Medieval Monastic Clothing Part 3: A Medieval Monk’s Underwear (and Lack of it!)

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.

Initial S- A Monk Praying in the Water | Ms. 24, leaf 2 (86.ML.674.2.recto) | Source: The Getty Museum
Initial S- A Monk Praying in the Water | Ms. 24, leaf 2 (86.ML.674.2.recto) | Source: The Getty Museum

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.)

  1. Louis the Pious’s capitulare monasticum (a monastic capitulary) mentions that monks should be allowed two pairs of drawers.
  2. Adalhard’s rule for canons also mentions monks having two pairs of drawers.
  3. 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.
  4. Emperor Henry II of the Holy Roman Empire gave money to a monastery specifically for the monks to spend it on new underwear.
  5. Cluniac sign language had a sign for drawers.
  6. Cluniacs also had a very specific set of instructions on how a monk should clean his underwear if he ever had a nocturnal emission.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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!

The Discourse

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!

Sources:

Cistercian clothing https://www.dhi.ac.uk/cistercians/cistercian_life/monastic_life/clothing/quote.php

“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.

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.)

The monks’ clothing https://www.dhi.ac.uk/cistercians/cistercian_life/monastic_life/clothing/index.php

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.

Medieval Monastic Clothing Part 1: What Did Medieval Monks Wear?

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.

Abbot Maurus with a Staff and a Book | Ms. Ludwig IX 6 (83.ML.102), fol. 222v | Source: The Getty Museum

(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!)

Outer 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.
  • Shoes
    • 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.

Under Clothes

  • Drawers/Braies/Underwear
    • 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.
  • Hose/Socks/Stockings
    • 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!

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.)

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. 

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.)

Kit Overview: Clergy, Monks and Nuns http://wychwood.wikidot.com/kit-religious

Regia Anglorum Members Handbook: CHURCH https://web.archive.org/web/20150910174625/https://regia.org/members/handbook/church.pdf

Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

WHY DO FRANCISCANS WEAR BROWN? https://franciscanmissionaries.com/franciscans-wear-brown/

Rating 10 Weird Drawings I’ve Found in Medieval Manuscripts

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.

1.

Add MS 42130 f.13v | Source: The British Library

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

2.

Add MS 18852 f.87r | Source: The British Library

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

3.

Stowe MS 17 f.8r | Source: The British Library

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

4.

Add MS 29433 f.47v | Source: The British Library

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

5.

Yates Thompson MS 14 f.7r | Source: The British Library

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

6.

Add MS 62925 f.12v | Source: The British Library

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

7.

Add MS 24686 f.13r | Source: The British Library

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

8.

Add MS 62925 f.58v | Source: The British Library

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

9.

Add MS 37049 f.74r | Source: The British Library

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

10.

Add MS 10294/1 f.1dr | Source: The British Library

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!

Weirdness Rating: 10/10