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.
The article, “Best Clothes and Everyday Attire of Late Medieval Nuns,” by Eva Schlotheuber, appears in Fashion and Clothing in Late Medieval Europe, which was published last year in Switzerland. Basing her research on numerous sources from western Europe, such as reports on medieval nunneries by church officials, leads Schlotheuber to believe that “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.”
Ecclesiastical officials often made and repeated rules for nun’s clothing, especially when they when left the convent. At the Council of Vienne (1311-12) they commanded that nuns should “not wear silk gowns, fur trim, sandals, long or swept-up hairstyles, or plaid or striped veils.” 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.”
Schlotheuber explains that while nuns were expected to wear clothing to be humble and modest, “canon law included the fundamental principle that members of the upper estates should be recognisable by theirmore valuable accoutrements.” Nuns saw themselves as having a special social position – as brides of Christ. Furthermore, “many of the religious came from the upper social strata, from noble or patrician circles, in which wearing clothing appropriate to one’s estate was considered a matter of course.”
It is not surprising then that by the late Middle Ages, we have many reports like the one given by a man from Lincoln, who in 1441 wrote that the Prioress of Ankerwyke “wears golden rings exceedingly costly with divers precious stones and also girdles silvered and gilded over and silken veils, and carries her veil too high above her forehead, so that her forehead, being entirely uncovered, can be seen by all, and she wears furs of vair.”