Scissors or Sword? The Symbolism of a Medieval Haircut

Simon Coates explores the symbolic meanings attached to hair in the early medieval West, and how it served to denote differences in age, sex, ethnicity and status.

Miniature of Delilah cutting Samson's hair, 1445. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.

Whilst residing in Paris in the sixth century, Queen Clotild, 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.

To a twentieth-century audience this story seems strange. Why should a queen choose to have her grandsons killed rather than submitting them to a haircut? In the world of Merovingian Gaul, however, the story had a potent resonance and hair itself was of the utmost importance. The Merovingian kings, who had established themselves in the ruins of Roman Gaul, were known as the Reges criniti, the long-haired kings. For them, their long hair symbolised not only their aristocratic status but also their status as kings. It was invested with a sacral quality and believed to contain magical properties. The Byzantine poet and historian Agathias (c.532-c.582) had written:

It is the rule for Frankish kings never to be shorn; indeed their hair is never cut from childhood on, and hangs down in abundance on their shoulders...their subjects have their hair cut all round and are not permitted to grow it further.

The ultimatum offered by Lothar and Childebert thus hit straight to the heart of Merovingian high politics. What they were effectively saying was 'Do you wish to live non-regally or to die?'. Determined to compromise their nephews' rights to rule they utilised the scissors as a potent symbolic weapon. In sixth-century Gaul a haircut meant political coercion and social exclusion. If you removed the long hair of a king, you removed his claims to kingship itself.

The obituary of the long-haired kings was written into the history of the family who supplanted them in 751, the Carolingians. According to Einhard, the biographer of the most famous Carolingian, Charlemagne, the later Merovingians were rois fainiants, decadent and do-nothing kings, whose power had been effectively supplanted by the Carolingian dynasty in the form of Mayors of the Palace. The last Merovingian, Childeric III, was king in name and hair only, reduced to travelling around his kingdom in a cart pulled by oxen. The scissors came out again. The Carolingians, with papal backing, cut off Childeric's hair and incarcerated him in a monastery. They also effectively desacralised the significance of hair. Charlemagne's head and his right to rule - was distinguished not by his hair but by his coronation and anointing at the hand of the pope. Holy oil, not holy hair, made a king.

Furthermore, the Carolingians prided themselves on being descendants of a saint who had not been subjected to the ritual of forcible tonsuring. Gertrude, the daughter of a high-ranking Frankish nobleman, Pippin, was to be married off to the family's advantage. Pippin, however, died before he was able to enforce his will and carry out his plan, leaving Gertrude in the charge of her mother, Itta. Acquiring the support of a holy man, Amandus, mother and daughter decided to found a convent at Nivelles and, 'so that the violators of souls should not drag her daughter by force back into the illicit pleasures of the world', Gertrude's mother, 'seized iron shears and cut her daughter's hair in the shape of a crown'. Gertrude was the great aunt of the Carolingian Mayor of the Palace, Charles Martel, and became a patron saint of the Carolingian house. The long-haired kings were deposed by a family who cultivated the cult of a tonsured nun. Whereas forcible tonsuring was perceived as shaming, the cutting of hair in accordance with a vow could be regarded as meritorious.

Hair was able to carry such symbolic meanings because it is a body part which is easily subject to change: it can be dyed, shaped, worn loose, bound or be removed. Moreover, since it surrounds the most expressive part of the body, the face, any changes made to it are inherently visible and noticeable. Once rules were prescribed about its meaning, function and treatment, it acquired a particular resonance depending on the way in which it was understood in local communities. These meanings were, of course, highly contextualised. A monk awaiting tonsure would recognise that the presence of a pair of scissors marked the point where he fulfilled his vow to leave behind the secular world and become a servant of God. Unless the monk was unsure of his vocation, this woud be unlikely to induce panic. The situation would, however, appear very different to a Merovingian king.

The relationship between long hair and high birth was an ancient one and was present in societies other than Merovingian Gaul. In Ireland, for example, cropped hair denoted a servant or slave. Tacitus had noted the importance of long hair in early Germanic society, commenting that it was the sign of free men. Hair colour, too, bore social significance. In the Irish epic, Tain bo Cuailnge, King Conchobar has golden hair which is associated with royalty, while brown and black hair are also attributed to chieftains and heroes. The association of long hair with a warrior class possessed strong Biblical validation in the story of Samson in Judges 16:17. Long hair denoted strength and virility. In women, moreover, it represented fertility. Since long hair was part of the social badge of a warrior aristocracy, it was protected by law. In the law codes of the Alamans, Frisians, Lombards and Anglo-Saxons, the cutting of hair brought forth penalties. According to the Laws of King Alfred, anyone who cut off a man's beard had to pay a compensation of 20 shillings, and in Frederick Barbarossa's Landfried of 1152, it was forbidden either to seize a man by the beard or to tear any hairs from his head or beard. In the Frankish Pactus Legis Salicae, if a puer crinitus (long-haired boy) was shorn without the consent of his parents, the heavy fine of forty-five solidi was imposed, while among the Burgundians there were heavy fines for cutting the hair of a freewoman.

Beards were perceived as a sign of masculinity, separating men from boys. According to the Anglo-Norman historian, Orderic Vitalis, William the Conqueror complained that he had to defend Normandy 'whilst still unbearded' referring to the manner in which he was placed in charge of the defence of the duchy when still only a boy. A particularly ancient function of hair treatment was the manner in which it denoted ethnicity and hence could be used to distinguish different ethnic groups. Tacitus thought that the Suevi were characterised by their distinctive, knotted, hair. Other groups like the Lombards and the Frisians were named after their particular fashion for styling beard or hair. The Byzantines, for example, remarked how the Avars 'wore their hair very long at the back, tied with bands and braided'. Both the great sixth-century Spanish churchman, Isidore of Seville, the author of the Etymologiae, a concise encyclopedia of classical culture, and Paul the Deacon, the historian of the Lombards, derived the name Lombard from the German Langbarte or long beard. Gregory of Tours recounts how, in 590, Queen Fredegund ordered the army of the Saxons in the Bayeux area to attack a Frankish duke but to disguise themselves as Bretons by cutting their hair in the Breton way and wearing Breton clothing. William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum distinguished Saxons from Normans at the time of the Norman Conquest by reference to the differences between the hair styles of the two ethnic groups. Just before the Norman invasion of England, Harold sent some spies who reported that all the Norman soldiers were priests, ...because they have their entire face, with both lips, shaved, whereas the English left the upper lip uncut, with the hairs ceaselessly flourishing. William was writing in the twelfth century, but his evidence is confirmed by the Bayeux Tapestry which shows almost all the Norman soldiers clean shaven and the Anglo-Saxon soldiers with long moustaches.

Hair treatment could also be used to denote age categories, as we have already seen with regard to the possession of beards. One of the most distinctive rites of passage in the early medieval Wrest was the ritual cutting of hair to mark the transition from infant to the very young. These ancient ceremonies known as barbato rica created a spiritual bond between the cutter and the cut. In the late 730s, the Carolingian Mayor of the Palace, Charles Martel, sent his son Pippin to the Lombard King Liutprand in order that the King might cut the boy's hair and hence become as a father to him. The importance of such fictive kindred is also evident in the story surrounding the ancestry of Miesko, first Christian ruler of Poland, whose father, Semovith, underwent a ritual haircut at the hands of two strangers during a drunken feast where a barrel of beer refilled itself miraculously. The establishment of the strangers as Semovith's patrons marked the foundation of a new dynasty when Semovith expelled the former duke and appointed himself in his place. As with the emergence of the Carolingians, hair was one issue on which the outcome of dynastic politics could be constructed. Hair cutting could also serve as a marker of sexual difference. On the basis of St Paul's words in I Corinthians 11:4, long hair was considered a glory for a woman so long as she kept it covered in public, whilst shorter hair was deemed most appropriate for men. The Romans had valued short hair. All Roman men of power and standing wore their hair short, a sign that it was under control. Fourth-century emperors generated a close-shaven public image. Long hair, hairdressing, and facial hair were deemed characteristic of women and barbarians. Aristocrats accused each other of looking like harlots for the way they wore their hair. The emperor Julian the Apostate (r.361-363) shocked observers less by his attempts to restore the old gods than by his beard. He thus wrote the Misopogon or Beard Hater in which he castigated the smooth-shaven Antiochenes who had made fun of his long beard and unkempt hair.

Whereas the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the emergence of the Carolingian Empire seems to have been dominated by a tolerant, and indeed encouraging, attitude towards facial hair and beards, the Carolingian period and the subsequent post-millennial European world saw the development of a hostility towards long hair and considered it an issue characterised by scandal. In the eighth century, Bede had written that, '...the beard which is a mark of the male sex and of age, is customarily put as an indication of virtue'. However, on Ash Wednesday 1094, Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury refused to give either ashes or his blessing to men who `grew their hair like girls'. At Rouen in 1096, a church council decreed `that no one should grow his hair long but have it cut as a Christian'.

Both William of Malmesbury and Orderic Vitalis associated the long hair of William Rufus's court with moral scandal. Orderic wrote how:

Now almost all our fellow countrymen are crazy and wear little beards, openly proclaiming by such a token that they revel in filthy lusts like stinking goats.

In Carentan in Normandy the Archbishop of Seez rebuked Henry I and his courtiers for their long hair, produced a pair of scissors and cut it on the spot. William of Malmesbury was particularly vituperative about aristocrats with flowing locks. To him long hair was a sign of homosexuality and decadence. It made men effeminate and blurred the differences between the sexes. He told a moral tale about how one knight who gloried in his luxuriant hair dreamed that he was choked by his own locks and subsequently quickly spread the news that haircuts were necessary throughout England. William was so concerned about the decadence represented by long hair that he even blamed it for the Norman Conquest on the grounds that it led men who should have vociferously defended their kingdom to behave no better than women.

Others had more practical reasons for disliking long hair. Bishop Ernulf of Rochester (1114-24) remarked how men with long beards often dipped hairs into liquid when drinking from a cup. The rhetoric of monastic writers thus identified long hair with youth, decadence and the court. It is difficult, however, to draw a hard and fast line between an earlier tolerance of long hair and a gradual distaste for its cultivation. An imperial decree of 390, for example, forbade women to cut off their hair and threatened a bishop who allowed such a woman to enter a church with deposition, while the Council of Agde in 506 said that clerics who allowed their hair to grow long would have it cut by the archdeacon. The sixth-century Irish monk Columbanus, who founded a series of monasteries in Gaul, prescribed penance for deacons who refused to cut their beards.

One area where treatment of hair was particularly seen as denoting differences in sex lay in the field of mourning the dead. The public ritual of mourning involving emotional display and the tearing out of hair was commonly seen as a woman's business. Men, however, were not immune to such activity as is evident in the story of the later Merovingian king, Dagobert III (d.715), who, after a terrifying nocturnal vision, was found the next morning to have cut his long fingernails and then remained in his bedroom ordering his hair to be cut off. According to Tacitus, it was women, however, who engaged in lamentation either by pulling out their hair or letting it down to the extent that they became a common sight at funerals. Reginald of Durham, a twelfth-century writer of saints' lives, describes how after a young man was injured and presumed dead both men and women mourned through tears and wailing but only the women let their hair down in lamentation. The ninth-century author, Agnellus of Ravenna, meanwhile, describes the crowds of women who appeared at funeral ceremonies in the city where he was archbishop. The extravagant behaviour of women at funerals became so great that in the thirteenth century, Italian communes passed restrictive legislation against funerary practices in an attempt to curtail the crowds at funerals and restore social order.

The ecclesiastical counter to the aristocratic cultivation of long hair lay in the monastic tonsure. According to Bede, the tonsure separated the cleric from the layman. It, rather than dress, was the distinguishing badge of those who had entered the clerical profession. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People preserves a letter reputed to have been written by Ceolfrid, the abbot of his own monastery, Wearmouth-Jarrow, to Nechtan, the king of the Picts which, in addition to commenting on the teaching of the Roman Church with regard to the calculation of Easter, made some notable remarks about the tonsure. While acknowledging that there were variations in the style of tonsure adopted by clerics, the letter recommended the cultivation of the Petrine tonsure which took the form of a crown in imitation of Christ's crown of thorns, rather than the tonsure associated with Simon Magus which was still worn by some in the Irish Church, and which left a fringe at the front of the head. Early discussions of the symbolism of the tonsure make no reference to the corona, but Isidore of Seville noted how the crown was symbolic of the authority of the priest, recalling the tiara of the Hebrew priests. Isidore established the symbolic significance of the tonsure by associating it with a ritual of renunciation which viewed it as a pact made with God. According to Isidore, the tonsure of priests was visible on their bodies but had its effect on their souls:

By this sign, the vices in religion are cut off, and we strip off the crimes of the body like hairs. This renewal fittingly takes place in the mind, but it is shown on the head where the mind is known to reside.

The ceremony of tonsure accomplished a ritual of separation from the community. It stood as a symbol of renunciation, not only because it signified shame and humility, but also because it was a denial of the free status that had been the birthright of most clerics, and was to be followed by a lifestyle that was a negation of the norms of lay society. The act of tonsure made the cleric an outsider. Unlike the forcible tonsuring of deposed Merovingian rulers, however, the cleric accepted this badge of shame voluntarily. But like the coercion of long-haired kings, the cultivation of short hair through the tonsure bore with it political resonance.

Bede was bothered about the Irish sporting the tonsure associated with Simon Magus on the grounds that it separated them from the Roman Church, along with the fact that they calculated Easter in a different manner. The decision taken by the Northumbrian Church at the Synod of Whitby in 664 to follow Roman practice over the calculation of Easter and over the tonsure, was thus a sign of public allegiance to the world of Rome. The Spanish Church had recognised the value of the tonsure in the form of the corona at the fourth council of Toledo in 633 where it was decreed that `all clerics must shave the whole front part of the hair, leaving only a circular crown on the back'. The idea, however, had clearly spread earlier since Gregory of Tours's uncle Nicetius was reputed to have been born with his hair growing in a circle on top of his head, revealing from birth that he was intended for the episcopate

Whereas ecclesiastical legislation might prescribe short hair as an essential sign of clerical status, ambiguities about hair treatment remained even in the tighter moral world of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The custom of clerical shaving was less universal than some writers in the Western Church implied, although reformers in the eleventh century sought to enforce the canonical decrees on this and other matters, as was evident in Pope Gregory VII's order that the shaving of beards was a distinctive mark of the clerical order in society. Many clerics, however, still let their beards grow in times of fast and did not shave when travelling. Canonical rules were thus widely disregarded.

There was no single standard with regard to shaving in religious communities. Whereas the monks at St Augustine's, Canterbury, between 1090 and 1120 are depicted as beardless, those at Mont-St-Michel in the second half of the twelfth century are shown with beards. Hermits, anchorites, recluses and ascetics commonly did not shave and their reputation for unshaven holiness was parodied in the remark made by Bishop Eugenius of Toledo in the seventh century that `If a beard makes a saint, nothing is more saintly than a goat'. Moreover, despite the denunciation of long hair by writers such as William of Malmesbury, many rulers began actively to cultivate beards. The historian Percy Ernst Schramm noted how the full beard appears in iconographical representations of rulership at the turn of the millennium. Towards the end of their reigns, the rulers of Germany, Otto I and Otto II, had beards. These iconographical sources are, however, at variance with written sources which refer to laymen who cut off their beards to become monks. One such was the ninth-century Carolingian count, Gerald of Aurillac, who shaved his beard to live like a monk. Since he was a layman, however, Gerald was caught between the world of aristocratic mores and the secluded world of clerics:

He cut his beard as though it were a nuisance, and since his hairs flowed down from the back of his head, he hid the crown on top, which he also covered with a cap.

On October 14th, 680, Wamba, the Visigothic King of Spain, fell unconscious in his palace at Toledo. Julian, the Archbishop of Toledo, was called by the courtiers who feared that the King was near death. He cut Wamba's hair and clothed him in a monastic habit. Emerging from his coma, the king discovered that he had become a monk and could not resume royal office since the law of the Church enshrined in the Council of Chalcedon of 451 decreed that `those that have become clerics or who have entered a monastery should neither enter the army nor take on secular honours'. Wamba therefore signed documents attesting his acceptance of clerical status and named one of his nobles, Erwig, as his successor. The forcible tonsure of kings was known in all the pre-Carolingian barbarian kingdoms of Western Europe but, like the issues of tonsuring and clerical beards, it was characterised by ambiguity. Although the hair of secular rulers could be cut off, it could also grow back. The Merovingian ruler Childeric I dealt with his rebellious son, Merovech, by tonsuring him and throwing him into a monastery but Meroverh soon escaped and fled to Tours.

King Theuderic III was tonsured but grew his hair again and regained power. The Mayor of the Palace, Ebroin was stripped of his power, tonsured and thrown into a monastery at Luxeuil in Burgundy. He waited for his hair to grow back before gathering an army and attempting to regain control in Francia. Similarly, in AngloSaxon England, King Ceolwulf of Northumbria was tonsured and thrown into the monastery at Lindisfarne only to return as king. In 737, however, he was tonsured again at his own request, abdicated as king and entered the monastery voluntarily. Having decided to take the tonsure, he would thus be compelled to keep his hair short. He had no need to grow it since, like Wamba, he was now a monk and no longer a king. In the early Middle Ages, the language of hair treatment was open to as many interpretations as the treatment of hair itself. What is clear is that hair and its appearance mattered in both secular and clerical society. Men may have lived by the sword but they could metaphorically die by the scissors. Childeric III knew that when the Carolingians bore the scissors his days were numbered. It only took one bad hair day to turn his fear into living panic.