Medieval Monastic Clothing Part 4: Night Clothes/Pajamas

If you’ve read the previous installments of my medieval monastic clothing series, you know what a monk wore in the daytime as well as the underwear they wore. But what did medieval monks wear to bed? Because the medieval era is a period of about one thousand years or so, it depended on what century he lived in.

A green monk reading | Ms. 107 (2011.23), fol. 352v | Source: The Getty Museum

In Chapter Twenty-Two of The Rule of Saint Benedict, the text is clear that a monk has to sleep clothed. He is also not allowed to wear a belt to bed or sleep with his knife for safety reasons. (The fact that Saint Benedict went out of his way to include this implies that this was an ongoing issue!) But what exactly did he mean by clothed? Well, in Chapter Fifty-Five it’s implied that a monk needed to wear his tunic and cowl to bed. After all, he is supposed to have two sets in case one is in the wash (or if he’s sleeping in it). But this is all in theory. What about in practice?

The answer varies depending on the century.

In the earlier middle ages, clothes specifically designated for nighttime were not really a thing. Night clothes/pajamas were a later medieval phenomenon. So, when Saint Benedict was writing The Rule in the early sixth century it made sense for monks to sleep in their day clothes. However, for hygiene reasons, a monk would wear his extra set of day clothes, not the clothes he wore that day. Ideally, of course. If his second set of clothes were in the laundry, he would have no choice but to sleep in the clothes he wore that day. Also, by sleeping fully clothed it took less time for a monk to get to the church for night offices.

It should be noted that Saint Benedict wasn’t the only monk writing guidelines for the monastic life. In other monastic Rules, what should be worn to bed was also specified. In these texts, monks were allowed a second tunic for sleep. Depending on the author, the tunic might be made of a heavier cloth or one specifically for night use.

Like other guidelines in The Rule of Saint Benedict, over time monks began to get rather flexible with their sleep attire. This is partially due to the fact monks were starting to sleep in separate cubicles instead of open dorms. Or if they didn’t get their own cell, monks would put curtains around their beds for privacy reasons. With more opportunities for privacy, it wasn’t necessary to protect your modesty by sleeping fully clothed. Eventually, a shirt, drawers, and stockings were considered acceptable. This was not without controversy. For example, King Henry V of England attempted to make monks sleep in their outerwear, but he gave up on trying to enforce these reforms. By the early fifteenth century, it wasn’t considered necessary to wear outer clothes to bed at all.

Then by the late fifteenth century, nightclothes was a thing. A monastic night coat was a circular garment that was (probably) thigh length. Monks were expected to wear it with drawers and hose. At Westminster in the 1490s, there is documented evidence of novices wearing night coats as well. This particular night coat was made of black cotton.

Nightcaps were worn too. They were made of linen. However, in the thirteenth century, they were considered an exceptional item. They were only given to monks who got sweaty at night. The nightcap was used so the monk’s sweat wouldn’t ruin their pillow.

Monks had slippers too. During the thirteenth century, Westminster monks were given a new pair two times a year: October 31st and the day before Palm Sunday. Depending on the date, the slippers would either be for winter or summer.


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.)

Harvey, Barbara. Monastic Dress in the Middle Ages: Precept and Practice, Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society, 1988.

Hildemar’s Expositio Regulae

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

“The Monks’ Clothing Page of the Cistercians in Yorkshire Project.” DHI, 

Terrence G. Kardong, OSB. Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996. Project MUSE

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!


Cistercian clothing

“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, 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.

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

Tugwell, Simon. “‘CALIGAE’ AND OTHER ITEMS OF MEDIEVAL RELIGIOUS DRESS: A LEXICAL STUDY.” Romance Philology, vol. 61, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1–23. JSTOR, 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!


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<>.

Harvey, Barbara. Monastic Dress in the Middle Ages: Precept and Practice, Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society, 1988.

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

Regia Anglorum Members Handbook: CHURCH

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


Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles: The Noble Man Who Decided to Convert After Watching Some Monks Get Whipped

The Virgin Mary forcing a devil’s head into a hole in the ground and flogging the devil | Yates Thompson MS 13 f.174v | Source: The British Library

It’s been a hectic week for me, so I’ve decided to skip ahead in The Dialogue on Miracles and write about one of the shorter chapters. Usually, I try to be academic on this blog, however today we will be a bit more relaxed as this is one of the stranger parts of the text. (At least it is strange to my 21st century way of thinking!) I am focusing on Book One, Chapter Twenty-Two, “Of the conversion of Dom Adolphus, bishop of Osnaburg” (pg. 31).

In this story our main character is a young man named Dom Adolphus. He was from a noble family, but in his youth he was a canon of Cologne. One day he went to Kloster Camp. (AKA Kamp Abbey, Altenkamp Abbey, Alt(en)feld Abbey, or Camp Abbey. The place sure does have a lot of names!) While there, Dom Adolphus went to mass. However, that’s not the interesting part of this chapter. The interesting part is what Dom Adolphus saw while he was praying after the service.

Once mass was over, the monks in the monastery rushed to the different altars for confession. As part of their penance the monks had to remove their habits (at least the part covering their backs!) and be whipped. And Caesarius of Heisterbach’s narrator is careful to note that monks of all ages were doing this. So the young and the elderly were whipped while “humbly confessing his sins” (pg. 31). They must have had amazing self-control to be humble and calm while they were being beaten!

Now you would think that this sight would alarm Dom Adolphus. Or if it didn’t alarm him, you would think he would be glad that he wasn’t in the monks’ position. Well, if you thought that (which is a valid way of thinking, by the way) you are very wrong. Instead of being freaked out, the sight of a bunch of monks being beaten made Dom Adolphus want to become a monk himself! It’s definitely interesting that the prospect of physical punishment made this man decide to change careers. This may be blasphemous, but it makes me wonder if Dom Adolphus was thrilled about being whipped for reasons that were not entirely holy. If that’s the case, becoming a monk is not a great way of going about to achieve those desires.

As you can probably guess from the chapter title, Dom Adolphus didn’t stay a monk for long. Soon after becoming a monk he was made bishop of Osnaburg. (Or as the area is called now, Osnabrück.) Interestingly, the text explicitly states that Dom Adolphus was “recommended both by his noble birth and his sanctity” (pg. 3) for the bishopric. However, if I had to guess, I think his noble birth probably had more to do with his new position than his sanctity!




Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929,

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Seven, The Details Regarding Divine Office

Chapter Forty-Seven of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “Of Signifying the Hour for the Work of God” (Saint Benedict, pg. 62). This short chapter is split into two sections, each about a sentence long. The first section instructs the abbot on how he should call his monks for Divine Office (or the Work of God as Saint Benedict calls it in the chapter title). The second section explains other little practicalities that must be taken into account when singing the Divine Office.

The beginning of Chapter Forty-Seven of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Harley MS 5431 f.75r | Source: The British Library

The first section of the text begins by saying how it’s the abbot’s responsibility to call the monks for services, whether it’s day or night. Or if the abbot isn’t able to do this himself, he is to find a “careful brother” (SB, pg. 62) to do it for him. Saint Benedict stresses how important it is “that all things may be done at the appointed times” (SB, pg. 62). As The Rule of Saint Benedict was written long before the invention of alarm clocks, this may have been easier said than done!

However, Terrence G. Kardong argues that Saint Benedict isn’t really talking “about punctuality as he is about prompt response” (pg. 379). This wouldn’t be the first time Saint Benedict expects his monks to respond immediately when called. (In Chapter Forty-Three he stresses how important Divine Offices are and what happens to monks who are late.) In a time before reliable clocks, one really can’t argue whether or not they still have a few minutes before they truly need to be in a certain place. Now days you can look at your watch/phone/laptop/microwave/whatever and think, ‘Eh…I’ve got another minute before I need to go.’ But that isn’t the case for Saint Benedict’s monks. (At least not until they all got watches!) Instead, when the bells were rung (or a gong/wooden clapper was struck depending on what a monastery had) (Kardong, pg. 379) for Divine Office the monks were expected to show up when called.

The second section explains that the abbot should be the first one to begin singing the psalms and antiphons. Afterwards, the other monks can join in. But they can’t just start singing whenever they want! Instead, they are to sing “each in his order” (SB, pg. 62). Monastic communities were based on a hierarchical system. It wouldn’t be proper if someone lower in rank tried to sing before someone higher.

That isn’t the only case of Saint Benedict warning his monks to know their place in this particular chapter. He warns his monkish reader that “no one [should] presume to sing or to read” (SB, pg. 62) during Divine Office. This doesn’t refer to singing or reading in general. It refers to whoever is leading the service. However, it’s not as if an abbot would say ‘Who wants to lead today’s worship?’ as soon as everyone was at their place in the pews and monks would race to the pulpit. Monks were appointed to do so (K, pg. 380).

That being said, I find it within the realm of possibility that a monk may approach his abbot in private and request to lead the service. I can also imagine the abbot gently turning the monk down because he vastly overestimates his ability to do so in a way “that the hearers may be edified” (SB, pg. 62). After all, reading ancient manuscripts is not the easiest thing to do. Combined with the facts that the monk may not be completely literate, the prayers are in Latin—a language he may not totally understand—and the manuscripts have no punctuation (K, pg. 380), conducting services would be difficult to do without making more than a few mistakes. Again, I find it easy to imagine an over confident monk thinking he could do it successfully because he’s just started to become good at memorizing psalms. (And I’m sure we’ve all vastly overestimated our abilities to do something right, only to fail miserably. I know I have!)

Finally, this part of the text ends with this line:

“And let it be done with humility, gravity, and awe, and by those whom the Abbot hath appointed.” (SB, pg. 62).

By ending the chapter like this, Saint Benedict reminds his monks not only on how they should conduct services, but how they should act as monks in general. By being humble, serious, aware of their place before God, and by always obeying their abbot.



Main Sources:

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

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

(This version on Project MUSE was available to download for free in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is no longer accessible to the general public, I’ve included a link to it in case you have access to it through a university account or some other way.)

Other Source:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Six, What a Monk Should Do When He Commits a Minor Fault

Today’s chapter of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “Of those who Offend in any other Matters” (Saint Benedict, pg. 61). It describes what a monk should do if he does something wrong. This is the last chapter that focuses on minor faults. (I have discussed major faults here, how monks are to make satisfaction for their behavior here, and what a monk is to do when he messes up in church here.)

The Beginning of Chapter Forty Six of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Harley MS 5431 f.74r | Source: The British Library

As you can tell from the chapter title, in Chapter Forty-Six Saint Benedict explains what a monk is to do when he “commit any fault, or break or lose anything, or transgress in any other way” (SB, pg. 61). Unlike in Chapter Forty-Five, which just focuses on mistakes made in church, this part of the text is about every other place in a monastery where someone can misbehave. (Which is everywhere of course!) However Saint Benedict does give us some examples of places:

“…while at work in the kitchen or the cellar, in serving the brethren, in the bake-house or the garden, or at any other occupation or in any place whatever…” (SB, pg. 61)

In Terrence G. Kardong’s translation and commentary on The Rule of Saint Benedict, he points out how the language here is specifically used to close up any potential loopholes a monk may try to find to get himself out of trouble (Kardong, pg. 368). By being both very specific and incredibly vague, there are very few loopholes someone can find to get away with their behavior. If there are any at all!

So what is a monk to do when he does make some kind of transgression? Well, he’s certainly not supposed to hide his mistake, that’s for sure! Instead, a monk is to “come immediately before the Abbot and community” (SB, pg. 61) and confess. Though I will note that “immediately” is probably used more in a figurative sense. If a monk is working in the fields and his shovel breaks due to his carelessness it’s not exactly convenient for him to gather the entire community just to announce he broke a tool. Instead, it’s more likely Saint Benedict means that “one must wait for an opportune time, but not a time convenient to oneself” (K, pg. 369). After confessing the fault, the monk is instructed to “make satisfaction” (SB, pg. 61).

That being said, Saint Benedict is aware that not everyone is going to come forward freely and admit their mistakes. Some monks may try to hide it in hopes no one noticed or that their actions won’t be traced back to him. In case anyone thinks they can get away with this, Saint Benedict gives his monastic audience a harsh warning:

“…if [the wrongdoing] is made known by another, he shall be subjected to more severe correction.” (SB, pg. 61)

Not only will the monk be punished for his actions, but because he tried to hide it. It should be noted that at the daily chapter meetings, monks would have a chance to admit “their own faults and sometimes the faults of others” (K, pg. 369). Kardong wisely points out how it’s extremely easy for someone to go from reporting the wrongs of others to being a straight up snitch (K, pg. 369). I can imagine a petty monk falling into this habit! 

Despite the text’s harshness, Saint Benedict recognizes that not all mistakes and wrongdoings may be easy to confess to the entire community. Some wrongdoings are “hidden in [the monk’s] own soul” (SB, pg. 61). Or in other words, the bad thing he did might still just be a thought and not an action. Saint Benedict isn’t specific regarding these, but it’s easy to imagine that he could be referring to angry, jealous, mean, and lustful thoughts. (Among other negative emotions!) Because these sins have not directly affected the community but they do affect the monk’s spiritual health (K, pg. 370) it’s very important that the monk tells “it to the Abbot only, or to his spiritual seniors, who know how to heal their own wounds” (SB, pg. 61). Furthermore, it’s vital that the person whose advice is being sought “not disclose or publish those of others” (SB, pg. 61). 

Basically, Saint Benedict recommends that the monk with negative thoughts go to someone more experienced for counseling on how to deal with them and that the conversation remains private. It’s wise that Saint Benedict clarifies that a monk can go to someone other than the abbot for his problems. The abbot won’t be available at all times and he may not even be all that good at handling certain personal issues (K, pg. 370). For example, if a monk is having problems with gambling, it would be best to discuss it with a monk who grew up in the world and not an abbot who has lived in a monastery since the age of seven. And yes, there are records of medieval monks playing with dice and doing other not so holy things (Kerr, pg. 134)! It’s also wise that things are to be kept private. It would be very embarrassing if another monk blabbed to the community every little detail of Brother So and So’s struggles with lust!


Main Sources:

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

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

(This version on Project MUSE was available to download for free in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is no longer accessible to the general public, I’ve included a link to it in case you have access to it through a university account or some other way.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here.

  • 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.)

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Seven, How to be Humble Like a Medieval Monk in 12 Easy (and Certainly Not at All Creepy) Steps

Chapter seven of The Rule of Saint Benedict is completely dedicated to humility and how a monk should be humble. According to Saint Benedict, there are twelve degrees of humility. The degrees of humility are of varying levels of easiness, practicality, and to be honest, creepiness. While I admit this is an ethnocentric worldview, I can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable with the way Saint Benedict phrases things as well as with his desire for his monks to have blind, unquestioning obedience no matter what they are told.

My feelings of uneasiness are emphasized when I think about abuse in the Catholic Church. I can easily see how a superior in a monastery could take advantage of this particular text and use it for nefarious purposes. That being said, not all of the text in this chapter is problematic. Some of it is quite mundane and other parts consist of wise advice.

Saint Benedict doesn’t jump into the degrees right away. Instead, there is a long introductory paragraph instructing monks how to worship humbly and the importance of doing so. It can be summed up with this quote:

‘”Every one[sic] that exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he who humbleth himself shall be exalted.”‘ (pg. 25)

Basically, don’t pray or act for the sake of glory. Neither should you pray to show off your self proclaimed holiness. You aren’t being holy when you do so. You are being self-righteous. If you do pray just to show off, beware. Bad things will come your way. In contrast, if you are humble with your prayers and good deeds, God knows and you will be praised.

After the preface, Saint Benedict explains the first degree of humility. Compared to the other degrees, this one is pretty lengthy. In my translation, there are four paragraphs discussing it. (This is a lot of text for a book that is only eighty-six pages long and has seventy-three chapters.) In the first paragraph, Saint Benedict tells his monkish reader to “always [keep] the fear of God before his eyes” (pg. 26). In doing so, Heaven will be “prepared for them” (pg. 26). Saint Benedict is aware that constant fear often leads to hate. To get around this unfortunate consequence, the text threatens “that those who despise God will be consumed in hell for their sins” (pg. 26).

The second paragraph consists of more fear-mongering. We are reminded that God is always watching over everything we do. So how exactly does God watch every single human being on Earth at every second of the day? Surely He has better things to do. Saint Benedict explains that instead of God personally watching over us, our actions (good and bad) “are every hour reported to Him by His angels” (pg. 26). This is a good answer to (almost) every Catholic child’s ponderings over the practical logistics of God’s surveillance of humanity. Because God or His angels are keeping an eye on you, it is best to “be on…guard against evil thoughts” (pg. 26). God’s surveillance reminds a monk to be humble so he can be “unspotted before Him” (pg. 26).



The Virgin Mary, Baby Jesus, and Six Angels (watching you) | Source: Photo taken by Viktor Athelstan at The Louvre Museum


Even with God always watching, in the third paragraph the reader is told that “[w]e are, indeed, forbidden to do our own will by Scripture” (pg. 27). However, this doesn’t mean that we don’t have free will. Instead, ‘”[t]here are ways which to men seem right, but the ends…lead to the depths of hell”‘ (pg. 27). What Saint Benedict is saying is that while you may think what you are doing is good and holy, in reality, you very well be sinning. To avoid sin (and thus be humble) it’s important that you do what God wants. This is especially the case when it comes to “desires of the flesh” (pg. 27).

The fourth paragraph goes in-depth about the dangers of “evil desires” (pg. 27). Saint Benedict warns his reader ‘”[g]o not after thy concupiscences“‘ (pg. 27) and repeats that God’s angels are always watching. In short, a monk should always fear God. You can’t be properly humble if you don’t.

The second degree of humility basically says to always do God’s will. A monk should not “delight in gratifying his own desires” (pg. 27). Instead, he needs to be subordinate to what God wants. In doing so, his “reward…will be a crown of glory hereafter” (footnote on pg. 27).

The third degree of humility is once again about subordination. However, instead of subordination to God, a monk should “submit himself to his superior in all obedience” (pg. 28). In doing so, he will be “imitating the LORD” (pg. 28).



Virgin and kneeling monk | BL Sloane 278, f. 7 | Source:


The fourth degree of humility wants monks to endure all hardships patiently. While this sentiment might be a good way to tell your monks to stop complaining, my translation’s phrasing gives this part of the text some creepy undertones. The connotations of many of the words are extremely violent. These words and phrases include (but are not limited to!) “injuries,” “afflicted,” “death,” “slaughter,” “tried by fire,” “snare,” “tribulation,” and “adversities” (pg. 28). I was curious if these violent connotations were just a result of my translator’s word choice. I looked at another translation and the connotations are extremely similar. (You can find the link to that PDF under ‘Other Sources’ at the end of this article.) The sentence at the beginning of this section particularly alarmed me:

“…that if in this very obedience hard and contrary things, nay even injuries, are done to him, he should embrace them patiently with a quiet conscience, and not grow weary or give in…” (pg. 28).

Telling your monks to suck up their pain may be good if all of their complaints relate to little things (e.g. bad tasting food, uncomfortable beds, tonsure makes their head look weird) but it can get dangerous if it is used to ignore bigger concerns. Like in any other living space, problems will inevitably arise from clashing personalities. Telling a monk who is being severely bullied or even abused to “bear with false brethren, and bless those that curse them” as it will “secure…their hope of the divine reward” (pg. 28) isn’t productive. It is the same as sweeping everything under the rug because that is easier to do than deal with the actual problem. And eventually, that problem will boil over into a bigger issue.

The fifth degree of humility is to always confess your sins. A humble monk wouldn’t “hide from one’s Abbot any…evil thoughts” nor would he hide “the sins committed in secret” (pg. 28). Instead, he would “humbly confess them” (pg. 28). Admitting your wrongdoings keeps you from getting too big for your britches. You aren’t perfect and God knows if you’ve done bad things. What’s the point of trying to hide them from Him?

The sixth degree of humility reminds monks “to be contented with the meanest and worst of everything” and to “esteem himself a bad and worthless laborer” (pg. 29). While the latter certainly won’t be great for anyone’s self-esteem, the former can be quite helpful. After all, if you’ve willingly become a monk you shouldn’t expect to be living large. Instead, you should be content to live with little like Christ.

The seventh degree of humility also is not fantastic for anyone’s self-esteem:

“…he should not only call himself with his tongue lower and viler than all, but also believe himself in his inmost heart to be so…” (pg. 29)

Even though hating and thinking badly of yourself isn’t a healthy way to think, this mindset certainly will keep you humble. You can’t be proud if you consider yourself worthless. That being said, this is another degree that can be dangerous if taken to the extreme. Especially when Saint Benedict encourages his monkish readers to think, “‘I am a worm and no man”‘ (pg. 29). I can easily see how a monk may spiral into depression (or melancholy) if he isn’t careful with thoughts like this.

The next few degrees are extremely short.

The eighth degree of humility is just to follow the rules. A monk needs to “do nothing except what is authorized” (pg. 29).

The ninth degree of humility is to only speak until spoken to. A monk should keep “silent until a question [is] asked him” (pg. 29). It’s also a short summary of chapter six which I’ve written more about here.

The tenth degree of humility is don’t laugh. A monk shouldn’t laugh because ‘”The fool lifteth up his voice in laughter”‘ (pg. 29).


Royal 19 D.III, f.266

A Fool | BL Royal 19 D III, f. 266 | Source:


The eleventh degree of humility is to speak “gently and without laughter, humbly, gravely, with few and reasonable words, and that he be not noisy in his speech” (pg. 29). Basically, a humble monk doesn’t talk a lot and when he does, he gets to the point right away.

The twelfth degree of humility is to not only act humble but to look humble too. A monk “in his very exterior, [should] always show his humility to all who see him” (pg. 30). So how does one do this? Well…

“…that is, in the work of God, in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, on the road, in the field, or wherever he may be, whether sitting, walking or standing, with head always bent down, and eyes fixed on the earth, that he ever think of the guilt of his sins…” (pg. 30)

By looking humble as well as acting humble a monk can be a good example to others.

Saint Benedict ends this chapter with a closing paragraph. Here he says that if a monk can achieve all of these degrees of humility and not stray from them he no longer has to “dread…hell” and through “the love of Christ” he will be “cleansed from vice and sin” (pg. 30).



Main Source:

The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here. (Accessed on February 14, 2020.)

Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check the translation.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Five, Blind Obedience in a Medieval Monastery

Saint Benedict loves obedience. Besides writing about it in previous chapters (as well as in future chapters!) he dedicates the entirety of chapter five on it. However, Saint Benedict’s writings on this topic do come across as a little worrisome. He demands nothing less than blind obedience from his monks. The first sentence of chapter five is “The first degree of humility is obedience without delay” (Saint Benedict pg. 23). Monks are supposed to be humble so it’s natural that he would talk about how to be humble (he goes more into detail in chapter seven), but Saint Benedict takes this obsession with obedience a bit too far:

“[A]s soon as anything is ordered by the superior, suffer no more delay in doing it than if it had been commanded by God Himself.” (Saint Benedict pg. 23)



Institution of a monk | BL Royal 11 D IX, f. 195 | Source:


One problem with this is that the superiors are human. Their commands may very well be dangerous. (And even God tried to get Abraham to kill his own son.) To make matters even more problematic, Saint Benedict wants his monks to obey while keeping in mind their “fear of hell or…the glory of life everlasting” (Saint Benedict pg. 23).

In Terrence G. Kardong’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict, he comments that this chapter “may appear to call for absolute ‘militaristic’ obedience…this is a false impression” (Kardong). He goes on to claim that “the abbot must conform to the high standards” (Kardong) previously set out by The Rule and if he doesn’t, there can be consequences. Kardong is extremely optimistic about how often people, the Church especially, actually follow high standards. I think it’s common knowledge that people in charge take advantage of their power. Corruption in the Catholic Church isn’t a modern-day phenomenon either. (There is an entire era of the papacy that is called the pornocracy due to its corruption.)

Saint Benedict is aware that not every monk will want to do what he is told. (And perhaps what he is told to do isn’t a result of corruption, it’s just something the monk doesn’t want to do.) Saint Benedict is also aware that when people have to do things they don’t want to, they complain, even if God loves blind obedience. As a result, he spends one-third of the chapter (which is only three paragraphs) telling his reader not to complain:

“But this very obedience will then only be acceptable to God and sweet to men, if what is commanded be done not fearfully, tardily, nor coldly, now with murmuring, nor with answer, showing unwillingness.” (Saint Benedict pg. 24)

(I will note that “murmuring” here means grumbling or complaining.)

Finally, Saint Benedict says that even if the reader does obey his superiors, God only accepts this obedience if he doesn’t complain while he does the thing he was asked to do. I do find it interesting that Saint Benedict goes into so much detail when telling his monks to stop whining. Perhaps he was sick and tired of listening to his own monks complain?


Main Source:

The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

Other Sources:

Benedictus, and Terrence G. Kardong. Benedicts Rule: a Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996.

(You can find part of this book here.)

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Three, How to Make a Good Decision in a Monastery

I think we all have a story where a superior made a decision without consulting everyone else in the organization, whether the organization is school, work, or politics. Sometimes these decisions work out well for everyone. Sometimes they don’t. And sometimes they spin everything into chaos because the superior has no idea how things practically work on the ground level. Unfortunately, superiors making ill-advised choices isn’t a modern phenomenon. This was also a problem during Saint Benedict’s time and it was a concern of his. It was so much of a concern that he wrote an entire chapter of The Rule dedicated to how abbots should make decisions! (Granted, it is a short chapter but it is a chapter none-the-less!)


BL Royal MS 10 e iv f222r

BL Royal MS 10 E IV f222r | Source: The British Library


So how should important decisions be made in a monastic setting? Like most matters, it depends. If the matter isn’t super important the abbot should “take counsel with the Seniors only” (pg. 20). But if it’s really important the abbot must “call together the whole community” (pg. 19) so he can hear everyone’s opinion. This includes the younger members of the monastery. Saint Benedict reminds his reader that “it is often to the younger that the LORD revealeth what is best” (pg. 19). I’m not sure how young is young for Saint Benedict, but anyone who has been around children knows that kids lack a filter. Thus they can be extremely honest. Sometimes painfully so.

When giving his counsel, a monk must be humble. He is to “give their advice with all subjection and humility” (pg. 19). After all, this is a monastery and not a debate team. A monk shouldn’t “stubbornly…defend their own opinion” (pg. 19).

After everyone has spoken, it’s time for the abbot to reflect on what he’s heard “and then do what he shall judge most expedient” (pg. 19). This way the abbot will know how his decision will affect everyone in the community. What works for some monks might make another monk’s life much more difficult than it has to be. It’s extremely important for the abbot to make an educated decision. Otherwise, the monastery can be thrown into chaos.

So what happens if the abbot does make a choice some monks don’t like? Well, Saint Benedict basically tells his reader to suck it up. Monks are to “submit to whatever [the abbot] shall judge to be best” (pg. 19). This means not arguing with the abbot, doing what you want anyway, or “presume insolently to contend with his Abbot, either within or without the monastery” (pg. 19). If a monk does these things then Saint Benedict encourages that he be punished “to the discipline appointed by the Rule” (pg. 19). At the end of the day, the abbot has to face God with “an account of all his judgments” (pg. 19). Hopefully, the abbot is making his choices based on that and not earthly matters.

Even with all these steps needed to make a choice, there is one thing Saint Benedict is firm on: no matter the decision, an abbot must ‘”Do all things with counsel, and thou shalt not afterwards repent it” (pg. 20).


Main Source:

The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. A link to that is here.)