A Cotehardie by Any Other Name Would Look Just as Lovely – Some Thoughts on Research

Terms . . . they make things more confusing than they should be, but that’s life. One of my first big “ah-ha” moments in research is that the word I may use for a specific thing is probably not the word that everyone else in the world uses. Be flexible when looking for something.

For example,  the majority of the world may call it a partlet, but if the best information on the net calls it a gollar, you’re never gonna find it by searching for partlet.

There is a myth (probably perpetuated by those who don’t research) that since the computer age, finding information is as simple as typing a couple of words into google. This anecdote will definitely age me, but back in college before the internet, I remember standing in front of the massive cabinets of the card catalog at my university’s library, pulling out drawers three feet long, and trying to find books on some particular topic. Actually some of my fondest memories are digging through the card catalog for hours and hours. I still remember the way they smelled. But I digress.

It would take hours and hours of sorting through topics and authors to find the books that might contain the bits of information I needed. Researching on the internet isn’t all that different. Sure, if you want some over-generalized, cursory information on a subject, it may take a few minutes. But if you want specifics and primary sources, it will take days. For some projects, I have spent more time researching than actually making the item.  Now, that may be reflected in some of my scores, but I was pretty certain my research was solid.

How does this relate to researching medieval and Renaissance clothing? Here’s a bit of advice.

When labeling a piece of garb, it’s best to be specific, but not term specific.  When writing the documentation for this dress I’m currently researching if/when I enter it into an SCA A&S I would call it a “15th Century Northern European Fitted Gown.” That is a pretty specific title, right?  However, I would not call it a cotehardie or cotte or cote or kirtle. Yes, those are specific terms, but those terms are very loaded and mean different things to different people, in different languages and in different contexts.

Yet, try researching or googling “15th Century Northern European Fitted Gown” and see how much you find. You may only find my blog and not much else that’s relevant. Thus I not only have to use the term cotehardie, which makes me cringe a little each time, but I also have to seed my blog with the terms cotte, cote, kirtle, gown and dress. I write to share the information I find and the conclusions I reach. I write both to help educate others and to get feedback on what I think.  If I don’t seed my blogs with those terms, no one would find these posts on that fitted dress.

Cotehardie is a pretty contentious word for medieval garb. First of  all, that word wasn’t used in period. Not only was it not used to describe what today we call a cotehardie, but it wasn’t used at all. It’s French in origin, meaning something like sturdy dress. I don’t know when it first popped up – I’m not that interested in the term. There is a chapter written on it in “Medieval Clothing and Textiles 4.” You can preview it in Google books here.

To add to the confusion, here are a few more names or variants on the spelling which I use when searching for information on that fitted dress found in the 13th to 15th centuries:

  • Cotehardy
  • Cote-hardie
  • Cotte
  • Cote
  • Kirtle

And that’s just English. Let’s try looking for the “cotte simple” or “Gothic fitted dress” in a few other languages:

  • German
    • Kittle
    • Cotta
  • Italian
    • Guarnacca
    • Cottardita
    • Gonnella
    • Cipriana
  • Polish
    • Suknia  spodnia
    • Suknia rozpinana
    • Jopula
  • Norwegian
    • Kjole
    • kyrtill
  • Swedish
    • klänning
    • överkjortel
    • surcot

Some of these mean “that” specific dress, and others simply mean dress or gown. In my research I’ve learned to say “women’s clothing” and “15th century” in about a dozen languages. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

Research isn’t always easy. Don’t look at it straight-on. Try looking at it in as many creative ways as you can. It might surprise you what you may find.

Sometimes I think I should stick with the easy stuff. I have A-LOT of books and articles on period garb. I could just glance through them, pick a project and my documentation would be simple. But then I think, “What fun would that be?”


4 thoughts on “A Cotehardie by Any Other Name Would Look Just as Lovely – Some Thoughts on Research

  1. My Homepage says:

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  2. Panth says:

    I’ve just found your blog but wanted to let you know that you are not alone – this is something I find very annoying. I hate using the overloaded terms – everyone thinks they know the meaning of these words but actually no one does! I usually resort to “shift”/”smock”/”underdress” and “overdress”. Or, “shift”/”smock”/”underdress”, “middle-layer dress” and “overdress”/”surcoat”, if there are three layers.

    Anywho, I shall continue reading your fascinating blog.

  3. There is definitely a terminology problem online. I have a fantasy of creating an online visual database of different names of garments along with historical photos/art and modern recreations. That would require a rather large grant to accomplish, so it remains a dream…great article!

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