What Color Is Your Habit? – Wonders & Marvels

By Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt ( W & M Regular Contributor )
In the early on fifteenth century male ecclesiastical visitors to the convent of Santa Clara in Barcelona cited the conical buoy for wearing an irregular and inappropriate substance abuse. Rather than donning the traditional attire of Franciscan nuns, a gray or brown habit, the nuns wore a black habit more like that of the Benedictine Order. The visitors objected, but the nuns resisted and stuck to their sartorial guns. Stubborness prevailed on both sides of the argument and the contest over their habits dragged on for about a hundred and was ultimately appealed to Rome. Why were both sides indeed persistent ? How did a wonder of invest reach all the way to the papcy ? Considering that the nuns were rarely, if always, seen by others, why did it matter what they wore ?

I have written previously hera about the ways in which premodern clothe made statements about class and identity. It was not unlike for the nuns. Despite the fact that one modern historian has trivialized the decision of the Santa Clara nuns, claiming that the nuns merely wanted to exchange a drab habit for a more prestigious one *, it is net that there was much at stake for these Franciscan women.

In fact, although Franciscan, the convent had a history of wearing the Benedictine substance abuse. The nuns traced unbroken linage to what they called the habit of San Damiano. This was a reference to the beginning religious community personally founded by Saint Clare in the early-thirteenth hundred. Because there was a prohibition on new religious orders when the community was formed in 1219, Cardinal Hugolino had placed the women under the Benedictine Rule. For the nuns of Santa Clara of Barcelona wearing the Benedictine habit let them claim an institutional identity built on a centuries-old connection between themselves and their angelic foundress. The nuns resisted the attempts to make them wear the Franciscan habit, and ultimately transferred the convent to the Benedictine Order. The local Franciscan hierarchy objected vigorously and appealed the decision to Rome. But the papacy upheld the nuns ’ choice .
Another dispute over habits rooted in questions of identity erupted at the convent of Le Vergini in Venice. hera, in the early sixteenth century, the augustinian nuns fought over a different choice of colors. A group of nuns was sent to reform the community and they wore gray habits. The original members wore white. After some discussion the two groups reached an agreement that they would all wear white. trouble ensued, however, when the lie sisters ( women who didn ’ t take grave vows and frequently performed more humble tasks around the convent ) adopted this color for their habits. Their decision violated a long-standing tradition of distinguishing between the habits worn by choir nuns and habits worn by laic sisters—a kind of hierarchy within the convent. The solemnly avowed nuns wanted to be sealed that the color of their habits signified their status as distinct. [ 1 ]

Habits, then, though hardly ever seen by outsiders, embodied significant issues. Despite the monk life style ’ second imperativeness upon washing away attachments to material polish, habits mattered vastly to the women who wore them. Woven through their colors were questions of identity, custom, and hierarchy .
* interestingly, because of the dyes needed to prepare it, bootleg was an expensive discolor to produce in the late Middle Ages, which may have made black habits a more prestigious item.

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is Chair and Professor of History at Cleveland State University. She writes on the history of gender in premodern Europe .
[ 1 ] For more on this history, see Kate Lowe ’ sulfur, Nuns ’ Chronicles and Convent Culture in Renaissance and Counter-Reformation Italy ( New York, 2003 ) .

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