If you look up “medieval monk” on Google images you will find a lot of pictures of men dressed in brown robes, rope belts, and wooden cross necklaces. But how accurate is that? Well, if you are a Franciscan then it’s accurate enough. If you’re part of another order, then not so much. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be discussing monastic clothing. Today’s topic will be some of the items of clothing a European medieval monk may wear. I say “some” due to the span of medieval monasticism. The middle ages was a period of around a thousand years and Europe is a large place, so it would be very difficult for me to list every single item of clothing a monk may have worn during that time. So instead I will be listing the basics.
(It should also be noted that if a monk lived in a colder climate (like England) he would have a winter and a summer version of certain items of clothing. After all, it would not be a good idea to run around in the snow without something warm to wear!)
- A cowl
- This garment was about ankle length. It would either be sleeveless or have short sleeves. Earlier cowls had open sides that could be tied shut. It had a hood and was worn as working/everyday wear. Depending on the time period, a cowl might just refer to a separate hood instead of the whole garment. A cowl can also be called a habit.
- A frock
- This garment was also about ankle length and had a hood. Unlike the cowl, a frock had long sleeves. Frocks were considered to be a monk’s “good” clothes and would only be worn on special occasions. Like the cowl, a frock might also be referred to as a habit. A monk would never wear a cowl and a frock together.
- A scapular
- This garment is a rectangular piece of cloth that reaches the ankles both in the front and the back. In the middle, there is a hole for the head. A monk’s hood would be pulled through the neck hole so it wasn’t underneath the scapular. It’s basically an apron. However, when a monk wore a belt over it, the scapular could be used as a handy pouch to hold stuff in.
- A belt
- Belts were allowed according to The Rule of Saint Benedict. Franciscans wore rope belts/cintures.
- A riding cloak
- This garment was worn when a monk was out riding on his horse. Depending on the fabric, it could be black, brown, or grey. Monks were only supposed to wear somber colors after all! However, that didn’t stop some monks from owning riding cloaks with striped linings, which was a big no-no.
- Monks would get several different types of shoes depending on the season. If they lived in a colder climate, they would be given a pair of lined shoes for the winter. In the summer they would get unlined shoes. They were also given slippers for nighttime wear.
- As long as you weren’t a Cistercian monk you would wear underwear. The discourse about monastic underwear is very involved (as well as absolutely hilarious) so I will be writing a completely separate article on it later in the month.
- These were made out of linen.
- A tunic
- For Anglo-Saxon monks, tunics were white, floor-length, and had tight sleeves. Later on, monks at Westminster wore black tunics. Over time tunics became tighter and shorter until regulations were made preventing that.
Finally, I want to note how monks (at least the ones at Cluny Abbey) were able to tell what belonged to whom. Most of the clothes had the monk’s name written in ink somewhere on it. For a pair of underwear, a monk would embroider his name on them. This was due to the amount of washing they went through. However, if a monk was significantly taller/shorter/fatter than the others I’m sure he could find his habit just fine!
Forging, Jeffrey, and Jeffrey Singman. “Monastic Life.” Daily Life in Medieval Europe, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 139–170. (This book can be found here on Google Book. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)
Fortescue, Adrian. “Cowl.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 5 Dec. 2020<http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04463a.htm>.
Harvey, Barbara. Monastic Dress in the Middle Ages: Precept and Practice, Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society, 1988. http://www.canterbury-archaeology.org.uk/publications/4590809431
Jones, Terry, and Alan Ereira. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives. BBC Books, 2005.
Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.