Purses. They take many forms, they are used by all social classes, and they are an important accessory for just about everyone from at least the Late Stone Age on. The actual definition of what constitutes a purse is a more complex issue than you may think. What are the size limitations, the materials that they can be made of, the method of construction, the method of closure?
Probably the most common materials are leather and cloth, and the most common closures are a draw string or toggle. I know that for the first ten years of my life as a reenactor that describes all of the purses that I, or any of my friends had. Simple bags with drawstrings, or leather belt pouches with some sort of toggle or latch completed our need for carrying small things (like money and eyeglasses). We often had other small bags and pouches in our purses to control the chaos that tended to develop in the purses.
Now that is not a complaint or any sort of put-down. Some of these purses, were truly lovely, embroidered pouches with silver spangles and tassels, leather belt pouches with leather tooling, appliqué, studs, or lacing. Totally documentable, and something that anyone should be proud to wear.
There are some excellent resources out there for people who are interested in making a reproduction of one of these types of purses. Archaeological reports often have very good pictures or drawings of the purse patterns. Probably the most notable collection of solid archaeological information on purses, that has been made much more user friendly with the inclusion of photographs, drawings, Medieval illustrations and good explanations is “Purses in Pieces” by Olaf Goubitz. Although the book focuses on the Archaeology of the Netherlands, the purse forms are fairly universal throughout Europe, just as any important accessory would be today. As a side note, the reason so much leather survives in the Netherlands is because of the soil conditions. The naturally wet conditions often preserve the leather instead of causing it to rot. We find the same sorts of preservation of leather and wood in the Novgorod (Russia) “black earth” areas.
As I mentioned before, the size and materials that an item is made of might also define its name. At what point does a purse become a Pilgrim’s bag? At what point does a net bag become Shepherd’s purse? But I have to admit that my plan is to leave that discussion for another place and time. Despite the fact that the purse forms that I have mentioned are very common in Medieval Illustrations they are definitely NOT the only form of the purse that we see represented. What interests me, and in fact has become something of a research obsession for me, is purses with frames.
Now that may seem a bit confusing at first, but most people are familiar with at least one purse that has a frame, the elaborately decorated purse lid from the Sutton Hoo burial.
Next time: My first attempt at making a purse with a frame.