Samite was a luxurious and heavy silk fabric worn in the Middle Ages, of a twill-type weave, often including gold or silver thread. The word was derived from Old French samit, from medieval Latin samitum, examitum deriving from the Byzantine Greek ἑξάμιτον hexamiton "six threads", usually interpreted as indicating the use of six yarns in the warp. Samite is still used in ecclesiastical robes, vestments, ornamental fabrics, and interior decoration.
Structurally, samite is a weft-faced compound twill, plain or figured (patterned), in which the main warp threads are hidden on both sides of the fabric by the floats of the ground and patterning wefts, with only the binding warps visible. By the later medieval period, the term samite was applied to any rich, heavy silk material which had a satin-like gloss, indeed "satin" began as a term for lustrous samite.
Origins and spread to Europe
Fragments of samite have been discovered at many locations along the Silk Road, and are especially associated with Sassanid Persia. Samite was "arguably the most important" silk weave of Byzantium, and from the 9th century Byzantine silks entered Europe via the Italian trading ports. Vikings, connected through their direct trade routes with Constantinople, were buried in samite embroidered with silver-wound threads in the tenth century. Silk weaving itself was established in Lucca and Venice in the 12th and 13th centuries, and the statutes of the silk-weaving guilds in Venice specifically distinguished sammet weavers from weavers of other types of silk cloth.
The Crusades brought Europeans into direct contact with the Islamic world, and other sources of samite, as well as other Eastern luxuries. A samite saddle-cloth known in the West as the Suaire de St-Josse, now in the Musée du Louvre, was woven in eastern Iran, some time before 961, when Abu Mansur Bakhtegin, for whom it was woven, died; it was brought back from the First Crusade by Étienne de Blois and dedicated as a votive gift at the Abbey of Saint-Josse, near Boulogne. At the time of the First Crusade, samite needed to be explained to a Western audience, as in the eye-witness Chanson d'Antioche (ccxxx):
Very quickly he took a translator and a large dromedary loaded with silver cloth, called "samite" in our language. He sent them to our fine, brave men...
The Fourth Crusade brought riches unknown in the West to the "Frankish" crusaders who sacked Constantinople in 1204, described by Villehardouin: "The booty gained was so great that none could tell you the end of it: gold and silver, and vessels and precious stones, and samite, and cloth of silk..."
Use in Medieval Europe
Samite was a royal tissue: in the 1250s it features among the clothing of fitting status provided for the innovative and style-conscious English king Henry III, his family, and his attendants. For those of royal blood there were robes and mantles of samite and cloth of gold. Samite itself might be interwoven with threads wrapped in gold foil. It could be further enriched by being over-embroidered: in Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, the Story of the Grail (1180s) "On the altar, I assure you, there lay a slain knight. Over him was spread a rich, dyed samite cloth, embroidered with many golden flowers, and before him burned a single candle, no more, no less." In manuscript illuminations, modern readers often interpret rich figurative designs as embroidered, but Linnet Kestrel points out that they could equally be painted, and illustrates a samite bishop's mitre painted in grisaille in the Cleveland Museum of Art. According to the Louvre the most famous example of painted silk, the Parement of Narbonne, despite being a royal commission, was only made on "fluted silk imitating samite".
In the wrong hands, samite could threaten the outward marks of social stability; samite was specified among the luxuries forbidden the urban middle classes in sumptuary laws by the court of René of Anjou about 1470: "In cities mercantile governments outlawed crowns, trains, cloth of samite and precious metals, ermine trims, and other pretensions of aristocratic fashion"  In Florence, when the condottiero Walter of Brienne offered the innovation of a sumptuous feast to San Giovanni in 1343, the chronicler Villani noted among the rich trappings "He added to the other side of the palio of crimson samite cloth a trim of gray squirrel skin as long as the pole."
As the premier luxury textile of the Middle Ages, samite has long been associated with Arthurian literature.
In the dramatic and eerie manifestation of the Holy Grail in Arthur's court in the Romance Queste del Saint Graal, the Grail appeared, covered with a samite cloth, hung in the air a moment, and disappeared.
It was famously referred to in the Idylls of the King cycle of poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. There the Lady of the Lake, described in the cycle only by the same line, repeated in four different places: "Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful", gives Arthur his sword Excalibur and then in the The Passing of Arthur catches it when it is flung into the lake as he lies dying. This appearance was referenced, too, in the film Excalibur and even burlesqued in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
In the A Song of Ice and Fire series, which is set in a world inspired by medieval Europe, samite is very often featured in the attire of wealthy characters.
- Oxford English Dictionary Online "samite" (subscription required), accessed 30 December 2010
- Lisa Mannas, Merchants, Princes and Painters: Silk Fabrics in Northern and Italian Paintings 1300–1550, Appendix I:III "Medieval Silk Fabric Types and Weaves", Yale University Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-300-11117-0, p. 297.
- George E. Linton, The Modern Textile Dictionary, NY, 1954, pg. 561
- Anna Muthesius, "Silk in the Medieval World". In David Jenkins, ed.: The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-521-34107-8, p.343
- Dorothy K. Burnham, Warp and Weft, A Textile Terminology, Royal Ontario Museum, 1980, ISBN 0-88854-256-9, p. 180.
- George S. Cole, A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods, Chicago, W. B. Conkey company, 1892
- Clothing Of The Thirteenth Century, 1928 on-line text)
- For an example, see "The Silk Road", Metropolitan Museum of Art website, retrieved 24 May 2008
- Woven Textiles: Textiles from Antiquity to the Renaissance, Gallery Les Enluminures, retrieved 24 May 2008
- Carolyn Priest-Dorman, "Viking Embroidery", noting published excavations of graves at Valsgärde, Sweden.
- Muthesius, "Silk in the Medieval World", p. 332-337
- Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom, "The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unwieldy Field", The Art Bulletin 85.1 (March 2003:152-184), p. 154, fig. 1.
- On-line translated text.
- Villehardouin, Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople (on-line text).
- Noted by James F. Willard, reviewing Close Rolls of the Reign of Henry III, A.D. 1251-1253 in Speculum, 4.2 (April 1929:222-223).
- Chrétien, Nigel Bryant, tr. Perceval: The Story of the Grail 2006:207
- Kestrtel, ""Whips and angels: painting on cloth in the medieval period" (on-line text).
- Her figure 12.
- Louvre website
- Diane Owen Hughes, "Regulating women's fashion", in A History of Women in the West: Silences of the Middle Ages, Georges Duby et al. (Harvard University Press) 1992:139.
- San Giovanni's banner.
- Villani, Chronicle, quoted in Richard C. Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence (Cornell University Press) 1980:257f.
- Noted by Joseph Campbell and Eugene C. Kennedy in Thou art that: transforming religious metaphor (New World Library) 2001:30.
- online text
- The cycle refers to samite as being worn by several other characters, including Arthur himself (in red) and Vivien:
A twist of gold was round her hair; a robe
Of samite without price, that more exprest
Than hid her, clung about her lissome limbs,
In colour like the satin-shining palm
On sallows in the windy gleams of March:
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Merlin and Vivien, ch. 6
Though "Vivien" is the name of the Lady of the Lake in some versions of the Arthurian legends, in Tennyson she is a different person. The "greenery-yallery" colour of earliest willow leaves that Tennyson describes is a prominent color of the British Aesthetic Movement rather than of the Middle Ages.
- Embroidered red samite cope from 1270
- Samite robe 8th-11th century CE Aga Khan Museum
- Child's coat Sogdian samite silk, 8th century, Pritzer collection, Chicago (Julianna Lees Flickr album, pearl roundel in close-up)
- Sogdian samite silk child's coat 8th century (Julianna Lees Flickr album)
- Textile samples from New York's [Metropolitan Museum]
- Samite fragment from [Turfan], with pattern in weave (broken link)