Stupid Question ™
Feb. 22, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: What’s a hair shirt?
A: An extremely uncomfortable garment, the hair shirt was the last word in fashion among self-punishing Christians for centuries.
Misunderstandings of the term “hair shirt” has led to a popular misconception that they were something like animal hides worn inside-out, with the bristling fur irritating the skin.
In actuality, the original hair shirts were cut from (and named for) haircloth, a rough fabric woven from the fur of camels or mountain goats. Like modern canvas or burlap, haircloth was extremely common in the ancient Near East and was used for making sacks, tents and the like. It was also worn as foul-weather gear because it was tough and water-resistant.
Very early on, Christians began using haircloth as an instrument of self-torture by wearing it directly against the skin, which rapidly would be rubbed raw. Such hair “shirts” (sometimes cloaks or shawls) were worn both by penitents publicly repenting their sins and by ascetic hermits who sought to purify themselves through self-mortification.
Extremely devout ascetics would wear their hair shirts all the time, for years on end. Regular folks would only don one for a special observance, such as Lent. As time went on, these hair shirts weren’t always made of classic haircloth, but of any rough fabric (and in some extreme cases, fine wire).
Haircloth gained symbolic status—used for banners and altar cloths—and hair shirts eventually became symbolic, too. By around 1500, laypeople got away with wearing only token strips of haircloth.
While Christians developed the hair shirt to its peak of discomfort, they were neither the first nor the last to wear it. The Hebrew Bible refers to the penitential wearing of “sackcloth.” And the popular name of the Sufis, the Islamic ascetic sect, probably means “woolen”—a reference to the hair shirts they wore in imitation of Christians. Today, the monks of the Carthusian and Carmelite orders still occasionally wear hair shirts.
While hair shirts have their glamour—worn by St. Louis and Charlemagne under their robes—it must be understood that for hardcore wearers, they went far beyond mere discomfort.
A graphic picture emerges from a brief review of the hair shirts of the stars. Thomas More, the Catholic saint and author of “Utopia,” wore his hair shirt only on special occasions and Fridays—also the days he scourged himself. According to More’s priest, it was a “hard and rough shirt of hair….It tamed his flesh till the blood was seen in his clothes.”
But More’s hair shirt was Utopian compared to that of Thomas Becket, the martyred archbishop of Canterbury. Becket’s shirt was long and was wrapped around his loins. Becket reportedly had the shirt sown tightly onto himself and wore it constantly for most of his adult life.
After Becket’s murder, his hair shirt was found to be completely swarming with lice, which some fellow churchmen declared a worse form of martyrdom than the sword blows that killed him.