Thursday 9 July 2015

Romano-British Cloaks by Caroline Lawrence

Hooded cloak like my mother's
When I left California to study Classics at Cambridge, my mother gave me her fine hooded cloak of charcoal grey wool that she had bought in Chamonix on her honeymoon. Stylish as well as warm, the cloak protected me from the biting winds and frequent drizzle of East Anglia. I would cycle from Newnham College to my lectures with it billowing out behind me. One day I trustingly left it on a hook with other coats in the vestibule outside a lecture room. When I came out it was gone. I think it was the first time I have ever been robbed. At that moment I felt shock and a deep sadness. A precious link to my mother had been lost forever. I went to the police and put up notices but I never saw it again.

If I’d lived two thousand years earlier in Roman Britain, I would have been more than sad; I would have been mad.

replica Roman loom with "loom sword" at Fishbourne
In chilly provinces during Roman times, the theft of the cloak was not just a nuisance; it could often mean the difference between life and death. A person's cloak often doubled as their blanket at night. If you caught a chill through lack of adequate covering, you might die. And in those days you couldn’t just wander down to Marcus et Spencerius to buy a new one. Someone had to collect the wool, spin it into yarn, weave the yarn into cloth, then sew that cloth. That took time and skill, and a woollen cloak might cost perhaps a month’s salary. The purchase of a new or even second-hand cloak might have meant a trip to the nearest town on market day. 

a bardocucullus from the Roman Mysteries
In Roman Britain, cloaks were very popular. Some were short, others were long. Some were impregnated with lanolin, the smelly oil that made them waterproof. Some had hoods, others didn’t. Some were popular with soldiers, others with civilians. One thing Roman cloaks didn’t have were pockets, but the Romans didn’t miss them because they hadn’t been invented yet. The poet Martial wrote a two-line gift tag for the Saturnalia gift of a bardocucullus, which was just a hood that you could wear under a cloak. He also wrote about a hooded cape called a paenula: ‘Even if you go on a journey with clear skies, don't forget a paenula made of leather, in case of sudden showers!’

Here’s part of a lead curse tablet found in the famous hot springs of Bath Spa:

drawing of lead curse tablet by Richard Lawrence
From Docilianus, son of Brucerus, to the most holy goddess Sulis: I curse the person who stole my hooded cloak, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, and I ask that you not allow him a moment’s sleep until he has returned my hooded cloak to your temple.

Docilianus of Bath Spa was angry, but not as angry as the man who wrote this curse from Caerleon in Wales:

To the goddess Nemesis, I give you my stolen cloak and a pair of boots; let the man who is wearing them now pay for them with his life and blood!

What a contrast to hear the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:40, And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. Or his words in Luke: ...from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. 

Looking at the gospel passages, I remembered the story of a young Roman soldier named Martin who became a saint after he took pity on a freezing and naked beggar by the town gate of Amiens, (in what is now Northwest France), and gave him half his cloak. In fact, the word chapel comes from one of the Latin words for cloak: cappa, because the very first chapel held the remaining half of St Martin’s cloak, now a holy relic.

Hooded cloaks have long been associated with Druids and other mysterious figures. The hood and voluminous silhouette of the garment can hide the wearer’s identity, age and gender.

terra cotta figure and bronze figure with hidden phallus
The most mysterious hooded cloaks in Roman Britain were those worn by curious figures known as the genii culcullati or ‘hooded spirits’. Some archaeologists have argued that they might be fertility spirits. Some of these ‘hooded spirits’ appear with a mother goddess. Others carry objects resembling eggs. Still others have an almost phallic appearance so that it is only one step from this to that. (above)

A relief from Corinium (modern Cirencester)
To the best of my knowledge, no inscriptions have ever been found with these mysterious hooded characters. Maybe one day we will find an inscription and solve the mystery. In the meantime the three mysterious hooded figures are providing inspiration for my new Roman Quests series. Who are the three mysterious figures? And where are they going? Watch this space to find out. 


Sue Bursztynski said...

So sorry to hear about your lovely cloak! I hope the thief never enjoyed it and felt permanently guilty! Maybe you should have done your own curse tablet!

I have a few hooded cloaks I made for costume events, but particularly love my(bought)serapes, of which I have three - it's a cloak without a hood, but wraps snugly and keeps you warm. You can always warm your head with a beanie. One of them had a strangely Celtic pattern, so much so that a friend asked me if it was a brat, an Irish cloak. It wasn't, it was a Mexican thing, though made in Italy. ;-)

Fortunately, we don't need anyone to weave our clothes by hand any more, but I can quite see why a robbed person woud be angry!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Oh! Just noticed that naughty bronze figure! Looks like something you'd buy in a joke shop! :-) I'm guessing the Romans had the equivalent, they tended to have weird senses of humour.

Penny Dolan said...

Hmmm. Not quite your sweet Russian Doll, then, that second to last image?

Loved the accounts of cloaks, with or without hoods. I'd never thought of them as blankets before, though of course (fool! fool that I am!)that's obviously what they can be. Such magnificent curses too - and what a loss when one is taken, your mother's included, Caroline. Thanks.