Stereotypical Medievalisms in The Pillars of the Earth (2010)

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I was totally prepared to not like The Pillars of the Earth (2010) miniseries. I read the book 20 years ago and was “eh” about it, but appreciated the research Ken Follett did in order to write it. And then, because it was Starz, I was not exactly hopeful about the miniseries.

Turns out it’s actually pretty good. The actors are all fabulously cast, and while the costumes look like they were hired out from the local high school madrigal group, they don’t detract at all from the story. In the grand scope of the show, I barely noticed them, owing to the engaging script and competent acting. However, taken individually and out of context they are peppered with stereotypical “medievalisms.” Southwestern motifs? Check. Large dangly earrings? Check. Gold lamé? Dreadlocks? Check and check.

The costumer, Mario Davignon, whose other credits include Romeo + Juliet (1996) and the sequel to Pillars that Starz also produced, World Without End (2012), apparently sourced the costumes from all over — Italy, Canada, the UK, the US, and France. A number of costumes were produced specifically for the series; probably the ones most likely to be ruined (soldiers’ clothing, workers’ clothing, etc.) rather than the costumes worn by the leads. It’s clear that a lot of effort and attention went into getting the feel of the commoners’ world to be genuine, but by comparison, the nobility always felt too costume-y.

Women’s Costumes in The Pillars of the Earth

Aliena – Haley Atwell

Casting: Haylee Atwell (who you most likely will remember as Bess from The Duchess) plays Aliena, the pragmatic and bold daughter of the Earl of Shiring. I was eerily struck with the fact that she looked just how I had pictured her 20 years ago when I read the novel. Atwell is a strong actress, so she paired well with Eddie Redmayne who is, as we all should now know, one hell of an actor.

Costuming Observations:

  • Her hair was down almost constantly and uncovered. Which, I suppose you could argue was acceptable because at the start of the story she’s about 15-years-old and unmarried. But over the next decade or two, she really never graduates into appropriate headgear for an adult woman of the 12th-century. By the time she’s ACTUALLY married, she’s still flouncing around with her gorgeous chestnut tresses floating free. Even hauling wool around and being a badass medieval emancipated woman, it’s like a Timotei commercial.
  • Those insanely long dangly earrings. Yeah, they look “medievally,” I guess, but there’s not a whole lot of evidence for medieval Christian women wearing great, big, honking chandelier earrings before, oh, the 16th-century at the earliest. The reason? BECAUSE THEIR HEADS WERE COVERED.
  • A whole lot of beading and general weirdness in her gowns that really read more “Southwest revival” than “medieval.” Especially paired with the long, unfettered hair and the fact that Atwell looks plausibly 1/16th Native American.
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I had a pair of earrings like this in the mid-’90s. They got caught on everything and hopelessly tangled in my hair so I only wore them once or twice.

NativeAmerican

There’s just no other explanation for the Native American beading motif here other than something I’ve heard given as a persona story in the SCA: “Indian princess kidnapped by pirates and/or ninjas and escaped to 12th-century England. And I’m also half-fae.”

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Look, I know how it is, as the owner of a pair of EE breasts, that there’s really no way that the costume designer wasn’t trying to accentuate Atwell’s huge tracts of lands. But I want to point out that at this point in the story, she’s FIFTEEN-YEARS-OLD.

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This reminds me of something I bought at a hippie festival when I was 15. But I guess her hair is sort of covered, so yay?

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This is her wedding gown, and even though the barbette and fillet is about a hundred years in the future, I’m going to give it a pass. Also, those are princess seams on her gown. Tsk tsk.

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Aliena’s work clothes. I really wish the laced-in-sleeves trope would go away. It’s not appropriate unless it’s late 15th-century Italy. :P

Ellen – Natalia Wörner

Casting: Natalia Wörner, a German actress I was unfamiliar with until I saw this, is cast as Jack Jackson’s atheist/witchy mother. I have issues with Ellen as a character, but they’re mainly relegated to the fact that she’s the “modern medieval woman” trope personified. Aside from that, Wörner is a solid actress, and her portrayal of Ellen definitely gets my vote for coolest mother-in-law ever. Like the time she pissed on the evil Bishop Waleran. Mad props.

Costuming Observations

  • The chenille hair extensions. CHENILLE. Just … What?
  • The fact that she’s barefoot all the time despite living in a forest cave. OK, we get it, she’s magical.
  • Metal grommets. Sigh.
Natalia Wörner as Ellen in "The Pillars of the Earth" (2010)

Ellen is always ready to cut a bitch.

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Those chenille yarn extensions hurt my soul.

Lady Regan – Sarah Parish

Casting: I think they got the character more or less captured correctly. Regan is beautiful, but “disfigured” (some kind of birthmark or scar covers half her face) and relentlessly ambitious. Where I think the script writers went sideways was in turning the fairly nuanced and complicated mother/son relationship between Regan and William in the book into a very in-your-face incestual creepfest. As a result, there’s not a whole lot for Sarah Parish to do with the character other than be scheming while sexually assaulting her son.

Costuming Observations:

  • Out of all the characters, I had the least issues with Regan’s costume. Sure, she’s wearing the same damn thing for 20 years straight, but she’s got her hair covered, and she’s not showing any skin aside from her face. Which is pretty much what you’d expect for a 12th-century noblewoman.
  • If we’re picking nits here, I would point out that the barbette and fillet is very 13th-century, and the full wimple is something that doesn’t come into fashion until the very end of the 12th-century, but whatevs. I’m just thrilled that the costume department has her mostly covered, especially since Regan is the Evil Scheming Woman Who Uses Sex To Get Her Way.
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The use of brown eyeshadow and minimal makeup really does make her look sick and diseased.

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Sarah Parish has perfected the “I’ve seen some shit in my day” thousand-yard stare.

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The color of her silk veil is not period, but it does really bring out the sickly pallor in her features, so I can see why the costume department went with it.

Empress Maud – Alison Pill

Casting: The only thing I had seen Alison Pill in prior to this was Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, so I’ll admit that I was kind of skeptical about the casting choice. That, coupled with some of the costume stills of Maud had me really worried about the entire production as a whole, but I’m happy to report that Pill was fabulous as the Empress, and the truly egregious costume choices that had me worried were only in the show for a few seconds.

Costuming Observations:

  • Not too many to point out, honestly. Aside from the low-hanging fruit of the gold lamé gambeson that Maud dons in some kind of dream sequence-y scene, most of her costumes are not bad. I’ll even hold back the free-flowing hair gripe, since she’s THE EMPRESS, and she will cut a bitch if you try to tell her she can’t do what she wants.
  • A couple of her dresses incorrectly interpret the bliaut as being a kind of vest worn over a pleated gown. Also, the bliaut is several decades off from making its appearance in England at this point (Maud’s son Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine, who is largely credited with bringing the bliaut fashion to England).
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I spent most of Maud’s scenes wanting to know where she got her circlets.

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I promise, this abomination only exists on screen for about 10 seconds and then it’s never seen again.

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The gold gambeson is almost immediately covered up with some kind of breast plate-looking thing, which is much more palatable.

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This is what Maud wears while commanding her troops. At least it’s not gold lamé…

Maude

I love this dress. Yes, it’s sari material and has a fanciful construction, but it’s pretty and not egregiously out of period.

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The old school of thought was that the bliaut consisted of a vest that was worn over a pleated gown. More recent scholarship disputes this.

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My favorite of all of Maud’s outfits, mainly because it is the most historically accurate in terms of fit.

Men’s Costumes in The Pillars of the Earth

Despite the fact that I loved the performances of Eddie Redmayne, Rufus Sewell, and Matthew Macfayden, we’re talking about two workmen and a monk. There’s not a hell of a lot to talk about costume-wise. Here’s a brief run-down of their costumes:

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This is basically all you need to see to understand what most of the male cast is wearing.

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Rough-hewn tunics galore.

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Ian McShane as Bishop Waleran, sporting some highly anachronistic purple damask on his tunic.

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Meh.

The two main noblemen, King Stephen (Tony Curran) and William Hamleigh (David Oakes) have more interesting costumes and, aside from some material choices I disagree with, their overall look is consistent for 12th-century England.

King Stephen – Tony Curran

Casting: Tony Curran was a solid choice to play the mercurial Stephen, who is caught up in a civil war with his cousin Maud over who is the rightful heir to the English throne (Maud was the daughter of Henry I, and of course if she’d been a man there would have been very little contest on the issue). Once Stephen more or less successfully ousts Maud, he spends the rest of the series attempting to keep the kingdom from imploding from the fallout of the Anarchy.

Costuming Observations:

  • Mostly in materials used for Stephen’s outfits, not so much the construction or fit. Lots of sari fabrics.
  • Bonus points to having Stephen in long, ankle-length robes. I love a man in a good long tunic.
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Chicks dig it when you assault them with swords.

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Long gowns on men: Why the 12th-century is awesome.

William Hamleigh – David Oakes

Casting: William’s character in this adaptation comes off as far more one-dimensional than in the book, so there’s not much room to really stretch one’s acting abilities. That said, David Oakes does have moments where you can see the tortured young man come through the brutish bully exterior.

Costuming Observations:

  • He wears a pretty nondescript tunic and overcoat for much of the series, when he’s not wearing armor. The one stand-out exception is his wedding suit which I think is a pretty darn good stab at 12th-century upper-class menswear.
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There’s some kind of seaming detail at the hips that is reminiscent of this sort of stylized skirt gathering from the 12th-century.

If you’re interested in more information about 12th-century clothing, check out the following:

 

What did you think of the costumes in The Pillars of the Earth? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Website

Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

26 Responses

  1. MoHub

    Currently in rehearsals for a production of DeKoven’s Robin Hood. Haven’t seen any of the costumes yet, but I have my fears. At least the director has told us that most of the women will have their heads covered, and I’m looking forward to wearing a wimple.

    I just hope the men don’t all wind up in baggy knee breeches, which seems to be the all-purpose period costume in my theater group for anything pre-Victorian regardless of period.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      Well, no baggy knee breeches; baggy pajama pants instead, with a couple of pairs of trunk hose and a few pairs of tights.

      And the women’s costumes range from one or two chemises or bilauts with surcoats to a couple of quattrocento Florentine looks through 17th-century Dutch Jan Steen peasant-genre wear and on up to 18th-century Boucher mock-shepherdess looks.

      Reply
  2. LydiaR

    I’m still torn about this series. The novel is one of my absolute favorites of all time (I’ve worn out two paperbacks) and I spent more time being annoyed at the changes to the story than criticizing the costumes. I also thought some of the casting choices were off – both William and Alfred should have been more substantial and hulking. Eddie Redmayne as Jack was perfection.

    Reply
  3. Sarah E

    The only thing I’d actually heard about this series was that Ian McShane was in it(YAY) and a complaint from someone in a knitters’ group that in a scene where soldiers burn a village, some “wool” proves suspiciously flammable.

    Reply
  4. Adina

    I have a question: why is Saree fabric so widely used?
    (I did Hindu dance for 5 years, so I know why Sarres are awesome on their own, but it seems like you all keep spotting the fabric being built into costumes, and I was wondering why it was popular.)

    Reply
    • Adela

      I suspect budget. You can get faux exotic ancient look way cheaper with Saree materials especially synthetic ones, than with authentic reproduction fabrics and embellishments. There are now companies in India the specialize in fake historical armor for costumes that are way cheaper than real stuff. Hell, I go to the local Saree shops when I need silkish looking stuff for less than $10/m.

      Reply
  5. mmcquown

    I liked the acting, liked the story, just really didn’t think too much about the costumes. I guess now that “Agent Carter” has been axed, Hayley Atwell can go back to the princess game. *sigh* loved Agent Carter.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      The acting basically made me forget all about the costumes, so that’s saying a lot. I figure if you’re going to skimp on costumes, at least throw all of the money at the talent.

      Reply
  6. Susan Pola

    Of the costumes in this, I wanted the Empress’. Maud was actually named as Henry I’s heir, nobles sworn to upheld it. Henry then ‘joined the choir angelic’ and the nobles recanted and produced Stephen, a nephew.

    Reply
  7. mmcquown

    I tried watching “Galavant,” but it was too awful. Another groaner that was on the tube recently was “Your Highness,” which was a medieval fantasy which dragged in some good British actors (Charles Dance, to name one) to support some American TV people.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      I haven’t watched “Galavant” yet, but Trystan did cover it a while back (I’m on mobile so no linky) and enjoyed it. What I’ve seen of it looks like silly fun and, like I said, taking the piss out of reenactors. It’s got a lot of fans in my SCA group, probably because it resembles SCA events more than anything else. I don’t expect much from a show like that in terms of accuracy (like the SCA–it is what it is, just have fun with whatever level of accuracy you want). I think Trystan liked it because it scratches both of her itches for musicals and silly medieval nonsense. ;)

      I haven’t heard of “Your Majesty”, though. I should check it out! I love/hate train wreck shows.

      Reply
  8. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    I don’t know what bothers me more about Maude’s dream armor, the gold lame or the fact the spiral lacing throws of the bottom hem. It looks like its off by half an inch.

    Reply
  9. Julia

    Ugh, I actively hated the second part (that one with Natalie Wörner and this creepy clergyman). It has got all the stereotypes: a lusty catholic clergyman who pursuits the “modern medieval woman”, and who, after failing in raping her, decides to burn her at the stake. So. Not. Historically. Correct. Nothing in this storyline is actually correct. Also, two women travel to France to meet the king who is at war, and they actually meet him and he is like: “Well sure, I got time for your shit”. Nope. As I said, hated it.

    Reply

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