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The Robe of Simplicity: Initiation, Robing, and Veiling of Nuns in the Middle Ages

  • Désirée Koslin
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Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

Using the humble, black monastic dress2 as evocative metaphor, Bishop Alcock spoke to the novices and nuns of his diocese in the voice of St. Agnes, an early Christian martyr who was a popular role model and patron saint for many religious women in the Middle Ages. Their clothing and consecration ceremonies were rich in symbolism of ancient standing and are at the core of this essay, which will also discuss the development of the prescribed dress practices of the various religious orders. The medieval nun’s “taking of the veil” constituted a voluntary act of submission and an imposition, imparities that resonate in medieval art and literature. This topic deserves attention today, a generation after the decrees of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) when distinctive religious dress was all but abolished. The clothing of the religious has not been addressed by the many recent scholars who have focused on medieval religious women. The theme was clearly of great interest, however, to the women themselves, their contemporaries, and to many subsequent generations of proponents as well as detractors of monasticism.3

Keywords

Woollen Cloth Medieval Period Vatican Council Female Branch Artistic License 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    John Alcock (Spousage of a Virgin to Christ) An Exhortacyon Made to Relygyous Systers, The English Experience, No. 638 (Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1974).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The term habit for the clothing of the religious is avoided here as it is imprecise and also designated a specific set of outer garments of medieval Benedictines; see Barbara Harvey, Monastic Dress in the Middle Ages: Precept and Practice (Canterbury: The William Memorial Trust, 1988), p. 14.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    An early compendium is a twelfth-century treatise probably written in Liège, Libellus de diversibus Ordinibus et Professionibus, ed. Giles Constable and Bernard Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972); from the sixteenth century on, great numbers of illustrated guides to identification of the various orders were published, and an extensive bibliography is included in an important survey, Pierre Hélyot, Histoire des Orders Religieux et Militaires et des Congregations seculieres de l’un & de l’autre sexe qui ont ésté éstablies jusqu’a present, 8 vols. (Paris: Nicolas Gosselin, 1714–19). An example of antimonastic views is Thomas D. Fosbroke, British Monachism; or Manners and Customs of the Monks and Nuns of England (London: M. A. Nattali, 1843).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    These distinctions appear in the twelfth century, when the secular Humiliati brethren and sisters of northern Italy were given this rank; see The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, third ed., ed. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), s.v. Henceforth ODCC.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Within a monastery or convent for women there were several internal positions, such as chambress, cellaress, and mistress of novices, but these ranks were not included in the episcopal rites. For a description of the administrative system, see the classic by Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275 to 1535 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), esp. chapters 3 and 4.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    On tonsure as an ancient preparatory element for initiations, see Simone Vierne, Rite, Roman, Initiation (Grenoble: Presses Universitaires, 1973), chap. 1. As a rite in Christian context current from eighth century it is believed to have come from the practice of cutting the hair of slaves; see New Catholic Encyclopedia, 17 vols. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), s.v., henceforth NCE.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    This brief, chronologically arranged sampling includes scholars from different disciplines who have written recently and specifically on religious women: Elizabeth Makowski, Canon Law and Cloistered Women: Periculoso and Its Commentators 1298–1545 (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997); Jeffrey Hamburger, Nuns As Artists: The Visual Culture of a Medieval Convent (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Jo Ann K. McNamara, Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millennia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996); Gertrude Jaron Lewis, By women, for women, about women: the Sister-Books of fourteenth-century Germany (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1996); Barbara Newman, From Virile Woman to womanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994); Roberta Gilchrist, Gender and Material Culture: The archaeology of religious women (London: Routledge, 1994); Penelope D. Johnson, Equals in Monastic Profession: Religious Women in Medieval France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    These are concepts used by Edward T. Hall in designating societies in which stereotypes play an important role; here a “high context” community, such as the earlier Middle Ages, produces texts that are sketchy because cultural expectations are embedded and shared, whereas a “low context” society, here the later medieval period, requires detailed texts, leaving “little to the imagination.” See Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), esp. pp. 91–101, and his The Dance of Life: The Other Dimensions of Time (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), pp. 59–77. This methodology was introduced to me by reading Jerome H. Neyrey’s application of Hall’s thought to the early Christian period in his “What’s Wrong With This Picture? John 4, Cultural Stereotypes of Women, and Public and Private Space,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 24/2, 1994, pp. 77–91.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    Victor Leroquais, Les Ponticifaux manuscrits des bibliothèques publiques de France (Paris: Macon, 1937) remains an important authority on these liturgical books; the author has plotted the development based on pontificals in French collections.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    See expanded treatment in Michel Andrieu, Le Pontifical Romain au Moyen-Age, 4 vols. (The Vatican: Biblioteca ApostolicaVaticana, 1938–40), esp. vol. 3, which treats the surviving examples of Durandine pontificals.Google Scholar
  11. 17.
    See, for instance, Joan Evans, Dress In Medieval France (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), p. 67; Françoise Piponnier and Perrine Mane, Se vêtir au Moyen Âge (Paris: Adam Biro, 1995), p. 153, and Janet Mayo, A History of Ecclesiastical Dress (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1984), p. 33.Google Scholar
  12. 18.
    An example depicts Blanche of Castile, Queen of France, and her daughter, Isabelle of France, in a late fifteenth-century manuscript, Le livre des faits de Saint Louis, roi de France (Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms fr. 2829), available in facsimile.Google Scholar
  13. 19.
    See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), esp. Part Three, “Discipline,” in which each of his arguments have easy parallels to the cloistered context: its architecture; the training, supervision, and disciplining of its inmates. 20. The term “perspectival” was introduced in an article by Caroline Walker Bynum and Paula Gerson, “Body-Part Reliquaries and Body Parts in the Middle Ages,” Gesta, Volume 36/1, 1997, pp. 3–7, which addressed the current need for multilayered, “post-modern” responses to topics in medieval studies.Google Scholar
  14. 21.
    Jerome’s writings offer many illustrations, for instance his letter to Eustochium, Epistle 22, in Handmaids of the Lord: Holy Women in Late Antiquity & The Early Middle Ages, trans. and ed. by Joan M. Petersen (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1996), pp. 171–213. See also Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (London: SCM, 1983); Ross Shephard Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings: Women’s Religions Among Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco-Roman World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); and Margaret Y. MacDonald, Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion:The Power of Hysterical Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996), which explore similar themes.Google Scholar
  15. 24.
    R.W Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (London: Penguin, 1970), for instance pp. 237–40.Google Scholar
  16. 25.
    See Sharon Elkins, Holy Women of Twelfth-Century England (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988) Sally Thompson, Women Religious: The Founding of English Nunneries after the Norman Conquest (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), and Bruce Lanier Venarde, “Women, Monasticism, and Social Change: The Foundation of Nunneries in Western Europe, c. 890–c. 1215,” Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1992, all works that have the founding of medieval women’s houses as their focus.Google Scholar
  17. 26.
    See Nicholas Orme and Margaret Webster, The English Hospital 1070–1570 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), esp. pp. 70–73, and Robert N. Swanson, Religion and Devotion in Europe, c. 1215–c. 1515 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), for instance pp. 229–31.Google Scholar
  18. 30.
    Among the many translated editions, see Adalbert de Vogüé, La règle de Saint Benoît (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1971).Google Scholar
  19. 31.
    For the Latin text, see L. Verheijen, “La règle de saint Augustin,” Études Augustiniennes, 2 vols. 1967, and in trans. by Agatha Mary Crabb, The Rule of St. Augustine: An Essay in Understanding (Villanova, PA: 1992).Google Scholar
  20. 32.
    See Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius D. Brady, trans. and eds., Francis and Clare, The Complete Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1982) pp. 110–11, and pp. 212–13.Google Scholar
  21. 33.
    Leo F. Stelten, Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), takes up ‘cucullus-i:m; cowl’; and ‘cuculla-ae:f; cowl, choir cloak’. The former is used here to designate especially the Benedictine standard monastic garment, and the latter term is used for the other orders’ adoption of the wide-sleeved garment for wear during divine service only.Google Scholar
  22. 36.
    See Thompson, Women Religious, pp. 29, 78, 100, and also her earlier “The Problem of the Cistercian Nuns in the Twelfth and Early Thirteenth Centuries” in Medieval Women, ed. Derek Baker (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978), pp. 227–52.Google Scholar
  23. 41.
    Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery of Kempe, ed. W. Butler-Bowdon (London: Oxford University Press, 1954), for instance p. 135; p. 151; p. 156.Google Scholar
  24. 42.
    Claire Dturies’ Assise, Ecrits: Introduction, Texte Latin, Traduction, ed. Marie-France Becker et al. (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1985), pp. 130–31.Google Scholar
  25. 43.
    Mechtild Flury-Lemberg, Textile Conservation and Research (Bern: Abegg-Stiftung, 1988), discusses this garment in detail along with the cowl of St. Francis, pp. 314–17.Google Scholar
  26. 45.
    See Antoinette Clark Wire, The Corinthian Women Prophets: A Reconstruction through Paul’s Rhetoric (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  27. 49.
    Aldhelm, The Prose Works, ed. and trans. Michael Lapidge and Michael Herren (Ipswich and Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1979), pp. 127–28.Google Scholar
  28. 50.
    Bildwörterbuch der Kleidung und Rü stung, ed. Harry Kühnel (Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner, 1992), s.v. “Schleier”; “Weihel,” “Wimpel.”These terms are poorly accounted for in recent English language reference works.Google Scholar
  29. 53.
    ODCC, s.v. “novice”; “postulant”; “profession”; “vows”; etc.; and under the same terms in Mayke De Jong, In Samuel’s Image: Child Oblation in the Early Medieval West (Leiden: Brill, 1996), which offers information for the early period. The practice of leaving young children as oblates in monasteries for their education and often for their lifetime was also discouraged and explicitly forbidden in the proceedings of several synods and councils.Google Scholar
  30. 54.
    NCE, s.v. “Religious Profession,” and E. O.James, Myth and Ritual:A Historical Study (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1973), pp. 95–98.Google Scholar

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© Stewart Gordon 2001

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  • Désirée Koslin

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