Medieval Monastic Clothing Part 2: The Habit’s Symbolism

This is the second part of my series on medieval monastic clothing. You can find the first part here.

Now, monks didn’t wear a habit to look fancy. Far from it in fact! A monk’s habit was to show others his place in the world. It was meant to display that he had given up material things and dedicated his life to God. The habit itself was a symbol of the angelic, while the cowl (the hood) was a symbol of perfection. It was meant to protect a monk from evil whenever he went outside the monastery as well as when he slept. (Well, if he remembered to put it on before he fell asleep!)

Bas-de-page scene of two monks walking towards the right and looking surprised | Yates Thompson MS 13 f.174r | Source: The British Library

The Rule of Saint Benedict specifically says that the habit’s cloth should be bought locally and as cheaply as possible. This way a monk showed just how poor he was. However, there were debates over what was considered the cheapest option. Should the chamberlain buy the cheapest material that will wear out faster, meaning that he would have to spend more money in the long run? Or should he splurge a little on nicer fabric, causing clothes to last longer and thus spending less money? It’s certainly a difficult decision to make when you are trying to follow The Rule to the letter!

The symbolism of a monk’s habit wasn’t reserved just for the type of cloth. The color also had a deeper meaning. Black symbolized repentance as well as humility while white symbolized glory. (It should be noted that different orders wore different colors. Cistercians wore undyed wool, so they were nicknamed the White Monks or the Grey Monks. Benedictines were known as the Black Monks for their dyed black habits.)

Finally, because monks all wore the same thing, it showed that in theory thy were a community of brothers who loved and respected each other. (I say “in theory” because in reality, there could be a lot of petty drama in monasteries. Check out my Misbehaving Medieval Monk series if you’re interested in reading about some juicy monastic gossip!)

Sources:

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.)

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. 

Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009. (This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)