Christ himself commanded his Apostles to have their loins girded.
In the early Church virgins wore a cincture as a sign and emblem of purity, and hence it has always been considered a symbol of chastity as well as of mortification and humility.
The wearing of a cord or cincture in honour of a saint is of very ancient origin, and we find the first mention of it in the life of St. Monica.
In the Middle Ages cinctures were also worn by the faithful in honour of saints, though no confraternities were formally established, and the wearing of a cincture in honour of St. Michael was general throughout France.
Later on, ecclesiastical authority set apart special formulae for the blessing of cinctures in honour of the Most Precious Blood, of Our Lady, of St. Francis of Paul, and St. Philomena. There are in the Church three archconfraternities and one confraternity the members of which wear a cord or cincture.
According to an old tradition, St. Monica in a vision received a black leathern belt from the Blessed Virgin, who assured the holy widow that she would take under her special protection all those who wore it in her honour. St. Monica related this vision to St. Ambrose and St. Simplicianus; both saints put on a leathern belt, and St. Ambrose is said to have girded St. Augustine with it at his baptism. Later on it was adopted by the Hermits of St. Augustine as a distinctive part of their habit.
When, after the canonization of St. Nicholas of Tolentino, it came into general use among the faithful, Pope Eugene IV in 1439 erected the Confraternity of the Cincture of St. Monica, St. Augustine, and St. Nicholas of Tolentino, in the church of St. James at Bologna.
In 1590 Thaddeus of Perugia, General of the Augustinians, united this confraternity and that of Our Lady of Consolation (founded in 1318 or, according to others, in 1495) into one confraternity, which union was confirmed by Gregory XIII in his Bull "Ad ea" (15 July, 1575). The same pope raised this confraternity to the rank of an archconfraternity and enriched it with many Indulgences. He further ordained that all confraternities of the black leathern belt should be aggregated to the archconfraternity at Bologna, in order to share its privileges and Indulgences.
The principal feast of this confraternity is the Sunday within the octave of the feast of St. Augustine (28 August). The members are obliged to wear a black leathern belt, to recite daily thirteen Paters and Aves and the Salve Regina, and to fast on the vigil of the feast of St. Augustine. For the erection of and reception into this archconfraternity special faculties must be had from the general of the Augustinians.
In his Bull "Ex supernae dispositionis" (19 November, 1585), Sixtus V erected the Archconfraternity of the Cord of St. Francis in the basilica of the Sacro Convento at Assisi, enriching it with many Indulgences, and conferred upon the minister general of the Conventuals the power of erecting confraternities of the Cord of St. Francis in the churches of his own order and of aggregating them to the archconfraternity at Assisi. The same pope, in his Bull "Divinae caritatis" (29 August, 1587), granted new Indulgences to the archconfraternity and empowered the minister general of the Friars Minor to erect confraternities of the Cord of St. Francis in the churches of his own order in those places where they are no Conventuals. Paul V, in his Bull "Cum certas" (2 March, 1607), and "Nuper archiconfraternitati" (11 March, 1607) revoked all spiritual favours hitherto conceded to the archconfraternity and enriched it with new and more ample Indulgences. Both these Bulls were confirmed by the Brief of Clement X, "Dudum felicis" (13 July, 1673).
Benedict XIII in his Constitution "Sacrosancti apostolatus" (30 September, 1724), conceded to the minister general of the Conventuals authority to erect confraternities of the Cord of St. Francis in churches not belonging to his own order in those places where there are no Franciscans. New privileges and Indulgences were conceded to the archconfraternity by two decrees of the Sacred Congregation of Indulgences dated 22 March, 1879, and 26 May, 1883. Besides the ordinary requirements necessary for the gaining of all plenary and partial Indulgences, the wearing of the cord and enrollment in the records of the archconfraternity are the only conditions imposed on the members.
In 1860 several new Indulgences were granted to the confraternity erected in the church of San Nicolo at Verona and by the Brief "Universi Dominici gregis", 23 September, 1862, the Confraternity of the Cord of St. Joseph was raised to an archconfraternity.
The members are obliged to wear a cord having seven knots, and are exhorted to recite daily seven Glorias in honour of St. Joseph. Confraternities of the Cord of St. Joseph much be aggregated to the archconfraternity in the church of San Rocco at Rome in order to enjoy its spiritual favours and Indulgences.
In the seventeenth century societies were formed at different universities, the student members of which wore a cord in honour of St. Thomas, hoping through his intercession to be protected from the dangers to which youth is generally exposed.
The first Confraternity of the Cord of St. Thomas was erected at the University of Leuven by the Belgian Dominican Francis Deuwerders, and numbered among its members all the professors and students of the faculty of theology (which has Thomas Aquinas as patron saint) and many of the faithful. Thence it spread to Maastricht, Vienna, and many other cities of Europe.
Innocent X sanctioned this new confraternity by a Brief dated 22 March, 1652. The members are required to have their names enrolled, to wear a cord with fifteen knots, and to recite daily fifteen Ave Marias in honour of St. Thomas. For the erection of and reception into this confraternity special faculties must be had from the superior general of the Dominicans. Its Indulgences and privileges are contained in the great Bull of Benedict XIII, "Pretiosus" (26 April, 1727, sect. 9) and in the decree of the Sacred Congregation of Indulgences (8 May, 1844).