Where Did the Monk’s Haircut Come From? A Look at the Rich and Contentious History of the Tonsure

One might assume from a modern viewpoint that the hairstyles worn by monks arose to deal with male pattern baldness anxiety. As in the school uniform approach, you can’t single out one person’s baldness when everyone is bald. But this, again, would be a modern view, full of the vanity the tonsured—those with religiously shaven heads—ostensibly vowed to renounce. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the tonsure (from the Latin verb for “to shear”) began as a “badge of slavery” among Greeks and Romans. It was adopted “on this very account” by early monastic orders, to mark the total surrender of the will.

Would it surprise you, then, to learn that there were tonsure wars? Probably not if you know anything about church history. Every article of clothing and of faith has sparked some major controversy at one time or another. So too with the tonsure, of which—we learn in the Vox video above—there were three styles. The first, the coronal (or Roman or Petrine) tonsure, is the one we see in countless Medieval and Renaissance paintings: a bald pate at the crown surrounded by a fringe of hair, possibly meant to evoke the crown of thorns. Next is the Pauline, a fully shaved head, seen much less in Western art since it was “used more commonly in Eastern Orthodoxy.”

The third style of tonsure caused all the trouble. Or rather, it was this style that served as a visible sign of religious differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the churches in Britain and Ireland. “Celtic Catholicism was ‘out of sync’ with the Roman Catholic Church,” notes Vox. “Roman Catholics would use the differences between them to portray Celtic Catholicism as pagan, or even as an offshoot, celebrating the power-hungry magician, Simon Magus.” The Celtic tonsure fell under a cloud, but how exactly did it differ from the others? Since it disappeared in the early Middle Ages and few images seem to have survived, no one seems sure.

Daniel McCarthy, fellow emeritus at Trinity College, Dublin set out to solve the mystery. He speculates the Celtic tonsure, as you’ll see on a computer-simulated monk’s head, was a triangular shape, with the apex at the front. When the Roman Catholics took over Ireland, all of the vestments, dates, and haircuts were slowly brought into line with the dominant view. The practice of tonsure officially ended in 1972, and fell out of favor in English-speaking countries centuries earlier, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. But in any case, McCarthy sees the tonsure not as a spurning of fashion, but as a cult-like devotion to style. In that sense, we can see people who adopt similar haircuts around the world as still visually signaling their membership in some kind of order, religious or otherwise.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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