So, it’s been another week of a post being shared on That Social Media Site of purported 14th century Byzantine garments as they make the rounds. . . again. They’re beautiful, well-crafted, and the photos look like they’ve been taken from a museum of sorts. The fabric looks right, and there’s plenty of bling. So, that means they’re Byzantine, right?
Well, not quite.
One of the pitfalls of being a hobbyist researcher is that there’s a lot of photos out there that look right.
Sourcing our research materials, especially for cultures that may have a lot of lacuna (or gaps), like Byzantium, mean that we have to look at everything with a grain of salt, but also making sure that we’re filling in the gaps in our knowledge in the most logical way.
So, back to the post that was shared. So, let’s look a bit more closely. Note that there’s nothing backing up the information that it’s Byzantine, or even that it’s a contemporary piece from Western Europe. In fact, there’s no provenance. Provenance is a caption which tells you what a piece is, when and where it’s from, and hopefully what museum it resides in. (Which, if it’s in a museum, you might be able to see it somewhat up close!)
The post has a simple assertion that it’s Byzantine from the post authour, who also doesn’t have any form of research authority (like they’re another researcher) or any other form of academic rigour behind the assertion.
Unfortunately, we can’t take this simple assertion that these garments are Byzantine at face value. Research means being able to go down the rabbit trails as far as we can go until we have an answer and being able to look at that answer with a critical eye. So, let’s keep looking at this critically.
Thankfully, there are a few quick sources to look at. One place to start is looking at other art pieces from the specific time period and general location. (this means no Victorian redrawings!) Examples of this include iconography, psalters and other books, mosaics, and statuary. This can be difficult, especially when dealing with cultures that had periods of decline within their art forms. (Still looking at you, Iconoclasm.) Another thing to be aware of is that much of the media that’s in the list here is in two dimensions, so how a garment may have draped may have been up to the artist to figure out. We might also have descriptions of garments. If we’re really lucky, we may have an extant garment or two to look at.
Unfortunately for a lot of Byzantine clothing researchers, there’s not much in the way of extant garments. What we do have are a handful of Egyptian garments from the 6th and 7th centuries, and then threads and other fragments from later pieces, so many of us have to rely on the method involving art or contemporary writing, which adds a lot of difficulty.
So, let’s break this down. The assertion is that the clothing from the post is from 14th century Byzantium. Let’s do a quick dive into Wikipedia to see a few famous names. (because within period, that’s who was largely being documented.) We can also use this method to look up art pieces from the time period.
Of note: Wikipedia is a great launching pad. Do not go to Wikipedia as your first and only source, though! Because Wikipedia is edited by others in the world, it means that the articles may not be written by experts in the field, and at any time can have information replaced with completely incorrect information. However, Wikipedia and Wikimedia does have a treasure trove of other sources. The scan below is a Wikimedia Commons piece, and I love that I can get a close-up view of a piece I’d have to travel to Europe to go see – which is sadly not in my budget right now.
Good news is that we do have some 14th century art to look at. This particular example to the left comes from the Lincoln Typikon (which dates from the 14th century), and while some of the ink and paint has flaked off, we can see the patterns of the fabric. We can also see that the garments for both Constantine Palaiologos and his wife, Eirene, don’t really resemble the cuts of the clothing from the post from That Other Social Network. A lot of the patterns look right, but Eirene’s gown is kind of a shapeless sack with huge sleeves, in comparison to other dresses.
This is pretty damning to the assertion from the social media post.
So, if it’s not Byzantine or even from the 14th century, what are the garments from the social media post from?
Well, the post from That Other Social Network features garments from the Palio di Legnano, a modern folk event or reenactment that takes place annually in Northern Italy the last weekend in May, commemorating the battle fought May 29, 1176 between the troops of the Lombard League and the Holy Roman Imperial Army of Frederick I, known as Barbarossa. (The HRE was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, but that’s for another post.) Check out the link above for some gorgeous costuming, but remember that these are the equivalent of costumes for a Renaissance fair here on our side of the pond.
Many of us love using social media to share our research and to inspire others to check things out, and I love that we can do this. On the other hand, we have to remember to look critically at what we’re posting (or sharing). If it doesn’t look right, it’s okay to ask for provenance. If the details don’t make sense, question it! Part of researching means to ask the questions that may not be getting answered.
And lastly, if you aren’t sure, tell people you aren’t sure about it. I would rather see someone trying to make an attempt in researching an item and say, “hey, I am not sure if this is right,” than someone passing on completely incorrect information with an air of authority. We’re all learning. I’ve made bad research choices, and I learned from them, and hope that by writing this post, you’ve got a chance to make some better choices in the future.