Dressing and Undressing the Clergy

Rites of Ordination and Degradation
  • Dyan Elliott
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The medieval universe was understood to be fraught with ulterior meaning that was decipherable through other signs. From an Augustinian perspective, the entire created world was filled with vestigia or “footsteps” leading humanity back to its creator. The way an individual dressed was expected to be complicit with this divinely instituted semiotic system: In other words, clothing was meant to mean. Gender, birth, age, and (especially germane to our purposes) proximity to the holy were all salient factors in determining the symbolic freight of the wearer’s garments. This is the context in which we should approach the paraphernalia attending the priest’s exercise of his sacerdotal function, particularly articles of clothing. Not only did each article bristle with meaning, but the actual rite of dressing was an essential, arguably the essential, element in the making of a cleric. What follows is an examination of how clerical identity is constructed through the superimposition of layers of symbolically laden fabric even as it is deconstructed through the inverted ritual of divestment. The subtle shifts in protocol and increased formality of the later Middle Ages are assessed here in terms of the ecclesiastical hierarchy’s willingness to employ harsher disciplinary measures against its own—a tactical decision that was part of the larger struggle against heresy.


Thirteenth Century Semiotic System Actual Rite Early Fourteenth Century Yellow Cross 
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© E. Jane Burns 2004

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  • Dyan Elliott

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