Mitten from Southwark London 15th century

Gloves and Mittens From the Past

Mittens, gloves and gauntlets represent a number of different types of protective gear for the hands. Their history has recently been told in a new Dutch book.

The word of glove is etymologically as old as the phenomenon: to protect the hands from touching or being touched. The root is Proto-Germanic *ga+*lōfô , meaning “the whole + palm = hand”. The word Gauntlet stems from French: little glove (“gant plus let= gantelet”). Its roots, though, are also Proto-Germanic *wantuz (from Proto-Indo-European *wendʰ- ‎(“to wind, or wrap”); an immediately recognizable derivative of this is the word “vante”, “wante”, wonte” and other variations known from Old Frisian, Saxon, German etc.

An early example of the use of this word may be found in the Life of St. Columbanus written c. 640 by Jonas of Bobbio. Here we are told of an occasion where the Saint, who had come to dine the monastery of Luxeuil, had

“laid his gloves, which the Gauls [ = Franks, i.e. Germans] call Wanti and which he was accustomed to wear when working, on a stone before the door of the refectory. Soon, in the quiet, a thievish raven flew up and carried off one of the gloves in its beak. After the meal, the man of God went out and looked for his gloves. When all were enquiring who had taken them, the holy man said, “There is no one who would venture to touch anything without permission, except the bird which was sent out by Noah and did not return to the ark.” And, he added, that the raven would not be able to feed its young if it did not quickly bring back the stolen object. While the brethren were looking, the raven flew into their midst and brought back in its beak the object which it had basely stolen. Nor did it attempt to fly away, but forgetful of its wild nature, humbly in the sight of all, awaited its punishment. The holy man commanded it to go. Oh, wonderful power of the eternal Judge who grants such power to His servants that they are glorified both by honors from men and by the obedience of birds!
(From: Medieval Sourcebook: The Life of St. Columban, by the Monk Jonas


Workers protection

Shepherds with mittens - Nikolaus Stürnhofer 1515-Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum
Shepherds with mittens – Nikolaus Stürnhofer 1515-© Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum

There is no doubt that the primary function of such “Wanti” – or in proper modern English: mittens – were to protect against cold, heat and wear while one was going about one’s business. As such they are – if not a common find – not unusual in archaeological excavations from sites with favourable wet conditions. Such a place is Amsterdam and recent metro-excavations there have yielded an assemblage consisting of twelve leather mittens, four woollen mittens and one woollen glove. To this should be added at least four more leather mittens, five more cloth mittens and two iron gauntlets found elsewhere in the city of Amsterdam. Building upon this, Annemarieke Willemsen has recently made an inventory of the more than 100 finds from the whole of the Netherlands. Together with finds from England, France, Germany and Scandinavia she has now published an overview of the different types of handshoes known from both literature, art and archaeological excavations. Published in Dutch it may fortuitously be perused together with an essay, which was recently published and which presents her research to English readers.

murthly hours the magi with gloves
The three Magi meeting up with king Herod. Notice they are wearing gloves signifying their just and righteous character a opposed to Herod, whose hands are ungloved while he is sitting with his sword in his hands. from The Murthly Hours c. 1280, fol 25. Source Pinterest (National Library of Scotland)

According to this, mittens, gloves and gauntlets took many forms and had many functions of which practical ones were only a few. While mittens were meant to keep hands warm in the cold climate of Northern Europe or protecting them when working with rough materials or work-processes, gloves with all fingers separated were symbolically loaded artefacts in Europe from as far back as it is possible to follow their history.

Already in Carolingian and Ottonian Europe royals wore ceremonial gloves while expensing justice. Later in the 10th century this custom was introduced amongst bishops, and some of the earliest ceremonial gloves have been found in the graves of bishops and kings, signalling their right to exert personal power over their surroundings. We know of this complex symbolism from a number of old sayings – it is in his hands now, he will take hand, the gloves have come off, to be handled with kid gloves, rule with a velvet glove, rule with an iron hand (aka gauntlet) etc. Other such idioms can be found in other European languages. Central to these idioms is the general idea that the glove signifies a more judicial and less violent approach than if the “gloves have come off”.

It is probably in this light we should understand the tradition of gifting gloves to rulers, basically asking for justice, mercy and perhaps leniency – a motive, which we may find beautifully rendered in the parable above featuring Columbanus and the Raven, where it is obvious the Rave solicits the Saint for a blessing by gifting him as “launegeld” with his own gloves. In the same vein, we may explain the use of gloves among princely bishops in the same way, although another explanation often offered might be the need to signal cleanliness while handling the liturgical objects. However, then the prerogative to cary gloves would not have been limited to bishops. It is more probable that bishops in the 10th and 11th century began to mimic the use of Royal Insegnia, hence their adoption of gloves as part of their liturgical vestments.

Another situation, where the glove might stand in as a pars pro toto for the hand was in connection with marriages, gifts between betrothed and – curiously enough – when soliciting extramarital liasons. As is well known “to be hand in glove” means suiting one another naturally, to “work hand in glove” to do something in close collaboration. Gloves as precious pre-marital and betrothal gifts have been known from all over Europe and in a wide variety of historical and folkloristic contents.

Annemarieke Willemsen tells the story of a number of such gifts in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, and thus provides with an intimate picture of the practical and symbolic uses of gloves in the period from which we have significant archaeological finds to render materiality to the discussion.

Practical mittens and elaborate gloves

It stands to reason that mittens and gloves thus come in all sizes, materials and colours suitable for practical, ceremonial and symbolic purposes. It is exactly this variety, which Annemarieke Willemsen presents in her new book and which makes it a precious new publication to be studied by “living historians”, reenactors as well as archaeologists and cultural historians.


honderden-van-hand-tot-hand-annemarieke-willemsen-boek-cover-The Geoff Egan Memorial Lecture 2013 Taking up the glove: finds, uses and meanings of gloves, mittens and gauntlets in western Europe, c. AD 1300–1700
By Annemarieke Willemsen
In: Post-Medieval Archaeology, Volume 49, Issue 1, 2015

Honderden. Van hand tot hand – handschoenen en wanten in de Nederlanden voor 1700
By Annemarieke Willemsen
Spa uitgevers B.V. 2015


Mitten from Southwark London 15th century