I was in the New Forest archive the other day – not at all dusty as archives are said to be – when I came across a few rules for nuns that would have irked Hildegard more than somewhat.
It was men who made these rules up, of course, so we have to bear that in mind, and their interests become clear when we see what got them really agitated.
Clothes. Rules for how the nuns looked seemed uppermost, so nothing has changed much there then. It was suggested that hair- cloth should be worn next to the skin. It must have been very itchy. To be fair, St Jerome, among many other sainted men, was said to wear a hair-shirt. And Becket too, and when he was entombed he was also found to be crawling with lice – but that’s another story.
The nuns’ garments whether of hair or rough wool, linen of course being forbidden, had to be very well tied, with strapples to the feet, and everything had to be laced tightly. Really tightly. Well, you can see where that’s heading and I do believe some of them wore grey too, in various shades of…
They were also forbidden to wear silken veils in any colour but black. Purple was absolutely forbidden. The men also fulminated against silk girdles and purses (worn, as they were, on a belt slung suggestively low round the hips). There were also to be no pins in silver or gold whether for the hair or for holding the clothes together. They were allowed only one ring.
What was called a peculium was money set aside from the nunnery’s common fund specifically to provide clothes although of course many women who retired to nunneries when their husbands died took their own clothes with them (as well as pet dogs, monkeys, singing birds and so forth, as you do).
But did the nuns obey these edicts from on high? Not likely. The records are full of lists of the nuns’ transgressions despite the many inspections by their male bosses, the bishops, or whoever had the upper hand. Did these men inspect the hair cloth underwear? Not much point in making a rule if you can’t enforce it. Records tell us that a nun called Anneys Bonneville actually wore a fur coat. Scandal. It was full length. For the warmth, she said. Oh yes? What her punishment was we might imagine but apparently she refused to give it up.
I found an intriguing note about a priest who bequeathed to Agnes Harvey, a nun and obviously a close friend, his red mantle – a nun in red? – and, suggestively, a tapestry bed cover. We can maybe imagine to what use these two articles were put when he and Agnes were alive.
It’s a pleasure to discover that these distant ancestors of ours share the same delights as we do. Some, like Hildegard, took their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience seriously and wrestled with the morality of breaking them but most people, men and women, were as naughty as they wanted to be. Human, after all.
An intriguing and beautiful line from the Ancren Riwle is as follows: “They came forth into the nymph-hay with their rocks and wheels to spin.”
It sounds lovely and there must be a painting somewhere to match such a line. Any suggestions?