As early as the third century A.D., or even before that, a few Christians of exceptional godliness withdrew themselves entirely from the world, for the better devotion of their lives to spiritual contemplation. They had no fixed abode, but wandered in wild and uninhabited places, and were called Anchorites, Hermits and Monks. They did not become very numerous in Europe, owing to the rigorous climate, and eventually disappeared altogether. In the warmer climates of the East, and in Africa, this cult developed, especially among the Copts of Egypt, a country renowned for the great number of Anchorites living in the wild and desolate parts. A desire to lead a lonely (“Monus”) life, devoted to prayer, the glory of God, and the teaching of His Word, inspired many men and women to retire to some cave, or hollow in the ground, or thicket. They wore little clothing except the coarsest of linen or cloth, and the skins of animals. They deprived themselves of every conceivable comfort, and starved and mortified themselves into states of spiritual exaltation. Later these ascetics made for themselves small cubicles or cells, and living together were called Cenobites.
In 271, a young man, a Copt born at Koma in Egypt in 251, disposed of all his worldly belongings, in obedience to a divine injunction, and retired to the wilderness. He became celebrated for his sanctity — S. Anthony, Father of All Monks (Anthony the Great or Antony the Great (c. 251 – 356 AD), also known as Saint Anthony or Anthony of Egypt).
In answer to the prayer of many Cenobites who wished to live under his guidance, he inaugurated (a.d. 305) at Fayoum, near Memphis, a system of living together in separate cells in one enclosure, called a “laura,” meeting only for common service. He died in 356 at the age of 105 and was canonised in the Roman Catholic Church.
This system, Monachism, developed in the East and spread westward. It was the origin of those religious orders which became such a great power spiritually and educationally in many lands:
The Benedictines, founded by S. Benedict (480-543) at Mount Cassino in 529.
The Cistercians, by Robert, abbot of Molesme, Burgundy, at Citeaux (Cistercium) in 1050. They were re-formed by S. Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153) about 1145.
The Carthusians, by S. Bruno (1050-1101), and named from La Chartreuse, near Grenoble, Vienne, in 1086.
The Franciscans, by S. Francis d’Assisi (i 182-1226) in 1210; and many others.
At the time of the foundation of Monachism, no definite uniform was worn by these religious people, the monks and nuns, but just the ordinary clothes of poor people. The shape of their garments has been retained until to-day; and as time went on, and the fashions of the people in general changed, these garments became quite distinctive.
By the sixth century the men wore only the tunica of coarse cloth, reaching to the ankles, with fairly wide sleeves, a modified dalmatica, and often a shirt of hair-cloth under it. Their feet were bare, being shod only with sandals.
The paenula, with the hood, the cumulus, was used if necessary; otherwise their heads were bare. The practice of shaving the head was in use among the Egyptian priests of the Early Dynasties, and was copied by the Coptic Christians in the form of the TONSURE, a round shaved patch on the top of the head—adopted later (in the sixth century) by the clergy in general as a mark of distinction from the laity. There were two forms of tonsure: that of S. Peter, in which a circle of hair was left by shaving the top of the head and the nape of the neck, was in vogue in Italy, Spain, Gaul, and the Early English Church. The other form, that of S. James, used in the Early Scottish Church, was made by shaving all the head in front of a line drawn from ear to ear.
This uniform was international. The clergy who brought Christianity to England in the seventh century wore the garments described on Rome, and the monks the garments described above. By the tenth century a few more details were added and the uniform may be said to be thoroughly established.
The garments worn by monks at this time were:
THE FROCK (“Froc,” Norman-French, meaning a coarse stuff), a garment cut all in one, with long loose sleeves. It was a development of the tunica. The width of the sleeves varied with different orders; also their length, some being long enough to reach the knees. The superfluous material was used to cover the hands.
THE COWL. A name originally used for a bag, and later adapted for an article of dress of the same shape, i.e. the cucullus or hood. The name of hood denoted a head-covering for the laity; that of the cowl, a distinctive head-dress of monks.
There were three varieties of the monk’s cowl:
No. I was a separate garment having a short cape-like collar, called the capuce.
No. 2 was attached to the paenula or cloak. No. 3 was attached to the cuculla or scapular. In all three examples it was spoken of as the cowl.
The colours of the garments worn by the various orders were: The Benedictines. Black serge frock, with cowl attached to the scapular. This latter garment was worn by the Benedictines under the frock, the hood emerging at the neck. No girdle; shoes instead of sandals.
The Cistercians. Grey frock for everyday use, pure white in church; black scapular with cowl (No. 3) attached. Sandals.
The Carthusians. White frock, white scapular with bands at the sides to connect the front and back portions; cowl (No. 3) attached. Sandals. Novices wore a paenula with cowl No. 2, or a short scapular, unjoined at the side, over a white frock.
The Franciscans or Friars Minor. The original colour * of the frock was a light brown or a natural hue. When a band of these friars came to England in 1224, their dress was of a greyish colour and the name of Grey Friars was given to them. Cowl No. i was worn. This Order introduced the cord girdle.
* The original colour has been the subject of great controversy, but no decision has been reached. Discussion became so embittered that the Pope issued orders that it should cease.
The Dominicans — Friars Preachers. The nucleus of the institution was founded by S. Dominic (b. Calaroga, Old Castile, 1170; d. 1221) in 1214. White frock; white scapular (lay brothers wore a black scapular); black mantle or paenula, with cowl No. 2 attached, or sometimes a black capuce. They came to England in 1221 and were called Black Friars.
Nuns of the different Orders wore the same frock and in the colours of the Orders. Instead of the cowl they wore a veil over their heads, shorn of all their hair. The paenula was used out of doors. Novices wore a white veil; professed nuns a black one.