10 April 2011

Hair Shirt


The hair shirt, also called a "celice," is a garment woven of rough goat hair or horse hair. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the celice could be a literal shirt or a loin cloth. Its purpose was to mortify the flesh. By creating physical discomfort (think itchiness and chafing - ouch!), it reminded the wearer to resist temptations of the flesh, and was a sign of the wearer's penitence. Holy men and women, members of the clergy, and lay people could own and wear hair shirts.

Years ago I attended a talk by a faculty member at my alma mater called "Holy Underwear." Among many fun facts the medievalist speaker shared was the notion that people who wanted to wear their hair shirts too frequently were considered freaks, and might be told to dial it back. You wore your hair shirt for an itchy hour, in other words, not 24 / 7.

~ Hair shirt belonging to St. Louis, 13th century ~
~ St. Louis wore this shirt every Friday during Lent ~
Source 
I've wondered about these practices. It's easy enough to imagine that the church might have harboured the occasional zealot who wanted to go nuts with the fleshly mortification. It seems to me that there must have always been masochists among us - people who derive a sexual thrill from pain. I love the idea that hiding under the appearance of piousness was the occasional pain enthusiast who just couldn't wait for hair shirt day to arrive, and who maybe went to mass with it under his or her clothes with an extra wide grin to go with it.

6 comments:

L.G.Smith said...

I can't even stand it when I get a haircut and those little hairs fall down around my collar. Drives me nuts. No hairy pleasure here.

And I'm betting there are still people walking around with these things on under their suits. Very strange.

Jeanne said...

This was a very interesting post for me. And I love your tongue in cheek comments. Of course, there are the ever famous "furries" or people who dress up as animals. I not too long ago found some research on a hotel in France where you can be a hamster for your stay. (You bring the suit but everything else is provided.) Maybe this started with the hair shirt phenomenon. It itches just to think of it. Love your posts, Elizabeth, and your name. I love your little "Twist" on things.

E.C. Smith said...

I like the way your mind works. . .a masochist, indeed.

Fun post! I love historical facts, so this was especially interesting for me.

Deirdra Eden-Coppel said...

I love your site and as I browsed your blog I decided to award you the Creative Blog Award.
Go to http://astorybookworld.blogspot.com/p/awards.html and pick up your award.
~Deirdra

nutschell said...

what an interesting post. History always fascinates me. what those people were thinking, i'd never know! I love that last paragraph about the masochist enjoying the hairy shirt. :P
nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

Elizabeth Twist said...

L.G.: Ooh! Those little hairs from getting a haircut! Pure torture! Re: modern holy underwear: I am aware of this kind.

Jeanne: Wow. There must be anthropologists out there somewhere who would be into studying Hamster Hotel.

E.C.: Glad you liked it! I am fascinated by the huge variety of reasons why people do the things they do.

Deirdra: Aw, thank you so much! I will come collect it posthaste.

Nutschell: Thanks for stopping by! There is no end to the wonderful and terrible things people do.

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