Cote vs. Bliaut

Some time ago, a suggestion was made to a relatively new costumer on the 12th Century Garb Yahoo Group which then raised a question:

“If you prefer to make a “cote” for any reason, don’t feel obligated to make your sleeves close-fitting.  While they could come with that kind of sleeve, long trailing sleeves, like the “bliaut” were common.”

“Please forgive my ignorance, but there seems to be incredible overlap between the meaning of a “cote” and a “bliaut” — particularly if you can have bliauts with tight sleeves and cotes with long trailing maunches.  Is a cote more of a day-to-day gown, and a bliaut a court dress?  And does the definition change depending on the century?  I generally associate “cote” with the 13th century onwards, but then, I’m quite muddled.  HELP!”


The fundamental question, it seems, when discussing the clothing of the 12th century is “what is a bliaut”?  Answering it, however, presents a certain challenge because there is a tension between the 12th penchant for describing and categorizing clothing based on function, versus the modern practice of describing and categorizing it by construction.  Therefore, I am most comfortable describing a bliaut as a court dress and using the term cote for an “everyday” dress.

In reenactor circles there is a tendency to describe the two terms more exactly: bliaut, close-fitting body, long or flared sleeves, full-skirted, possibly V-necked; cote, looser cut, straight or tapered sleeves, not as full skirts, round, boat, or key-hole necked. However, bear in mind that these really just become convenient short-hands for us and are not necessarily period-accurate. Eunice Goddard, in her 1927 doctoral thesis, “Women’s Costume in French Texts of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries” (Johns Hopkins University) made the comment, “it is a mistake to look for a style unvarying in cut over a long period of time.” (sv “cote”)

While I completely agree that the artwork of the 12th century shows an amazing variety of style combinations (eg. full skirted dresses with straight sleeves, narrower fitting dresses with wide sleeves, tight fitting dresses with both narrow and wide sleeves, bloused dresses with both narrow and wide sleeves, etc, etc). I’m not sure you can accurately say “cotes” with “long, trailing sleeves like the bliaut were common.”  The cote is often referenced as being layered under something else (like a surcote, pelicon or chaperon) and therefore having a tight (or at least straight) sleeves would make this practical. The flowing sleeves of the “standard” bliaut is probably one of the reasons it is not noted in the literature of the day as having anything worn over it except a mantle (i.e. long cape) which, since it has no sleeves, does not encumber the bliaut’s sleeves.

In addition, “bliaut” and “cote” aren’t the only two terms out there. There was a long list words used to refer to various types of dresses and tunics in 12th century French writing, including: robe, robet, chainse/cheinse, gune, gonele, jupe, jupon, emplet, coverture, estol, guliun, surcote, and pelice/pelicon.  Furthermore, there are terms like cyrtel/kertel, and rock/rocc in the Germanic/Norse tongues, and saya in Spanish.  It’s worthwhile for 12th century costumers to broaden their vocabulary rather than try to shoehorn all styles found in 12th century artwork into two words.  For instance, in the case of the supposed “trailing-sleeved cote”, looking at Alexander Neckham (a 12th century teacher)’s Gloss Utensilium, is helpful.  There the term jupam is given as: jupe, surcote, surcot. The literal meaning of surcote would be “overgown” and doesn’t necessarily have to be the sleeveless thing worn by knights.

In the St Albans Psalter, illustrated around 1125, there is a drawing accompanying the “magnificat canticum sancte mariae” (in English, the Magnificant, or Canticle of Mary).  In it, Mary is drawn as wearing something that  is neither a cote, nor a bliaut, as the terms are usually used.  Her “surcote” (to use the common word) is short (just past knee length) and has flared, but not dangling sleeves.  It could well be that Mary was drawn wearing a ladies’ style “jupe” with the angel sleeves fashionable at that time.  However, without a broader vocabulary, one might describe it as a “cote with trailing sleeves.”

An opposite example comes Roger Middleton’s essay “Enide’s See-Through Dress” (Arthurian Studies in Honour of P.J.C. Field, DS Brewer, 2004) where he notes that when Chretien de Troyes wrote “Erec et Enide” in 1180 his original description of Enide note that she is wearing a white linen “chainse” over her “chemise”, but her chainse has holes at the elbows. When Enide shows up at Arthur’s court, Guinevere gives her a bliaut to wear, with which she replaces the chainse (but does not change her chemise).

The notation that the chainse has holes at the elbows, in the context that she had “nothing else to wear” seems to be indication of Enide’s status as an impoverished noblewoman. The chainse, it would seem, is noble dress, although not necessarily a court dress (as evidenced by Guinevere’s gift), but the fact that it *could* wear through at the elbows would indicated that it was a straight-sleeved garment (it’s pretty much impossible to wear holes at the elbows of a bliaut because of the way maunch sleeves hang). In this case, it could be that what some people think of as a “straight-sleeved bliaut” is more accurately described as “chainse” — especially if it’s made of linen (since the word “chainse” seems to be related to a word meaning “fine linen”).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s