The Beard. A meandering history.
In 17 days’ time it will be Movember. Over the thirty days that follow, male ‘celebrities’, want-to-be-rebels and barely pubescent teenaged boys will give their facial follicles free rein to raise awareness of, and funds to support, prostate and testicular cancer initiatives.[i] This is a serious business. Last year, Movember raised £22 million within the UK alone.[ii]
I sport a beard 24/7, 365, so cannot participate directly in this hair-growing fest – calls to invert the Movember concept and remove my beard in a sponsored shave are tantamount to heresy and fall on deaf ears – but this does not mean the month will pass me by. In fact, it has led to a good deal of pondering. If you think about it, a change of hairstyle, the growing or removal of facial hair, is perhaps one of the easiest and quickest ways that we can dramatically change our appearance. The way we choose to coiffure our locks is in many ways limitless. We may perceive our hair as being detached from us, but it is a living part of our bodies. Consequently, as existing hairstyles grow out, so we can visit the barber and get a new style cut. And if it is true that first impressions count, it surely follows that the way we cut and comb the hair on our heads and faces forms a large part of how people initially perceive us. It could also be said that hairstyles are cultural markers. If I were to view half a dozen photographs of people and had to guess the decade in which they had been snapped, the hairstyles of the people in the images would probably play a significant part in my deductions. Be it a mullet, a centre parting, a perm, a French crop, a goatee or a handle bar moustache, the various styles of head and facial hair reflect changes in society as much as an individual’s whim.[iii]
In medieval times…
Throughout history, the beard has attracted particular comment. As a historian, it seems appropriate that I view the evolution of the beard over the longue durée. If you were to visit to Westminster Abbey, London, and amble around the high altar, you would see the tombs of many of England’s medieval monarchs: Henry III, Edward III, Henry IV, to name but a few. All of the royal tombs are decorated with an effigy, a life-sized representation of the deceased king, invariably covered in silver-gilt and decorated with gems. The design and execution of the effigies differ, but all the kings have beards. This is not artistic license. For to have a beard as a medieval king was a sign of knowledge and wisdom. There is a rather nice fourteenth-century English chronicle account that makes this point well. It describes the changing appearance of Edward I’s beard as follows:
His looks were enhanced by a beard which in adolescence turned from a silvery colour to gold, became black when he reached manhood and in old age changed from grey to the whiteness of a swan.[iv]
As Longshank’s beard changed colour, so, we are told, did he appear wiser and more regal. The association between bearded men and wisdom comes, in this instance, from Christianity. The Book of Leviticus (21:5) states that priests should refrain from shaving the edges of their beards. Leviticus also gives helpful instructions on beard trimming: “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard” (19:27). The Judiac and Islamic faiths also condone the growth of facial hair and provide similar instructions on beard clipping. In Christianity most of the Old Testament figures are depicted with beards. Images of Christ as a man almost always show him bearded. This echoes pagan iconography, where the older gods were depicted with facial hair.[v]
In the Middle Ages, to have a fully grown beard was a clear indication of maturity and with it, experience, knowledge of the world and in some cases physical prowess. The idea that a man’s facial hair represented positive character attributes goes back further, though, to classical and pagan times. Assyrian warriors wore their beards curled and woven with gold.[vi] Indeed, so important was the beard as a symbol of status in various cultures of old that lawcodes laid down hefty financial punishments if another person pulled or, much worse, cut a man’s beard without his consent.
But the beard was not universally welcomed. In the Eastern Roman Empire, perhaps better known as Byzantium, the beard was regarded with slightly more suspicion. The beard was still thought to represent worldliness, but not always in a good way. In the politically insecure and bloody sphere of the Byzantine emperors, worldliness could imply moral corruption. This seems to have been one of the reasons why the emperor hid behind a circle of eunuchs when changing his ceremonial robes during in religious ceremonies within the great church of Hagia Sophia.[vii] Eunuchs were boys that had been castrated before puberty. They were therefore unable to grow facial hair. In the ceremonies within the Emperor’s great church, the eunuchs’ youthful appearance symbolised a purity of character, which their bearded counterparts lacked.
…& modern times…
These few examples show how the beard has been regarded as a signifier of character traits. Put more simply, the beard was a useful way to pigeon hole men: a personal decision to grow facial hair came to be seen as an outward manifestation of a man’s inner qualities, or lack of them. From this position, it was perhaps a relatively short step to use the beard as a device of social segregation and exclusion. Staying in the medieval period, but journeying south to Sicily, Frederick II decreed that Jews in his kingdom should wear distinctive clothing, similar to prostitutes. Male Jews were commanded to grow beards.[viii] These discriminatory actions died hard and survived into modern times. In occupied Europe during the Second World War, there were occasions when Jewish men had their beards cut in public by Nazi soldiers, to humiliate them. Such intolerance is still prevalent today.[ix] In 2009, the Indian Supreme Court rejected the plea of a young Muslim boy who was expelled from a Christian school because he refused to shave his beard, on religious grounds. According to reports, the presiding judge decreed that India was secularist. He also associated the boy’s beard with terrorism and extreme violence.[x] In a less cruel, but no less telling example of how the beard has periodically been adopted as a device of exclusion in modern times, consider Hollywood films. The villain, or the guy that we should be on our guard against, is often bearded. Think of Home Alone, where the young and annoying Macauley Caulkin is scared of his bearded neighbour; Hans Gruber in Die Hard or Johnnie Torrance in Stanley Kubrik’s The Shining.
…to the present
Presently, I am happy to report that the beard is enjoying something of a renaissance. Be it well manicured or au naturel, the beard is ubiquitous in fashion magazines and on catwalks across the globe. Commonplace the beard may now be, but this has not stopped speculation about the motives and character of men who shun the daily shave.
Earlier this year, the beleaguered Aussie Prime Minister Julia Gillard expressed her disapproval of two male colleagues who grew beards during the summer recess. In parliamentary question time, no less, Gillard said the growing of the beards showed ‘very poor judgement’.[xi] Recently, I read a column in which Harriet Walker, fashion writer for The Independent and columnist for AnOther magazine, advised speakers participating in a conference to remove their suit jacket if any man in the audience was bearded.[xii] Walker gave no explanation for this curious sartorial tip. I assume she was implying that somebody with a beard is likely to be laid back and thus more inclined to take offence at being addressed by a sober suited gent (or lass) looking too authoritative. How Walker would react to my beard and three-piece suits, I’m not sure.
I have had experiences of people assuming certain things about my character, presumably based on the fact that I am bearded. On one occasion, in Covent Garden, I was accosted by a young guy eager for me to set up a direct debit for his particular charity. In the barrage of questions that served as his introduction, I was asked if I were a French musician. I can only assume that my beard made me appear sufficiently ‘arty’, although how I looked either musical or French, I’ve no idea.[xiii] Speculations about my musical abilities and nationality are, however, much more welcome than comments from people who claim my beard ages me by about five years.
As a bearded man, I suppose I am naturally curious about how I am perceived with it. I am also interested, as a historian, in how the beard has been viewed in different cultures and across different time periods. Indeed, the study of hair is now becoming a burgeoning area of historical research. More significantly, I think the story of the beard reveals something illuminating about human nature, which is as interesting as it is sobering.
Reflections on the beard
On the one hand, the history of the beard reveals much about our desire as humans to be unique, to create a style and look that is all of our own. And yet, the way that the bearded man has been interrogated throughout history also says much about humankind’s tendency to judge and distance itself from what is different. I choose to focus on the beard, but other things could very easily be substituted for it in my argument: people who dress in a non-conformist way, people who express challenging political views, or people who choose a lifestyle that is different from the majority of their peers. Like the beard, they all reveal the difficulties that humans can face when they try to live at one with themselves in a society that is bound by mutual duties and obligations, by expectations and by long-established and unquestioned customs.
A brief and meandering history of facial hair therefore goes some way towards showing the dangers that are inherent in placing too much store in first impressions. There is, I think, much virtue in stepping back from snap judgements, resisting social conventions that dictate how we should perceive one another and, instead, approach what we encounter in a more critical and reflective frame of mind. There is also a great deal of virtue, comfort and joy to be derived from living at one with yourself within your community.
With that in mind, whilst I have always rejected suggestions to cut my beard during Movember, perhaps I should seize the opportunity to shun the twice-weekly trim and let my beard grow out over the next thirty days? I really have no excuses … G.B. Kent Moustache combs and Penhaligon’s Moustache wax are available from the Movember store and the cause needs no justification.
[iii] P.E. Dutton, ‘Charlemagne’s Mustache’, in idem, Charlemagne’s Mustache and other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age (New York, 2004), 3-4.
[iv] Discussed in, A. Gransden, Historical Writing in England c.550 to c.1307 (London, 1974), 506.
[v] J. Laver, A Concise History of Costume (Norwich, 1969), 33.
[vi] Ibid., 15.
[vii] E. Piltz, ‘Middle Byzantine Court Costume’, Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204, ed. H. Maguire (Washington, 1997), 38-39.
[viii] D. Abulafia, Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor (Oxford, 1988), 143.
[xii] H. Walker, ‘Listen to the suit: the well-tailored art of persuasion’, The Guide to Hosting a Better Conference: a Monocle Survey, 25. A supplement issued with Monocle, 40:4 (February, 2011).
[xiii] I did not set-up the direct debit.