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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How a Bal­ti­more Hair­dress­er Became a World-Renowned “Hair Archae­ol­o­gist” of Ancient Rome

Ani­mat­ed: Stephen Fry & Ann Wid­de­combe Debate the Catholic Church

50 Years of Chang­ing David Bowie Hair Styles in One Ani­mat­ed GIF

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

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