Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Chemise of St Balthild
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    The garment pictured above is thought to be the chemise of Saint Balthild, a 7th century Merovingian queen canonized two-hundred years after her death. The chemise-- also referred to as a tunic or chasuble-- is plain white linen with a simple rectangular cut. The neck is decorated with four-colored silk embroidery that is meant to imitate jewelry. The style is reminiscent of contemporary Byzantine fashions and may be indicative of an eastern aesthetic influence. The tunic is said to be Balthild’s burial garment, removed and displayed in the abbey at Chelles when she was reinterred several years after her death around 680. While research has shown that the garment definitely dates from the late 7th century, there is no conclusive evidence that the chemise actually belonged to Balthild. The abbess of Chelles promoted Balthild’s cult, and it is likely that a nun from the monastery wrote the laudatory biography of the queen. However, contemporary opinions were divided about the queen’s character.

    Balthild was born sometime around 633, probably in Britain and of Saxon origin. At some point, she was sold as a slave to Erchinoald, mayor of Neustria, a region in northwestern France controlled by the most powerful noble faction in the Frankish empire at the time. Balthild attracted her master’s favor, but according to her hagiographer, she refused to marry him in order to preserve her virtue. Soon after, however, she married Clovis II, King of the Franks. While Merovingian kings are documented as having married low-born women, and slave-free marriage was common among non-nobles, the marriage of a king and a slave is somewhat uncommon. Fouracre and Gerberding offer the explanation that Clovis marrying a daughter of a powerful noble would have had political benefits, and that in lieu of a daughter, Erchinoald offered up a trusted slave, who would have been recognized by society as part of his household or extended family.

    As queen, Balthild was known for her piety and directed royal funds toward the church and various religious communities. She also was known for her political skills which earned her enemies. After Clovis’ death in 657, Balthild stayed in power as regent for her young son, successfully mediating among various noble factions to maintain relative peace. Religious ritual, patronage, and public displays of piety were tools with which she accomplished this-- for instance by choosing men from competing factions to stand as godfathers for her three sons. According to her hagiographer and other contemporary sources, Balthild outlawed infanticide, prohibited the buying and selling of church offices, and halted the trade in Christian slaves. Later in life, Balthild became a major patron of several monasteries, particularly the abbey at Chelles, where she retired, likely after being forced from power either by bishops or a political rival.

    The decorative embroidery on Balthild’s chemise points to a Byzantine influence, and thus a cultural relationship between Byzantium and Merovingian France. Balthild and her contemporaries lived at the end of the Migration Period (approximately 100-700 CE), when Europe was undergoing a series of major population shifts in the wake of the Western Roman Empire’s collapse. Throughout this era of turmoil, the Eastern Roman and then Byzantine empire remained the dominant cultural and political force in Europe and the Mediterranean-- Byzantine art became a mark of high status, piety, and good taste. The migration into Western Europe of peoples who had had closer contact with the Eastern Roman Empire, reinforced by Mediterranean trade and Christian missionaries, spread Byzantine influence and helped maintain its impact. Furthermore, Byzantine art was associated with the representations of the saints, which was seen as indicative of piety and was often used on religious garments, such as Balthild’s chemise.

    The use of silk in the chemise also points to the garment’s connection to Byzantium, as well as its richness and high quality. Byzantine court spinners had only known how to harvest and spin silk since the mid-sixth century, and silk production had not yet spread west of the Eastern Mediterranean by the time of the chemise’s production in the late 7th century. Thus, the use of multicolored silk thread in this garment marks it as particularly rare and ornate. The images embroidered in an arc below the cross are set in circles, potentially reflecting the 7th century Byzantine fashion for incorporating coins and medallions into jewelry.

  • Source: Textile Research Center, TRC Needles
  • Rights: copyright free
  • Subject (See Also): Balthild, Merovingian Queen and Saint Clothing Queens Relics Textiles
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 7
  • Date: ca. 680
  • Related Work: Full view of the chemise. This image and those of the chemise below come from photographs taken by Genevra Kornbluth.
    Embroidery at the collar.
    Embroidered cross
    Drawing reconstructing Balthild's clothing.
  • Current Location: Chelles, Musée Alfred Bonno
  • Original Location: France
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Textiles
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Embroidery; Linen; Silk threads in four colors; Clothing
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 117/84/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Coon, Lynda L. Sacred Fictions. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997;
    Fouracre, Paul, and Richard A. Gerberding. “Vita Domnae Balthildis (The Life of Lady Balthild, Queen of the Franks).” In Late Merovingian France: History and Hagiography 640–720. Manchester University Press, 1996. Pages 97–132(Translated hagiography and commentary);
    Nelson, Janet L. “Queens as Jezebels: The Careers of Brunhild and Balthild in Merovingian History.” In Debating the Middle Ages: Issues and Readings. Edited by Lester K. Little and Barbara H. Rosenwein. Blackwell Publishers, 1998. Pages 219-253;
    Rio, Alice. “Freedom and Unfreedom in Early Medieval Francia: The Evidence of the Legal Formulae.” , 193 (2006): 7–40;
    Tatum, Sarah. “Auctoritas as Sanctitas: Balthild’s Depiction as ‘Queen-Saint’ in the Vita Balthildis.” European Review of History: Revue Européenne D’histoire 16, 6 (December 1, 2009): 809–34;
    Yorke, Barbara. “The Weight of Necklaces”: Some Insights into the Wearing of Women's Jewellery from Middle Saxon Written Sources.” Studies in Early Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology: Papers in Honour of Martin G. Welch. Edited by Stuart Brookes, Sue Harrington and Andrew Reynolds Archaeopress, 2011. Pages 106-111.