Despite the wide divide between the lifestyle, income, political access, and social authority of the average member of the ruling class and the average member of the common class, the common class was just as complexly stratified. The common class was divided down the line of the yeomanry and the peasantry, with the former being exclusively free individuals and of higher standing and the latter being defined by their level of obligation. Every new member of the household may portray a free peasant or a bound peasant at their personal preference, as there can be little visual difference between bound serfs and free tenants.
Freemen or Free Tenants
A large minority of the working class were free peasants, those who were not bound by serfdom and owned enough land or created enough income with their work to rent the home they lived in and/or the land they lived on. They were not constrained by the same restrictions on their behavior other members of society endured. A free tenant had the opportunity, through luck or diligence, to acquire enough wealth to work their way up into the yeomanry. This does not mean the freeman lacked all obligations, and still owed feudal service to their lord in varying capacities.
In feudal serfdom, while the human may not have belonged to anyone as a slave, they did not own land and did not earn enough money to support themselves with their trade. They had strong restrictions on their behavior such as where they could travel or who they could marry. They were bound to the land they were assigned and as the land was bought, sold, or traded so too was the serfs on that land. Some serfs chose not to purchase their freedom, as it was financially less burdensome and there are accounts of free tenants selling back into serfdom by personal choice or due to indebtedness. Serfs were further stratified into villains, cottars, unskilled laborers, etc. Serfs constituted the majority of the citizenry.
The wealthiest commoners owned more land or industry than they could work alone, in the manner of a successful small business owner who has so much work they need to hire employees to keep their shop running. The typical example of this would be a farmer with more land than he could toil with just himself and his children who needed to hire others. This could also include successful merchants or artisans who ran large workshops or guild houses
Choices are less rigid for the commoner and a wider selection of styles are appropriate as they couldn’t afford to chase the trends (older styles of clothing which may be considered “unfashionable” to the rich are suitable to the common person.) Avoid silk fabrics, damasks, brocades, decorative dags, and other styles as these types of fabric and stylings would have put these items out of financial reach for this level of impression.
Cheaper clothes were dyed with inferior materials or were put in the second or third bath, so lighter pastel colors are more applicable to common impressions than deep shades and jewel tones. Embellishments were either too expensive or prohibited by law; clothing would not be embroidered, belts would not have decorative mounts, and jewelry would not be worn. Metal components, when used, would be made from iron or cast bronze. Self-made (from fabric) buttons, or buttons of horn or wood, were common as was pewter.
A note on fur: medieval England could be a cold place and layering was the primary method of keeping warm, though outer clothes could be lined or guarded in fur. When they used fur, commoners would have access to sheepskin, cat, goat, and maybe hare or fox. More expensive furs, such as those of squirrel and weasel in their various styles and patterns, were out of financial reach to most.
Though some loaner gear may be available, it is expected, by the end of your first year with the household, to have replaced all your loaner gear with your own clothes.
Basic Commoner Outfit
Headgear: A hood of linen or wool. Hats of various styles in materials such as linen, felt, and straw can be used as an alternative to or in addition to the basic hood. This goes for both sexes, though female headwear (coifs and veiling) differs significantly from the hat options for men.
Body: The base layer for the torso is always a garment of linen, a shirt for men, or a chemise for women. This garment is never worn alone except during certain types of labor. It is layered with an outer garment of wool. For men, a tunic or knee-length gown, or a shapelier cotehardie are acceptable choices. A third layer can be worn to increase warmth. For women tunic style overdress or kirtles would be worn over the chemise. A sideless surcote or wool gown may be layered over the top for fashion or warmth.
Legs: The base layer for the legs is the underwear, both men and women wore different forms of braies (“boxers”) of linen. Length and style depend on gender and the type of hosen worn. Men would wear wool chausses with one single point to tie onto the braies (requiring longer braies) or they would wear split hosen (requiring a belt or other foundational garment.) Note, it is not considered appropriate to show your underwear, and the hosen should coordinate with the torso garment so they meet or overlap. Women would wear stockings held up with garters.
Feet: Ankle-high leather turn shoes would be worn by men and women.
Accessories: When a belt is worn, a leather or wool-thread tablet woven belt adorned with a brass or iron period buckle and possibly a simple chape suffices for this level of impression. (No ring belts.) Women may or may not be wearing a belt or girdle. Men could carry a knife, one useful for work in contrast to a fighting dagger, and possibly an unadorned pouch made of leather or wool (or carry a linen or canvas sack or forage style bag.) Tablet woven or woolen garters can be used to hold the hosen to the leg and is a requirement for holding up women’s stockings.
Yeomen (Freemen or Virgaters)
For these outfit standards, though Medieval Europe was not notorious for gender-neutral language, the standards of a Yeoman impression applies to both higher status commoner men and women. Also, though by definition yeomen are technically all freemen, this social status standard also applies to wealthier bound serfs.
A yeoman is wealthy enough to hire out work, and so has the financial ability to spend more on their clothing and accouterments. When presenting history it is difficult to demonstrate nuance to a general audience, so though some (few) yeomen had the wealth to rival an esquire or knight, the standards set for our purposes do not constitute the financial means of the nobility.
Upgrading to a yeoman impression involves modifying the standards from the freeman kit more than developing a new outfit. Elements of higher status are sometimes as subtle as tailoring. Examples of yeomen quality items include replacing pastel colors with richer, deeper colorfast ones or something from the variety of more expensive motley fabrics; clothing such as hoods and gowns could have decoration such as dagging cut into them or be made with excess fabric; clothes could be more tightly tailored; fashion choices expand to include styles such as split hose, short cotehardies, and proto-doublets (such as the Charles de Blois doublet).
Accessories would be improved in quality: garters would be of finer tablet-woven straps or leather with brass buckles; the knife carried would be more of a fighting knife than a working one; the belt may be adorned with bronze mounts (excluding gilded or silver;) embroidery on clothing can be added with linen or woolen thread (avoid gold or silver thread;) available metals used for buttons, mounts, and jewelry would expand to include brass and bronze. No mustelid or squirrel fur.
Basics Page 1; Gentry Impressions Page 3
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