On Clerical Wigs

In discussing “spiritual worldliness,” the most recent Ratio Fundamentalis for priestly formation speaks (among other things) of “obsession with personal appearances,” and  “a merely external and ostentatious preoccupation with the liturgy.” Anyone who has moved in clerical circles knows that the description is not without fundamentum in re. One can recognize the type that Dumas père describes in Aramis:

He was a stout man, of about two- or three-and-twenty, with an open, ingenuous countenance, a black, mild eye, and cheeks rosy and downy as an autumn peach. His delicate mustache marked a perfectly straight line upon his upper lip; he appeared to dread to lower his hands lest their veins should swell, and he pinched the tips of his ears from time to time to preserve their delicate pink transparency. Habitually he spoke little and slowly, bowed frequently, laughed without noise, showing his teeth, which were fine and of which, as the rest of his person, he appeared to take great care.

Dumas delineates the type even more clearly in the “theological” discussion between Aramis, the Jesuit, and the curate. The passage is very long, this is only part of it:

“Now,” continued Aramis, taking the same graceful position in his easy chair that he would have assumed in bed, and complacently examining his hand, which was as white and plump as that of a woman, and which he held in the air to cause the blood to descend, “now, as you have heard, d’Artagnan, Monsieur the Principal is desirous that my thesis should be dogmatic, while I, for my part, would rather it should be ideal. This is the reason why Monsieur the Principal has proposed to me the following subject, which has not yet been treated upon, and in which I perceive there is matter for magnificent elaboration-’UTRAQUE MANUS IN BENEDICENDO CLERICIS INFERIORIBUS NECESSARIA EST.’”

D’Artagnan, whose erudition we are well acquainted with, evinced no more interest on hearing this quotation than he had at that of M. de Treville in allusion to the gifts he pretended that d’Artagnan had received from the Duke of Buckingham.

“Which means,” resumed Aramis, that he might perfectly understand, “‘The two hands are indispensable for priests of the inferior orders, when they bestow the benediction.’”

“An admirable subject!” cried the Jesuit.

“Admirable and dogmatic!” repeated the curate, who, about as strong as d’Artagnan with respect to Latin, carefully watched the Jesuit in order to keep step with him, and repeated his words like an echo.

As to d’Artagnan, he remained perfectly insensible to the enthusiasm of the two men in black.

“Yes, admirable! PRORSUS ADMIRABILE!” continued Aramis; “but which requires a profound study of both the Scriptures and the Fathers. Now, I have confessed to these learned ecclesiastics, and that in all humility, that the duties of mounting guard and the service of the king have caused me to neglect study a little. I should find myself, therefore, more at my ease, FACILUS NATANS, in a subject of my own choice, which would be to these hard theological questions what morals are to metaphysics in philosophy.”

D’Artagnan began to be tired, and so did the curate.

“See what an exordium!” cried the Jesuit.

“Exordium,” repeated the curate, for the sake of saying something. “QUEMADMODUM INTER COELORUM IMMENSITATEM.”

Aramis cast a glance upon d’Artagnan to see what effect all this produced, and found his friend gaping enough to split his jaws.

“Let us speak French, my father,” said he to the Jesuit; “Monsieur d’Artagnan will enjoy our conversation better.”

“Yes,” replied d’Artagnan; “I am fatigued with reading, and all this Latin confuses me.”

“Certainly,” replied the Jesuit, a little put out, while the curate, greatly delighted, turned upon d’Artagnan a look full of gratitude. “Well, let us see what is to be derived from this gloss. Moses, the servant of God-he was but a servant, please to understand-Moses blessed with the hands; he held out both his arms while the Hebrews beat their enemies, and then he blessed them with his two hands. Besides, what does the Gospel say? IMPONITE MANUS, and not MANUM-place the HANDS, not the HAND.”

“Place the HANDS,” repeated the curate, with a gesture.

“St. Peter, on the contrary, of whom the Popes are the successors,” continued the Jesuit; “PORRIGE DIGITOS-present the fingers. Are you there, now?”

“CERTES,” replied Aramis, in a pleased tone, “but the thing is subtle.”

“The FINGERS,” resumed the Jesuit, “St. Peter blessed with the FINGERS. The Pope, therefore blesses with the fingers. And with how many fingers does he bless? With THREE fingers, to be sure-one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost.”

All crossed themselves. D’Artagnan thought it was proper to follow this example.

“The Pope is the successor of St. Peter, and represents the three divine powers; the rest-ORDINES INFERIORES-of the ecclesiastical hierarchy bless in the name of the holy archangels and angels. The most humble clerks such as our deacons and sacristans, bless with holy water sprinklers, which resemble an infinite number of blessing fingers. There is the subject simplified. ARGUMENTUM OMNI DENUDATUM ORNAMENTO. I could make of that subject two volumes the size of this,” continued the Jesuit; and in his enthusiasm he struck a St. Chrysostom in folio, which made the table bend beneath its weight.

D’Artagnan trembled.

“CERTES,” said Aramis, “I do justice to the beauties of this thesis; but at the same time I perceive it would be overwhelming for me. I had chosen this text— tell me, dear d’Artagnan, if it is not to your taste— ’NON INUTILE EST DESIDERIUM IN OBLATIONE’; that is, ‘A little regret is not unsuitable in an offering to the Lord.’”

“Stop there!” cried the Jesuit, “for that thesis touches closely upon heresy. There is a proposition almost like it in the AUGUSTINUS of the heresiarch Jansenius, whose book will sooner or later be burned by the hands of the executioner. Take care, my young friend. You are inclining toward false doctrines, my young friend; you will be lost.”

“You will be lost,” said the curate, shaking his head sorrowfully.

When I first read this passage as a boy, somewhat afflicted by bondieuserie, I did not find it funny. “Theology is not really like that,” I said. Now I find it hilarious.

Dumas’s Jesuit and curate are a bit too serious about the matter. Such discussions can be harmless good fun if they are undertaken in a more lighthearted spirit.  Witness Fr. Hunwicke’s discussion of the question of clerical wigs. King Louis XIII’s introduction of the style of wearing wigs into Europe, raised a difficult question: “Did prelates eo fere tempore wear their wigs all through Mass? Even after their zucchetto had been removed as they approached the Consecration?” The comment section is a thing of delight. I point out that the Rev. Dr. Jean-Baptiste Thiers has a treatise on the subject.  Paul Scott of the blog cufflinkcatholic (nomen est omen) provides a summary of the treatise, and of another treatise on wearing the stole at parish visitations that seems to me even more reminiscent of Aramis and his companions:


Following on from Pater Edmund, Abbé Jean-Baptiste Thiers’s lengthy treatise on the wig (1690) deals in great detail with contemporary practice. Thiers notes that clergy should take off their headpieces from the Preface to the Ablutions but that they do not. Many clergy had a shorter wig for offices but this and their street wig had a tonsure made out of animal skin to imitate human skin, thus conforming to statutes on the clerical tonsure. Thiers notes that it was a cleric at court, Abbé de La Rivière (later a bishop), who began the trend of clerical wigs in the 1660s. He also observes that one can sympathize with bald and red-headed men for wanting to hide their shame! I have an article on the wig treatise available here.

Thiers was quite a character. An authoritarian archdeacon in his diocese delighted in humiliating clergy on pastoral visitations (can one imagine such a scenario?!), which usually commenced with him ordering parish priests to remove their stoles in his presence. When he visited Thiers’s parish, he was about to remonstrate with the bestoled Thiers when the latter presented him with a printed 400-page treatise in Latin, De stola in Archidiaconorum visitationibus (1679), proving why Thiers not only could but also should wear a stole during such visitations (see my article ‘Vested Struggles: The Social and Ecclesiological Significance of Stoles in Seventeenth-Century France‘, Church History, 77 (2008)). The archdeacon’s surname was Robert, leading Thiers to write some anonymous satires whose titled punned with a popular sauce (La Sauce Robert). Thiers also wrote on bells, church vestibules, Franciscan beards, and the correct pronunciation of Paraclitus. It is to be regretted that he never finished his study of horse carriages.






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