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A hairshirt belonging to a Christian, with a set of prayer beads hanging off a belt loop used to hold the girdle that tightens the garment around the waist
Mary Magdalene in cilice. Polychrome wood carving by Pedro de Mena, Church of San Miguel and San Julian, Valladolid

A cilice /ˈsɪlɪs/, also known as a sackcloth,[1] was originally a garment or undergarment made of coarse cloth or animal hair (a hairshirt) worn close to the skin. It is used by members of various Christian traditions (including the Catholic,[2] Lutheran,[3] Anglican,[4] Methodist,[5] and Scottish Presbyterian churches)[6] as a self-imposed means of repentance and mortification of the flesh; as an instrument of penance, it is often worn during the Christian penitential season of Lent, especially on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and other Fridays of the Lenten season.[7]

Hairshirt cilices were originally made from coarse animal hair, as an imitation of the garment worn by John the Baptist that was made of camel hair,[8] or sackcloth which, throughout the Bible, was worn by people repenting.[9] Cilices were designed to irritate the skin; other features were added to make cilices more uncomfortable, such as thin wires or twigs. In modern Christian religious circles, cilices are simply any device worn for the same purposes, often taking the form of a hairshirt cilice as well as a (spiked metal) chain cilice.[10]


The word cilice derives from the Latin cilicium, a covering made of goat's hair from Cilicia, a Roman province in south-east Asia Minor.[11] The reputed first Scriptural use of this exact term is in the Vulgate (Latin) translation of Psalm 35:13, "Ego autem, cum mihi molesti essent, induebar cilicio." ("But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth" in the King James Bible). The term is translated as hair-cloth in the Douay–Rheims Bible, and as sackcloth in the King James Bible and Book of Common Prayer. Sackcloth can also mean burlap, or is associated as a symbol of mourning, a form of hairshirt.[12]


Hairshirt cilice of St. Louis at St. Aspais Church, Melun, France
Ivan the Terrible's hairshirt cilice (16th century). The tsar wanted to die like a monk.

There is some evidence, based on analyses of both clothing represented in art and preserved skin imprint patterns at Çatalhöyük in Turkey, that the usage of the cilice predates written history. This finding has been mirrored at Göbekli Tepe, another Anatolian site, indicating the widespread manufacturing of cilices. Ian Hodder has argued that "self-injuring clothing was an essential component of the Catalhöyük culturo-ritual entanglement, representing 'cleansing' and 'lightness'."[13]

In Biblical times, it was the Jewish custom to wear a hairshirt (sackcloth) when "mourning or in a public show of repentance for sin" (Genesis 37:34,[14] 2 Samuel 3:31,[15] Esther 4:1).[16][17] In the New Testament, John the Baptist wore "a garment of camel's hair" as a means of repentance (Matthew 3:4).[18][17] As such, adherents of many Christian denominations have worn sackcloth to repent, mortify the flesh or as a penance, especially for sins relating to lavishly adorning oneself (cf. 1 Peter 3:3,[19] 1 Timothy 2:9).[20]

Cilices have been used for centuries in the Catholic Church as a mild form of bodily penance akin to fasting. Thomas Becket was wearing a hairshirt when he was martyred,[21] St. Patrick reputedly wore a cilice, Charlemagne was buried in a hairshirt,[citation needed] and Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany, famously wore one in the Walk to Canossa during the Investiture Controversy.[citation needed] Prince Henry the Navigator was found to be wearing a hairshirt at the time of his death in 1460.[citation needed] St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas More[22] and St. Therese of Lisieux are known to have used them.[citation needed] Scottish king James IV wore a cilice during Lent to repent of the indirect role he played in his father's death. In modern times they have been used by Mother Teresa, St. Padre Pio, and Pope Paul VI.[23] In the Discalced Carmelite convent of St. Teresa in Livorno, Italy, members of Opus Dei who are celibate (about 30% of the membership), and the Franciscan Brothers and Sisters of the Immaculate Conception continue an ascetic use of the cilice.[24] According to John Allen, an American Catholic writer, its practice in the Catholic Church is "more widespread than many observers imagine".[25]

Some high church Anglicans, including Edward Bouverie Pusey, wore hairshirts as a part of their spirituality.[4]

In the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, influenced by the evangelical revival, penitents were dressed in sackcloth and called in front of the chancel, where they were ordered to admit their sins.[6]

In some Methodist churches, on Ash Wednesday, communicants, along with receiving ashes, also receive a piece of sackcloth "as a reminder of our own sinful ways and need for repentance".[26]

In popular culture[edit]

Closeup of a metal chain cilice with inwardly-pointing tines

In Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, one of the antagonists, an albino numerary named Silas associated with the religious organization Opus Dei, wears a cilice in the form of a spiked belt around his thigh. The sensationalized depiction in the novel has been criticized for its inaccuracy in subsequent books and by Opus Dei itself, which issued a press release responding to the movie's depiction of the practice, claiming "In reality, they cause a fairly low level of discomfort comparable to fasting. There is no blood, no injury, nothing to harm a person's health, nothing traumatic. If it caused any harm, the Church would not allow it."[23][27]

The goat hair of Thomas More, presented for safe keeping by Margaret Clement,[28] was long in the custody of the community of Augustinian canonesses who until 1983 lived at the convent at Abbotskerswell Priory, Devon. Some sources, including one from 2004, claimed that the shirt was then at the Martyr's church on the Weld family's estate in Chideock, Dorset.[29][30] In 2011 the shirt was put on public display at Buckfast Abbey, near Buckfastleigh in Devon.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jeffrey, David L. (1992). A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 673. ISBN 9780802836342.
  2. ^ Stravinskas, Peter M. J.; Shaw, Russell B. (1998). Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Encyclopedia. Our Sunday Visitor Publishing. p. 483. ISBN 9780879736699.
  3. ^ Neve, Juergen Ludwig (1914). The Augsburg Confession: A Brief Review of Its History and an Interpretation of Its Doctrinal Articles, with Introductory Discussions on Confessional Questions. Lutheran Publication Society. p. 150.
  4. ^ a b Knight, Mark; Mason, Emma (16 November 2006). Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature: An Introduction. Oxford University Press. p. 96. ISBN 9780191535017. Pusey regularly endured a hair shirt as well as self- imposed flagellation and fasting routines.
  5. ^ Bergen, Jeremy M. (31 March 2011). Ecclesial Repentance: The Churches Confront Their Sinful Pasts. A&C Black. p. 255. ISBN 9780567523686. In fact, it was scandal of disunity within Methodism that led UMC leaders to address the issue of racism as the underlying cause. ... The petition for forgiveness proceeded on two distinct but interrelated levels. Each of the approximately 3,000 persons in the assemble was called to silent personal confession of the sin of racism before God, publicly symbolized by receiving ... sackcloth ... and the imposition of ashes.
  6. ^ a b Yates, Nigel (11 June 2014). Eighteenth Century Britain: Religion and Politics 1714-1815. Routledge. p. 87. ISBN 9781317866480. The Evangelical revival in Scotland encouraged both much stricter conditions being placed on admission to Holy Communion and the maintenance of traditional discipline within the established church. ... Lesser transgressors could be ordered by the kirk session to stand before the congregation for up to three Sundays, sometimes wearing sackcloth, and publicly acknowledge their sins before 'being subjected to a "rant" from the minister'.
  7. ^ Beaulieu, Geoffrey of; Chartres, William of (29 November 2013). The Sanctity of Louis IX: Early Lives of Saint Louis by Geoffrey of Beaulieu and William of Chartres. Cornell University Press. p. 89. ISBN 9780801469145.
  8. ^ Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham (1884). A Dictionary of Miracles: Imitative, Realistic, and Dogmatic. Chatto and Windus. p. 56.
  9. ^ CSB Study Bible. B&H Publishing Group. 15 June 2017. p. 1404. ISBN 978-1-4336-4811-3. Sackcloth was worn during times of mourning and repentance, usually while sitting atop ashes (Gn 37:34; 1Kg 21:27; Mt 11:21).
  10. ^ Morrow, Jeffrey L. (13 October 2020). Liturgy and Sacrament, Mystagogy and Martyrdom: Essays in Theological Exegesis. Wipf and Stock Publishers. ISBN 978-1-5326-9382-3.
  11. ^ "Cilice". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2012-06-30.
  12. ^ "The History of Hairshirts". Handwoven. Retrieved 2024-03-05.
  13. ^ Ian Hodder, "Çatalhöyük: The Leopard's Tale", Thames & Hudson, 2006.
  14. ^ Genesis 37:34
  15. ^ 2 Samuel 3:31
  16. ^ Esther 4:1
  17. ^ a b Kosloski, Philip (29 August 2019). "The spiritual symbolism of John the Baptist's unusual clothing". Aleteia. Retrieved 9 February 2022.
  18. ^ Matthew 3:4
  19. ^ 1 Peter 3:3
  20. ^ 1 Timothy 2:9
  21. ^ Barlow, Frank (2002). Thomas Becket. London: The Folio Society. pp. 299, 314.
  22. ^ a b Simon Caldwell (21 November 2016). "St. Thomas More's hair shirt now enshrined for public veneration". Catholic Telegraph.
  23. ^ a b Michael Barrett, a priest of Opus Dei (17 May 2006). "Opus Dei and Corporal Mortification" (Press release). Opus Dei.
  24. ^ Allen 2006, pp. 165, 169, 171–173.
  25. ^ Allen 2006, p. 173.
  26. ^ Ice, Roy E. (11 March 2017). "Sackcloth". St Paul's United Methodist Church. Archived from the original on 27 March 2017. Retrieved 27 March 2017.
  27. ^ Allen 2006, pp. 162–163.
  28. ^ "St. Thomas More". Catholic Encyclopaedia..
  29. ^ David Hilliam (2010). Little Book of Dorset. History Press. ISBN 978-0-7524-6265-3.[page needed]
  30. ^ Anne Vail (2004). Shrines of Our Lady in England. Gracewing Publishing. p. 42. ISBN 0-85244-603-9.

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