Sunday, August 21, 2011

Gurtil / Gyrdel / Girdle / Belt

Let's start with a little etymology on the term 'girdle'. Where does the term 'girdle' originate?  According to, --
girdle (n.) - O.E. gyrdel "belt, sash, cord about the waist," common Germanic. (cf. O.N. gyrðill, Swed. gördel, O.Fris. gerdel, Du. gordel, O.H.G. gurtil, Ger. Gürtel "belt"), related to O.E. gyrdan "to gird" (see gird). Modern euphemistic sense of "elastic corset" first recorded 1925. The verb meaning "encircle with a girdle" is attested from 1580s. Meaning "to cut off a belt of bark around a trunk to kill a tree" is from 1660s. Related: Girdled; girdling.
So let's pull out what is relevant for this entry -- O.H.G. gurtil, Ger. Gürtel "belt"

O.H.G. stands for Old High German, which, according to Wikipedia, conventionally covers the period from 500-1050 AD of the German language (after which is the Middle High German followed by the Early New High German, which is what covers what I'm researching, but language studies will be saved for another time).

Now let's move forward a step or two... Another reference that I am finding for 'girdle' is at, which indicates the following:
Origin: before 1000; Middle English; Old English gyrdel, derivative of girdan to gird

[Old English gyrdel, of Germanic origin; related to Old Norse gyrthill, Old Frisian gerdel, Old High German gurtila; see gird ] 
 And last, but not least, is a reference to 'gyrtel' in a period poem by Caxton entitled "Book of Curtesye", which was published at Westminster circa 1477-78 and was printed as follows:


       Lose not your gyrdel / sittyng at your mete
           [Don't undo your girdle at table]
       For that is a tacche / of vncurtesye
199 But yf ye seme / ye be embraced streite
           [if it's tight, let it out before you sit down]
       Or then ye sytte / amende it secretly
       So couertly that no wight you espye
       Beware also / no breth fro you rebounde
           [Don't break wind up or down]
203 Vp ne doun / leste ye were shameful founde

From everything previously stated, I am going to be working with the term gurtil to indicate 'a belt that is worn about the waist', since it appears as if that was a general term used across many countries and it would be a more appropriate usage. Now this isn't to say that 'belt' as a synonym was not used, but I'm finding more references to 'girdle' as opposed to 'belt' until around the time of my current research study.  Hopefully this will make doing research on them easier, but that remains to be seen.

As to the material used in making a gurtil, thus far I'm finding that people are suggesting either leather or tablet woven belts.  I haven't found actual period sources to indicate that either were preferable or which was more likely.  What I have noticed is that women's gurtils, at least in this period, appeared thinner than those of their male counterpart, perhaps maybe an inch in width.  I haven't found where the female gurtil has a long tail as many would wear modernly at events, but then the female images do not have the buckle (if there is one) showing at all.  The buckles for the men tend to be completely off-center toward, generally, the right hip, whether this is due to a sword invariably on the left hip or the ease of buckling the gurtil for a right-handed person, I am uncertain.

So far, one of the examples I've found is from Durer's Lady on Horseback with Landsknecht circa 1497.

The lady's gurtil is very thin and draped around her waist and hips, but unfortunately the ends are not visible.  The Landsknecht's wider belt, on the other hand, is buckled at his right hip supporting his sword on his left hip and the end of the gurtil is rather short, as if the gurtil is intended to be the length that is needed without a lot of excess.  It isn't obvious whether the end of the gurtil is covered in a metal tip or cover.   The buckle appears to be a squarer version of a find in the Clure County Library listed as a late medieval belt buckle.

I've also noticed that the German drawings I've gone over tend to not have a lot of decoration on the gurtil compared to other countries which appear to have metal fixtures and such.  Whether this is due to the artists I'm viewing or an actual convention of the time I have yet to determine.

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