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The monks’ clothing

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The initial'Q' from the Moralia in Job shows two monks splitting a log © Bibliotheque Municipal, Dijon
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MS 170 f 59r: The initial 'Q' from the Moralia in Job shows two monks splitting a log, which forms the tail of the letter.

The Cistercians’ garments were cheap and rough, their wardrobe frugal. They adhered strictly to chapter 55 of the Rule of St Benedict, and each monk had two tunics and two cowls, a scapular for work, shoes and stockings. The extra tunic allowed for washing and night-time wear, as the Cistercian monk slept in his habit. Early legislation forbade fur and undergarments of fine linen, and stipulated that shoes should be made of cowhide, not Cordoba leather. There were initially no concessions to climate, but by the mid-twelfth century it was agreed that monks might wear their entire wardrobe in winter.

For their name arose from the fact that, as the angels might be, they were clothed in undyed wool, spun and woven from the pure fleece of sheep. So named and garbed and gathered together like flocks of seagulls they shine as they walk with the whiteness of snow
[Walter Daniel, Vita Aelredi, p 5.]

Contemporaries noted the severity of these regulations but were primarily struck by their rejection of the traditional black habit. The Cistercians wore undyed wool to proclaim their poverty, for dyes were expensive and smacked of luxury. Their habits were generally a greyish-white, and sometimes of a brownish hue, but they were popularly called the White Monks. They were thus distinguished and defined by the colour of their habit. This proclaimed their difference; to some it was novel and attractive, to others a declaration of superiority and implicit criticism of the Benedictines.(1)

The Cistercians were also characterised – and caricatured – by their refusal to wear trousers, which were worn by Western monks on account of modesty and the colder climate.

...the wind blew his habit right over his neck so that the poor man was candidly exposed to the unwilling eyes of the lord king .....

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The White Monks, rejecting contemporary practice, insisted upon a literal observance of the Rule of St Benedict, and trousers were only permitted when travelling – for protection against mud and the cold. Their ‘bare-bottomed piety’ attracted much comment and considerable ridicule.

Like all monks and clerics the Cistercians were tonsured (see picture above), i.e. the crown of the head was shaved, leaving a band of hair below the ears, to symbolise the Crown of Thorns. This rite of passage was performed after the novice had made his profession in the chapter-house, and before he took his vows in the church. Subsequent shaving occurred in the cloister about nine times a year.(2)

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