Dominus mihi adjutor

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).

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.

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.

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.**