Before this project, I always carried coins in a small goat skin pouch suspended from my neck. I did not do any particular research on that pouch; it was small, hidden under my clothing and made with materials and techniques which were around in the high middle ages. This is not a best practice, but one that is sometimes useful to use because the research phase of a project is the part that takes the longest and large items have precedence over details. Now, however, I have been able to assemble some evidence for the construction and wear of a coin purse in the high middle ages.
The construction of this project began in a hurry- a group of friends were having a sewing session with short notice and short duration. I didn’t have anything planned ahead of time, so I quickly checked my to-do list. I was planning to make a coin purse, but it was in the preliminary stages of research with just a couple pieces of information at my disposal. I had found the image of St Martin of Tours cutting his cloak for a beggar (Figure 1). Unfortunately it is from Flanders, somewhat removed from my portrayal of an Italian in the Levant in the 1190’s, but I have not found any more relevant images.
I also had found some useful information from archeological reports in Israel. Coins were found in rolls or “rouleau” and wrapped in textile fragments. One example from Tell Jemmeh dated 1160s–1170s CE(Kool) was wrapped in white cotton, while another from Bet She’an dated 953–975 CE(Tepper) was wrapped in a white linen bag.(Figure 2) Unfortunately the finds were in a fragmentary state at best, and are not described in detail in the available reports. From these at least I had the materials to use and a rough size.
I knew that seven strand finger loop braids were found in a late 12th century context from previous work, so I quickly made a design and got to work.(Crowfoot 138) In Figure 3 you can see what I came up with, a U shaped pattern which was elongated enough to create the round body shape. The drawing in figure 1 shows some other features as well: a short tassel at the very bottom of the pouch, the ends of drawstrings on either side of the pleated mouth, and the seemingly complete suspension cord. The solution I came up with was for the suspension cord to be stitched to the bag between the two body pieces, and for the two ends of the suspension cord to become the tassel at the bottom. The construction was quickly finished, with all of the cords being square finger loop braids with seven loops. I chose some scraps of hand woven natural linen for the pouch body which included some selvedge for the pouch mouth. I decided that buttonholes weren’t necessary for the drawstrings.
The resulting bag looks very close to what was drawn. The body of the pouch was a bit elongated, but the main design points were present: a rounded body, tassel, dangling drawstrings, looped suspension cord, and white linen construction. I was initially pleased with my creation, but some days after the sewing session I started to wonder about other sources. I typically like to do more research, and although the first bag resembled the one I wanted to recreate, the design involved a significant amount of conjecture. I decided to re-engage with the project to see what I could find.
After a bit of digging, I found a series of extant pouches from the thirteenth century which had several similarities to figure 1, although they were not apparently coin purses. They have a suspension loop which is solid, a pair of drawstrings on either side of the pouch body, and tassels hanging from the bottom. A curious thing about the pouches was that the suspension braid was forked at either end, becoming the drawstrings. The juncture of the two types of braids was tied into a knot on the extant examples, strengthening the transition point. While my construction method was possible, the construction of these extant examples is preferable because it is directly documentable. I decided to entirely remake the pouch.
While the available photographs were high quality, I am not familiar enough with medieval braiding types to identify what was used on these examples. I recruited someone much more experienced for help, Ann Asplund. Thanks to her, I was able to able to chip away a bit of the guesswork away from this project. Mrs. Asplund identified the braid as a five loop finger loop braids, where the forks were braided as a split and the suspension loop was braided flat.
My second pouch changed slightly from the first in other ways. I shortened the body by about 1cm to make it more circular when closed. The tassel at the bottom needed to be constructed in a different way as well. I copied the extant pouches for that, simply looping several strands of the same linen thread I used for the braiding and sewing through the pouch body and whipping them together into a small tassel. The chief difficulty in the second pouch was the suspension cord and drawstring.
Before this project, I had never attempted a flat braid of the finger loop technique before. In all of the various types of braid I have done, it is usually desirable to keep the braid very tight. This is not the case for flat finger loop braids, but after several failures I managed to produce a braid which behaved properly. My first attempt used single ply thread, but I quickly opted for the typical two ply. The sixth iteration was finally successful, but when I put it on the pouch I decided that I wanted the suspension cord to be a few centimeters longer.
I am much happier with the resulting pouch than the first one. It closely resembles the illustration in figure 1, it uses materials matching archeological evidence, and is assembled with techniques used on similar pouches of the period.
A concept I had in mind when I wore the goatskin coin pouch on my neck was that an individual in a high medieval town would want their money to be protected from view and theft. The place I hid my coins seems to have been wrong according to the available evidence, but the concept holds true. Figure 1 shows the beggar in his braes with a drawstring showing, and the coin pouch hanging from the front of his left hip. If the beggar was wearing a tunic of the high medieval style, the skirts would cover the coin pouch. As readers of my braes document will know, the front of the hip is where hosen are tie to the braes. This makes sense to me, as the gap in the braes will allow the user to easily attach and detatch the pouch. In previous interpretations I have only made a small buttonhole on the braes, only large enough for the hosen ties to pass through. To hang this purse though, the wearer must be able to push the suspension cord under the drawstring with a finger so it can loop back over itself. I went ahead and modified my braes to account for this.
The result is attractive and functional, much easier to access than a coin purse on my neck. The construction is durable enough to last for many years, except that the binding which attached the drawstrings together on the other side of the knots could come loose. As always I am happy to adjust my portrayal in light of new evidence, but for now I think that this addition is perfectly adequate.
Crowfoot, E., Pritchard, F., Staniland, K., Baker, E., & Unwin, C. (2012). Textiles and clothing c.1150-c.1450. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.
Declercq, J. (Ed.). (1994). BALaT Object: 10069287. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from http://balat.kikirpa.be/object/10069287
Ingridcc. (2011, June 5). START HERE! 5-loop braids [Web log post]. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://loopbraider.com/2011/06/05/5-loop-v-fell-fingerloop-braids-cobbled-together-tutorial-video/?fbclid=IwAR1R42EY2c5bpqmSjx4z-AGY3PZQV_L2djHhGe-qKTZYHyjHXMox3j1o1oQ
Kool, R. (2014). The Smithsonian Institution Excavation at Tell Jemmeh, Israel, 1970-1990 (980484435 759566594 D. Ben-Shlomo & 980484436 759566594 G. W. Beek, Eds.). Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, (50), 1-1087. doi:10.5479/si.19436661.50
Tepper, Y. (2009, September 07). Hadashot Arkheologiyot Excavations and Surveys in Israel (Publication No. Volume 121 Year 2009). Retrieved October 12, 2020, from Israel Antiquities Authority website: http://www.hadashot-esi.org.il/report_detail_eng.aspx?id=1191&mag_id=115
U. (Ed.). (1984). BALaT Object: 10128624. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from http://balat.kikirpa.be/object/10128624
U. (n.d.). Bede, De Locis Sanctis, Interpretatio Nominum Graecorum, Interpretatio Nominum Hebraeorum (p. F. 12r). British Library. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Add_MS_15219