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Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Fri Aug 14, 2009 9:04 am
by Frances Perry
Hello all,

This is a question on behalf of a friend. Several pictures display both nuns and monks wearing a light coloured belt, which looks a little like rope, with varying amounts of knots in it.

Whilst I understand this may indicate the level of the monk or nun in the religious 'pecking order', as it were, but does this have any religious significance atatched to it as well?

Thanks for any help.

Posted: Fri Aug 14, 2009 9:59 am
by aidanwallis
Im going to lacock abbey this weekend for a monastic 13c event i'll see if some one knows the awner

(as for the peking order im only a lay servant :cry: )

Posted: Fri Aug 14, 2009 10:34 am
by Templar Knight
I think but I am probably wrong, that it is braided wool they wear round the selves.

Posted: Fri Aug 14, 2009 10:41 am
by Frances Perry
No, it is definately a slight coloured belt:



Posted: Fri Aug 14, 2009 10:44 am
by Templar Knight ... ous_orders

Worth a look at, dont know if the habit will of changed since the time of those pictures though.

Posted: Fri Aug 14, 2009 10:49 am
by Theotherone
A quick squiz at Google gives at least two sets that wear knots. Franciscians and Capuchins

This Franciscan website says their 3 knots are to remind them of their vows

Apparently the method of tying the knots is different?

Posted: Fri Aug 14, 2009 10:50 am
by Brother Ranulf
These are definitely not monks, but friars and nuns associated with mendicant orders (so not Benedictine monks or nuns, but Dominicans and Franciscans wore knotted belts, for example). Sandals were most often associated with friars and the bare feet of the nun would indicate the "Poor Clares", who were the female Franciscans.

Friars wore corded linen/rope belts with three knots as a reminder of their vows:poverty, chastity and obedience. Nuns of mendicant orders wore the same, with the same symbolism. There is no basis for the idea that the number of knots had any other significance - although artists presumably got the number of knots wrong on occasion.

The difference between a monk and a friar? The first was confined almost permanently within the walls of a monastic site (hence "cloistered") while the second may have lived in friary buildings but worked outside, among the community. So the extreme opposite ends of the religious spectrum.

Mendicant, incidentally, means that they survived on donations or by begging.

Posted: Fri Aug 14, 2009 10:57 am
by Frances Perry
Thank you for your help!

Posted: Fri Aug 14, 2009 11:32 pm
by Mark Griffin
couldn't have put it better myself Ranulf.

There is a great late 15th cent saying about mendicants..

Best way to get rid of a Friar? Pay him!

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Mon Aug 17, 2009 5:28 am
by Karen Larsdatter

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Wed Apr 14, 2010 10:03 pm
by Sparrow
It also could be "pater noster" ? " A Paternoster is a medieval form of the Rosary and was used to keep track of how many "Our Father" prayers were said. "

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Thu Apr 15, 2010 11:30 am
by Brother Ranulf
The paternoster was for people who for whatever reason could not regularly attend formal services in church. Monks in particular, but also friars, had their day built around attendance at services so they did not need to use paternosters.

If you were a lay brother working in the monastery fields or repairing a roof, or if you were a devout but busy noblewoman, you were not expected to attend every service so you used a paternoster instead. I believe the Templars and Hospitallers were expected to carry a paternoster in lieu of attending regular services when serving in time of war, but they attended chapel regularly at other times.

The cord belts of the friars did not serve as paternosters - they would need very many more knots and would have to be made in a circle.

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Fri Apr 16, 2010 3:11 pm
by Sparrow
All right I did not know that. Paternoster was not always a circle and had many shapes f.e. ... -beads.jpg

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Fri Apr 16, 2010 8:01 pm
by Marcus Woodhouse
Thats a chaplet.

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Sat Apr 17, 2010 11:55 pm
by Sparrow
Chaplet ?? I always thought chaplet has a cross and even smaller version looks like that ... haplet.jpg .... or am I wrong...

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Sun Apr 18, 2010 8:55 am
by Laffin Jon Terris
From searching definitions, a chaplet seems to be mostly;
"A wreath of flowers, leaves, or branches to be worn on the head, garland"(Middle English Dictionary)

But those definitions that do mention a string of beads all define it as being;
"A string of beads, or part of a string, used by Roman Catholic in praying; a third of a rosary, or fifty beads." (Websters Dictionary)

The one from the Arnolfini is definately commonly known as a Paternoster but it would appear that the terms Paternoster, Rosary and Chaplet are (and were) interchangeable-

Handy Paternoster site


Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Tue Apr 20, 2010 7:56 am
by Dingo8MyBaby
The three knots are also for Father, Son and Holy Ghost in the context of the Hospitallers.

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Tue Apr 20, 2010 11:00 am
by Brother Ranulf
That's something new to me - do you have a source for it? I haven't looked very far into the military Orders in the 12th century since so much has already been written about them but I don't recall seeing any mention of the Hospitallers wearing the knotted belts of friars - they were, after all, monks following a version of the Rule of St. Benedict. Wall paintings at Krak des Chevaliers and elsewhere do not show knotted cord belts . . .

I have looked at the original Rule of Raymond du Puy and the subsequent statutes and I can find no mention of a cord belt being part of the clothing of a Hospitaller, whether a brother, confrater or donat.

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Fri Apr 23, 2010 4:15 pm
by guthrie
Since we're on the topic...
As far as I can find out, Dominicans wore a white woollen tunic robe thingy, with a specifically black wool cloak over it. One or two things I have read also say there was a surplice, a sort of white wool poncho, but in the 1200's did they actually use that? I imagine also that when not out travelling or preaching they would leave off the cloak.

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Fri Apr 23, 2010 5:25 pm
by Brother Ranulf
As with most of the religious Orders the question is not only what period, but it's also about the circumstances when certain clothing was worn.

I have a copy of a document housed at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge which shows the dress of most of the religious Orders of about the 1330 period when in Church; the Dominicans wear white woollen habits with a black wool cloak (hooded?) over it. This would be the standard Dominican wear from the 13th century and through the medieval period, even within their own buildings.

A surplice (a baggy linen tunic with sleeves, often reaching only to the knees) is a not specific to monks or friars, but eventually to all clergy - it appeared in England around the 13th century and could be used in choir, processions, by priests when administering the sacraments and at various other times. It seems to have gradually replaced the alb (the standard tunic for priests and other clergy). I know that some Benedictine monks sometimes wore the alb when in choir:

"Until the middle of the twelfth century the alb was the vestment which all clerics wore when exercising their functions, and Rupert of Deutz mentions that, on great festivals, both in his own monastery and at Cluny, not only those who officiated in the sanctuary, but all the monks in their stalls wore albs. The alb was also worn at this period in all religious functions, e.g. in taking Communion to the sick, or when assisting at a synod. Since the twelfth century, however, the cotta or surplice has gradually been substituted for the alb in the case of all clerics save those in greater orders, i.e. subdeacon, deacon, priest, and bishop. At present the alb is little used outside the time of Mass. At all other functions it is permissible for priests to wear a surplice." [the Catholic Encyclopedia]

So in some cases, the alb or surplice could be worn over the habit when in choir, but this was not standard practice everywhere and not even at all services. You might have found Dominicans in one friary wearing them and Dominicans in the neighbouring friary not wearing them.

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Fri Apr 23, 2010 5:45 pm
by guthrie
Ahh, thank you, that makes more sense.
The hooded cloak thing is interesting, insofar as it is unclear from illustrations from the 15th C I have seen whether the hood is separate or connected to the cloak, but they definitely have hoods. I would presume given the poverty thing that we'd be talking about a natural black from black sheep's wool, rather than dyed.

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Fri Apr 23, 2010 6:29 pm
by Brother Ranulf
It's an interesting point and I don't think there is a definitive answer.

Certainly "white" wool as worn by Cistercians, Dominicans etc., was simply undyed, unbleached natural wool - so not really white.

The black habits worn by the Cluniacs, Benedictines and others was almost certainly dyed, probably using oak galls and iron - this produced an unstable and unreliable very dark brown/grey rather than true black, despite the use of jet black paint to show them in period illustrations. I guess that the same applied to Dominican cloaks, but as far as I know there is no contemporary account of the exact process used. Black sheep's wool tends to be more brown than black, but it may well have served in some places. Remember that although the monks and friars themselves were sworn to poverty, the Church as an institution was incredibly wealthy (the main reason for Henry VIII wanting to shut it down), so the cost of dying cloth would be insignificant in the scheme of things.

The 14th century picture I mentioned seems to show the cloak and hood all in one piece, although this is not very clear.

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Fri Apr 23, 2010 7:30 pm
by guthrie
Ahh, thank you. That does of course add to the fun. Shame no habits have survived from that period, although one wonders what the effect of the hypothesised acidic dye would have on the wool in the long term.


Posted: Fri Apr 23, 2010 8:59 pm
by Simon Atford
aidanwallis wrote:Im going to lacock abbey this weekend for a monastic 13c event i'll see if some one knows the awner

(as for the peking order im only a lay servant :cry: )
I live up the road from Lacock. If I wasn't working this weekend I'd come down as an MOP and check it out. Any similar events later in the season?

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Tue Apr 27, 2010 1:33 pm
by guthrie
And the final question - the actual monks and friars habits would be broadly similar to the supposed cowl of St Francis of Assisi, diagrams of which are all over the internet.

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Tue Apr 27, 2010 3:56 pm
by Brother Ranulf
My first reaction when I saw that "cowl of St Francis" was that it isn't a cowl, which several of the sites featuring it actually say - it's more like a "frock", which is not a typical garment for either friars or monks. A cowl ought to have an integral hood; the sleeves of the habit should be wide and very over-long, folded back or bunched along the arm. For monks, these sleeves were sometimes allowed to drop to their full extent, completely hiding the hands (perhaps a mark of humility during ceremonies).

The garment you mention has lots of bits of material making the side extensions to the skirt of the habit (known as "gores"); these could equally be made of complete pieces of material in a triangular shape and were simply to give added fullness to the skirt.

This is the earliest known painting of St Francis, produced in Italy in 1235 (it's conveniently dated), showing a much more typical habit complete with hood and long sleeves - click on it twice for a larger version

Thinking about that "frock" supposedly worn by St Francis - he was a deacon in the Catholic church and I suspect this garment was adapted from the normal dress of a deacon; there is pictorial evidence that ordinary habits for monks and friars were not lined with linen, so it may be that the "cowl of St Francis" is even more unusual and exceptional than I first thought. You can see in the painting above that inside the sleeves and hood there is no trace of linen lining.

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Tue Apr 27, 2010 5:24 pm
by guthrie
Yes, thats what I was trying to work out, I got some information from someone on here, perhaps your good self, a couple of years ago but seem to have mislaid it since then.
A habit being effectively an ankle length tunic, but I assume with some rather long gores down it in order to give it the extra material necessary for walking about in. THe sleeves look normal enough, just quite broad, running from shoulder to wrist. And in this case the hood looks to be separate from the habit.

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Tue Apr 27, 2010 6:38 pm
by Brother Ranulf
The hood is a bit deceptive in this case - if you look carefully at all the background scenes in the painting showing the life of St Francis, his hood is clearly part of the habit.

I think the hood on the main figure is made over large and the lower part sits on the figure's shoulders, giving the horizontal lines each side. If it were separate, the cape part of the hood would extend much further down past the shoulders (I have several pictures of friars wearing those separate hoods over their habits and the lower edge is further down).

The gores should reach to your waistline, otherwise you get a peculiar result . . .

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Tue Apr 27, 2010 11:46 pm
by guthrie
Hang on, so habits have hoods which are made big and wide so as to cover the tops of the shoulders, but they are in fact attached?
And in the case of Dominicans, they had a hood on both the habit and the black cloak, which appears to be sewn together at the top at the front, with its own attached hood.

Re: Religious Question - Knots on rope belts

Posted: Wed Apr 28, 2010 8:11 am
by Brother Ranulf
Guthrie -

The only good published study of historical Church dress that I know of is “The History of Ecclesiastical Dress” by Janet Mayo, now sadly out of print and commanding very silly prices second-hand : ... 029&sr=1-1

You may be able to find it in a decent library, if yours is one that still has books in it (mine has been transformed into a stupid internet centre with DVDs for hire) . . . :roll:

When we are looking at medieval dress it is all too easy to see through modern eyes which are used to uniformity and regulation in areas like school uniforms, the Grenadier Guards, police, nurses, vicars and bishops. For modern eyes, monks, friars and canons are all roughly the same thing, while the people of the time considered them to be unconnected and separate.

In the medieval period uniformity was an alien concept. In his Regulum St Benedict was very clear that clothing should be appropriate to the climate and could be adapted to local conditions as required – he envisaged no uniformity among the monks he was writing for. It is no surprise, then, to find 12th century depictions of Benedictines wearing habits with separate hoods as well as habits with integral hoods. Janet Mayo explored these variables and changing fashions over time and place in her book.

So, when we say that Franciscans wore brown habits this is correct, but those habits could have a built-in hood or a separate hood; for the Dominicans, the black cloak might be hooded and the white habit not, the cloak might be partly sewn or clasped with a strap or toggle, or some other form – there are even some depictions of Dominicans wearing separate hoods over their cloaks. So the constant element is always lack of uniformity.