Did Monks wear Underpants?

Posted by: Richenda at Tuesday July 24, 2007 in

I have been reading some pretty wonderful stuff on monastics and the ideals of the life of the monk, his relationship with his fellows in Christ, and I tell you, it all makes me very philosophical.

[Note to self: Thoughts about the democracy of brotherhood, and the idea of a single person’s ‘service’ as a sacred expression of his place within a group….really need a blog that doesn’t mention or deal in any way with underpants.]

I have been transcribing Gasquet’s English Monastic Life for the web so it can be available for the monk-enthused to read. A niche audience, I grant you. But I hope a sparkling one, questing to know the hidden secrets of monks such as: Did monks wear underpants? lol.

Answer: Yes, monks in the northern European countries, England and Scandinavia, wore underpants. The people descended from ‘Barbarians’ who liked to wear trousers, and so ‘trousers’ or ‘drawers’ were incorporated into the habits of the (cold-in-the-winter) ‘barbarian-descended’ monks of England. The Romans did not wear underpants, or trousers, until they became co-mingled with, and influenced by, the barbarous fashions of the north. (At least some Romans in Britain, for example, also wore socks with their sandals.)

(The barbarians’ love of trousers, unfortunately, does not answer the ‘what does a Scotsman wear beneath his kilt’ question, because although some Scotsmen were monks, Scottish monks did not wear kilts. Sorry.)

The exception to the trousers/drawers rule was with the Order of Cistercian Monks, whose Order began in France. (A warm part, I hope.) These bare-bottomed monks kept warm under their robes by other means during English winters, and spurned barbaric drawers to follow the purer, breezy-bottom fashions of the Romans.

There you have it.

You will also be happy to know I am transcribing Gasquet’s information regarding much larger and more important questions than just the underpants question.

As an abbot, church historian, and Vatican Librarian, Gasquet’s account of Monastic life is as idealistic and as wholesome as it comes. And perhaps we know that real life monks of yester-yore did not always behave so well as Gasquet describes. In fact, we know that they behaved in the worst possible ways, at times. But frankly, it’s nice to know what was supposed to be going on—even if it wasn’t—and how the Custumals of the day exhorted the brethren to charity, solemnity, and Christian brotherhood.

Click over to my monastic page if you like and read a little. Though Methuen & Co. published the book in 1904, it is still newsy and interesting, and speaks with a clear and easy voice.

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