The timeless excitment of a new dress

the book:

Down the Common by Ann Baer

published 1996       Set in an unknown year in the Middle Ages - August

[A group of men from the village have just visited a neighbouring, larger, settlement and the villagers are being shown the goods that came back with them]

[Sir Hugh produced] a roll of woollen cloth of a rich dark red colour. An ‘Oooh’ escaped the mouths of the women as he passed it to Dame Margaret. ‘Your brother and his wife sent this, to make you a new gown.’

Dame Margaret took the roll on her knee and unwound a bit. ‘So thick and soft’ she exclaimed, impressed. ‘Where did it come from?’

Other women peered at it and commented, ‘How did they get that colour? Is it from sloes? Or elderberries? What a loom they must have to make anything that long. There must be yards in that roll.’

‘Your brother didn’t know where it came from’ said Sir Hugh. ‘It wasn’t made in Rutherford, that’s for sure. He said some men travelling north from the seacoast came to Rutherford…[and] brought this great roll of woollen stuff. There was more of it, but your sister-in-law made a gown of it for herself and she’s a big woman, and for her daughter too, and this bit was over.’

observations: This book is an oddity. It tells the story of a year in the life of a mediaeval woman in 12 monthly instalments – although it is never clear what year it is (or what century in fact) or whereabouts she lives in England (in Kent perhaps?). It is made clear how limited her life is, how very different from modern times. The dirt, squalour and cold are stressed, but so also is the quiet, the calm and the beauty of the world around her. The village is very isolated – there is very little contact with anyone else, and in most directions the people are surrounded by impenetrable forest. The people who like this book, love it: many say they re-read it frequently and buy copies for others. Its charms may not be quite so evident to others, and there are claims that it does not reflect modern thinking and research about mediaeval times. It is certainly an easy read, and good to find a book that seeks to show the truth about the lives of the very poor rather than royalty and the aristocracy. But there’s not much in the way of character, plot and development.

All the clothes in the village are made of wool – though linen is about to be introduced – and during the course of the book the heroine Marion discovers that loose weaving can make a warmer, softer garment than the traditional tight weave. And, yes, that’s about as exciting as it gets.

Links up with: The dyes used for Cardinal Wolsey’s robes are discussed in
this entry. The choosing and getting of material features here and here. Also mediaeval: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!

The picture , of a Flemish lady, can be found on Wikimedia Commons.