"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Do Clothes Maketh the Monk?

Growing up an Anglican altar boy, I was fascinated by vestments, and utterly, secretly thrilled when I first got to done cassock and surplice. Uniforms of all types continue to fascinate, even if today I generally tend to wonder, as a good Freudian should, about the urges some have--stronger in others, we always assume--to dress up, to be saluted or venerated or curtsied to based in large part on titles and clothes. 

Monastics are supposed to immunize themselves from these temptations by wearing death-to-the-world black, or other simple habits often of rough and monochromatic nature. But debates about such garments are as old as monasticism itself, as a forthcoming book by Ingvild  Sælid Gilhus suggests: Clothes and Monasticism in Ancient Christian Egypt: A New Perspective on Religious Garments (Routledge, March 2021), 212pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

This book is an exploration of the ideals and values of the ascetic and monastic life, as expressed through clothes. Clothes are often seen as an extension of us as humans, a determinant of who we are and how we experience and interact with the world. In this way, they can play a significant role in the embodied and material aspects of religious practice.

The focus of this book is on clothing and garments among ancient monastics and ascetics in Egypt, but with a broader outlook to the general meaning and function of clothes in religion. The garments of the Egyptian ascetics and monastics are important because they belong to a period of transition in the history of Christianity and very much represent this way of living. This study combines a cognitive perspective on clothes with an attempt to grasp the embodied experiences of being clothed, as well as viewing clothes as potential actors. Using sources such as travelogues, biographies, letters, contracts, images, and garments from monastic burials, the role of clothes is brought into conversation with material religion more generally.

This unique study builds links between ancient and contemporary uses of religious clothing. It will, therefore, be of interest to any scholar of religious studies, religious history, religion in antiquity, and material religion.

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