Documentation of 14th Century Trapezoidal Alms Purse
by Mevanou verch Reys Yriskynit
A 14th century Dome Topped Trapezoidal Alms Purse Pattern and Pouch, Purses, Pouches, Bags, and Sacks oh my! The things we put in them vary but they all have one thing in common. They were made to hold our stuff. As far back as recorded history goes there too shall we find that accessory we so crave and go crazy for. Today we collect purses and bags and clutches like they will disappear in an instant if we don’t buy it now. Back in the 14th century the ladies and gentlemen were NO Different. Judging by how many extant alms purses have been found up and down the Atlantic Seaboard of Northern Europe all the way down to the Egyptian Tombs we have always craved stuff and bags to hold that stuff…
Alms Purses or Aumonieres were so named because of the Medieval tradition of giving Alms or being generous to those in need. The Alms purses one finds these days has been carefully curated and stored by museums and churches around the world. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, I looked and found that the largest number of Alms purses are of the square or rectangular pouch type, usually embroidered and embellished during the 14th century with an embroidery technique that includes gold work couching and silk figure embroideries often called Opus Anglicanum which translates to English Work. This English work was well coveted throughout Medieval Europe as some of the finest needlework of the time. Mostly due to the costly gold wrapped threads than the fine stitches in silk. Look up ” 14th-century Alms Purse” on Pinterest and you will get a large avalanche of pictures and websites that celebrate the square or rectangular type. and then search for “14th-century trapezoidal alms purse” and you might get a dozen. Most are found and labeled as reliquary purses in church museums Or as donations to major museums.
Okay, now to the meat of the dish.
I have made many a pouch and purse. Some in linen, a few in leather; square, kidney-shaped and circular they have all come and gone. The Trapezoidal Alms Purse, however, I could not find a pattern for and it was hair-yanking frustrating.
The Collections housing the purses I found for this project as inspiration were of the usual listing style. Who once owned it, What it was made of, Its dimensions and some photos of it front to back and each of its bits if not complete. The problem is that so often these listings don’t give a full picture of its measurements. Width and length..that’s it. They don’t give width at the top and center, which would give a better Idea of actual measurements…This leaves one open to much error in pattern making. (yeah, understatement of the year.)
The three extant pouches I used for designing the pattern and eventually making the pouch come from two museums.
The First is the Belgian Art Links and Tools: a. the purse of John of Brabant, and the Embroidered Purse. The Second is housed in Paris, at the Cluny Museum – National Museum of the Middle Ages: Chaplain of a Bar Countess (the lady on the griffin).
And One Statue of the Prophet Isaiah wearing the usual garb of a 14th-century man: his belt has that pouch hanging right there for all to see.
Take a closer look at the statue of Isaiah as he was placed on the Moses Well. His pouch is dome topped and trapezoidal and also a ring pouch. which is to say a pouch with a ring for rigid support and a drawstring added for security. It does not have buttons for closure just tassels for decoration. It may have been simpler for the mason carving the statue to not have buttons. You can see that the inner ring of support was carved, as a ridge just under the flap and his belongings showing inside. I love this pouch that Isaiah wears. It shows how it was hung from the belt with a strap and buckle, which many museums cannot show as the strap has long been worn away or lost. I love buckles they’re so fun.
One of my favorite things is to search the manuscripts of the 14th century to find those garments or items displayed as they were used or worn. For this style of the pouch, I have been hard-pressed to find manuscriptural (this word made Grammarly and Word Spell check shit themselves)proof of use. The pictures of the pouch that I have found are usually displayed as hanging from a pole or closet rod type instrument such as the yellow alms pouch displayed in the BnF (Biblioteche Nationale of France): Manuscript Catalog Item: The Apocalypse of St John f62.
Fabrics and Embellishment:
Mine: Plum Linen shell, White Linen lining. Thread: Heavy Duty Coats and Clark
Mine: Not embroidered. Hand Sewn with period stitches, bound with plum linen
binding. Mine Differs in Fabrics and Embellishment because Silk and real gold are out of
my price range.
Original: Silk shell and lining appliqued slips embroidered in the images of an angel and a lady on a griffin.
embellished trim. Hand-knotted buttons.
How it was made:
The Pattern: From a picture and the information at the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages I drafted the pattern to be approximately the same size as the pouch housed in the museum. I added 1/4 inch seam allowances to make adding the binding easier for narrow trim or ribbon. I cut the pattern out of thin cardboard recycled from inserts packaged with moving blankets, and a family sized box of Frosted Flakes. They were of the right size. I used chalk to trace around the pattern on the plum and white linen and then cut them out. For the Front shell and lining, I pinned and sewed around the opening, clipped the curves and turned the seam. Using 15 gage steel wire I coiled a 2 foot length and fit it in place between the front shell and lining and carefully backstitched to keep it in place. I lay out the back with the lining on top and placed the front with the shell facing outward and pinned the layers together. Using bias cut binding in the plum from another scrap I bound the edges all the way around, making sure to carefully cover the coil of wire completely. I pinned the flap layers and bound them and placed it on top of the others making sure to keep the bottom of the flap parallel to the bottom edge, and finished it with a ladder stitch. I added a strap and buckle to allow easier hanging and removal from a belt or belt hanger, and when I added the rivets I carefully used an awl to place the holes so that I could later change it to a ribbon loop should I choose. You can see proof of usage as pictured on the statue of Isaiah
Back Stitch, Running Stitch, ladder stitch (when attaching the front flap)
Sewing Techniques: Neckline Facing, Turning, clipping curves
Museum Links to Purses I studied online for making my pattern:
1.Embroidered Purse 1:
2. Chaplain of a Bar Countess and her hinged frame Lady on a Griffin:
3. Purse of Jon of Brabant: http://balat.kikirpa.be/photo.php?path=X083569&objnr=40752&nr=1
4. Isaiah wearing the Pouch showing the buckle and strap for placing on a belt:
5. Trapezoidal Pouch in the belongings of the Whore of Babylon: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b10533304x/f131.image
1. Rosalie’s Medieval Woman: https://rosaliegilbert.com/purses.html
2. La Cotte Simple: http://cottesimple.com/articles/aumonieres/
3. St. Thomas Guild: Some Pouches: http://thomasguild.blogspot.com/2014/01/some-purses-from-st-thomasguild-part-ii.html
4. Larsdatter: http://www.larsdatter.com/pouches-framed.htm
1. Historical Costume; Blanche Payne 1965
2. The Book of Costume; Millia Davenport 1948