Sunday, October 7, 2012

"Scissors or Sword?" Why medieval men might choose death over a haircut

Clovis, first Christian King of the Franks
Today I saw a great piece, courtesy of, on the beliefs regarding hair in the Middle Ages. The article, Scissors or Sword? The Symbolism of a Medieval Haircut by Simon Coates, opens with this story:
"Whilst residing in Paris in the sixth century, Queen Clotild (d. 554), the widow of the Merovingian ruler Clovis, became the unwilling subject of the inveterate plotting of her sons, Lothar and Childebert, who were jealous of her guardianship of her grandsons, the children of their brother, Chlodomer. Childebert spread the rumour that he and his brother were to plan the coronation of the young princes and sent a message to Clotild to that effect. When the boys were dispatched to their uncles they were seized and separated from their household. Lothar and Childebert then sent their henchman Arcadius to the Queen with a pair of scissors in one hand and a sword in the other.

"He offered the Queen an ultimatum. Would she wish to see her grandsons live with their hair cut short, or would she prefer to see them killed? Beside herself with grief, Clotild stated that if they were not to succeed to the throne she would rather see them dead than with their hair cut short. Rejecting the scissors, she opted for the sword.The sequel to this story, told by Gregory of Tours (d. 594), reveals an alternative to death or short-haired dishonour. A third grandson, Chlodovald, was well guarded and escaped his uncles. Seeking to escape the fate of his brothers, he cut his hair short with his own hands and became a priest. Voluntary tonsuring did not carry the ignominy of shearing under duress."
The precise sentiments attached to hair have fluctuated over the medieval period; after all, we are talking about a thousand years and hundreds of cultures; but for the most part, a full head of hair was typically associated with privilege and power. We see that the Merovingian kings preferred to lose their heads rather than their hair, because a haircut was a sign of humiliation, even the loss of the claims to kingship. 

Very occasionally, I'm asked why I don't get a haircut. Depending on the mood and context, I give a different answer. "I save money on haircuts" or "my girlfriend would be cross if I did" both work in a pinch, and both are true. But there's a more reasoned motive as well. Four years of service in the U.S. Army forced me to rack up quite a bill on haircuts over time for the sake of a "neat, uniform appearance". The idea of military service in the modern age involves a complete breakdown of a recruit's personality in order to make him a dependable member of a cohesive unit in life-and-death situations. The original rationale for these ridiculously short haircuts came from preventative measures against lice in the trenches of the First World War. So many men of the western world served in the Great War that military fashion dictated style even among civilians. Trench warfare has long since slipped into irrelevance, but the haircuts remain to impose a uniformity among the ranks. I dare say it's something like a mark of slavery, akin to the the letters SPQR tattooed on the arm of a soldier in the ancient Roman legions. Whether it's a tattoo or a high-and-tight, it visibly marks you as property of the government.

Short hair in the Middle Ages likewise most often denoted that a man was of low social standing. A peasant who toiled daily in the fields couldn't afford to keep his hair clean, so it was just as well to chop it off. Closely cropped hair could also mark a man as a serf, bound to the land and his lord. It also explains why the tonsure was such an important rite for monks and clerics. Just as the haircut is the first thing a modern man receives when entering military life, a monk or cleric traditionally received a haircut before entering those states of life to symbolize the cutting away of worldly glory and ambition. Nevertheless, medieval Christians wouldn't dare depict Our Lord with the haircut of a monk or serf because, poor as He was, to portray Him with short hair would just have been disgraceful. Even today, I suspect most Christians would find it awkward and unbecoming to see an image of Christ with a buzzcut.

Portraits of men with hair to the chin or below are commonly found until the Renaissance revived the customs of pagan Greece and Rome. During this time, we see more portraits of men like Henry VIII with close-cropped hair, but let's remember that this is the same generation of men who called the Virgin Mary "Minerva" and painted Christ in the form of Apollo with short hair and no beard on the wall of the Sistine Chapel. (Of all the portraits of the later Renaissance, the one by Holbein of Saint Thomas More seems to feature a hairstyle most in keeping with the medieval spirit.) 

In the next century, the paganism of the Renaissance temporarily receded and gentlemen of England grew their hair out again. The English Civil War divided the country into Cavaliers, whose long hair marked them as high Anglicans, papists, or otherwise the King's men on one side; and "Roundheads" on the other, whose Puritan and populist leanings had them adopt the hairstyle of serfs. The Roundheads enjoyed only a brief victory before the royal courts of Europe made long hair fashionable once again. Decadence, and the balding of a certain French king, the fourteenth of his name, introduced the wig.

When Robespierre led his reign of terror in France, he accomplished the work of a thousand Childeberts: lose your hair (or wig), or lose your head. Of course, thousands of Frenchmen lost both anyway, but even after the Terror ended, the fashions of the proletariat triumphed. Long hair enjoyed some revived popularity among romantics and medievalists of the Victorian age, but for the most part, the French Revolution won. As with so many other things, yesterday's liberalism became today's conservatism. The rampant militarism of the World Wars renewed the fashion of short hair for another few generations, and now, today we have to deal with short hair as yet another false conservatism, alongside choir lofts, operatic music at Mass, warmongering, crony capitalism, and the cult of American football, which really ought to be called handegg considering the nature of the game.

When I left military service, I rejoiced in my freedom and never got a (significant) haircut again. I suppose it would be extreme and counter-productive to just start wearing medieval costume every day, but I wear my hair long enough to tie back as a sign of solidarity with the past, as well as (for now) freedom from servitude to the government, the clerical state, or any other institution that would dictate my appearance outside of work hours.

So now you know.


  1. Long hair doesn't really work out for me. It tends to grow thicker instead of longer, and my head is already quite thick. I've been able to get it to shoulder length when I was 14, but my mother (a hairdresser) forced me to cut it because I looked like a hippie. :D

    Nowadays I keep it somewhat short.

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  2. Very interesting blog. Will have to come back when I have more time to read :)

  3. Funny, my husband did the opposite thing when he came out of the Army. He was a long haired fellow, and once he left the army, he says he can't imagine growing it back.
    More's the pitty, I never got to see his long hair in person, just in photographs, and he looks so good with long locks!
    I may have found a way to convince him though. I'm making him Texas Spanish colonial era clothing (now that's love) and he thinks a wig will be too hot! So he's growing it back out!! :D

  4. Hello there! I was glad the moment I loaded this page of your portal. What was your motivation at that moment when you received an idea to compose your site?

  5. Unfortunately, many traditionalist priests (particularly young Americans) tend to the buzzcut. Pay a visit sometime to the FSSP seminary in Nebraska, and you'll see ehat I mean.

  6. What is the meaning of the term,"a high and tight" in the sentence at the end of the third paragraph,please ?
    I am not an American and whilst I know what a tattoo is , the other term is unknown to me

    1. A high-and-tight is a kind of buzzcut that's popular in modern militaries.

      I occasionally had one when I was in the Army myself. Hopefully never again, haha.

  7. I have noticed for years now that "modern" styles such as short hair, piercings, exposed skin, tattoos and drab colors are the ancient and near-universal signs of humiliation and enslavement. This is why it bothers me that feminists see dressing that way as a symbol of empowerment. It's the opposite of empowering. Actually, the timeless look of power is bright, patterned long flowing robes over a form-fitting under-layer, styled long hair, beads and cord and brooches for decoration instead of piercings, and puffed sleeves or shoulders.

  8. "We see that the Merovingian kings preferred to lose their heads rather than their hair, because a haircut was a sign of humiliation, even the loss of the claims to kingship. " It's no wonder then, that zealous priests in Medieval times threatened such worldly laymen with excommunication for their long hair. "1096-The archbishop of Rouen threatens to excommunicate anyone with a beard or with long hair, not just clerics."

    Then again, the bishop was just following St. Paul's teaching, laid out in 1 Corinthians 11:14 "Doth not even nature itself teach you, that a man indeed, if he nourish his hair, it is a shame unto him?"

  9. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who grew his hair for this reason after my term of service. It's also a pleasure to know of another medievalist veteran.

  10. As a man who can trace his ancestry to local nobility, indeed even to earlier Viking-age Danish royalty, since growing my hair I cannot bear the idea of losing it all even though it would be very practical. At this point it would be on a par with circumcision or tattooing. My family may not hold titles in this century, but I will be damned if I am to drop all the external trappings of nobility.