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If we are to believe Notker the Stammerer (and there are plenty of reasons not to), Charlemagne was trying to make a point when told his courtiers they ought to go hunting. At that moment. No changing clothes.

Charles was wearing a sheepskin cloak. His followers were bedecked in silks, pheasant skins, ribbons, ermine robes, peacock feathers, and other finery. So they trekked through forests thick with briars and tree branches, got drenched with rain, and oh yeah, got spattered with blood from their prey.

The next day Charles ordered them to appear before him with in yesterday’s clothes. The courtiers’ garments were tattered and stained, not good for anything but rags, but once brushed off, Charles’s sheepskin was as good as new.

Then Charles asked his courtiers which garments were truly worth more, and the courtiers were duly ashamed of their vanity.

Shepherd in sheepskin cloak
A painting of a shepherd in a sheepskin cloak by Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918)

Writing about 70 years after Charles’s death, Notker probably made the whole thing up. Such a stunt would more likely cause resentment, and for Charles to rule such a vast empire, he needed trustworthy allies within his realm.

Besides, Einhard, a more reliable biographer who actually knew the monarch, doesn’t include a sheepskin in Charles’s outfit. To stay warm, Charles favored a vest of expensive otter or marten furs and a blue cloak.

But Notker’s anecdote does illustrate the practicality and durability of sheepskin cloaks.

Medieval folk depended on sheep, which were only a third of the size of today’s breeds or smaller. While alive, they were a source for wool and milk. Slaughtered, they provided meat, tallow for candles, and bones that could be made into anything from flutes to dice. Their skins could be used for parchment or cloaks.

Sheep pen
A 14th century sheep pen from the Luttrell Psalter

A sheepskin cloak might cost a commoner as much as a live sheep or farm dog. When you consider that a peasant family might have thought themselves well off if they had a mix of 16 sheep, cows, and pigs, such an item isn’t cheap, but it is within reach. A sable-lined garment cost about 10 times more, and the marten and otter furs were 30 times as much.

To a family planning to keep a sheepskin cloak for years, it was worth the expense. The fleece kept its wearer warm and the lanolin repelled water when someone had to go outside to fetch firewood, walk to church, or get food from the cellar. It was valuable indoors, too; fires did not adequately warm the house.

Notker probably crafted his story to entertain his patron, Charles the Fat, and show the king how wise and pious his great-grandfather was. And perhaps Notker, like many writers, was fulfilling a wish. I can’t help but wonder if he had seen noblemen showing off their wealth with fancy, impractical clothes and wanted someone to teach them a lesson.

Images are public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Originally published Nov. 24, 2015, on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Sources

The Monk of Saint Gall: The Life of Charlemagne

Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne  

Katie Cannon’s Craft

Pierre Riche’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne

Daily Life in Medieval Times by Frances and Joseph Gies