Cloth as Currency: Clothing and the Naked in Old Frisian Law
By Daan Keijser
Us Wurk: Journal of Frisian Studies, Vol. 64, No. 3-4 (2015)
Introduction: Poverty and nakedness have been equated throughout the Middle Ages. In Matthew 25, eternal life (in heaven) is granted to those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take strangers into their home, and clothe those who are naked. This theme recurs in various saints’ lives, most famously in that of Saint Martin of Tours. Saint Martin encountered a naked poor man (pauperem nudum) and split his own cloak in two with his sword to give half of it to the naked man.
According to surveys of many cultures, the truly natural state of human beings is dressed, and the association of nakedness and poverty might reflect the assumption that such an unnatural state as nakedness is only assumed reluctantly, by those who truly cannot afford clothes. Clothing, on the other hand, is often associated with wealth, as is shown by Margaret Rose Jaster, who treats the late-medieval and early-modern conviction that extravagant attire drained the realm of its wealth, thereby impoverishing the population.
The economic connotations of clothing and nakedness were widespread during the Middle Ages, but the context of their symbolism differs widely – from the context of Christian charity in Saint Martin’s case, to the justification for apparel legislation treated by Jaster. The present article will discuss an economic meaning given to clothing and nakedness that similarly relates clothing to economic means and nakedness to poverty, but is informed differently still.