Religious dress in late Merovingian Gaul

Merovingian period strategies for creating distinctions between clerics and laypersons through personal adornment provided important precedents for later development of uniform dress in religious orders. (Effros, 2002). In early medieval Gaul, modest clothing and tonsure represented the primary means by which to distinguish clerics visibly from their lay contemporaries. Our most direct sources for these regulations survive in the canons of church councils and monastic Rules. Concern about the appearance of religious leaders constitutes a repeated theme in ecclesiastical synods south of the Loire from the late fifth to seventh centuries. As early as circa 475, the Statua ecclesiae antiqua stipulated two measures that clerics not grow their hair, shave their beards, nor wear inappropriate clothing (Effros, 2002).

Liturgical dress, including the requirement of a belt (cingulum) to tie the tunic of priests based on the precedent of Peter (John 21, 18, Douay Version).

“Amen, amen I say to thee, when thou wast younger, thou didst gird thyself, and didst walk where thou wouldst. But when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee and lead thee whither thou wouldst not.”

Surviving examples of leather belts with elaborate buckles from early medieval Gaul, such as the one alleged to have belonged to Caesarius of Arles found at Saint-Trophine in Arles, may have been used in a religious context (Effros, 2002).

In an injunction dated to 589, participants at the Council of Narbonne decreed purple clothing as inappropriately worldly fashion for clerics (Effros, 2002). Men who took monastic vows were obliged to give up worldly clothing. In exchange they received a cowl, tunic, belt, handkerchief, sandals, and shoes from the abbot (Effros, 2002). A variety of monastic Rules circulating in Gaul such as Aurelian’s Rule for Monks (548) specified that the garments of monks were to remain un-dyed or be restricted to unimposing colors such as milk white and natural black.

The rule of Caesaria employed after 567 by the former queen Radegund (d. 587) at her monastery of the Holy Cross at Poitiers, admonished the nuns to wear woolen clothing of plain milk-white color and suited to their profession as virgins. (Effros, 1996)

All clothing should be very simple and of a good color, never of black nor of a bright color, but only of a plain color or milk-white. They shall be made in the monastery through the diligence of the prioress and the careful attention of the sister in charge of wool work and distributed be the mother of the monastery to each according to her reasonable necessities. There should be no dyeing done in the monastery, except, as is stated above of a plain or milk-white, because other colors do not befit the humility of a virgin.

(Caesarius, 6th century, McCarthy, 1985)


Embroidery should never be done except on handkerchiefs and towels on which the abbess should order it done.

(Caesarius, 6th century, McCarthy, 1985)


Not only did medieval clothing and jewelry constitute property of significant value, but they possessed non-monetary worth as well. Among the Merovingians as well as contemporary Byzantines and Irish, it was believed that clothing could transmit the curative power of holy individuals even in their absence. The choice of these garments to either bury the women in or to preserve as a relic shows the importance of the textiles. The bodies of the saints, and any objects associated with the burial were preserved and venerated as bestowing miracles (Hen, 1995). The garments reflected the sanctity of their owners or the icons which were depicted upon them and might be the focus of miracles even before those who had worm them were deceased. The popularity of such miracles may have also resulted from the survival of pre-Christian belief in the power inherent in the tasks of weaving and binding, such activities being associated with the female producers of cloth. Merovingian burials included a collection of purposely chosen objects: an ideal projection of reality. (Effros, 1996)



One Comment

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