In Chapter Fifty-Five of The Rule of Saint Benedict, our titular saint mentions that monks should only wear underwear while they are venturing outside the monastery and said underwear should be returned for washing as soon as the monk returns. That one sentence set off centuries of debate regarding monastic underwear. (If I had to guess, I think Saint Benedict did not intend for all the controversy over underpants to happen, but it sure did!) However, before we get into all the petty monastic drama, let’s take a look at the evidence that monks did indeed wear underwear.
Evidence That Monks Wore Underwear
Even though The Rule of Saint Benedict says, in theory, a monk shouldn’t wear them, there is plenty of documentation showing they did in practice. I’ve selected ten instances proving this to be the case. (There are more instances out there, but I decided to cut the list off at ten for brevity’s sake.)
- Louis the Pious’s capitulare monasticum (a monastic capitulary) mentions that monks should be allowed two pairs of drawers.
- Adalhard’s rule for canons also mentions monks having two pairs of drawers.
- Whenever Alcuin was too sleepy to pray before bed he would strip down to just his shirt and drawers in an attempt to get the cold air to wake him up.
- Emperor Henry II of the Holy Roman Empire gave money to a monastery specifically for the monks to spend it on new underwear.
- Cluniac sign language had a sign for drawers.
- Cluniacs also had a very specific set of instructions on how a monk should clean his underwear if he ever had a nocturnal emission.
- Pope Nicholas I wrote a letter about clerics wearing drawers that basically said that they can wear underwear if they want, holiness is not determined over whether or not you wear them, and to please stop asking him about this.
- In the French poem Moniage Guillaume, the main character’s abbot tells him that if robbers ever bombard him to steal his habit he’s not allowed to fight them. However, if they try to take his drawers he is allowed to fight them to protect his modesty.
- In The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, Lanfranc specifies that monks must be fully dressed when they walk around the cloister. Just wearing underwear or going barefoot does not count as fully dressed.
- A monk at Andres in Pas-de-Calais mooned his abbot after asking for new drawers and being told no. (There is a lot more context to this story for why it escalated to this point, but that’s for another day!)
What They Were Called
When doing research, I came across several different English terms for underwear. Some of these were drawers, braies, and breeches. However, in Medieval Latin, there were two terms. The first one is “femoralia” (also spelled “feminalia”). The second term used is “bracae” (also spelt “braccae” or “bracchia”). These terms referred to the clothing’s cut.
The Cloth and The Cut
Depending on what century it was, the cut of a monk’s underwear would vary. And even in the same century, a monk might own different kinds of underwear. For example, Abbot Raoul of Saint-Remi was documented complaining about drawers that were made with fine thread so they left nothing to the imagination as well as drawers that were too baggy and used too much fabric. For a time at Farfa Abbey, the pattern was pretty standard: a pair of drawers would measure twice the circumference of a monk and was a foot from the crotch to the top. (Shorter monks would roll them so they would fit.) At Westminster, in the 14th century, a pair of underwear used two ells of cloth or around two and a half yards. This meant the drawers could be pretty long. However, around 1350 only a yard to yard and a quarter was allowed for one pair of drawers.
Most of the time, linen was the material of choice for underwear. According to one of Augustine’s sermons, linen was purer than wool. After all, linen came from a plant (so no sex was required to make it!). Linen also represented the inward and the spiritual while wool represented the outward and the physical. It should be noted that this little tidbit has only been found in one manuscript. However, even if Augustine himself didn’t think that it does imply that the scribe might have!
As previously mentioned, there was some discourse over whether or not a monk should actually be wearing underwear. One reason for the discourse can be traced back to Saint Benedict’s wording. As he lived in a Mediterranean climate, it was warm enough to go commando. However, for monks in colder areas, this was not practical. Saint Benedict knew this and made sure to clarify that northern monks were allowed to wear more clothes. As The Rule was written in the early 6th century, this gave monks and abbots plenty of time to debate what he meant by this.
One argument was over whether or not wearing drawers was Christian or pagan. After all, pagans were associated with pants (Germanic tribes) while Christians were associated with tunics (the Romans). It seems that priests were expected to wear drawers while on the altar, so when more monks were starting to become priests this was an issue. Aeneas of Paris argued that drawers signified chastity while the Cistercians considered them unwholesome. Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel’s opinion on the matter was simple: let monks wear them if they want and don’t shame them if they do.
The Cistercians’ Lack of Drawers
By the 9th century, pretty much everyone was on board with monks and priests wearing underwear. Of course, you had people who didn’t do it and there were some reforms in the 11th century, but generally speaking, wearing them was an accepted and expected practice. Then in 1098, the Cistercian Order was founded. For context, the founder, Robert of Molesme created this new religious order because he thought the Benedictines had strayed away from following The Rule of Saint Benedict too much. The Cistercians were going to follow The Rule to the letter. This included not wearing underwear. And pretty much everyone else went, “That’s stupid and we’re going to make fun of you for it.”
Orderic Vitalis and Rupert of Deutz simply wrote defenses on wearing underwear. Hildegard of Bingen argued that yes, people in Saint Benedict’s day didn’t wear underwear, but times had changed. (She was also an abbess and nuns were allowed to wear underwear for practical reasons.) Walter Map on the other hand had an absolute field day with this bit of information. He already hated the Cistercians, so this little tidbit made it even easier for him to make fun of them. Apparently, one Cistercian told Walter the reason they didn’t wear them was that the cold wind helped them quell their lust. Walter had this comment to make about that:
“If, however, the Cistercians can endure scarcity of food, rough clothing, hard toil, and such single inconveniences as they describe, but cannot contain their lust, and need the wind to act as a check for Venus, it is well that they do without breeches and are exposed to the breezes…perchance, the goddess hurleth her attack more boldly against those enemies whom she knoweth are more firmly guarded. However this may be, the fallen monk would have arisen with more dignity if his body had been more closely confined.”Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium (Courtiers’ Trifles).
In the same text, Walter Map gleefully recounts a story about how foolish he thinks this practice is. Apparently one day Henry II, a monk named Master Rericus, and a bunch of soldiers and priests were riding down the street. A Cistercian monk saw them coming and rushed to jump out of the way. The lowly monk tripped and fell directly in front of Henry II’s horse. Unfortunately for everyone involved, it was a really windy day and the monk was not wearing underwear. His habit flew up around his neck and the poor man ended up accidentally flashing everyone. (Incidents like this is why Saint Benedict said drawers needed to be worn outside the monastery!) In response, King Henry II looked away and pretended that he saw nothing and this wasn’t happening. Master Rericus on the other hand quipped, “A curse on this bare-bottom piety.”
This one instance should give you a pretty good idea of what most people thought about the Cistercians’ stance on underwear. It certainly made them the butt of the joke!
“Cistercian Monks and Lay Brothers.” The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity: Volume 1: The Middle Ages, by Jan M. Ziolkowski, 1st ed., Open Book Publishers, Cambridge, UK, 2018, pp. 117–170. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv4ncp86.7. Accessed 6 Dec. 2020.
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.
Map, Walter. De Nugis Curialium (Courtiers’ Trifles). Translated by Frederick Tupper and Marbury Bladen Ogle, Chatto & Windus, 1924. (You can find the breeches story here.)
Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.
Shopkow, Leah. “Mooning the Abbot: A Tale of Disorder, Vulgarity, Ethnicity, and Underwear in the Monastery.” Prowess, Piety, and Public Order in Medieval Society: Studies in Honor of Richard W. Kaeuper, Brill, 2017, pp. 179–198. (Can be found here.)
Tugwell, Simon. “‘CALIGAE’ AND OTHER ITEMS OF MEDIEVAL RELIGIOUS DRESS: A LEXICAL STUDY.” Romance Philology, vol. 61, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1–23. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44741774. Accessed 12 Dec. 2020.