Was there Medieval Thrift Shopping in Europe?

Divine Clothing

While many of us have had a near-spiritual experience in thrift shops *, Medieval rich people often used clothing donations to pave their route to Heaven.

The usual brown,gray,brown,gray Medieval clothing (also Finale of the Tupsy Turvy song in Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney)

These ‘free’ donations of clothing were an incentive for poor people to attend their funerals. In theory, this banked up more prayers for their souls. 

Plenty of Medieval wills say something like :  “And money to purchase solid, well-constructed garments for the poor in the funeral procession, as long as they are gray.”

In the 1430s, London tanner Henry Barton willed:

Gowns and hoods of best Welsh gray cloth (de optimo panno roceto Wallensi) and linen vests to be distributed among the poor of Mildenhale, Staundon, and the City of London.

A funeral procession was meant to be a public spectacle. The more people attending the cortege, the better. The more times the church bells rang for the deceased, the higher his or her status.

Even where you were buried mattered. The places closest to the altar tended to be reserved for clerics and members of the elite. The more torches carried in the procession, and the bigger they were, the higher was the status of the deceased.

Clothing was often gifted to servants as a mark of largess and status. The will of Joan Buckland, widow, of Edcock who dies in 1462 leaves:

…all my other gowns and kirtles, that they be given to my women servants dweling with me and my departure. Also to the woman that is by me at the time of my departing… one gown furred with mink.

A 1459 bequest from York from widow Joan Cotyngham shows that even underwear might be passed down:

I also leave to Joan Day, a poor little woman staying in a certain maison-dieu, my russet gown lined with buckshin and a chemise of linen cloth.

Clothing could also get you buried appropriately.

A portion of the will of Isabel le Despenser, Countess of Warwick dictates that her:

“great head-dress with the rubies be sold for the highest price and delivered to the said abbot and the house of Tewkesbury so that they will not complain about my burial . . . Also I wish all my jewels and pearls to be sold to fulfill the terms of my will” 

Unless said abbot and his monastery were cross dressers, this second-hand clothing was destined for Medieval Thrift Shopping.

Poor clothing

The Subsidy of 1332 allowed households (presuming a married couple) a certain amount of items tax-free. They are:

  • One dress/outfit for the woman and one for the man
  • One shared bed
  • “A ring and a chain of gold or silver” (wedding gifts, maybe?)
  • “A girdle of silk that they use every day” (probably a belt)
  • One shared drinking cup

Records of tax collection and duty collection on immigrants show that about 50% of Londoners failed to meet the minimum standard for taxation!

So poor Londoners were certainly had no choice but charity or Medieval Thrift shopping when their current outfit fell apart.

There were even rather perfect names for these second hand clothes dealers –  fripperers in English, or rigattieri in Italian.

In  fact, foreigners and foreign merchants came to Florence to stock up on old clothes.

The sumptuary legislation in the English Rolls of Parliament harrumphed that:

“grooms wear the apparel of craftsman, and craftsman wear the apparel of gentlemen, and gentlemen wear the apparel of esquires”

To the nobles’ horror and the commoners’ delight, the recycling of higher-status clothes made a person’s rank more intangible.

Medieval Thrift Shopping

When it comes to clothing, however, women in cities probably had one advantage over rural women in building a wardrobe: much greater access to secondhand clothing.

In multiconfessional cities, Jewish and Christian women would trade dresses (also breastfeeding duties!). Most likely, women within the same religious community would do so as well.

But also, many towns had numerous buyers and sellers of secondhand clothing, and of clothing made from secondhand fabric.

Perhaps some was “dodgy”?

A bit of doggerel verse, “London Lickpenny,” describes a man who loses his hood, later discovers it being sold at a market in Cornhill, but cannot afford to buy it back.

Secondhand clothing came from at least four sources :

  • craftsmen who had a supply of wasted, old and substandard material
  • aristocratic and ecclesiastical institutions
  • upper class people who used pawnbrokers to dispose of goods after inheritance
  • theft, as we’ve seen in unlucky “London Lickpenny”



*For me, it was an encounter with Abercrombie and Fitch jeans.


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