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:
- Short sleeves
- Long sleeves
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.
Athelstan, Viktor. “Medieval Monastic Clothing Part 3: A Medieval Monk’s Underwear (and Lack of It!).” The Mediaeval Monk, 19 Dec. 2020, themediaevalmonk.com/2020/12/13/medieval-monastic-clothing-part-3-a-medieval-monks-underwear-and-lack-of-it/.
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.)
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.
Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.