The Hair Shirt and Spirituality
KING LOUIS IX of France wore one. When studying the law in his youth, Sir Thomas More kept awake for 19 or 20 hours a day for several months with the help of his. Indeed, More is known to have worn one for most of his life. And when Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, one was unexpectedly discovered beneath his clothing. What did these historical figures have in common? They pursued the mortification of their flesh by means of the hair shirt.
The hair shirt was a coarse garment made from goat’s hair that was worn next to the skin so that it would irritate the flesh and chafe the skin, causing great discomfort. It also easily became a repository for lice. Thomas Becket is said to have worn his hair shirt, along with breeches of the same material, until “it swarmed with vermin.” After the 16th century, the goat’s hair was sometimes replaced by fine wire with sharp points turned toward the body. Fashioning the shirt in this way caused even greater discomfort to the wearer.
According to one reference work, the purpose of the hair shirt, as with other forms of mortification, was to “subdue the unruly flesh and so encourage the development of a more spiritually oriented disposition and manner of life.” Not only ascetics wore the garment; ordinary lay persons, including those in positions of high power, were known to use it too. Even today certain religious orders adhere to the practice.
Does wearing a hair shirt or enduring forms of self-imposed physical privations make one a spiritual person? No, spirituality does not hinge on such practices. In fact, the apostle Paul spoke against “a severe treatment of the body.” (Colossians 2:23)* Rather, true spirituality comes from seeking the knowledge of God through a diligent study of his Word and applying that knowledge in one’s life.
For further consideration of this subject, see Awake! October 8, 1997, “The Bible’s Viewpoint: Is Asceticism the Key to Wisdom?”
[Picture Credit Lines on page 32]
King Louis IX, top: From the book Great Men and Famous Women; Thomas Becket, center: From the book Ridpath’s History of the World (Vol. IV); Thomas More, bottom: From the book Heroes of the Reformation, 1904