Home  »  English Prose  »  Edmund Spenser (1552?–1599)

Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century

Irish Costume

Edmund Spenser (1552?–1599)

From A View of the Present State of Ireland

Irenæus.They have another custom from the Scythians, that is, the wearing of mantles and long glibbes, which is a thick curled bush of hair, hanging down over their eyes, and monstrously disguising them, which are both very bad and hurtful.

Eudoxus.Do you think that the mantle came from the Scythians? I would surely think otherwise, for by that which I have read, it appeareth that most nations in the world anciently used the mantle. For the Jews used it, as you may read of Elias’ mantle. The Chaldæans also used it, as you may read in Diodorus. The Ægyptians likewise used it, as ye may read in Herodotus, and may be gathered by the description of Berenice, in the Greek Commentaries upon Callimachus. The Greeks also used it anciently, as appeareth by Venus’s mantle lined with stars, though afterwards they changed the form thereof into their cloaks, called Pallia, as some of the Irish also do. And the ancient Latins and Romans used it, as ye may read in Virgil, who was a very ancient antiquary,—that Evander, when Ænæas came unto him at his feast, did entertain and feast him, sitting on the ground, and lying on mantles. Insomuch as he useth this very word MANTILE for a mantle.

  • ‘Mantilia humi sternunt.’
  • So as it seemeth that the mantle was a general habit to most nations, and not proper to the Scythians only, as you suppose.

    Iren.I cannot deny but that anciently it was common to most, and yet since disused and laid away. But in this later age of the world, since the decay of the Roman Empire, it was renewed and brought in again by those Northern nations when, breaking out of their cold caves and frozen habitations into the sweet soil of Europe, they brought with them their usual weeds, fit to shield the cold, and that continual frost to which they had at home been inured: the which yet they left not off, by reason that they were in perpetual wars with the nations whom they had invaded, but, still removing from place to place, carried always with them that weed, as their house, their bed, and their garment; and, coming lastly into Ireland, they found there more special use thereof, by reason of the raw cold climate, from whence it is now grown into that general use in which that people now have it. After whom the Gauls succeeding, yet finding the like necessity for that garment, continued the like use thereof.

    Eudox.Sith then the necessity thereof is so commodious, as ye allege, that it is instead of housing, bedding, and clothing, what reason have ye then to wish so necessary a thing cast off?

    Iren.Because the commodity doth not countervail the discommodity for the inconveniences that thereby do arise are much more many; for it is a fit house for an outlaw, a meet bed for a rebel, and an apt cloak for a thief. First the outlaw being for his many crimes and villanies banished from the towns and houses of honest men, and wandering in waste places, far from danger of law, maketh his mantle his house, and under it covereth himself from the wrath of heaven, from the offence of the earth, and from the sight of men. When it raineth it is his pent-house; when it blows it is his tent; when it freezeth it is his tabernacle. In summer he can wear it loose, in winter he can wear it close; at all times he can use it; never heavy, never cumbersome. Likewise for a rebel it is as serviceable; for in his war that he maketh (if at least it beseemeth the name of war) when he still flieth from his foe, and lurketh in the thick woods and strait passages, waiting for advantages, it is his bed, yea, and almost his household stuff. For the wood is his house against all weathers, and his mantle is his cave to sleep in. Therein he wrappeth himself round, and encloseth himself strongly against the gnats, which in that country do more annoy the naked rebels, whilst they keep the woods, and do more sharply wound them than all their enemies’ swords or spears, which can come seldom nigh them: yea, and oftentimes their mantle serveth them when they are near driven, being wrapt about their left arm instead of a target, for it is as hard to cut through it with a sword; besides it is light to bear, light to throw away, and, being (as they then commonly are) naked, it is to them all in all. Lastly, for a thief it is so handsome, as it may seem it was first invented for him; for under it he can cleanly convey any fit pillage that cometh handsomely in his way, and when he goeth abroad in the night on free-booting, it is his best and surest friend; for lying, as they often do, two or three nights together abroad to watch for their booty, with that they can prettily shroud themselves under a bush or bank’s side, till they may conveniently do their errand: and when all is done, he can in his mantle pass through any town or company, being close hooded over his head, as he useth, from knowledge of any to whom he is endangered. Besides all this, if he be disposed to do mischief or villany to any man, he may under his mantle go privily armed without suspicion of any, carrying his head-piece, his skean, or pistol if he please, to be alway in readiness. Thus necessary and fitting is a mantle for a bad man, and surely for a bad housewife it is no less convenient. These be some of the abuses for which I would think it meet to forbid all mantles.

    Eudox.O evil-minded man that having reckoned up so many uses of a mantle, will yet wish it to be abandoned! Sure I think Diogenes’ dish did never serve his master more turns, notwithstanding that he made it his dish, his cup, his measure, his waterpot, than a mantle doth an Irish man. But I see they be all to bad intents, and therefore I will join with you in abolishing it. But what blame lay you to the glibbe? Take heed (I pray you) that you be not too busy therewith for fear of your own blame, seeing our Englishmen take it up in such a general fashion to wear their hair so unmeasurably long, that some of them exceed the longest Irish glibbes.

    Iren.I fear not the blame of any undeserved dislikes; but for the Irish glibbes, I say that, besides their savage brutishness and loathsome filthiness which is not to be named, they are as fit masks as a mantle is for a thief. For whensoever he hath run himself into that peril of law that he will not be known, he either cutteth off his glibbe quite, by which he becometh nothing like himself, or pulleth it so low down over his eyes, that it is very hard to discern his thievish countenance; and therefore fit to be trussed up with the mantle.

    Eudox.Truly these three Scythian abuses, I hold most fit to be taken away with sharp penalties; and surely I wonder how they have been kept thus long, notwithstanding so many good provisions and orders as have been devised for the reformation of that people.