Clothing the sisters

Nuns’ habits, belts and knives in the 10th century

There is more evidence for what monks wore. If they were following the Rule of St Benedict, section 55 prescribes a monk’s clothes – though there will have been differences in dress culture and practice between 6th century Italy and 10th century England (and quite possibly different expectations for women following the rule). For example, it is not clear how Anglo-Saxon monks and nuns might have interpreted the requirement to wear a scapular for work. There are some illustrations of nuns from the period – see list below. There are a few literary references to nuns’ clothes: Bede and Aldhelm criticise nuns for wearing fine, dyed clothes; Bede commends as saintly St Æthelthryth’s refusal to wear linen.1 Wynflæd’s will refers to her nun’s clothes and holy veil. Sarah Foot describes prayers for the blessing of the clothes and veils of religious women; she stresses the distinctiveness of the veils and clothes of religious women (however she fails to take into account the fact that all Anglo-Saxon women wore a veil or head-covering).2 Gale Owen-Crocker (a costume historian) reviews the evidence for Anglo-Saxon nuns’ habits and concludes:

“The most idealistic of early medieval Christians may have worn a habit of undyed wool. Wynflaed’s dun-coloured garment (and the black one) may reflect this desire for simplicity in religious dress, but perhaps extreme asceticism was always unusual in England … It is not clear how early uniformity of nuns’ dress became important. The early consecrated Roman women may have dressed distinctively or with distinctive lack of ostentation, but there is no proof that their clothing was identical.”3

More recently writing on nuns’ veils she says:

“Surprisingly, Anglo-Saxon nuns are depicted in quite elaborate and individual headdresses: St Edith of Wilton is shown on her seal in a headdress set well back on her hair, with some kind of jewellery at the neck; the nuns of Barking, receiving Aldhelm’s book on virginity, … wear a variety of styles — open veils, a wimple-type veil and a wrapped around veil which flares out behind the wearer — several of them decorated with what may be embroidery or even jewels… It is difficult to comprehend how such individual and decorative veils could make their wearers recognisable as nuns.”4

Evidence for women’s wearing of belts and knives in the earlier Anglo-Saxon period comes mostly from furnished burials. After fully furnished burials cease (by the early 8th century), evidence is less direct – Gale Owen-Crocker concludes:

“The adoption of soft sashes rather than leather belts may have been part of what some archaeologists suggest was a conscious adoption of Roman dress fashions among Anglo-Saxon women at the time of the conversion to Christianity. In late Anglo-Saxon/early Anglo-Norman art, women’s garments sometimes hang down straight, apparently unbelted; sometimes they appear to be pouched over a girdle; sometimes seem to be cinched by a broad sash at the waist, with, in some cases, a diagonal line suggesting the sash is wrapped around twice or has a twist in it. It does not dangle down. No buckles or girdle accessories appear a part of women’s costume in depictions from this period and nothing in women’s wills suggests the belt or girdle was a valuable female dress accessory at this period.”5

Alexandra Knox’s review of the archaeological evidence for knives from furnished burials suggests that they related to social status and identity; women had smaller knives than men, and younger people had smaller knives than older people. The predominance of small knives in some Early and Middle Saxon settlement sites has been interpreted to suggest female dominated, religious communities. Alternatively, ‘the smaller knife was more practical for everyday use, … it might simply be that women and juveniles were more involved in daily activities that required the use of the domestic knife, such as cooking, and consequently were more prone to loss or breakage.’6

For our period, Gale Owen-Crocker highlights the fact that knives are rarely depicted in Late Saxon art.7 As Naomi Sykes explains:

“For instance, although dress is illustrated in great detail in the Bayeux Tapestry, knives are not shown as being part of the attire and they do not hang from the belt, where they might be expected. In the tapestry, the only clear depictions of knives are in the scene of the Normans’ meal, where three are shown laid at table, perhaps suggesting knives were beginning to be viewed as cutlery rather than personal appendages.”8

A search for knives in the Index of Medieval Art (for 750-1100) gives examples of knives in hands, on desks, and on tables (plus two images of a knife stuck in the hair of an Evangelist), but no one wearing a knife.

Knives are found in significant numbers in excavations of settlement sites of our period – but there seems to be little evidence for who was using them and how they were kept.

Illustrations of nuns in Western Europe up to 1100

Staatsbibliothek Bamberg, Rule Book of Niedermünster, Regensburg, Msc.Lit.142, fol. 58v, fol. 65r
Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin,, fol. 67v
Lambeth Palace, Aldhelm, De Virginitate, MS 200, fol. 68v
Abbazia di San Paolo fuori le mura, Bible of San Paolo fuori le Mura, fol. 3v
Dombibliothek, Hildesheim, MS 688, fol. 83v, fol. 84r
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek‏, Uta Codex, Clm.13601, fol. 2r
British Library, The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Add MS 49598, fol. 90v
Edith of Wilton’s seal


  1. Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, IV, 25; Aldhelm, De Virginitate, section lviii.
  2. S. Foot, Veiled Women Vol. I. The Disappearance of Nuns from Anglo-Saxon England (Aldershot, 2000).
  3. Owen, G. (1979). Wynflæd’s wardrobe. Anglo-Saxon England, 8, 195-222.
  4. Gale R. Owen-Crocker and Desirée Koslin, “Veil”, in: Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles, Edited by: Gale Owen-Crocker, Elizabeth Coatsworth, Maria Hayward, 2012.
  5. Gale R. Owen-Crocker, “Girdle: ante-1100”, in: Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles, Edited by: Gale Owen-Crocker, Elizabeth Coatsworth, Maria Hayward, 2012.
  6. Alexandra Knox (2016) The Subtle Knife: Using Domestic Objects to Access the Middle Anglo-Saxon Worldview, Archaeological Journal, 173:2, 245-263.
  7. Gale R. Owen-Crocker, Dress in Anglo-Saxon England (2004), 251.
  8. Sykes, N. (2010). Deer, Land, Knives and Halls: Social Change in Early Medieval England. The Antiquaries Journal, 90, 175-193.