A Rare Survival of a Medieval Textile Girdle from Betchworth, Surrey

Found in the environs of the Betchworth estate, Surrey and recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme as SUR-1CD215, this trapezoidal copper alloy plate was one of a pair which flanked a forked spacer element as part of a late Medieval strap end of composite type (Egan and Pritchard, 2002: p140-146). In of itself, this is a common type of find and is 14th or 15th century in date. The plate is decorated with an abstract geometric motif comprising a central band of alternating triangles each with a single small slashed line at the centre, surrounded by two rows of rectangular and triangular panels, each with decoration in the form of rocker-arm patterns or short incised lines.

SUR-1CD215: a late Medieval strap end with preserved textile fragment

What makes this particular object interesting however is that despite having lost its partner plate and spacer it retains a portion of the girdle or belt to which it was attached, in the form of a small patch of textile which remains on the rear edge of the plate. This fragment of organic fabric, measuring 19.8mm by 12.5mm, retains the full width of the girdle or belt (around 2cm) and is tablet woven from a coarse fibre, with neat parallel sides. It is most likely made of linen or worsted. Originally it was likely to have been dyed or patterned – however any colours have now faded and bleached due to the years of burial.

The strap end was attached to the textile strip using two copper alloy rivets mounted on the decorated rear edge of the plate. The corrosion of these rivets created a high concentration of toxic copper salts in the immediate environment of the surrounding cloth which inhibited bacterial action and prevented decay – but only in the area where these salts penetrated. Consequently the rest of the textile has been lost. This surviving fragment demonstrates that only a short length of the end of the belt or girdle was retained within the strap end, clamped between the plates and spacer with the rivets at the rear, as was the typical method of attachment (Egan and Pritchard, 2002: 37). The survival of the textile also suggests that the rest of the strap end has only recently become detached and may remain to be recovered.

Girdles and belts were ubiquitous elements of later Medieval dress, likely produced in standard widths and often subject to sumptuary laws. The changing fashions for tighter fitting clothing in the 14th century added to their social importance and they had a role in expressing identity (Gilchrist, 2012: 99, 103). They were often highly decorated with mounts, buckles and strap ends which today are ubiquitous detect finds and recorded in vast numbers on the PAS database. Despite being made variously from leather, silk, linen and worsted cloth, surviving examples are usually leather and almost exclusively recovered from waterlogged (usually urban) contexts. Consequently this textile fragment recovered from open agricultural land is a very rare survivor.

References

Gilchrist, R, 2012, Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course, Boydell Press

Egan, G, Pritchard, F, Dress Accessories 1150-1450, Museum of London