Thursday, October 11, 2012

Historical Fiction Book Tours Guest Post: Sophie Perinot

Hair-Shirts 101

by Sophie Perinot

“There is no point wearing a hair-shirt and hoping to get to heaven.”

This is a favorite expression of my father’s (quaint family, eh?).  It’s been cropping up in my life since I was a little girl—generally when I was holding back from something, for example, when I was too timid to pursue a dream 110%, or I failed to extricate myself from an unnecessary unpleasant situation.

At a young age, then, I had a concept of what a hair-shirt represented: people denying themselves something in hopes of later reward or subjecting themselves to discomfort of some type.  And I had a clear understanding that my pater familias frowned on such practices as pointless.  I also got interested in what hair-shirts actually, physically were. And, by the time I reached middle-school, I assumed that everybody knew a hair-shirt when they saw one.

“A hair-shirt owned by Louis IX, now on display at the church of Saint-Aspais Melun”
Fast forward a couple of decades, I am researching my novel The Sister Queens and discover that Louis IX of France is a devotee of hair-shirts (sometimes called cilices).  Actually, a number of my characters don a hair-shirt at one time or another in the course of my book, but Louis could be the poster child for cilices as a fashion accessory.  He so valued his hair-shirt and eventually (when persistent irritation to the skin on his torso caused his physicians to advise Louis him to set such shirts aside) his hair-belt (you don’t want to know where he wore that) that he left a used hair-belt to his daughter upon his death.  And you thought MY dad was weird for merely mentioning them.  Given the hair-shirt references in my childhood I was bound to find Louis’s obsessive wearing of cilices both illustrative of his character and worthy of mention in my novel. 

And that, dear readers, is when I discovered that not everybody was as “in the know” about hair-shirts as I’d always assumed. So today I am going to offer a brief, biased, look at hair-shirts—sort of a cilices 101 if you will.

Is it really a shirt made of hair?  Why, yes, though sometimes with “improvements.”  TheCatholic Encyclopedia describes a hairshirt as:

“A garment of rough cloth made from goats' hair and worn in the form of a shirt or as a girdle around the loins” [

But goat hair wasn’t the cilice wearer’s only choice.  Camel hair-shirts have been reported and, for those who did not find hair alone uncomfortable enough, fine metal wire could be incorporated or even twigs.  Oh and cilice isn’t the only synonym for “hair-shirt.’ A much more common term may have been used.  If you’ve seen the word “sackcloth” in the bible you may have assumed the reference was to a sort of burlap-like cloth used to actually make sacks. There is evidence, however, that the term “sack cloth” could be used as a synonym for a cloth made of coarse goat hair. So wearing sack cloth might actually mean wearing a hair-shirt.

The bottom line, however, is that a hair-shirt by any name would be uncomfortable—and it was meant to be.  When I imagine wearing a cilice (yes, I do that—one of the perils of history-geekdom, I fear), I start by recalling that unbearable scratchy feeling you have when you’ve come from having your haircut and the stylist lets all those little bits of hair slip down into your shirt.  In reality a cilice rubbing against your skin with every movement was probably much worse.  But that was the idea.  Hair-shirts were employed as part of a regime of “mortification of the flesh” that might also include self-flagellation and fasting.  Self-mortification was widely adopted by members of monastic orders in the medieval world but also embraced by laypeople, including the powerful.  In addition to Louis IX of France we know that Saint Thomas Beckett and Charlemagne were fans of the hair-shirt.

In the view of medieval Christianity, that which pertained to the flesh—physical desires, physically pleasurable experiences—kept men apart from God.  An individual needed to free himself from the tyranny of the flesh and cultivate the spiritual, both to do penance for sin (including original sin) and to attain the kingdom of heaven.  The basis for such mortification practices was biblical.

Saint Paul writing to the Romans admonished, “[I]f ye live after the flesh, ye must die; but if by the Spirit ye put to death the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” (Romans 8:13) And Jesus himself exhorts his followers to resist being enslaved to their flesh and their earthly desires.  And, in at least one instance, sackcloth—is mentioned: “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! Woe unto thee, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.” (Luke 10:13)

“Medieval hair-shirt”
One of the pluses of wearing a hairshirt was that it allegedly helped its wearer resist temptations of the flesh.  I find it hard to follow this logic unless, of course, the wearer was so busy thinking “I am itchy and uncomfortable,” that he didn’t have the time to think of wine, women and song.  But if a hairshirt made people too uncomfortable to think about temporal pleasures wouldn’t it also prove a mighty distraction from the business of running an estate or ruling a kingdom?

Another purported benefit of a hair-shirt undergarment (to quote the Catholic Encyclopedia again) was that it might be used as “an unostentatious antidote for the outward luxury and comfort of their lives. St. Jerome, for instance, mentions the hairshirt as being frequently worn under the rich and splendid robes of men in high worldly positions.”  O-k-a-y. . .it seems to me that one of the big advantages to being the landed gentry in medieval times rather than, say, a peasant, is the level of comfortable living that position and title affords.

But my 21st-century-ness is showing (told you this was going to be a biased account).  I am quite sure had I lived in the 13th century I’d have slipped on a hair-shirt and not found the practice at all dubious or twisted.  And not everybody in the past viewed a hairshirt as a daily wear item.  Henri III of France (16th century monarch, last King of the Valois line, and character in my next book) employed them only during his infrequent bouts of penitence and as procession wear.  I suspect, like Henri, I’d save my hairshirt wearing for special occasions.  And I can almost guarantee that, unlike Louis, none of my children would be expected to treasure a discarded hair-anything in memory of me.

SYNOPSIS Like most sisters, Marguerite and Eleanor were rivals. They were also queens. Raised at the court of their father, Raymond Berenger, Count of Provence, Marguerite and Eleanor are separated by royal marriages--but never truly parted. Patient, perfect, and used to being first, Marguerite becomes Queen of France. But Louis IX is a religious zealot who denies himself the love and companionship his wife craves. Can she borrow enough of her sister's boldness to grasp her chance for happiness in a forbidden love? Passionate, strong-willed, and stubborn, Eleanor becomes Queen of England. Henry III is a good man, but not a good king. Can Eleanor stop competing with her sister and value what she has, or will she let it slip away? The Sister Queens is historical fiction at its most compelling, and is an unforgettable first novel.

AUTHOR BIO Sophie Perinot writes historical fiction. In Spring 2012 her debut novel, The Sister Queens, will be released by NAL. Set in 13th century France and England, The Sister Queens weaves the captivating story of medieval sisters, Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, who both became queens – their lifelong friendship, their rivalry, and their reigns Ms. Perinot has both a BA in History and a law degree. She left the law to pursue artistic interests, including writing. An avid reader, especially of classic literature, and life-long student of history, it seemed only natural that Sophie should write historical fiction. As someone who studied French abroad and a devotee of Alexandre Dumas, French history was a logical starting point. An active member of the Historical Novel Society, she has attended all of the group’s North American Conferences. Active among the literary twitterati as @Lit_gal (a moniker she also uses at Agent Query Connect, Sophie is a regular contributor to the group writers' blog "From the Write Angle" Find her on facebook at For more information, please visit Sophie Perinot's WEBSITE. You can also find Sophie on her blog, Facebook and Twitter.

Read my review of The Sister Queens here

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jewels1328 said...

I still can't wrap my head around it, but very interesting still.

Unknown said...

Mortification is still very much a part of the Catholic zeitgeist. There's no qualitative difference between wearing a hair shirt and mortifications like lenten obligations, priestly celibacy, and redemptive suffering. Investigate modern Catholic movements like Opus Dei and you'll find quiet hints of words like 'the cilice' and 'the discipline'. I know many people who wear a scapular, and it's woolen and meant to itch.

While I'm theologically uncomfortable with self-induced suffering (I suspect God is quite capable of deciding how much pain is appropriate for this world; to me it's presumptuous to add more to it), I would suggest that the hair shirt is actually the more modern attitude than that which is common today: that Aristippus came before Jerome; that comfort is a more primitive doctrine than self-denial.

When our lives focus on the good and easy things that this rich moment in history affords us, we're praying to the very oldest gods of all.

Sophie Perinot said...

Sl J -- Excellent points.

My husband, who is Roman Catholic, would absolutely agree with your Aristippus based point.

I do think, however, that there is (or can be) a quantitative difference between Lenten observances and the sort of hair-shirt wearing that Louis and other devotees did. Lent, however rigorously you observe it, is for a limited time period. Men like Louis indulged in self-mortification pretty continuously. I am not particularly comfortable with extremes--in religion or anything else for that matter.

The Mistress of the Dark said...

Lenten obligations? It is so terrible not to eat meat on Friday? That is the only observation other than fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I'll take that over a hair shirt any day. This is coming from a Roman Catholic.

Carolyn said...

Very interesting post and a great giveaway! Thank you!

Sophie Perinot said...

Mistress of the Dark I am with you on that 110%

bn100 said...

Very interesting post.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post.


Nancy said...

I often find extreme behavior bizarre. Thanks for the giveaway.

Kate Dolan said...

While I had heard of hair shirts (not from my dad) I had never seen one before so thanks for sharing the information. Also it makes sense to think of "sackcloth" from the Bible as a hair shirt, since the purpose seems to be the same. (I'm still not sure of the purpose of the ashes. Humiliation? Or does the alkaline burn the skin?) Anyway thanks for an illuminating post!

mamabunny13 said...

Interesting post, thanks for sharing and for the giveaway!

Unknown said...

Didn't know there were such thing as hair-shirts, would love to read the book, thanks for the giveaway.

Literary Chanteuse said...

Love hostorical fiction! I would love to read this!

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