Fit or fat? Knights with waspy waists….


Monumental brass of Simon de Felbrigge and wife Margaret, St Margaret’s Church, Felbrigg, Norfolk.

We all know that ladies of the Victorian era often fainted because their corsets were too tightly laced. A tiny waist was highly desirable. Well, it still is, of course, but not to such a ridiculous extent. This tortuous lacing would have been difficult enough for young women to endure, but Heaven alone knows what it was like for plumper matrons. Let’s be honest, ladies, it’s only a lucky few of us who keep our figures all our lives! My waist packed up and left home decades ago!

This must surely have been the case in the medieval period too? For women and men? Yet just think of all those church brasses, showing knights with pinched-in waists. Maybe it was all to do with supporting the man’s body in armour when on a horse, I don’t know, but we’re left with an apparent record of countless lean, fit men with waspy waists. Were they all like that? So active and healthy that they kept their youthful figures?

I don’t believe it. Men became as fat back then as they do now, but it’s my guess that church brasses recorded them as their fashionable youthful selves. Or they were somehow squashed into close-fitting armour and had to survive as best they could? Or they had armour that was actually tailored for their increased girth—but church brasses were certainly not expected to show them as they really were! Their families would have honoured this “tradition”. Vanity was behind it, much as air-brushing is now! The same regarding the ladies. To me, both Simon de Felbrigge and his wife in the illustration above seem suspiciously small around the waist. Or they suffered badly from, er, internal parasites!

This is just my musing, of course, and I hope to be put right because I’d rather imagine dashing knights and lovely ladies than porkers!


  1. I’ve read that adults were likely to have themselves portrayed in tomb art at the age of 33, Christ’s age at crucifixion. That may account for some of the youthfulness.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Also don’t forget that nowadays people generally start to spread once they reach their forties.
      Most people in the middle ages wouldn’t have lived much longer than that, so might have maintained their more youthful figures (excluding H8 of course!)
      I do agree there’s probably some manipulation in the way they’re depicted though!

      Liked by 3 people

  2. another possibility for the slender physique is that it’s natural, a consequence of the ever present fasting for countless Feast days (somewhere I read over 100 annually) PLUS the whole of Lent, and for the pious, also Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays! Nothing to eat before 3pm thank you very much! I read, probably Scofield, that Edward IV got permission to skip the whole Saturday fasting obligation (I can imagine he had them throw in the Wednesdays too while they were at it!)
    And, anyone who reads up on medieval food, especially in and around London, would know they ate fish fish fish! Perhaps Edward had his endless varieties of fish covered in heavy sauces and buttered pastries but then again he IS the king. He also drank – presumably – the better wines and possibly beer (not yet a uniformly consumed item). But beer will surely add the weight – for most of these knights they may well have been abstemious as Charles the Rash – who barely colored his water with ale. If a man lives his whole adult life in harness, (and that was what the Hundred Years War probably felt like) such constrictions would have kept me from excessive eating as well! Much as their wives, especially those who may have had a court presence, did not wish to be the one easily mistaken for the king’s elephant let loose from the Menagerie!

    Liked by 5 people

  3. I suspect they may well have been physically fitter than we are. You had to walk or ride everywhere, and either is exercise. They were no power tools either, everything was physical.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Thanks for pointing this out! I’d never thought of it until now. There’s one other oddity here : young men, today at least, don’t have such well defined waists as young women because they don’t have our famous child-bearing hips. What’s going on here? Is the knight a woman in disguise?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m no expert in armory, but I do know from historical costumers on YouTube (I know, I know, but bear with me, some of these people have Masters’ degrees in the field of historical dress) that the flaring hips of the armor was there to support the weight of the breastplate, which allowed for greater freedom of movement. It was the flaring out at the hips and breastplate that gave the illusion of wasp waists.

    Liked by 1 person

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