Purses and pockets

Containers must sometimes be portable. While large supplies are kept at home in barrels, jars, and chests, small things need carrying containers for errands and journeys. Medieval containers included little bags to carry things around in; they were generally called purses, a word that carried no gender association at the time. The etymology of the word “purse” seems to draw from several branches of related languages, suggesting that it’s one of the original words for a bag.

There are two more words for the same sort of thing, both with spelling markers for medieval Anglo-Norman-French. A poke was also a type of bag, so a little poke to carry on one’s person was a pocket. Pockets were not sewn into clothing at the time. Wallets were not the square, folded articles we think of; wallets were much like purses, but they implied carrying food provisions.

Most purses were about six inches high. They were typically made of fine leather such as deerskin and goatskin. Heavier leather was too stiff, but cloth tended to fray and wear out faster. Their construction was simple: a bag with a drawstring. Drawstrings could help fasten the purse to one’s belt (girdle). Purses could also be made with a flap covering the rest of the bag.

Wealth, of course, created finer and more decorative purses. Both purses and gloves (a popular accessory) used very fine, rare types of tanned hides. As silk velvet and brocade became more available in the late medieval period, the purses of the wealthy turned away from practical leather, toward all types of silk. A fine lady in the early Renaissance period would carry a velvet purse with silk embroidery and tassels. Probably the saying that you can’t make a sow’s ear into a silk purse originated in this time.

Wallets for carrying food had to be made of heavier leather, and in the late medieval period, shoulder-strap wallets much like messenger bags became popular for men to carry. But the need to stick with tougher leather was no obstacle to conspicuous consumption. Leather could be dyed, tooled, and decorated with silver or brass studs. By the late medieval period, horse harnesses were often covered with silver stars, moons, shields, crosses, and flowers. No doubt wallets for the wealthy had all these and more, plus silk ribbons and tassels.



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One Response to Purses and pockets

  1. Jagi Wright says:

    Really fascinating!

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