Beards: an archaeological and historical overview

Beards: an archaeological and historical overview

By Marion Dowd

‘A grand gallimaufry’: collected in honour of Nick Maxwell (2010)

British Library MS Harley 603 f. 72v

Introduction: There can be little doubt that facial hair played a significant role in past societies. Through time beards have been ascribed various symbolic attributes, such as sexual virility, wisdom and high social status, but conversely barbarism, eccentricity andSatanism. The presence or absence of a beard has alternately embraced ‘notions of eros and thanatos, east and west, good and evil, youth and decrepitude, and masculinity and femininity’. The decision to wear a beard is often deliberate and may denote a man’s religious, political, cultural, social or sexual affiliation. Beards or their removal can serve to conceal or reveal and thus in the past may have been linked to concepts of transformation, disguise, metamorphosis or exposure.

From the point in time when humans first began to wear clothes, beards became the primary feature by which to distinguish visually between men and women and therefore possibly the primary defining feature of maleness. It is plausible that amongst some cultures the more hirsute the man, the more masculine he was perceived to be. The progression from symbol of masculinity to indicator of virility may have been a logical one.

Indeed, research suggests that the beard grows faster during periods when a man is sexually active, and some psychoanalysts claim that shaving is an act of auto-castration. Irish folklore reveals that it is unlucky for a man to allow a woman to shave his beard, as he is in danger of losing his virility and strength. The Philosophy of Beards, published in 1880, similarly concluded that ‘the absence of beard is usually a sign of physical and moral weakness’.

At different times in the Church’s history beardlessness was seen to reflect a celibate life, with the beard linked to sexual activity, the devil and evil. Removal of the beard was deemed necessary for salvation in the seventh century. However, by the ninth century Catholic priests wore beards while the Greek Church remained clean-shaven, but in medieval times the reverse was the case. In 1096 the archbishop of Rouen proclaimed that bearded men should be excluded from the church and in 1102 a decree from Venice banned long beards.

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