Remember the movie “Excalibur,” the 1981 Arthurian fantasy film? Near the beginning is a scene in which a king is in hot pursuit of a beautiful woman. Trouble is, she’s the wife of his military commander. Nevertheless, the king ravishes her—to put it mildly. She’s stripped naked. He’s wearing a full suit of shiny plate armor. Ever so romantic, huh? But besides the obvious inconvenience, what’s wrong with this picture?
Picture this: a fighting man in Arthur’s time would have dressed in the everyday style of his Romano-Celtic forebears. He’d wear a simple woven wool tunic with long or short sleeves, a round neck and the bottom hem reaching his knees; breeches (braccae) that tied at the waist and ankles; and a cloak. Several tunics could be combined for warmth and a man of means might also wear a shirt-like garment (camisia) of linen. From his belt hung a small leather pouch—a pre-runner of the Scottish sporran—as well as a small sheathed dagger. Leather strips served as cross-gartering, a crisscrossing from knee to ankle that held the cloth neatly to the leg. Our fellow’s shoes were each made of a single piece of rawhide and gathered over the tops of his feet with thongs.
Why the disparity between movie and reality? Films perpetuate misconceptions created by Arthurian stories written all the way back in the Middle Ages. Though that vast body of literature may have fired the imagination, historical accuracy was non-existent. Medieval storytellers slathered on layers of customs from their own time—their styles of clothing and armor, not those of the Dark Ages. Thank goodness for archaeology that at least gives us a glimpse of the truth!