Where the Devil Is

Details of Medieval Tent Construction

"The devil is in the details," goes an old saying. When we are doing re-creation activities, a lot of the pleasure comes in getting the details right, so that the overall effect is as convincing and realistic as possible. That goes for tents, too.

Given the vast differences in geography, time period, and utility of these tents, it should come as no surprise that there is no absolutely typical medieval tent. But study of period tentage reveals some details that were fairly common in our period, and which help make medieval tents visually distinctive. So when buying or making your next tent, it pays to put a little more attention into those details that distinguish the medieval tent from post-period tents and modern tents.

What follows is a summary of what I've found from looking at over seventy period representations of tents. I wanted to find how frequently certain design details (peak balls, peak pennants, decorated valances, etc.) occured throughout the collection. If I saw a particular detail, I counted it. If I saw two different details in the same picture (for instance, a peak globe on one tent and an unadorned peak on the tent next to it), I counted the picture twice, once in each column. If I didn't see the detail, or if the resolution of my picture defied an accurate identification, I didn't count the picture at all. Please note that I didn't count the number of tents themselves. If a picture showed three tents with a globe and one tent with an unadorned peak, the count was one for each, and not three of one and one of the other. The reason for this is that I didn't want pictures with many tents in them to unduly influence the final count; regardless of how many tents were in the picture, it was still one picture, representing one time and one place. It is because of these counting methods that all the various categories do not total up to the number of pictures studied (which in this case was seventy-two).

One category of detail that I didn't count was the presence or absence of guy ropes. I found enough pictures of them to convince myself that they were commonly used in period, but also found a lot of pictures that didn't show them, even in cases where they might have been useful or necessary. I eventually realized that guy ropes were probably omitted by artists of the day, and their presence or absence in a picture may may have no relation to whether the tents themselves had them.

I also broke the count down by time period, where possible, to show how the fashion may have changed over the centuries.

What's Up Top

First, I counted the frequency of occurence of peak decorations, dividing them into four categories -- Spikes or pennant poles, balls or finials, a combination of the two. and no decoration. Here's what the count was:

Time period Spikes or Pennants Balls or Finials Both No Adornment
Pre-15th Century 2 10 1 3
15th Century 2 5 5 0
16th Century 5 10 10 2
No Date Available 2 2 5 0
Column Total: 11 27 21 5

From this summary, it's pretty obvious that the vast majority of tents had at least a ball or finial, and roughly a half of these also had a pennant pole or spike (which I rather arbitrarily defined as an extension big enough to fly a pennant from, whether or not there was actually a pennant portrayed). Some people have said that the balls help prevent rainwater from going down the hole in the top of the canopy, but I doubt that the effect was very great. I've also heard it said that the prevalence of peak pennants and spikes was to prevent birds from roosting up there and defecating on the tent. That, at least, makes a little more sense to me.

Around the Rim

Here's a breakdown of the treatment given the lower skirt of the canopy (or top of tent). These are primarily for styles of tents like the conventional round tent and oblong (or oval) tents, which featured a distinctive change of angle where the canopy met the side wall. Other tents, like the French "bell" and common pup-tent style tents, had no such demarcation point and therefore were not included in the tally.

Time period No Valance Straight, Plain Straight, Ornamented Pattern-Cut
Pre-15th Century 4 1 5 1
15th Century 4 1 16 3
16th Century 3 6 8 7
No Date Available 1 1 3 3
Column Total: 12 9 32 14

We can see from this table that there were almost as many of the third category -- straight, ornamented valances -- as there were in all the other categories combined. The ornamentation consisted of fringe or a decorative treatment of the fabric itself. It is impossible to see from the pictures whether this treatment consisted of embroidery or painting, of course.

Despite the ubiquity of a pattern-cut valance in the SCA and most of the commercial tents made for them, there aren't as many period depictions as you would expect. Most of the patterning was in the form of billets, although one was a simple scallop and one (a Turkish design) was "dentate" or sawtooth. And despite the popularity of "crenelation" cuts in the SCA, I have been unable to find a single incidence of this in period.

I have given the benefit of the doubt wherever possible to this last category, although it is by no means apparent whether some designs were actually cut into the fabric or were merely painted on as "architectural" features.

The Shape of Things

Our last category is the general shape of the tent -- that is, whether the walls were slanted or hung straight down. Here is probably where the styles in the SCA diverge most radically from what was seen in period. Again, I did not count tents whose sides and tops were part of a continuous line.

Time period Vertical Sides Slanted Sides
Pre-15th Century 4 7
15th Century 2 19
16th Century 0 17
No Date Available 2 3
Column Total: 8 46

It's worth remarking that there seems to be a sort of size correlation between the size of the tent and the configuration of the sidewalls; you see vertical sides only on tents that are very small (less than, say, eight feet in diameter). This makes sense, because the purpose of the slanted side is to help make the tent more resistent to winds, which is more of a problem for big tents than for smaller ones. By the sixteenth century, vertical sidewalls seem to have pretty much disappeared.

Interestingly, one of these straight-sided tents was seen pitched on a bridge. It had no guy ropes, making me wonder if the structure was a simple center-pole sunk into a hole on the bridge, with a ring forming the edge of the canopy and the walls hanging from the ring and unsecured on the bottom ... your basic lawn umbrella with walls. No guy rope pegs or tent pegs would be needed, and it would have been pretty hard to drive them into the stonework of the bridge, anyway.

Index of Previous Columns

Other articles you can read, mostly on tentmaking and medieval tents

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