Item habet domina Laurencia unum cossetum de vario quem portabat qualibet die.

One of the strange things about medieval estate inventories is that they sometimes provide glimpses into states of mind or habits of thought that are otherwise almost invisible to us. Among other things, inventories demonstrate how the people of that era had ideas about ownership or possession that are different from our own. It seems to have been taken for granted by everyone, for example, that almost everything in a house belonged to the head of the household. Thus, when a husband died, the inventory of his estate listed all the clothing that, in our understanding of belonging, actually "belonged" to his wife. The same is true for inventories of women or widows, of course: most or all of them include men's clothing that formerly belonged to their late husbands or their underage male children. Thus, it is not unusual to find this month's featured object, a women's corset, made of vair (a type of fur) and belonging to the widow Laurencia, listed in the estate of her deceased husband.

Though the word "cossetum" can be translated as corset, the garment was nothing like its Victorian analogue. The word probably referred instead to a laced bodice or vest, possibly sleeveless, worn by women as an outer garment or a layer. Many of the corsets in the DALME collection were luxurious garments that included fur; they were often made from bright colors (purple, ruby red) and some were adorned with silk fabric and pearls. But the most fascinating feature about the otherwise nondescript corset featured here lies in the revealing passage with which the object phrase closes. At the time of the inventory was made, someone present just happened to say "this was the corset that Laurencia wore every day" or words to that effect. We can assume that remarks like this were uttered frequently during the compilation of inventories but the vast majority of such phrases were simply ignored by the individuals responsible for drafting the inventory. Somehow, and for reasons unknown, this chance observation was preserved. Perhaps the purpose was to indicate that this was something that really belonged to Laurencia.

For a recent discussion of medieval corsets, see Melissa M. Furrow, “The Politics of Queen Philippa’s Mottoes: Five English Words,” Modern Philology 114, no. 3 (2017): 503–23, esp. p. 509.