Asides: manutergium, Isidore of Seville, words and etymologies

While I slowly work my way through the 19C Spanish novel La Regenta, by Leopoldo Alas – an immense work running to just over 700 pp in my Penguin Classics translation (but in tiny print, so would be well over a thousand if published in a normal size font) – here’s another rare word I collected a while back.

It can be seen as another example of the ecclesiastical/liturgical terminology that I featured in a recent post. Here’s the (edited) OED Online entry on the word of today:

manutergium, n.

‘ A towel on which a priest dries his hands after washing them before celebrating Mass.’

Etymology: <  post-classical Latin manutergium hand-towel, especially for liturgical purposes (early 5th cent.; from 7th cent. in British sources) <  classical Latin manus hand + terg-, stem of tergēre to wipe. Compare manuterge n. [a towel used in various liturgical contexts by the priest, such as after washing of hands before mass, before administering baptism, etc.]

1774  T. West Antiq. Furness Explan. Ground Plan sig. a2, The piscina, or cistern, at which the priest washed his hands before service..over it hung the manutergium.

It’s sometimes spelt ‘maniturgium’.

Google the word and there pop up a number of similar blog entries seemingly by Catholic priests. It’s traditional for a newly ordained priest to give his parents a gift after celebrating his first Mass. To his mother he gives the manutergium, which he’d used to wipe his hands. It’s a reminder of the shroud in which Jesus was entombed. It is presented to the priest’s mother because she was his first protector on earth, while it serves as an emblem of God’s protection of Christians and their priests.

When the priest’s mother dies, she is buried with the manutergium in her hands, as a sign in the anticipated afterlife that she has given birth to a priest. Mgr Charles Pope, in his blog Lost Liturgy File, posted a poignant piece attesting to this custom back in 2010. His definition is slightly different from the one above; he says it is

a long cloth that was wrapped around the hands of the newly ordained priest after the Bishop anointed his hands with the sacred Chrism (oil).  The purpose was to prevent excess oil from dripping onto vestments or the floor during the remainder of the ordination rites.’ (That term ‘chrism’ was noted in my previous post).

His post continues

The use of the manutergium was discontinued in the current Rite of Ordination. Currently, the newly ordained steps aside to a table after his hands are anointed and uses a purificator to wipe away any excess oil. While it is not technically called the manutergium nor is it exactly the same in design or usage, (for the hands are not wrapped by it), nevertheless this is still a cloth used to wipe away the excess Chrism.

The priest traditionally gives to his father the stole he wore when hearing his first confession. When his father dies, he is buried with the stole in his hands.

Footnotes: 1. Reference works such as Lewis and Short’s Latin Dictionary cite Isidore’s Origines (translated as ‘Etymologies’ in English) for an early definition.

'T and O' mappa mundi from Bk 14 of the Etymologies in its first printed edition, by Guntherus Zainer, Augsburg, 1472. Now in BL

‘T and O’ (or O-T) mappa mundi (orbis terrarum) from Bk 14 in its first printed edition, by Guntherus Zainer, Augsburg, 1472. Now in BL, G.7633 = IB5440 . Jerusalem is depicted at the centre of the globe’s northern hemisphere – the southern one was considered uninhabited or unreachable. The T divides the 3 continents: Asia at the top, twice the size of Europe and Asia. The O is the encircling ocean.

 Isidore of Seville, c. 560-636, compiled this encyclopedia of terms from the Seven Liberal Arts to legal jargon, agriculture and hundreds of other topics towards the end of his life. It was his attempt to preserve all the learning that could be gleaned from classical antiquity that he considered worthwhile. It was hugely influential until the Renaissance.

In Book 19 (of 20), ‘De Navibus, aedificiis et vestibus’ – Ships, buildings and clothing – among other items of clothing, subheaded ‘Bedspreads and other cloths that we use’, he writes:

Facietergium et manitergium a tergendo faciem vel manus vocatum. [online Latin text at]

The face towel (facietergium) and hand towel (manitergium) are named from wiping (tergere) the face (facies) or hands (manus). [online version of a translation by Stephen A. Barney et al., published by Cambridge UP]


  1. According to Wikipedia the Vatican considered naming Isidore the patron saint of the internet – an apt choice, given his massively eclectic and ‘complacently derivative’ textual enterprise (according to his translator Barney, quoted above).

Now back to La Regenta and scandalous provincial goings-on in Vetusta (Oviedo).