Thursday, July 26


A Question on the Origin of Mitres

I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. (2 Tim 4:7)

While it was once thought that the mitres used by bishops were directly descended from the somewhat-similar hats used by Jewish high priests, it seems that mitres are rather descended from Greek athletic headgear.

The oldest part of the mitre, in fact, is the infulae--the two bands of fabric which hang from the back of the hat itself. These two bands were originally a single handband, which Greek athletes wrapped around the forehead and tied in back, creating the two bands which mitres have today. In the summer, a cap was placed over the infulae, giving rise to the mitros as such.

Both the Catholic Encyclopedia and the Church Visible cite the tenth century as the first recorded use of the mitre by bishops. The Church Visible specifically states, "During the earliest centuries of the Christian era, no mention is made of anything that resembles the present mitre." Instead, the mitre "appeared lost to history," with no continuous chronological connection between the Greek athlete's mitres and the ecclesastical mitres.

Here is my question, however: it seems to me that the ecclesastical mitros would be directly linked to the athletic mitros by virtue of the infulae, because they are a vestige that would probably not have been specifically added. Put another way, if bishops just decided to start wearing a cap and gave it the name mitros, it seems less probable that they would have thought to include vestigal infulae, if they had even know that a proper mitros had such things at all.

Further, Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 275-339) quotes a letter from Polycarp saying the following: "There is also John, who leaned on the Lord's breast and who became a priest wearing the miter, a martyr, and a teacher." The reference by Polycarp of John wearing the mitre is probably an anachronistic interpolation; but even if we assume this letter which Eusebius quotes is a forgery, this gives us a 4th century reference to episcopal mitres, which, combined with matter of the infulae, suggests to me that the use of the ecclesiastical use of mitres is older than the tenth century.

So why, then, does the scholarly concensus hold a tenth century date for the origin of ecclesastical mitres? I don't have Eusebius' Greek original, so perhaps he doesn't use the word mitros and the translator added the word "mitre" anachronistically. Or maybe there's some other reason? Does anyone know?

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