Academic, Clerical, and Religious Dress

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Academic, Clerical, and Religious Dress

Standardizing for Simplicity.

Similar to peasants, members of the second estate—those who led a life associated with the church—wore costumes that were not nearly as subject to changes of fashion as the costumes of the aristocracy. Clothing worn by those who served the Christian church was intended to symbolize the simplicity of life modeled by Jesus. The ruling that required all men and women in cloistered religious orders—that is, monks and nuns who lived apart from the world—to wear habits was established by a consensus of church officials several centuries after the founding of the Benedictine Order of monks in 529. Canon 27 (a rule regulating dress) was initiated as early as the Fourth Council of Constantinople (869–870) and reaffirmed in the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. These councils, known as "ecumenical" (that is, intended for creating unity), included cardinals, bishops, and superior abbots throughout the whole Christian world and were convened by the papacy. The influence of these rules extended to university students, a relatively new group in the later Middle Ages, for whom religious costume was adapted according to their stage of education. Another group that imitated the simplicity of the early church in their costume were pilgrims, who were to be found on land and sea throughout Europe and the Middle East as they made their way to sacred shrines for purposes of penance or, sometimes, the simple desire to travel.

Monastic and Secular Religious Costume.

The founder of each holy order in the Roman Church of the Middle Ages established a Rule under which his or her members should live, and these rules specified appropriate and uniform clothing that illustrated the religious beliefs of that order and served as its identifying insignia to the public. It was desirable that these members, often withdrawn from the world, should demonstrate this withdrawal by avoiding all display of worldliness, especially in their dress. For example, the Rule of St. Benedict, written for monks and adapted for nuns, specified that only locally produced, inexpensive fabrics might be used for religious dress, and the finished garment was to be without decoration. The standard garments for Benedictine monks included braies, over which was worn a long robe with cowl or hood, a belt or girdle, stockings, and shoes. Similarly, the basic dress of Benedictine nuns was a cotte (a black surcoat with wide sleeves or a mantle), a headdress consisting of a white under-veil and black over-veil, and a white wimple (a cloth covering the neck, sides of the face, and some portion of the forehead still worn by some orders of nuns). A pilch (a cloak made of skins or fur), and/or a fur-lined mantle were allowed in more severe climates. For secular clergy—that is, parish priests who lived in quarters near their churches—there were, however, no hard-and-fast rules about what to wear when they were not officiating at Mass. They were urged to dress soberly.


The four orders of friars (Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian, and Carmelite) differed from members of cloistered religious orders in that they were not removed from the general society. Friars were out and about in the world, begging for their subsistence, hearing confession, sometimes teaching, and sometimes acting as spiritual advisors to wealthy families. Ordinary peasants' dress was the model for their habits. St. Francis set the standard for his followers to have and wear only one tunic with a rope girdle, one hooded coat, and, if needed, a second unhooded coat, and no shoes. He specified that only the simplest materials might be used to make these garments, and they should be patched with the same kind of fabric. Franciscan friars wore brown hoods, brown loose robes with loose sleeves, cord girdles (belts) with knots showing, and sandals. The brown (or indeterminate gray) associated with Franciscans distinguished them from the Dominicans, who wore black over white (they were thus called the Black Friars), as well as from the black monks (Benedictines) and white monks (Cistercians).

Student Dress.

Since universities grew indirectly out of the cathedral schools that first began to be established in the 800s, most students in medieval universities were initially required to take "minor" holy orders, the first step towards becoming priests. Indeed, students were known in English and French as "clerks," or clercs, a word also meaning "cleric." Thus, in certain ways academic costume developed from secular religious dress in the later Middle Ages. As the universities became more formally structured in the thirteenth century, university officials began to pay attention to academic dress for scholars of all ranks in the system. Bit by bit, a detailed system of dress developed that indicated each gradation from bachelor to doctor in a university career. In the thirteenth century, the basic garment was a dark-colored vestis talaris, a long tunic. When styles for men were shortened and the pourpoint or short doublet grew popular among younger men in the fourteenth century, student dress retained the "long robe" of sober color, which reached to the ankles. Over this "long robe" students were expected to wear either a formal full-sleeved cope, or cape, which was briefer than the tunic (cappa manicata) or, for normal wear, a larger, sleeveless over-garment, also reaching to the feet, having one slit, mid-front, so that arms and hands could reach out, or having slits on each side (cappa clausa). These slightly modified religious habits, both for students and for teachers, survive as the academic dress that is still worn for graduation ceremonies today.

Violations of Dress Codes.

The fact that university dress codes—apparently based closely on the disciplinary decrees regarding clerical dress of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 held under Pope Innocent III—were often violated may be inferred from university records where certain items of clothing were periodically and repeatedly forbidden. The wearers of offending garments could be fined or denied privileges. Among the forbidden items were red or green garments (which were considered vain); "secular" shoes (that is, those with cutout designs); curved or decorative hoods; swords or knives; fancy belts (girdles) enhanced with silver or gold trim; trunkhose, puffed sleeves, red or green hose, or boots that might be seen beneath long garments; and garments that were too short or fitted too tightly to the body (as was increasingly fashionable in late fourteenth-century secular costume). Such attention to color, fabric, and cut showed that the wearer was too worldly and not sufficiently serious for university life. Tailors who made such gowns for academics were subject to imprisonment and non-payment until these tunics were altered to the appropriate dimensions. Certain universities, such as the University of Toulouse, set up systems of dress for scholars of all ranks with economy and seemliness in mind to keep them from spending their fee, book, and subsistence money on clothing. In addition, other rules ensured the plainness of student head coverings: the pileus, a close-fitting skullcap; the biretta, a square cap with three ridges at the top and sometimes a tuft in the middle; and the hood. Over time, these requirements for plainness gave way to color schemes assigned to each field of study to distinguish one faculty from another and to satisfy the desire for pageantry and display. For example, those who became Masters (achieved a Master's degree) of Civil Law at some time before the late fifteenth century adopted dark blue as the color of their hoods (a practice in color choices retained in the twenty-first century). Similarly, Doctors of Medicine chose red for the color of their robes. The colorful academic hood worn by those who achieve doctoral degrees today is a remnant of this system, as are the black velvet bands sewn to the arms of academic gowns to signify master's or doctoral status.

Church Vestments.

The particular garments worn by priests when officiating at divine worship and administering the sacraments are called vestments. Because they symbolized the glory of God and the church, such garments could be constructed of costly fabrics, with much ornamentation, and dyed in colors established by long use. When the priest celebrated Mass, he wore six specialized garments: the amice, alb, girdle, maniple, stole, and chasuble. The amice is a handkerchief-like fabric that covers the shoulders; the alb is a floor-length white gown with full, long sleeves. The girdle of white tasseled cord belts the alb at the waist, while the maniple (from the Latin word for "hand") is another handkerchief-like cloth that is worn over the left forearm. The stole is a white knee-length scarf around the priest's neck, very much like a modern dress scarf. The chasuble is worn over all of these garments. Other vestments were the dalmatic, surplice, cope, and pallium. A surplice was the garment of the choristers or singers in the choir; it was of white linen and knee length. A bishop wore the pallium, a narrow woolen scarf with purple crosses embroidered on it, and a cope or chasuble-like outer garment. He carried a crozier (a staff with a hooked end like a shepherd's crook) and wore a type of pointed headdress called a mitre.

Pilgrim 's Costume.

Pilgrims were sometimes members of religious orders and sometimes lay travelers who were engaged in a religious or penitent voyage to a sacred shrine. They wore a distinctive set of garments and accessories and were treated by others as religious persons. This costume distinguished them from other travelers as proper recipients of wayside charity and helped protect them from thieves. Medieval pilgrims carried a walking staff and a scrip, or bag, with strap that could be worn across the shoulders for the purpose of transporting the pilgrim's minimal possessions, possibly including a begging bowl, on the journey. Their chief garment was a tunic, normally made of the roughest fabric, sometimes worn or ragged, and a broad-brimmed hat with the brim turned up in the front. Attached to this hat were various insignia in paper, parchment, pewter, or tin that denoted the shrines the pilgrim had visited. The emblem of a scallop shell served as the traditional pilgrim sign of St. James of Compostela. A pilgrim would wear this shell to show that he had made a pilgrimage to the saint's shrine in Spain. For each new pilgrimage the traveler added an appropriate insignia. Thus, someone who made a pilgrimage to Canterbury might return with a badge in the form of a Canterbury cross or one depicting St. Thomas Becket mounted on a horse, while those who came home from Rome displayed Rome's signature pilgrim badge—a vernicle, the depiction of Christ's face on a replica of St. Veronica's veil. While on pilgrimage, it was also not uncommon in the later medieval period to carry a coral rosary (symbolically significant because of the cross-like branching of the original material) in a convenient manner for ready use—over the arm, or suspended from the belt—both for regular prayers and because it was believed that the rosary itself, as well as prayers, protected the pilgrim from possible dangers of the road and from ill health. No shoes are mentioned among these garments and accessories because the greatest piety was demonstrated by going barefoot. Nevertheless, some pilgrims did wear rough sandals or shoes.

Religious Vanity.

In spite of all this regulation, beneficed priests—that is, parish priests who had the income from a specific church and piece of land in a parish—and even monks and friars often dressed as they liked, and sometimes quite sumptuously. Chaucer's Friar in The Canterbury Tales, for example, wore a cope which was too short and turned his tippet or hood into a peddler's bag stuffed full of small items to attract the attentions of parish wives. At the Convocation of the Province of Canterbury in England, held in 1460–1461, a complainant alleges that

in modern times a certain abuse has appeared … that simple priests and other priests over and above their grade and status openly wear their apparel in the manner of doctors or of other worthy men. … They do not wear their top garments closed but the whole of the front part open, so that their private parts can be seen publicly in the manner of laymen, and many such priests have tight hose and hoods with tippets joined to them and have the collars of their doublets made of scarlet or other bright outlandish dress publicly showing above their gowns or tunics … to the great scandal of holy orders.

Repeated councils dealt with this problem and addressed numerous details of dress that were forbidden in order that the garments of clerics and laypersons might be visibly different. Later councils even set forth regulations with the aim of distinguishing so-called "simple" priests from those who were elevated in status and/or education.


F. R. H. Du Boulay, ed., Registrum Thomae Bourghier (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957): 92.

W. M. Hargreaves-Mawdsley, A History of Academical Dress in Europe until the End of the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963).

Malcolm Jones, The Secret Middle Ages (Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2002): 13–33.

Janet Mayo, A History of Ecclesiastical Dress (London: Batsford, 1984).

Diana Webb, Medieval European Pilgrimage c. 700–c. 1500 (New York: Palgrave, 2002).

see also Literature: The Canterbury Tales ; Philosophy: The Universities, Textbooks, and the Flowering of Scholasticism ; Religion: Friars ; Religion: Relics, Pilgrimages, and the Peace of God

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Academic, Clerical, and Religious Dress

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