About Corazon

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Forget the Devil, The Nun Wears Prada

A recent article by German historian Eva Schlotheuber reveals that Medieval nuns were not as humble or anti-worldly as we may think. Recent research on medieval nuns shows that many of them were dressing in the latest fashions instead of simple religious habits. And while their were efforts by the church to make nuns dress more humbly, by the 14th and 15th centuries these rules were becoming less and less adhered to. As Dr. Schlotheuber states:

in the rhythm of daily life and feast days the nuns developed a great deal of creativity, and lived in a much more lively fashion than the morally and didactically coloured theological texts of the period want us to think.
And though efforts were made to restrict clothing for nuns, particularly at the Council of Vienne (1311-12), which forbade the waring of silks, furs, sandals, and lavish hairstyles, many Medieval nuns were slow to fall in line. As Dr. Schlotheuber points out:

The fact that these rules were being repeated again and again makes it clear that many nuns were not following them. This can be seen in the visitation reports of clerics to nunneries. In 1249, Eudes Rigaud wrote that the nuns at Villarceaux were wearing pelisses of rabbit, hare, and fox fur; they wore their hair long and curled, scented their veils with saffron, and adorned their belts with silver- and steeled-work clasps. The nuns were also not following other monastic rules either – Rigaud noted that everybody in the convent seemed to have a lover, and several had children.

Besides wearing fashionable clothes, rings were also widely worn – this symbolized their marriage to Christ. Sometimes these would be adorned with precious stones. During special occasions, such as some feast days, the nuns would dress up. An elderly nun at the German town of Ebstorf wrote how her sisters celebrated the Feast of St. Inocentius (September 22) by wearing felt caps, clothing with fur and knives hanging from the side. She added “others dressed in the courtly style and had primped their hair with a curling iron. A few wore monk’s habits. But we [the older girls] were not allowed to put on costumes. But we were jolly anyway.”
So how did Medieval nuns justify their worldly apparel? Some believed that it was their duty to appear separate (and dare I say superior) to the common people of their community. Being considered the brides of Jesus Christ himself, one could easily see why such fancy clothing and jewelry were considered desirable. After all, if the wife of a king/prince should be adorned in the finest of clothing, then shouldn't the brides of the King of Kings have just as much? And let us not forget that many women who filled the ranks of Medieval nunnery came from the higher social strata. Wearing fancy apparel would only be a natural thing.

But for those who saw the church and its clergy/nunnery as the guardians of faith, one can only imagine how they reacted to the sight of women who were supposed to dispose of all worldliness being covered in silks and jewels. Hard to imagine how they reckoned this with Christ's admonition to go into the world "without purse or scrip."

No wonder why Martin Luther and others would eventually condemn the church for its apparent worldliness.

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