In what has to be one of the best lines in all of cinema (at least for traditionally minded priests, a niche market for sure), in the movie Skyfall, James Bond appraises his paramour in a state of nature and declares, “I like you better without your beretta.” Her ironic response, “I feel naked without it.”
Of course, by beretta, James Bond was referring to a firearm that she was previously concealing under her dress, but the homophone is perfect. Clergy donning birettas, the square cap with three raised horns and often a tuft in the middle, are often viewed as displays of curiosity, confusion, and comedy. “You look so much better without it,” we may hear. True as that statement may be, we feel naked without it.
The biretta is often a flashpoint for reaction. As a part of clerical dress, it does not enjoy ubiquitous use or appreciation. It is viewed as a party badge, a flag that is waved to state without words something about the person wearing it. Some may see it as an ecclesiastical version of the MAGA (Make American Great Again) hat worn by supporters of President Donald Trump; worn only by arch-traditionalists who wish to enshrine a state of permanent clericalism on the church. The controversy is not the hat; it is the perceived message. The message often takes on another layer when Anglican clergy place it upon their heads. Birettas, many are told, belong to the domain of the Roman Catholic Church and any use by non-Roman clergy is a not-so-subtle sign of potential fifth-column subversion.
Symbols, wearable or not, are by nature open to interpretation. That is what gives them their power. What is a party badge for one person may be object of pure function. The story of the biretta contains both perspectives. Recovering its story and its potential as a symbol, will be edifying to the one who wears it and to the one who used to snicker at it.
Why do we cover our heads in the first place? When I was younger, I would wear a hat as either a part of a uniform (baseball hat), to cover unwashed hair, or purely as a fashion statement. In other words, I would wear a hat for the sake of games, greasy hair, or girls. All of these have a practical application, per se, but wearing at hat in these situations would hardly be considered essential. But for many, head coverings are. They are essential for safety from falling objects or the heat of the sun. In years past, the need to cover one’s head was even more essential. For one, everyone spent time outside. In addition, keeping one’s head protected was to keep one’s head attached to their body. From these practical necessities, customs and social graces developed.
I once read that knights were instructed to remove their helmets in the presence of their lord, or king? Why? To remove one’s helmet is to expose your neck, thereby presenting yourself as vulnerable.
From at least the days of the Roman Empire, brides would wear a veil on their wedding day. The veil represented the married state. Matrons would be covered with a mantle of modesty and virgins would not.
Could these examples shed light as to why it is now (or at least was once) normative for men to remove their hats indoors and why it is appropriate, or in some cases preferred, that women wear hats indoors? A gentleman would never wear at hat in church on Easter Day. A woman most certainly would.
We see this also in I Corinthians 11.2-16, a passage not without controversy. St Paul instructed men to uncover their heads while praying while admonishing the women to keep theirs covered. Recently, Cambridge professor Bruce Winter has shed new light on the enigmatic parts of this text. He argues that in first century Roman society, a class of “new wives” emerged. These wives went against traditional expressions of matronly life and were noted for promiscuous activity. Professor Winter presents St Paul’s instructions regarding head covering against this backdrop, suggesting that to uncover one’s head at prayer would give the impression that Christian women were identifying themselves with the “new wives” of Roman society, something that would hurt their witness and way of life. Again the point is made: what we place on heads, or not place on our heads, conveys a message.
In the Roman Empire, hairstyle also helped differentiate one class from another, particularly a slave from a master. Roman slaves were commanded to shave their heads to convey the obvious and clear sign – they were under the yoke of another. To shave their heads, they would seek the services of the tonsor, or barber. In the late seventh century, this symbol of slavery would be baptized for use among the clergy. To indicate that that they are putting themselves under the yoke of Jesus Christ, those receiving Holy Orders would have their heads shaved; they would received their tonsure. The introduction of the tonsure will lead to the introduction to the cap.
It is extraordinary how much heat leaves from the head, at least 10%. If you are bald, the awareness of heat loss is amplified. Covering the head, even just a bit, makes a difference. The tonsure exposed the bare heads of clergy and monks and they needed protection from the cold. We take for granted the luxury of sewing machines, cheap fabric, even cheaper labor, and modern production techniques. If are heads are cold, we can quickly remedy the problem with a five minute stop and at any clothing store and purchase any variety of hats and scarves. If you made your own clothes, however, or depended upon a local tailor or seamstress with limited resources, how would a person cover their head? The most practical and economical way would be to cover the head with a part of cloak or tunic. Enter the hood. The hood would often consist of a long piece of fabric that the cleric could wrap around his head, almost like a turban. One imagines the function was not dissimilar to a person with long hair wrapping their head with a towel to dry it. Fashion is often hard to chart. When things go in and out of style aren’t always identifiable by precise moments. We do know that in fashion, what was once practical has a tendency to become ornamental. If you own a pair of Levi’s blue jeans, do you put a pocket watch in the pocket designed for it? Virtually no one does, but no authentic pair of jeans comes without that pocket.
The hood on the cloak became ornamental, just like the hood on a cope is ornamental. You can tell it’s a hood, but you can’t pull it over your head. The fabric, or liripipe, was more ornamental than functional. Incidentally, since all universities at this time were populated by clerics, the development of academic and clerical wear follows the same path. The hood, in its various forms, later becomes the academic hood. Take a look at your hood from graduation. Do you notice a vestigial piece at the end that looks like a liripie? From this long piece of fabric also comes the clerical scarf or tippet.
The form of the head covering had changed but the need for its function remained. Instead of a covering attached to a cloak, beginning in the 11th century the head was now covered by a separate garment, the pileus.
Beginning in the 14th century, the pileus, developed into an expression of the individuality of the cleric and/or academic. As there were no rules to its composition, tailors were given the freedom (and the money) to make them taller and more elaborate, especially in the universities. The pileus was now the pileus rotundus!
The size and shape of the pileus rotundus was increasingly expensive to assemble. It required several pieces of fabric and proved cost prohibitive. In the 14th century, a cap maker changed the pileus market by sewing four pieces of fabric together instead of seven or eight. Half the fabric also meant a significant reduction in cost, which of course, meant a significant increase in popularity. The four pieces of fabric introduced two changes. First, the shape is now square and not round. Second, the seams formed the shape of a cross. Now we have what looks more like what is now called the Canterbury Cap.
It has been observed that on the Continent, Europeans would build their cathedrals for height and in England they built their cathedrals for length. Something similar happened with the pileus. In England, the trend went horizontal, making the cross seams longer. In order to do this, cardboard was added to stiffen the cap, later developing into the mortar board cap, once virtually everyone has worn at high school graduation. On the Continent, the direction of the cap went vertical. The seams were highlighted with height, developing into what we now know as the biretta.
What started as a practical move to provide cover and warmth for a tonsure, a sign of obedience to Jesus Christ, developed into a mark of fashion among both clergy and especially academics. It was still used as a part of clerical dress but after the English Reformation, it became a party badge, a symbol of one’s theological and ecclesiological allegiance. The English viewed the biretta a sign of popery and therefore preferred the square cap. However, the Puritans also viewed the square cap as a sign of popery. In every case, what one puts on their end conveys a message.
Why would an Anglican priest wear a European biretta and not a more English square cap? In many ways the biretta is a party badge. It is a vestigial part of clerical wear that is worn out of tradition and devotion. It does say that tradition is important, not for its own sake but to hand down ageless truths. There are other reasons, however. Practically, the biretta is far easier to wear than the square cap. The raised seams (blades) are functional in quickly removing and replacing it on the head. There are only three blades with the middle blade on the right. The cleric can put the cap on correctly without having to look. The other reason is that the biretta is associated only with the church. There is much to be said for sights, smells, sounds, and tastes that exclusive to the experience of worship. It trains our body to be open to prayer even when our minds and hearts are not ready. The tradition of sacred music, liturgical poetry, incense, and the visual arts are so vitally important in Christian formation. This includes the vestments of the clergy. The square cap now dominates in the academy in the form of the bonnet or mortarboard. If a priest were to wear it, it would be more difficult practically and it would be confusing visually. Is he wearing this because he has a degree or because he is a priest? Academics wear their headgear to distinguish themselves as degree holders; masters of their fields. The biretta does show one is in Holy Orders, but the attention it draws is a different sort. This attention is older than the introduction of the pileus in the 11th century.
In Exodus 28 we see the divine instructions for the dress of the priests. In verse 37, we are given the description of the turban that is to go on Aaron:
36 “And you shall make a plate of pure gold, and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, ‘Holy to the Lord.’ 37 And you shall fasten it on the turban by a lace of blue; it shall be on the front of the turban. 38 It shall be upon Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall take upon himself any guilt incurred in the holy offering which the people of Israel hallow as their holy gifts; it shall always be upon his forehead, that they may be accepted before the Lord.
In the Talmud (Zevahchim 88b:6) there is an interesting interpretation on the turban of the high priest.
The tunic atones for bloodshed, as it is stated with regard to the brothers of Joseph after they plotted to kill him: “And they killed a goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood” (Genesis 37:31). The trousers atone for forbidden sexual relations, as it is stated with regard to fashioning the priestly vestments: “And you shall make them linen trousers to cover the flesh of their nakedness”(Exodus 28:42). The mitre atones for the arrogant. From where is this derived? Rabbi Ḥanina says: It is logical that an item that is placed at an elevation, i.e., on the head of a priest, shall come and atone for the sin of an elevated heart.
The Talmud says the head covering atones for arrogance. When the priest wears the head covering, he should remember the sins of conceit. Children never cease to poke fun at the biretta. It does not frame the face, it is tall, asymmetrical, and has a large pompom on top of it. One does not don the biretta and walk out of the sacristy thinking, “handsome.” For the priest, it adds an element of humility. He may be ridiculed for it; but he endures it for the sake of Christ.
Further in Exodus 28, Aaron is told make headdresses for his sons, for beauty and glory. In the case of the biretta, the beauty and glory is God’s and not the one who wears it. In a time where clergy are wearing skinny jeans and designer clothes to look fashionable and draw attention to themselves, or at least their physique or taste, the biretta does the opposite.
The 11th edition of Ritual Notes advises “the norms of good breeding and social etiquette” in wearing the biretta. It is worn outside with the cassock, usually within the vicinity of the church. One does not go grocery shopping whilst wearing it. Inside the church, it is worn in procession by the Sacred Ministers: priest, deacon, and subdeacon who are serving at the altar. Other clergy who are “in choir” hold the biretta. It is worn while seated and it is traditional to wear it while giving absolution at confession as a sign of juridical power. Contrast the custom to English judges who, to this day, put on a black cap when pronouncing a death sentence. Priests wearing the biretta in absolution are pronouncing a sentence of life.
I once heard a say that the main reason one wears the biretta is so he can take it off. That sounds nonsensical. One wears a hat to wear the hat. In the case of the biretta, however, part of its purpose is to call attention to when it is not worn.
It is not worn during the following times and places. It is not worn at or near the altar. It is removed when saluting other clergy who are in choir. It is not worn during processions of the Blessed Sacrament. It is removed whenever the Holy Name of Jesus is said.
This, perhaps, is the most significant part of wearing the biretta – taking it off at the Holy Name. Over time, bowing the head at the name of Jesus because an involuntary devotion. Removing the biretta at the Holy Name is a reminder for all to bow their heads. When this is done regularly, two things will emerge: the people will pay more attention to the readings and sermon and they will develop a devotion to the Holy Name. They will hear differently Philippians 2.9-11:
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
We are too casual with names. With our casualness, comes the dangerous sin of presumption. We presume an intimacy with others and with our casualness, we presume with God. The Holy Name was given to us to revere and respect as the Name of our Salvation; it is the Name of our hope. It’s not an expletive. Removing the biretta at the Holy Name promotes a certain kind of Christian chivalry. Some may view it as anachronistic of a medieval court, but there is great find virtue in this practice. It promotes discipline of the tongue and reverence in speech. It also inculcates an automatic response to the Holy Name. In all the words that we have chosen to use for God and for each other, surely this is a good thing. The biretta, simply by itself, is a protest against vulgarity.
The biretta is a statement. It reminds the priest that, even if the tonsure has been abolished, he is a joyful slave to Jesus Christ. It’s a statement of humility, to purposefully wear something that looks so strange. It’s a statement of reverence in an age of license and ugliness.
Many may like their priest better without their biretta. But they would, and should, feel naked without it.
Robinson, N.F., The Pileus Quadratus: An enquiry into the relation of the priest’s square cap to the common academical catercap and to the judicial corner-cap
Hargrave, Seamus Addison., The Church and the Trencher: An examination into How England’s Changing Theology and Church Have Influenced the Evolution and Design of the Square Cap Causing its Use as Academic Attire
Winter, Bruce. Roman Wives, Roman Widows