The Near Loss of English Benedictine Hood

The hood is a distinguishing feature of the habit of the English Benedictines. It is detachable, not attached to either scapular or cowl (though centuries ago it was for a time), and is split or open at the front with long draping flaps at the front, affectionately or irritably (it depends on the monk you’re speaking to) known as elephant’s ears, and reaching to point more than halfway down the back (the tippet). It is not practical though it does at least cover the head well enough, unlike the micro-hoods we see on some religious habits today.

For those who are keen and have access to The Downside Review, Dom Oswald Sumner offers a history of the EBC habit over a number of issues in the mid-1940s. In brief, the EBC hood appears to be the child of the medieval English hood—itself deriving from the furred almuce still found in some orders of canons, but modified to distinguish monks from these canons—and the Spanish hood as it was at the time of the refounding of the EBC in 1605. At one period a huge and shapeless mess it has been refined to the strange if not totally inelegant thing we see today (not inelegant when worn properly, and that is by no means a universal phenomenon).

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St Benedict with generously-proportioned elephant’s ears.
Of course the EBC was until well into the nineteenth century largely associated with and involved in missionary work, at first in England and Wales and later into the Indian Ocean and Australia. Given the penal laws in England, wearing a habit was not an option except in the monasteries themselves in France and Germany. In the wake of the French Revolution habits were discarded in the chaos, and were unknown among the brethren in England. Only the German house at Lambspringe, the EBC’s only abbey until 1900, held on to the habit until that community was suppressed in 1802.

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More modestly sized elephant’s ears, and a pleasing aesthetic when raised
It was at this point that the hood was almost lost. The monks of St Gregory’s (then at Acton Burnell and now at Downside) were seeking to make some habits but their plans were derailed. A letter from Dom Raymund Eldridge at Acton Burnell in 1807 to his confrere based in London, Dom Anselm Lorymer, succinctly exposes the crisis:

Br Francis is quite disconsolate at the loss of the pattern for cutting out hoods. He cannot think how you could have been such a Goth as to demolish a piece of such high antiquity.

In 1846 the community of Downside successfully petitioned General Chapter to resume the habit. Both the tailor at Downside and Dame Scholastica Gregson of Stanbrook made attempts to recreate the hood. It is their efforts that spawned the modern EBC hood, which is certainly not exactly similar to the hood worn before the French Revolution. Over the decades the elephant’s ears have been tamed and the width across the shoulders reduced. In the various houses today there is a general uniformity in the hood save for differing lengths of the elephant’s ears, and the Ampleforth/St Louis button fastening, as opposed to the hook-and-eye used by the other houses.

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These Ampleforth brethren model both the deluxe and the economy cuts of the hood
Whether our hood was worth the effort of saving is a debate for another time. Yet we can all agree that, however much we might like the gothic, we should strive never to be a Goth.

**PS Our late Fr Robert Richardson used often to wear a hood with a button, which got me one day to asking him why his hood was not of the hook and eye variety traditional at Douai. He replied that for a period in the 1930s, from when his hood dated!, Downside was out of favour at Douai. The Downside Stirs and that community’s general trend to exalt the cloister over the mission was not well received by the mission-centric Douai community. So we ditched the hook and eye and took up the button. However, it was not long before Ampleforth’s uppityness irked the Douai fathers, and we went back to hook and eye, where we remain to this day.**

11 thoughts on “The Near Loss of English Benedictine Hood

    1. Thank you. From memory, Ealing tends to extravagance rather than niggardliness in the hood, though nothing outré of course. I should have paid more attention to Fr Peter’s when he was here this week!

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  1. I know best the hoods of the French Benedictines of St Joseph de Clairval & Fontgombault both of which seem attached to the scapular & (IMHO) neater than those of the English Benedictines. I knew the monks of Fort Augustus & they always seemed to have difficulty controlling their hoods

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    1. They are indeed attached to the scapular, and are obviously neater. But, like leather belts rather than cloth ones, they are a sing of a reformed congregation. For better or for worse, many in the EBC value being unreformed.

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  2. I suspect most Orders went through various ‘updates’ to their habits. In the Order to which I belonged many decades ago, the ‘update’ was to eliminate the cloak. To us younger members at the time this was a ‘scandal’.

    In the early 60s in Rome it was customary to wear habits when attending classes at the Gregorian. I admired the Trinitarians who still stuck to tradition and wore their cloaks.

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    1. Actually the EBC has not updated its habit, other than to add to it! Our habit now is the same as in 1945, for example. Most would not wear the Roman collar with it now, I grant you, but that change is not official.

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    1. Patterns are hard to come by. Downside Abbey would have one, as would J&M Sewing in Newcastle, and probably even Watts in London. Tailors new to the hood like old ones to take apart and copy.

      Pax.

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  3. Fr: I’m coming to this thread very late (apologies), and at a bit of a tangent. I was wondering if you could explain when the hood is actually ‘worn’? I, personally, do like to cover my head when reading and contemplating the Scriptures/Fathers and find that it acts rather like blinkers and deadens noise and distraction generally (I have a friend who uses a very large Tallit). Because of St. Paul’s admonition that a man should not pray with his head covered, I never do (but would like to as I would benefit from it, physically) and was wondering about the theology of the hood in this sense.
    Also, Fr, even more ‘off-topic’: have you heard any news about the lectionary lately? Is there progress on the RSV2CE front? I must say, I find it hard to believe that it will ever actually happen as it is an excellent translation, and it makes complete sense. I’m thinking that we’ll probably end up with the ‘New Good News Gender Neutral Pop-Up Illustrated Edition’ with a foreword by Peter Tatchel.

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    1. Ahoy Darren! One can never be too late here.

      Your question on the EBC hood I shall split into two answers. First, the hood is always worn when the habit is worn, by novices and above (postulants wear tunic and scapular without hood). Sometimes you see the liberty taken of removing the hood for concelebration or serving at supper but this is not common, and obviously not encouraged.

      Secondly, when the hood is worn “up” varies from house to house. We wear it up in statio before vespers. Also when a monk is solemnly professed, he wears it up and fastened in place for three days. This indicates a period of silence for him to reflect on how he has now died to the world with Christ. Monks otherwise wear the hood up occasionally in church or at prayer, or even when it is cold (for we who are follicly challenged). When a monk has his hood up it is a signal that he is keeping silence. Some malformed monks of the more recent generations will chat away with their hoods up, which rather defeats the symbol and renders the hood meaningless as a symbol.

      As to the lectionary, plans has been well advanced for an ESV lectionary but these were quietly shelved a couple of years ago. This project undercut the RSV-CE2 project, and the lectionaries produced were largely taken up by the Ordinariate. At this point, from what I can tell, the lectionary project is dead. However, in the wake of the pope’s motu proprio a few weeks ago, Magnum principium, it is more likely that a new lectionary will be sought by bishops’ conferences rather than a new missal. I am fairly certain that we would get something better than the Good News version! If this proved to be a direct fruit of the motu proprio then I would be very happy indeed. While we use the original RSV lectionary here at Douai, it is always a shock to go to parishes and other religious houses to be confronted with the inelegance and imprecision of the Jerusalem lectionary.

      Something to pray for!

      Pax.

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  4. Thank you for that, Fr.

    So, you don’t think that there’d be a problem for any man who was minded to to pray with their head covered?

    I remember the ESV fiasco, and couldn’t understand for the life of me why we’d be paying Crossway to adapt their ‘translation’ (I believe it is over 90% identical to the RSV) when the RSV2CE was both Catholic (conformed to Liturgiam Authenticam) and ready to go (minus the Grail Psalms). However, when that ship sank, the announcement was made in 2015/2016(?) that the Bishops were now seeking permission to use the RSV2CE (it still states that on the website), but that was the last I heard on the subject. I was hoping against hope that we’d still get it. I suppose that with Francis’ latest assault on the liturgy I had begun to think that the Bishops would now abandon everything orthodox and see it as an opportunity to go wild, 70’s post-Vatican II style once more. I’m already seriously considering buying up all of the cookies in the diocese to prevent any local clergy from attempting to consecrate them in the near future! God save us all!

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