouch or flap to cover the front opening, which would involve into what is known as the codpiece.

The men’s houppelande, in Italy would be called cioppa. It was the characteristic overgarment of the wealthy in the first half of the 15th century. Cioppa’s were essentially a robe with its fullness falling from the shoulders in organ pleats and very full sleeves that would usually reach to the floor. At the start of the 16th century it would also have a high collar. These could be lined in fur and the hem and the sleeves may have been dagged or cut into scallops. These were also worn belted, but later they would mostly hang straight. The length of the garment would become shorter throughout the century, moving from around the ankle to just above the knee. Floor-length sleeves would later become wrist-length but very full and would form a bag or sack sleeve. It may also be worn off of the arm and hanged ornamentally behind.


Example of 15th Century Men’s Clothing


Another men’s fashion was the tabard. This was a sideless overgown and in Italy it was called a giomea or in France was known as a journade. It was quite popular and was usually pleated and worn hanging loosely or belted. The young men would wear these short, older men at calf or ankle length.

During the mid 15th century, Burgundy would seem to have been the earliest place where men would find it fashionable to wear all black. This would reappear, quite strongly, in the “Spanish” style of the mid 16th to 17th centuries and then again in the 19th and 20th centuries. This fashion was apparently started by the Duke, Philip “the Good”.

In Venice, the patrician class, after the age of joining the Great Council, the men would wear their long red robes as a uniform. In contrast, young men and famous courtesans of the city and dressed very extravagantly. In the final decades of the the 15th century and a new style of overgown would come to be. Men would wear these in various lengths and were generally unbelted and featured wide turned back revers and a collar. Short or long cloaks or mantles were also worn, but overall they would be worn for ceremonial occasions and in bad weather. They would typically be fastened to one shoulder.

Hairstyles and Hats

A variety of hats and headdresses were worn during the 15th century in Europe. The crespine was from Northern Europe and originally had a thick hairnet or snood. It would evolve into a mesh of jeweler’s work that would confine the hair on the sides of the head by the end of the 14th century. Gradually the fullness at the sides of the head were pulled up to the temples and then became pointed. By the middle part of the 15th century the hair was pulled back from the forehead and the crespine was usually known as a caul and would


Example of a caul headdress


then sit on the back of the head. It was also very fashionable for women to shave their foreheads as well as their eyebrows. Any of these styles would be able to be topped by a padded roll, and sometimes arranged in a heart-shape or a veil, or even possibly both.

Veils were supported by wire frames that exaggerated the shape and were variously draped from the back of a headdress or they would cover the forehead. A chaperon was another kind of hat that was based on the hood and liripipe and a variety of related draped and wrapped turbans. A hennin was one of the most extravagant headdresses of the Burgundian fashion. It was a cone or truncated-cone shaped cap with a wire frame that would be covered with fabric and topped by a floating veil. It later would feature a turned-back brim, or were worn over a hood with a turned-back brim.

Nearing the end of the 15th century women’s headdresses would begin to be smaller, more convenient and less picturesque. The gable hood was a stiff and elaborate headdress that would emerge in 1480 and was popular among the elderly ladies up until the mid 16th century.

Merchant class women in Northern Europe would wear modified versions of the courtly hairstyles with coifs or caps, veils and wimples of crisp linen. These would often have visible creases from ironing and folding that could be seen. A brief fashion would add rows of gathered frills to the coif or veil. This style is at times known by its German name, kruseler.

The general European tradition of completely covering a married woman’s hair was not acceptable in the warmer country of Italy. Italian women would wear their hair very long and then wound with ribbons or braided and twisted up into knots of various shapes with the ends of it hanging free. Their hair was then covered with sheer veils of small caps.

Towards the end of the 1480s, women would wear their hair in chin-length sections of loose waves or ripples over the ears. This was a style that would inspire “vintage” hair fashions during the 1620s and 1630s and then again in the 1840s and 1850s.

Blonde hair was considered to be desirable. Visitors to Venice would report that ladies would sit in the sun on their terraces with their hair spread out around large circular disks that would be worn like a hat in an attempt to bleach their hair in the sun. There were also some chemical methods of dyeing the hair that was also used.

In the early 15th century, men would continue to wear a hood and it was a common component of dress for all of the classes. However, they were more frequently worn around the neck as a cowl, or twisted into the fantastical shapes of the chaperon. Hats of many styles were also worn. For men, there were tall-crowned hats that would have small


Chaperone Headdress


brims or no brim at all. There were hats with brims that turned up on one side for variations of the coif, or low-crowned hats with wider brims that were pulled to a point in the front. These would start to compete with the draped chaperon, especially in Italy. A brimless scarlet cap had started to be nearly universal, for young Florentines in particular.

By the mid 15th century, a bowl haircut, which would involve a man’s hair being shaved at the back of the neck was stylish. In Germany and briefly in Venice, a wide shock of frizzy blond hair was often seen on images of lovers and angels, but by the late part of the century they were less often seen in portraits. By that time as well, shoulder-length hair would become more fashionable for men to wear and the trend would continue on into the early part of the 16th century.


4 thoughts on “Life in the 15th Century”

  1. A fascinating and well-researched overview, Christina. I live not far from King’s Lynn, a town that was once the major port of England, based on the wool trade you mention.
    Fishing/Angling is still the most popular participant sport and hobby in the UK to this day.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Is hastings still a big fishing area? When I was there they had the fisherman huts that you could see all along the shore. I love to go fishing as well I could spend all day outside fishing sometimes, haha maybe that is the English in me


      1. There are still some fishing boats at Hastings, and the huts are along the front too. Most fishing fleets in the UK have been diminished by EU quotas though.
        I have never been an angler myself, Christina.
        Regards, Pete.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah when I was there, there were a lot of regulations about fishing, hunting, etc…there are also some regulations here though too. The area I live in has a lot of fisherman and hunters. A lot of people hunt deer, turkey and other pheasant here…and there are some farmers left yet too.


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