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There seems to be much confusion regarding what the léine was, what material it was made from, what it looked like, and even how the word was pronounced (LAY-nah). This survey of historical evidence is written with the intention of lifting some of that confusion.
The léine was not the same thing to all Irish people throughout history. The word means “shirt”. In the modern world, Irish speakers call everything from a tuxedo shirt to a tank top “léine” (plural “léinte”). As much as we re-enactors long for clothing terms that have definitive meaning, léine is about as specific as “top” and this fact should be not be overlooked.
This article will present the evidence of what the man’s and woman’s léine looked like in the 16th century, the time period about which we have the most information. The available information demonstrates that the 16th century léine for men and women was a calf- to ankle-length garment of white or yellow linen similar to extant Italian and French chemises of the period, heavily pleated in the body, utilizing up to 15 modern yards of cloth. The women’s garment is pleated onto a rolled band at the neck while the man’s gapes to show some of the chest. No collar of any kind is evident. Despite all this pleating, the pendulous sleeves, which for men stop at the elbow and for women continue to the wrist, are not pleated or gathered on the top of the arm as is commonly seen in the Society and at Ren Faires. We will see that these gathers and drawstrings were invented relatively recently and have no historical substantiation.
In the ancient legends (which were written down in the 6th century C.E.), the word léine (other historic spellings include léne, léinidh, lénni, léni, lenid, and the plural lénti) was used often to describe men and women’s clothing. Many léinte are mentioned, but the shape of the garment is not described. Almost all of them are said to be wool and brightly coloured (brown-red, yellow, red, striped, and streaked are mentioned), but a few are described as linen or silk and some are white or gel (“bright”). The vast majority of these descriptions mention tons and tons of gold and red embroidery, from the chest to the knee in some cases(5).
In the Middle Ages, Ireland was the hinterland, the desolate island to which monks migrated to get away from the evils of the world. It was not a center of fashion or commerce. The Vikings raided. The Normans invaded. Aside from accounts of battles and political maneouvres, very little is known about the social history of medieval Ireland. Their musical and narrative legacy is rich yet they provide us with little concrete evidence about how they lived. Aside from one extant garment in the National Museum of Ireland (the Moy gown), the derogatory texts of the Sassanach (Norman/English), and some highly stylized illustrations in manuscript illuminations, there is little evidence as to what they wore. We have no way to guess what the léine became during this period.
As historians, we have all read references to “the distinctive dress of the Irish” which the English overlords railed against since, it seems, the beginning of recorded history. While we yearn to discover this style, we cannot fall prey to the practice of lumping the evidence from the 6th and 16th centuries together and filling in the blanks with guesses. We must not forget that there is a millennium of fashion evolution in between these two eras. To assume the léine remained the same over these thousand years is like saying that the 20th century English still dress like the Anglo-Saxons did before the Norman Invasion. As we shall see, the 6th and the 16th century léine could hardly be more different.
In clothing research, the word “léine” has come to be synonymous with the 16th century “saffron shirt” (léine croich) of the Irish and Highland Scots. It is in this context that we call the garment the “Man’s Léine.”
In many periods of history women have borrowed fashions from men. The Woman’s Léine is no different. Worn sometimes as a chemise under English style gowns and sometimes worn with nothing but a mantle, the woman’s léine is simply a feminized version of the man’s. As we shall see, its overriding characteristics are its length and the fullness of its sleeves.
Despite the many wool items we have recovered from the peat bogs, a léine will never be found among them. This hardy garment, with its long history of being both revered and despised, was made out of linen, a fibre which does not survive burial in acidic (peaty) soil. All we have to memorialize it are these words and few illustrations. I hope I can contribute to its understanding with my research.
The first mention of a saffron shirt comes from John Major’s 1521 History of Britain.
“A medio crure ad pedem caligas non habent, chlamyde pro veste superiore et camisa croco tincta, amiciuntur… “
“From the middle of the shin to the foot they do not have boots, in place of an upper garment they wrap a cloak around themselves and a shirt colored with saffron…” — Latin translation by Abigail Weiner
All this tells us is that they were wearing a yellow shirt (camisa). We will have to look further to discern what it looked like.
The first documentary evidence of the shape and character of the léine is a letter from Henry VIII to the town of Galway, 28 April, 1536:
Item, that no man, woman, or child, do wear in their shirts or smocks, or any other garments, no saffron, nor have any more cloth in their shirts or smocks, but 5 standard ells of that country cloth.1
An ell in England in the 16th century has been interpreted as about a yard and a quarter of cloth.(3) Therefore, the léine was restricted to about 8 yards. This may not seem very restrictive to us. Modernly, our linen is 45″ or 60″ wide. Contemporary evidence suggests that the cloth used in Ireland in the 16th century was only 20″ wide. This would mean that 5 ells equaled roughly 2 2/3 yards of 60″ wide fabric or a little less than 4 yards of 45″ wide.
An act of Henry VIII forbade any person in Ireland after 1 May, 1539 to dress their hair in the Irish fashion or to:
…weare any shirt, smock, kerchor, bendel [band or ribbon], neckerchour, mocket [bib or handkerchief], or linnen cappe coloured, or dyed with Saffron, be yet to use, or weare in any of their shirts or smocks above seven yards of cloth to be measured according to the King’s Standard, and that also no woman use or weare any kyrtell, or cote tucked up, or imbroydered or garnished with silke, or courched [overlaid, embroidered] ne layd with usker [usgar Irish for jewels], after the Irish fashion, and that no person or persons, of what estate, condition or degree they be, shall use, or weare any mantles, cote, or h,is permission notice are preserved on all copies.