The Spice That Hooked Medieval Nuns

(The Atlantic)

Hang on, Atlantic. There is a big difference between having a habit and being hooked.

The medieval nuns had habits and the habits were boring affairs. Monochromatic. Itchy.

Don’t get me wrong. Living in a secure nunnery was vastly preferable to being stuck outside its walls, where life was nasty, brutish, and short, to coin a phrase. In the nunnery, the sisters made due with less: less mud, fewer fleas, and zero monks. Still, they could have done with something more, or so they told themselves. More less but also a little bit more more.

That’s when the wimple was invented, to spice up their habits. Each nun made herself two wimpli, one for the six quiet days and one for Sunday. In countries where the everpresent mud could be made to extract a dye, wimpli would be found of varying hues (they started out white but had to be washed in muddy water).

The monks answered with the invention of the cowl, but cowli just made the monks creepier than before. Why spend so much time on your tonsure if it were only to be covered with a hood? Nobody trusted a monk in a hoodie. In some neighborhoods, it was worth your life to beg for alms (or peanuts), especially if your robes were black.

Today, some nuns take their wimpli for granted. They want yet more. Some are wearing hats.