For fun I look at medieval manuscripts. However, as I do not have in-person access to these manuscripts, I look at the digitized versions provided by libraries, museums, universities, and other cultural institutions. At the end of this blog post, I’ve provided a list of links to digitized collections.
Medieval illuminations and marginalia are beautiful, fascinating, and sometimes just down right funny. They give modern day readers the ability to travel back in time and interact with the scribes, illuminators, and past readers who are people just like them. (Not to mention the animals that interacted with the manuscripts as well!) People who made notes indicating important parts of the text, drew silly looking monsters doing sillier things, rubbed out drawings they considered lewd, wrote their names on the pages, and so much more.
Despite the fact medieval manuscripts are hundreds of years old, a significant number of them are not in the public domain. Many medieval manuscripts are copyrighted or under some sort of restriction that prevents commercial and non-commercial use. However, there are some institutions that allow their manuscripts to be used freely or with attribution.
That is why all the medieval illuminations I feature on my Instagram have the manuscript number, institution name, and any other information the owner requires in my captions. I include this information on open access images as well so people can find the sources if they want to do further research or simply look at them on their own.
Because of the many restrictions (which are often confusing to read), there are a lot of manuscripts I’m unable to share. However, people can still access them for free if they only intend to look at them.
Please be aware individual institutions have different policies regarding how their images can be used. Always check the source’s rules about distribution before using them!
This list will be added to as I find more digitized medieval manuscript collections.
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris France
The BnF’s website is kind of difficult to navigate. That being said, I’m sure it would be easier if I could read French.
Previously I wrote an article explaining what penitentials were. Today I want to go deeper and share some real life penances from translated penitentials. It would be impossible to write down every single penance, so for this series of articles I will be sharing ones I find particularly interesting and why. Today’s penances are from the canons attributed to Saint Patrick.
It is important to note that the canons attributed to Saint Patrick are technically not penitentials. They are canons. (Hence the name!) Canons are laws the Church made to govern clergy and lay folk. However, the canons attributed to Saint Patrick contain sections written in a penitential format. (The penitential format being a sentence to a paragraph describing a sin and a person’s penance for committing that sin.)
For my translation I am using the Medieval Handbook of Penances: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentialesby John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer.
While the canons are attributed to Saint Patrick, the earliest surviving manuscripts of both texts date several centuries after the saint’s death. Because of this, it is questionable whether or not Saint Patrick had anything to do with their authorship, whether he influenced them through his personal writings or what people think he might have thought. The manuscripts date to the ninth century and are thought to contain material from what is believed to be a seventh century Irish synod.
Canons of a Synod of Patrick, Auxilius, and Iserninus
This section is about the cleric dress code. Whether you were a sexton, priest, or any type of cleric in between, it was vital that you were always clothed in public. The canon specifically says clerics cannot be seen without their tunics on and they must “cover the shame and nakedness of his body” (pg. 77). The canon also states that clerics must have Roman style tonsures. (There were different styles of tonsures. I will be writing an article about that in the future.) Furthermore, any wife of a cleric must be veiled at all times. (This was written before clerical celibacy became a rule rather than a suggestion.) If any clerics and their wives disobeyed this, the canon orders them to be “despised by laymen and separated from the Church” (pg. 77).
Based on the fact this rule exists, it seems that it was a regular problem that clerics and their wives went out in public not dressed appropriately. Or it happened at least once and new rules had to be made. If it was neither of those things, it might have just been as fear for the creators of this canon and they wanted to cover all of their bases before something did happen!
At the time this canon was written, clerics acting as a surety for pagans were a common enough practice. The text specifically says it “is not strange” (pg. 77), nor was it strange if the pagan failed to pay up. If this happened, the cleric was responsible for the debt. It did not matter if the amount was really, really big or really, really small. Either way he had to pay it out of his own pocket. Also if the cleric fought the pagan he was “justly reckoned to be outside the Church” (pg. 77).
The fact that this was a valid and common concern gives us an interesting insight into Christian and pagan relations during the seventh century. Christians and pagans must have been on amicable enough terms to get into such legal contracts with each other.
This part of the canon prohibits monks and virgins from different places from socializing. They were not allowed to stay in the same inn, travel in the same carriage, or even talk to each other.
While the canon does not specify what the monk and virgin’s penances will be if they break this rule, I do understand why it is in place. If you want to prevent any sort of unchaste behavior, the easiest way to do so is not allow two parties to be in the vicinity of each other. However, the practicality of some of it is questionable, especially in regards to not staying in the same inn. If a monk arrives at an inn and a virgin is already there, it might be extremely impractical to try to find another inn with no virgins, especially if the village was small. However, if they were only staying in separate rooms, this rule would be easier to follow.
If a Christian killed someone, had sex outside of marriage, or saw a diviner, they had to do penance for a year. (I will note that the one-year penance is for each individual sin, not if you do all three sins together.) Once their year of penance is up, the Christian had to be absolved by a priest in front of witnesses.
The fact that the sins of murder, unwed sex, and getting your fortune told are all classified under the same severity gives us a good view into what the authors of this canon considered serious spiritual crimes. Personally, I would not classify future telling and fornication on the same level as murder, but clearly these authors did!
If a Christian thought someone was a vampire or a witch, the person with these beliefs “is to be anathematized” (pg. 78). Furthermore, if the same person who believed someone was a vampire/witch went around telling people about it, they were no longer allowed in the Church until they stopped slandering their neighbor and did penance.
While the text does not specify what their penance would be, it is certainly interesting to see how official reactions to witchcraft accusations changed from the early Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period!
If a Christian woman “takes a man in honorable marriage” and then leaves him for “an adulterer” (pg. 78), she was to be excommunicated.
The language in the translation is particularly interesting. I want to make note of the phrase “honorable marriage.” I’m not entirely sure if this refers to their marriage being legitimate or if it means the relationship itself was healthy. It’s also interesting that the third party is referred to as the one committing adultery, not the woman leaving her husband.
Here we have another reference to an honorable marriage. This focused on what should happen if a parent arranged an “honorable marriage” for their daughter but because she loved someone else the parents canceled the original agreement and kept the bride price anyway. Both the parent and the daughter were to be “shut out of the Church” (pg. 79) as punishment.
Personally, I believe this makes quite a bit of sense. If you call off a marriage and money is involved (whether it be a bride price or a dowry), returning said money is the proper thing to do. Otherwise, your actions could be considered theft.
If two clerics get into such a bad disagreement that one of them hired a hit man to kill the other, then “it is fitting that he be called a murderer” (pg. 80). The cleric was also “to be held an alien to all righteous men” (pg. 80).
Based on this, it seems clerics hiring assassins on each other was another common enough occurrence! I do not know enough about early medieval Ireland to say if this is true, but if it was written in an official canon, then at the very least church officials were afraid of this kind of thing happening.
Canons of the Alleged Second Synod of Saint Patrick
If a cleric fell “after attaining to clerical rank” he would “arise without rank” (pg. 82). If people knew what he did, cleric was to “lose his ministry” (pg. 82). However, if no one knew (besides God of course!) the cleric kept his ministry.
It seems that this section is implying as long as no one knows you did something wrong, you don’t have to be punished for it. The language in this section is a bit strange as well. The translation uses the word “fall/fallen” to refer to the sin the cleric committed. A few footnotes in the book implies that “fallen” refers to sexual sins, however this part of the text is unclear over whether it refers to a sexual sin or sinning in general.
After two people have fallen, they were to think about whether or not they still loved and/or desired each other. If both people died, then this was not a concern because two corpses can’t hurt each other. If they were both alive then “they shall be separated” (pg. 82).
There’s certainly a bit of sass in this part of the text! Basically it means unless both people in a romantic/sexual partnership are dead, they must be kept apart because the temptation will be too much. Personally, I enjoy it when historical authors throw in a bit of sass in their serious works. It reminds me that humanity has not really changed over the millennium.
If your brother died, you (the surviving brother) were not allowed to sleep with his wife. It did not matter that he died. After he and his wife slept together, they were made “two in one flesh” (pg. 85), thus she was now considered your sister.
Apparently a lot of synods forbade people from marrying their dead brothers’ wives. While personally I would not consider it incest, I do understand why people found sleeping with your now widowed sister-in-law kind of icky. There’s definitely a lot of emotional baggage that comes with doing it. I personally think having sex with your sibling’s ex (even if they are dead) is kind of a selfish thing to do. However, I do recognize that levirate marriages are an actual practice in many different cultures, so I will clarify that there is a difference between marrying your dead brother’s widow and only having sex with her without any sort of love and commitment. This is especially true if you live in a time/place where sleeping with a woman will ruin her reputation forever.
When a father planned a marriage for his daughter, he needed to ask what she wanted before he arranged anything. Even if “the head of the woman is the man” and the daughter had to do what she’s told anyway, “God left man in the hand of his own counsel” (pg. 85).
Basically, even if a father can make his daughter obey him, it’s still good to check what his daughter wants. It’s her life and she should have a say in her husband. She might know something about her future suitor that her father does not or she might not even like him in the first place!
When getting married for the first time, your first betrothal and wedding vows “are to be observed in the same way” (pg. 85). These first vows were “not made void” (pg. 85) if you ended up marrying a second time. The only exception is if your first marriage broke up because of adultery.
In an earlier section, the Canons of the Alleged Second Synod of Saint Patrick stressed that oaths and vows are to be taken extremely seriously. It is not surprising that this applies to wedding vows as well. If your spouse has committed adultery, they clearly do not take their vow seriously so it is understandable that would be the one exception to making such a vow invalid.
McNeill, John Thomas, and Helena M. Gamer. Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Penitentiales and Selections from Related Documents. Columbia University Press, 1990.
In England, last names did not really exist in the early Middle Ages. At least, surnames did not exist in the same capacity as they do today. It was only after the Norman Conquest in 1066 did people start to use last names.
Because last names were uncommon, people had to use other ways to distinguish them from others in their area that shared their name. For example, the Domesday Book referred to people by the place they lived, their profession, who their parents were, their relation to the king, their title, or a nickname of some kind.
When I looked through the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England to create my lists of early medieval names, I stumbled upon quite a few nicknames. A good portion of early medieval nicknames are quite funny, unusual, or have some sort of story behind them.
Unfortunately, the origins of many of the nicknames are lost to time. However, if I could not find any concrete information about the person, I researched the nickname. This gave me some context of their potential backstory.
Because so much has been lost to time, any comments of mine about how each individual earned their nickname is purely speculation.
Due to the size of the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England’s database, I will gradually add more names to this list.
My list includes early medieval nicknames I found interesting, funny, unusual, or hilariously specific. Some are tamer than others, but hopefully, you find this list just as interesting as I do.
Apparently “ator” is Old English for poison or venom. It definitely makes me wonder what Eadmær did to get that nickname!
Eadric the wild
Clearly Eadric behaved in absurd ways to get this nickname.
Alweald the bald
Siward the fat
Ælfric the small
“Cave” could potentially come from the Latin word “calvus,” meaning bald.
Wulfwig the wild
“Fram” means “bold, active, strong” in Old English. “Bolt” means “bolt, bar.” Frambolt may indicate that Godwine was very strong or perhaps he made very strong bolts/bars.
Hereweard the Wake
The Old English word for “wake” means the same thing in modern English. Hereweard was probably known for being a vigilant person or perhaps even an excellent guard.
Ælfric the black
“Sot” either comes from the Middle English word for a foolish or a dishonest person. In Old English, “sot” means soot.
Even in Old English and Middle English “rot” meant “decay/putrefy.” I wonder what Azur did to earn this last name!
Beorhtmær the Englishman
I find it interesting that the people around Beorhtmær wanted to specify that he was English.
Oswine the wild, canon of Dover
Ælfric the whelp
“Fot” means foot in Old English.
“Sterre” means star in Middle English.
“Grim” in Old English meant “fierce, severe, terrible, savage, cruel, angry.” I couldn’t find any detailed information about Eadric Grim as a person, but based on his last name I don’t think he was a person you wanted to be around!
Albert the Lotharingian
Ælfgar the tall
Holdfæst appears to be another way to spell “holdfast.”
Beorhtric the black, free man
“Barn” could have several possible meanings. The first comes from the Old Norse word for child. Upper-class men used the name Barn, possibly meaning “a young man of a prominent family.” Or it simply could indicate that Eskil worked or lived near a barn.
Almær the man of Bondi the staller
Alweard the stumpy
“Frost” had the same definition as today. It’s possible Alwine either had a cold personality or simply had white hair, giving him a frosty appearance.
Alwig the harper
Alfred, the man of Esgar the staller
“Bigga” meant large, strong, or stout. It is possible Alric was a very large person. (Or perhaps extremely small depending on his peers’ sense of humor!)
“Bot” in Old English has several meanings, including (but not limited to!) help, rescue, repair, improvement, and penance. Perhaps Ealdred Bot was a very helpful person or a handyman of some kind.
I had some trouble with this one. I believe “thræc” starts with a “þ” (a thorn) in Old English. If I’m correct, that means Ælfgar’s nickname is “þræc,” which means violence, force, or pressure. Probably not a person you want to be around!
Sælgifu the almswoman
I included Sælgifu on this list because she is one of the few women I’ve found so far who is known by their profession. (Besides nuns.) “Almswoman” is an archaic word for a female beggar.
Gleawbeorht is made out of the words “gleaw” meaning wise/prudent and “beorht” meaning bright/clear. Perhaps Alweard was known for being wise and a clear speaker?
“Wisce” means “a meadow liable to floods.”
Eadgifu the girl
“Lang” meant tall in Old English. Presumably, Eadric was tall. (Or he could have been very short if the people who gave him his name wanted to be funny!)
I am going to guess that Alweard was in charge of ringing bells.
Wulfmær the chubby
Heoruwulf the man of Eadgifu the fair
My educated guess here is that Eadlufu may have been a thief.
Oslac the white
Ælfric the pig
I am going to make another educated guess and say that Ælfric was not a literal pig. I wonder what he did to earn that name!
“Croc” means “pot” in Old English.
Wulfwine the meadmaker
Ælfhild the abbot’s mother
Tovi the man of Ælfric son of Goding
Godric ‘Fifteen Acres’
I’m guessing Godric either owned fifteen acres or he was involved in an incident regarding fifteen acres.
Alwine the white
Thorkil the steersman
It seems like there may have been some type of incident with Godwine’s umbilical cord.
Depending on whether or not “buc” is spelled with a “ú” (and the PASE doesn’t specify), “buc” could mean either buck like a deer, belly, or a pitcher of some sort. “Stan” means stone. So Bucstan could mean buck stone, belly stone, or pitcher stone.
“Haldein” means half Dane.
Leomær the beadle
Thorsten the red
“Cida” possibly comes from the Old English word “cídan” which means complain or blame. If this is right, then I have a feeling Ælfgar may have been known as a whiner.
“Grut” is Old English for “groats, course meal” and comes from Old Norse for “porridge.” Perhaps Edwin made a very good porridge or there was some embarrassing incident he was part of that involved porridge.
Wulfric the wild
Esgar the Crippled
Bosworth, Joseph. “LANG.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/21145
Bosworth, Joseph. “croc.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/42165
Bosworth, Joseph. “BÚC.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/5364
Bosworth, Joseph. “buc.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/41078
Bosworth, Joseph. “stán.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/28714
Bosworth, Joseph. “CÍDAN.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/6118
NOTE: This article is a rewrite. You can find the original here.
If you image search “medieval monk” many photos of men in brown robes, rope belts, and wooden cross necklaces will appear. How accurate is that? If the monk was a Franciscan, it is accurate enough. If he was part of another order, then not so much.
A medieval monk’s basic wardrobe included a habit, shoes, and underwear. Depending on the century, area of Europe he lived in, and his religious order, other items of clothing are added or subtracted from this list. For example, Cistercian monks did not wear underwear. If a monk lived in a colder climate, such as Scandinavia or the British Isles, he owned summer and winter clothes.
Due to the span of time and the land area the European Middle Ages refers to, it is very difficult to list every single item of clothing any given medieval monk may have worn. The basic list of a habit, shoes, and drawers is expanded upon down below.
A medieval monk’s clothing consisted of outerwear and underclothes. Outerwear is clothing the general public and a monk’s peers saw. Outerwear symbolized a medieval monk’s vocation to God and the Church.
By wearing such distinct clothes, everyone around him knew he was a monk. Knowing if a person was a monk was helpful if a secular person wanted a blessing or needed a religious figure of some kind in an emergency. If a medieval monk caused trouble, his outerwear announced to the world his hypocrisy. There is a reason medieval literature often stereotypes monks as lecherous gluttons!
The cowl or habit was an ankle-length garment. It was worn while a monk worked and for general everyday wear. In the early Middle Ages, cowls had open sides that tied shut if the monk so wished. The sleeves on the cowl varied in length:
Cowls had a hood attached as well. When reading primary sources, it is important to keep in mind the meaning of the word “cowl” shifted over the centuries. At one point it referred to the entire garment. Later on, cowl was synonymous with a separate hood.
This garment was also about ankle length and had a hood. Unlike the cowl, a frock only had long sleeves. Frocks were only worn on special occasions. Like the cowl, a frock is also called a habit. A monk would never wear a cowl and a frock together.
The scapular was a rectangular piece of cloth. There was a hole in the middle for the monk’s head. Once a monk put his head into the scapular, the fabric would go down to his ankles both in the back and front.
A monk’s hood went through the neck hole so it wasn’t underneath the scapular. It was similar to an apron. When a monk wore a belt over it, the scapular was used as a handy pouch to hold tools and other daily items a medieval monk might need during the day.
The Rule of Saint Benedict allowed belts. Franciscans wore rope belts called cinctures.
A medieval monk wore a riding cloak when traveling long distances. Depending on the fabric, the riding cloak could be black, brown, or grey. In theory, a monk only wore somber colors. In practice, medieval monks owned riding cloaks with colorful striped linings. This was frowned upon.
Medieval monks owned different kinds of shoes for different seasons and time of day. If a monk lived in a colder climate, they owned a pair of lined shoes for the winter and unlined shoes for the summer. Medieval monks owned slippers to wear at night.
A medieval monk wore clothes under his outerwear for modesty and practical reasons. While The Rule of Saint Benedict forbade monks from wearing underclothes in their monastery, the text made it clear that monks had to wear underwear while out in public. This was to avoid any embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions that might come about thanks to a gust of wind or a freak accident. There was a lot of discourse over wearing underwear.
Medieval monks wore other types of underclothes as well. What he wore under his habit depended on the year he lived, the climate of the area he lived in, and what order he was a part of.
In the Middle Ages, underwear was also referred to as drawers and braies. Typically they were made out of linen. A medieval monk’s underwear had different cuts depending on the monastery. As long as the medieval monk was not a Cistercian, he wore underwear. If he was, he did not. Cistercians were mocked for this fashion choice.
Socks were also called hose and stockings. They were made out of linen.
For Anglo-Saxon monks, tunics were white, floor-length garments with tight sleeves. Later on, monks at Westminster wore black tunics. Over time tunics became tighter and shorter until regulations were made preventing that.
How Did Medieval Monks Tell Which Habit Belonged to Which Monk?
Because medieval monks wore similar clothes, steps were taken to avoid confusion over which habit belonged to who. Unless a monk was particularly tall, short, fat, or thin the habits looked very similar.
To avoid confusion, the monks marked their clothes with their names. For most clothes they wrote their names in ink somewhere on it. For underwear, a monk embroidered his name on them. They did this because underwear was washed much more often than the woolen habit.
What a medieval monk wore depended on a variety of factors. The monk’s clothing had a practical purpose and a symbolic meaning. It is similar to modern day clothing. In the 21st century we wear clothes to cover our bodies and keep us warm, but we also wear clothes to announce our status to the world.
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 Books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)
If you are a fiction writer, you probably spend a good amount of time researching names for your characters. This is especially true if you write historical fiction. It is important to find historically accurate names. I write fiction that takes place in early medieval England, so I am always searching for early medieval names.
It can be difficult to find early medieval names that are historically accurate. I have started to compile a list of male names from primary sources. By using primary sources, I can be sure that these names were actually used by early medieval men. If you are looking for early medieval female names, I’ve already posted a list here.
There are thousands of early medieval male names out there so this list is not exhaustive. I plan to add to it over time. Hopefully, this list will help you find the perfect name for your character!
Note: To ensure that the names are as historically accurate as possible, I intend to document them as they were originally spelled to the best of my ability. Some names may include letters that are no longer in the English language such as “æ.”
I am currently in the process of writing a novel about a young boy growing up in an early 10th century English monastery. As a result, I’m constantly looking for early medieval names. To help other writers, I am compiling a list of names I’ve found so far. For this post in particular I am listing female names/names associated with women. I will make a separate post for male names later. (I am separating the two because there are not as many female names in primary sources.)
Hopefully this will help you find the perfect name for your character!
Note: This list will be added to as time goes by, as it is most certainly NOT an exhaustive list! Also I intend to spell the names as they were written down originally to the best of my ability, so I will use letters that are no longer used in modern English such as “æ.”
The Rule of Saint Benedict mostly forbade monks from eating meat. The keyword here is “mostly.” Medieval monks were only allowed to eat meat if they were extremely ill. Of course, that didn’t stop them from creating loopholes in the later Middle Ages! However, in The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, the author (Lanfranc, hence the name!) was pretty clear regarding what a monk needs to do after he consumed meat:
His penance began as soon as he started eating. There is no time to waste when it comes to a human’s soul, after all! The monk wore his hood over his head and leaned on a staff if he needed to leave his bed. Because the monk was still ill when doing this, it is possible these actions solved other problems. A hood kept the monk’s head warm and a staff helped him walk. As mentioned in my last post, a monk could only stay in the infirmary if he was bedridden, so a staff was vital for safe movement due to his weakened state. Lanfranc does say that if a monk can get out of bed, he isn’t sick enough to be in the infirmary. Perhaps the monk used the staff if he needed to get out of bed to relieve himself or something of that sort. (Lanfranc does not specify his reasoning.)
When the monk felt well enough to return to his duties he underwent a long penitential ritual before he rejoined the community:
Step 1: The monk was shaved.
Step 2: He entered the choir an hour before chapter.
Step 3: During mass, the monk was not allowed to make an offering.
Step 4: When it was time to discipline wrongdoers in chapter, the monk stood up first.
Step 5: He lay prostrate on the ground in front of the community and asked for forgiveness.
Step 6: The abbot told him to stand.
Step 7: The monk stood and recited, “My Lord, I have been long in the infirmary borne down by sickness; I have offended in matters of food and drink and much else, and I have acted against our established discipline, and for this I beg of you absolution.” (The original Latin is “Domine, infirmitate mea grauatus in domo infirmorum diu fui; in cibo et potu et aliis multis offendi, et contra ordinem nostrum feci, et inde peto absolutionem uestram.”)
Step 8: The abbot absolved him of his sins by saying, “May the almighty Lord absolve you from these and all other faults.” (The original Latin is:“Omnipotens Dominus absoluat uos ab his, et ab omnibus aliis uestris delictis.”)
Step 9: The other monks said “Amen.” (The Latin word for “Amen” is the same.)
Step 10: The monk went to the abbot’s feet before going back to the place he lay down earlier.
Step 11: He thanked the abbot and the community for tending to him while he was sick.
Step 12: He made three genuflections.
Step 13: The abbot told the monk to eat mixtum that day and until he was completely recovered. (Mixtum was the extra meal oblates, sick monks and elderly monks ate so they wouldn’t go hungry during the day.)
And that is the ritual! Clearly, Lanfranc took meat-eating extremely seriously.
If a monk did not eat meat, Lanfranc instructs the abbot to decide when the sick monk could return to the community and whether or not he received special treatment in the future.
Lanfranc. “The Care of the Sick and Their Indulgences.” The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, pp. 119-120. Medieval Classics.
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.)
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.)
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
I’m not really a list making sort of guy, but today I wanted to do something a little different. Since late June, I’ve been running an Instagram where I share images I’ve found in medieval manuscripts. During my searches, I’ve stumbled upon a lot of weird and strange things drawn in the margins. Today I want to share with you some of these images so you too can have some of the delight I’ve had while finding these. (After all, it’s a lot of fun to sift through manuscripts and find a weird thing you absolutely were NOT expecting!) I will also be rating these images on a scale of 1 to 10 on how weird I personally find them.
This little guy I found in the Luttrell Psalter. (A great source for weirdness!) I find him extremely endearing. Medieval manuscripts are filled with little monsters that are combinations of animals and humans. The technical term for them is “grotesque.” Grotesques are often found in the margins. Personally, I like to try to figure out what kind of animals the artist took inspiration from when drawing their grotesques. My educated guess is that this creature is made up of an owl for the face/head and some kind of hoofed animal for the feet and tail. (Though the artist definitely took some creative liberties by making those party’s green!) I’m not sure what kind of animal the red and white spotted body is from (if it’s from any animal at all!). The grotesque’s hood is definitely a very human element. While this image is certainly strange, it’s not the weirdest I’ve found.
Weirdness Rating: 4/10
Here we have another grotesque from a later manuscript. This is another manuscript that’s absolutely filled with delightfully weird creatures. The longer you look at this little guy the more and more you find. First off, he’s completely naked except for his rather fashionable hat. (Look at that feather!) He has the body of a baby but has the head of a grown man. That’s definitely an interesting and amusing style choice. He’s got bird wings and bird feet. (At least they somewhat resemble bird feet!) Then of course, he’s holding a flower but his hands don’t seem to have fingers. Over all, he’s definitely one of the weirder images I’ve found so far.
Weirdness Rating: 8/10
Medieval people sure did love their snails! Here we have a snail with a human head. Or he could also been interpreted as a tiny human living in a snail shell. He’s a strange little thing, but certainly not the strangest. Either way, he certainly seems to be happy with his shell!
Weirdness Rating: 1/10
This grotesque is unlike anything I’ve seen before. They seem to have the body of some kind of dog (a greyhound perhaps?), the torso of a human, and their head is maybe some kind of nut? I believe the lower part of the body is so orange to match with the general color scheme of the manuscript. (Other grotesques in this manuscript have the green and orange color scheme.) However, what I personally find the weirdest is their head. So far this is the only grotesque I’ve seen where the head is a nut! (At least I think it’s a nut.) As a side note, I love how the grotesque’s body language suggests that they are all turned around. They certainly look as though they have something stuck on their head and are trying to make sure they don’t walk into anything.
Weirdness Rating: 7/10
If this creepy looking man wasn’t here, then this detail wouldn’t classify as weird. But he is here, so it’s made the list. Everything about this guy is extremely unsettling. He’s mostly naked except for his braies (at least I think they count as braies). His hood is barely covering his shoulders. He’s hunched over. And of course, he’s got a pretty scary look on his face. If I saw this man in real life, I’d probably avoid him!
Weirdness Rating: 8/10
There’s certainly a lot going on in this illustration. We have a bald head with a beard that has been impaled at the top of his skull and through his mouth by a golden spike. This golden spike is sticking out of the bottom of a luxurious sort of column. (The column goes up the entirety of the page and the first letters of each sentence are drawn as fancy initials in it.) Then to add to the overall strangeness of the decapitated head, he seems to be alive and reacting positively to the wyverns nibbling at his ears. While this is strange in itself (the wyverns nibbling), it becomes stranger with a bit more context. This is not the only image in this manuscript that features wyverns eating/licking a person’s body. On other folios I’ve found two images of people getting their feet licked/eaten. (If I had to guess, I think the artist may have liked the idea of wyverns licking people. But that is pure speculation on my part!)
Weirdness Rating: 9/10
This illumination answers the age old question of how merfolk would feed their merbabies. By breastfeeding of course! But in all seriousness, let’s analyze the weird. Besides the breastfeeding imagery (which implies that merfolk are more mammal than fish, also implying merfolk give birth to their young rather than lay eggs), there’s the creature doing a handstand on the mermaid’s tail. I’m not a parent, but I would assume it would be difficult to breastfeed while you had a person doing gymnastics on your lower half (whether you have a tail or legs). The creature seems to have hands for feet, so I don’t believe that they are intended to be a human being. Also, to add to the strangeness, even though the merbaby is, well, a baby, she has breasts too. That’s definitely an interesting stylistic choice and personally not one I would have chosen myself if I was told to draw a mermaid breastfeeding. So while breastfeeding imagery isn’t strange in itself, the other details about this drawing definitely amps up the strangeness.
Weirdness Rating: 5/10
This is definitely another image that has a lot going on in it! First we have the larger figure. It’s not quite human but not quite animal either. It has a long kind of s-shaped neck. (Think the front of a Viking longboat.) to continue with the boat comparison, the lower half of its body is shaped kind of like a boat. Though it also reminds me of a leaf, especially the orange part. The tail of this figure is also kind of weird looking. It’s long and a little curly but it doesn’t look like an animal tail. It makes me think of the geometric decorations that can usually be found in the margins of medieval manuscripts. Then of course you have its very human head. This poor fellow looks quite concerned! By the larger figure’s head is a little orange arrow that resembles a fishhook. Finally, we have a person in the larger figure. I’m not quite sure if the person is a child or an adult, but it’s certainly an interesting choice to have a person there!
Weirdness Rating: 10/10
Here we have a bunch of demons entering the jaws of Hell. While normally I wouldn’t consider this subject matter strange, I do find the artwork itself a bit weird. If I had to guess, I think the artist was either trolling or simply trying their best to draw something outside of their comfort zone. While I won’t describe each demon in detail, I will say that each demon has an extremely goofy looking face, including some silly bug eyes. Other interesting details include guts coming out of one demon’s stomach (who also has a skeleton face for some reason), another demon who seems to be pregnant, backwards thighs, duck feet, a spider (?) on one demon’s crotch, and the lamb (?) ears on the disemboweled demon. Medieval demons were often drawn having a combination of different animal and human traits, so these aren’t necessarily strange in itself. I just find how awful these demons look to be weird.
Weirdness Rating: 6/10
Our final image! This one is weird! Of course, there’s the king pooping. But he’s pooping on two grotesques heads while also standing on their necks. The grotesques are kissing and don’t seem to be noticing what the king is doing. (Though to be fair, the excrement has not landed on them yet.) Nor do they seem to mind that the king is standing on them. Is it possible this image is a metaphor for oppressive rulers? Or is it just some artist finding poop funny? Who knows!