A mantle is a common type of heavy woolen cloak found in medieval and early modern Ireland. Fantastic, colorful and richly woven varieties are described in medieval Irish poetry. Elaborate and expensive mantles would have been worn by the rich and noble. Plainer, more workaday kinds are found here in our reconstruction of Kilcolman, as befits Spenser’s status as a prosperous but not rich English gentleman. If Spenser and his family didn’t wear mantles, their servants likely did.
Early modern mantles have been found in modern times preserved in bogs. For example, a plain, semi-coarse example from the sixteenth century is on display in the National Museum of Ireland. The museum also holds a fragment of a different type of mantle, the shaggy woven (or “rya”) kind. A shaggy fringe can be seen at the top of mantles in the sixteenth-century illustrations of John Derricke.
In Spenser’s prose dialogue and political policy tract, A View of the Present State of Ireland (c. 1596; pub. 1633), Spenser’s alter-ego Irenius discusses with Eudoxus the ancient and barbaric origins of the mantle, before listing its practical and treacherous uses by the Irish.
Irenius They have another custom from the Scythians
that is the wearing of mantles and long
glibs, 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 comes from
the Scythians? I would surely think otherwise:
For by that which I have read it appears that
most nations in the world anciently used
the mantle. […]
Iren: I cannot deny but anciently it was common
to most, and yet since disused and laid away.
But in this latter 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
habitation into the sweet soil of Europe. They
brought with them their usual weeds [i.e., clothes], fit to
shield the cold and that continual frost, to which
they had at home been inured. The which yet
they left not of, by reason that they were in
perpetual wars with the nations where they had
invaded, but still removing from place to place
carried always with them that weed as their
house, their bed, and their garment. Coming
lastly into Ireland, they found there more special
use thereof, by reason of the raw cold climate.
From whom it is now grown into that general use
in which that people now have it. […]
Eudox: Since then the necessity thereof is so commodious
as you allege, that it is [serving] in stead of housing,
bedding, and clothing. What reason have
you then to wish, so necessary a thing [to] cast off?
Iren: Because the commodities do not countervail the
discommodity. For the inconveniences which thereby do
arise, are much more many: for it is a fit house
for an outlaw, a meet bed for a rebel, and apt
cloak for a thief. First, the outlaw being for
his many crimes and villainies banished from
the towns and houses of honest men, and wandering
in waste places far from danger of law, makes
his mantle his house, and under it covers himself
from the wrath of heaven, from the offence of the
earth, and from the sight of men. When it rains
it is his pentice [i.e., “pent-house” or makeshift shelter], when it blows it is his tent,
when it freezes, it is his tabernacle. In summer
he can wear it loose, in winter he can wrap
it close, at all times he can use it, never heavy,
Likewise for a rebel it is
as serviceable: for in his war that he
makes (if at least it deserves the name of
“war”), when he still flies from his foe and
lurks in the thick woods and straight passages,
waiting for advantages, it is his bed, yea and
almost all his household stuff. For the wood is
his house against all weathers, and his mantle
is his cave to sleep in: therein he wraps
his self round and ensconces him self strongly
against the gnats, which in the country do more annoy
the naked rebels, while they keep the woods,
and do more sharply wound them then all their
enemies swords or spears, which can seldom
come nigh them. Yea and oftentimes their mantle
serves them when they are near driven, being
wrapped about their left arms in stead of
a target [i.e., a small shield], for it is 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
comes handsomely in his way. And when he
goes abroad in the night on freebooting, 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
a backside, 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 uses [to keep] from knowledge of any to whom he
is endangered. Besides all this, he or any man
else that is disposed to mischief or villainy
may under his mantle go privily armed
without suspicion of any, carry his headpiece,
his skene [i.e., long knife] or pistol, if he please to be always
in a readiness. Thus necessary and fitting is a mantle for a bad man.
And surely for a bad housewife [i.e., woman], it is
no less convenient. For some of them that be these wandering
women, called of them Monashut, it is half a wardrobe:
for in summer you shall find her arrayed commonly, but [i.e., “only”] in
her smock and mantle, to bee more ready for the light
services. In winter and in her travel, it is her cloak and
safe-gear, and also a coverlet for her lewd exercise. And
when she has filled her vessel [i.e., become pregnant], under it she can
hide both her burden and her blame. Yea and when her
bastard is borne, it [i.e., the mantle] serves in stead of all her
swaddling clothes. And as for all other good women which
love to do but little work, how handsome it is to lie
in and sleep, or to louse themselves in the sunshine, they
that have been but a while in Ireland can well witness.
Sure I am that you will think it very unfit for
good housewives to stir in or to busy herself about her
housewifery in sort as they should.
These be some of the abuses for which I would think it meet to
forbid all mantles.
[A View of the Present State of Ireland, MS Rawlinson B.478 (Bodleian Library, Oxford), 31r-33r. Some words are modernized.]
Spenser mentions mantles in various places in his poetry. In The Faerie Queene, for example, the treacherous, shape-changing villain Malengin (or “Guyle”) lives in a “hollow cave” (V.ix.10.1), has “hollow” eyes, long “curled” hair and wears a mantle-like cloak on his back (over his torn pants, or “breech”):
Full dreadfull wight he was, as euer went
Vpon the earth, with hollow eyes deepe pent,
And long curld locks, that downe his shoulders shagged,
And on his backe an vncouth vestiment
Made of straunge stuffe, but all to worne and ragged,
And vnderneath his breech was all to torne and iagged. (V.ix.10.4-9)
As such, Malengin resembles a half-starved and dangerous Irish refugee or rebel.
In Book I of The Faerie Queene, Spenser associates the personified figure of Night, an evil hag, with a mantle: “griesly Night, with visage deadly sad… in a foule blacke pitchy mantle clad” (I.v.20.1-3). In a standard metaphor for the time, Night covers the world in darkness with her ”mantle” or cloak. The passage has a political tinge, furthermore, in that she hides crimes, including “traitorous” ones:
Vnder thy mantle black there hidden lye,
Light-shonning thefte, and traiterous intent,
Abhorred bloodshed, and vile felony. (III.iv.58.1-3)
The description of Night’s “bloodshed” and “traitorous intent” gives it/her political resonances that would align it/her with the rebellious and dangerous Irish, as described in the View.
Conversely, Spenser invokes “night so long expected” with its “sable mantle” in his wedding poem, “Epithalamion,” asking that it keep him and his bride safe from the threats surrounding his castle:
Now welcome night, thou night so long expected…
Spread thy broad wing ouer my loue and me,
That no man may vs see,
And in thy sable mantle vs enwrap,
From feare of perrill and foule horror free.
Let no false treason seeke vs to entrap,
Nor any dread disquiet once annoy
The safety of our ioy:
But let the night be calme and quietsome,
Without tempestuous storms or sad afray. (“Epithalamion” 315-27)
The “mantle” here, while representing dangerous “night,” paradoxically protects the married couple from the threats that might disturb their well-being (including supernatural threats that are listed in the following stanza: they include the “evil” Irish spirit, the “Pouke” or pouca). As such, the poet is asking the evil forces of the night to confound themselves by keeping themselves hidden, which in turn allows the couple to stay safely obscure, perhaps hidden under a mantle used for a bedcovering. In this case, Spenser may have in mind another description of the mantle in the View, where it is described as a garment of Venus lined with stars (as is the night). A mantle could be put to good or bad, ugly or positive uses, depending on the intent of the owner.
Sheila Cavanagh, “‘Licentious Barbarism’: Spenser’s View of the Irish and The Faerie Queene.” Irish University Review 26 (1996), 268-80.
Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser’s Irish Experience: wilde fruit and salvage soyl (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997): 160-64.
Elizabeth Wincott Heckett, “Beyond the Empire: An Irish Mantle and Cloak.” The Roman Textile Industry and Its Influence: A Birthday Tribute to John Peter Wild (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2001), 91-7.
Thomas Herron, “An Exhibit in Ireland.” Spenser Review 33.2 (Summer 2002), 41-4.
Geoffrey G. Hiller, “Night.” The Spenser Encyclopedia. Ed. A. C. Hamilton (Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 1990), 511.
H.F. McClintock, “The ‘Mantle of St. Brigid’ at Bruges.” Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. 7th series. 6.1 (June 1936), 32-40.
Harold Skulsky, “Malengin.” The Spenser Encyclopedia. Ed. A. C. Hamilton (Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 1990), 450.