Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles #28

Hello everybody. I know its been a while since I last uploaded a post and I must apologize. It has been entirely my fault.

So without further ado, let me introduce this post’s author. You may remember Nancy Spies from her previous post (#25) where she discussed the evidence or lack of it for sanitary wear in the 11th-century document from Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo), Egypt. In this post Nancy moves into the world of the ecclesiastical mitre. Here she puts Joseph Braun’s theory of Mitre Evolution to the Test.

In 1907, the German Jesuit writer Joseph Braun published his magisterial book, The Origin and Evolution, Use, and Symbolism of Liturgical Vestments in the Occident and Orient.  In his chapter on the mitre can be found his famous chart on The Evolution of the mitre from the 11th century to Today which has (strangely) remained unchallenged until recently.  

The bottom line of the chart simply shows the mitre from the 13th century onwards and can be disregarded for this discussion. The top line shows Braun’s conceptualization of the origin and early evolution of the mitre to the early 13th century. Braun was working within a larger, rather amorphous definition of what a mitre is. The story of what a mitre is – called a  Mitra in ancient Greek and Latin, and still in use in many European languages, is fraught. It is suffice for us to know for now that he considered the first two hats on his chart to be mitres.

Braun explained the evolutionary progression of the first row thus:

starting from the left, the first mitre was a conical shape. Around 1100 this mitre began to lose its conical shape, bulged up, and became rounded as seen in the second image. The round mitre became the bonnet-like mitre in the third image by pressing the narrow side of the hand down on the rounded top of the round mitre which caused the fabric to bulge. Sometimes bands were used between the two new bulges to keep their shape. To get the sideways horned shape of the fourth mitre, stiff inserts such as parchment were placed in the lining of the previous mitre. This horned mitre was then turned ninety degrees so that it faced front-to-back in the fifth image.

            In order to test Braun’s evolutionary theory, it was clear that there was only one approach: to reconstruct models of his four different mitres.

Braun theorized that the original mitre had a simple conical shape.  The examples on the top row of the image show three examples being worn by three saints, one from an 1150 painting in Bethleham, one from a 1162 German manuscript, and one from a 12th century Italian mosaic.

            Round mitres, examples of which are shown on the bottom row of image 3, are known to have been worn by other religious men from French and German manuscripts dated between 1000 and before 1170. Saint Nicholas was actually woven into a linen chasuble dated 1170-1180 in Germany.

The conical and round “mitres”: were both constructed using triangular cardboard templates. Four identical shapes were cut out of fabric and sewn together. A second identical one became the lining of the mitre.

The template for the conical “mitre” can be seen on the left of the central image on the bottom row, and the template for the round mitre is shown on the right of the same diagram. They are virtually identical: the curve and length of the lower edges are the same. They differ only in the height of the segments and the angle at the top point. The shorter the segments, the more rounded the final shape.

The first problem with Braun’s evolution appears in the progression from the first mitre to the second. He claimed that as the conical shape started to disappear, it bulged up and became rounded, apparently somehow providing the extra fabric needed for bulges. However, the reconstructions demonstrate that both the conical and round “mitres” fit closely to the head; further there is no contemporary evidence of bulging hats.

Braun then stated that the edge of the hand should be pressed down on the top of the now-bulging round mitre which would then form the bulges seen in his third image, the bonnet-like mitre. But as can be seen in the demonstration in image above, no significant bulges or lobes can be formed from the round mitre. There simply is not enough fabric.

Reconstructions proved it to be impossible to get from the round mitre to the bonnet-like mitre with the same pattern. Braun’s bulging mitre had to have been constructed in a different way. The bonnet-like mitre had to be made from a bespoke pattern that predetermines its final look.

            The template silhouette for the model of the bonnet-like mitre (figure above) was taken from an image of a German mitre dated 1120-1125. Note that, like the sections used to make a conical or round “mitre”, the bottom edge is curved to allow the hat to fit correctly on the head. There is one mitre image known that mirrors and, indeed, verifies this precise reconstruction, an image of the Italian Bishop of Arezzo, Tedaldo of Canossa, from a 1115 manuscript (top right of above figure).

            As the figure above shows, there are a variety of ways in which the bonnet-like mitre was depicted. It is unknown whether this can be attributed to local preferences or artistic license.

This style of mitre was almost always worn sideways on the head but just occasionally is shown worn front-to-back. Images from Italy, Germany, France, and Austria show the sideways orientation. Three images from England and Italy show the more unusual front-to-back placement.

One very interesting aspect of the bonnet-like mitre is that, by the beginning of the twelfth century, the shape had been adopted by the secular populace for hats and pouches. It is shown on two French blacksmiths, and in Italy, Atto, the Count of Canossa, and the Marquis Tedald of Canossa wear them. In England, the historian Boethius and the physician Grimbald both wear this style. Parenthetically, Braun’s label of this shape as “bonnet-like” is puzzling. However, he may have based it on a hat such as the Amish women wear in America, a religious group that originated in Germany.

As far as can be discovered, only in Germany are images found in manuscripts of the bonnet-like shape being used for shoulder pouches, a shape that became popular in the fourteenthth and fifteenth centuries when it was used for belt pouches known as “kidney pouches”.

Returning to Braun’s evolution chart, he stated that to get the sideways horned shape of the fourth mitre, stiff inserts such as parchment were placed in the lining of the bonnet-like mitre. This was attempted, in as many different ways as possible, and it can definitively be stated that it is absolutely impossible to make this idea work. No manipulation whatsoever can change the basic topology of the bonnet-like bulges into horns. Unfortunately, this proved impossible to photograph. Please trust that every attempt was made, all of which failed.

The horned mitre, however, is probably the easiest hat ever to have been made. The template is simply a long rectangle that is folded in half and sewn up the sides. The length of the short edges of the rectangle determines the fit around the head; the height of the rectangle folded in half becomes the height of the horns. It is interesting to note that the bottom edge of this mitre is straight, not curved like the other mitres seen so far, yet fits perfectly on the head. Freshly made, this version has a straight, knife-edge top which is shown in several examples such as a French bishop from the last quarter of the 11th or first half of the 12th century. Other examples show how the straight edge naturally dips when worn. A modern example of this exact same structure is the American World War II garrison side cap which the soldier could carry by simply folding it in half and tucking it under his belt.

The dipping does go a little way toward bringing the peaks more perpendicular to the head, but there may have been other ways of doing this. One way would have been to round the corners of the rectangle. Or, as anyone who has sewn together two pieces of fabric with squared corners knows, if you don’t take care to push the point completely out, what will remain is a blunted corner, rounded instead of sharply pointed. Another way of altering the basic rectangle is to use a trapezoid shape instead. This pulls the horns closer together and away from alignment over the ears.

The bonnet-like mitre first appeared in the second half of the 11th century, being worn sideways on the head and continued to be worn that way until the end of the 12th century. Around 1125 and definitely by 1140, this sideways mitre made a very gradual 90 degree turn and started being worn front-to-back. The horns were now located directly above the face and the back of the head instead of above the ears. The first mitre that shows this change in orientation is from a French manuscript dated 1120-1146. (not pictured here) Here the Italian Saint Geminiano is shown in an imaged dated 1125-1150 (left bottom row). All of the famous Lewis chess bishops wear this style as do a variety of other churchmen. There are, interestingly enough, no secular equivalents of the horned mitre like the hats and pouches for the bonnet-like mitre.

Both sideways and front-to-back orientations of the horned mitre were used concurrently during approximately the last three quarters of the 12th century. In addition, the bonnet-like and horned mitres were used concurrently through the entire century.  The  mitre finally “won the fashion war”, as it were, by the beginning of the 13th century at which time it also stabilized its orientation in the front-to-back position. It then proceeded to evolve into the grand, ostentatious version still in use in the Catholic Church.

The top line of Braun’s chart showing the evolution of the mitre can now be rewritten. Reconstruction of the mitre models show definitively that there is no smooth evolution from one shape to the next. There are 3 totally different hats here: the conical and round “mitres”, the “bonnet-like” mitre, now called the lobed mitre, and the “horned” mitre, now called the peaked mitre.

The long-standing term “horned” for the peaked mitre originated from the Latin cornu (‘horn’). The horns given to Moses were a misinterpretation of the original Biblical word which described Moses’s countenance – radiant, shining, glowing, with rays of glory — when he came down from the mountain after receiving the Ten Commandments The first known pictures of Moses with horns are found in the Old English Hexateuch dated 1025-1050 and the term was retroactively applied to the peaked mitre form. There is no indication whatsoever that the “horns” of Moses inspired the origin of this mitre shape in any way.

            However, perhaps artists were affected by the “horn” idea. Both straight like rays of light and curled horns like those of a ram are documented, and the simple pattern of the peaked mitre can, indeed, be manipulated to form these shapes.


And finally, do not despair that the lobed mitre didn’t make the cut at the end of the 12th century. Dick van Patton wore a lobed mitre as the abbot in the 1993 movie, “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”.

I hope you enjoyed Nancy’s fascinating tour of the development, or not, of the mitre up to the 13th century as much as I did. There are so many take always from this including how we need to combine types of research in order to understand what can seem a simple thing in more nuanced ways. Something most of you know is close to my heart.

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