Hair and Masculinity in the Alliterative Morte Arthure
By Elizabeth F. Urquhart
Master’s Thesis, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 2006
Abstract: This essay examines the use of forced hair cutting in the late fourteenth‐century alliterative romance, Morte Arthure, to show how it is used to develop characters that reflect the tension surrounding the English king Richard II and the tyranny that characterized the final years of his reign. It includes a survey of legislative and social attitudes toward the beard and hair during the Middle Ages and examines the use of hair as a symbol of masculinity in Arthurian romances of the period. The two episodes involving forced tonsure in the Alliterative Morte Arthure are analyzed to show the significance of the beard and its removal in establishing King Arthur as a tyrant.
Introduction: Two pivotal episodes in the late‐fourteenth‐century Alliterative Morte Arthure (AMA) entail forced tonsure—the removal of beards—as an act of humiliation or punishment. The first involves King Arthur’s encounter with the grotesque, cannibalistic giant on Mount Saint Michael, who seeks to add Arthur’s beard to a cloak ornamented with the beards of other kings he has conquered. The second incident occurs shortly after Arthur’s knights have defeated the Emperor Lucius’s forces, when Arthur spares two surviving Roman senators but orders their beards to be shaved before he sends them back to Rome.
Although King Arthur’s reaction to the beards in the giant’s cloak is one of outrage, the shaving episode—which is unique to the Alliterative Morte Arthure— exposes Arthur’s hyper‐masculinity and aggressive abuse of power, and it predicts the excesses that characterize the remainder of his Italian campaign. Between these two episodes involving forced tonsure, Arthur undergoes a metamorphosis from a respected and even‐tempered monarch—who is justifiably indignant toward Lucius and who avenges the innocents harmed by the giant on Mount Saint Michael—to a king who humiliates captured ambassadors and embarks on a rampage through Italy.
This essay argues that the poet’s use of forced tonsure of the envoys is more than a simple, formal parallel to the cloak of beards that early in the poem hints at a forthcoming change in Arthur. The emasculation symbolized by shaving the Roman ambassadors is a gesture that reinforces Arthur’s masculinity and growing willingness to abuse his power. It is an act that reflects both the weakness of Richard II, whose own masculinity (and therefore his suitability as king) was a subject of speculation both before and after his fall, and his tyrannical behavior toward the end of his reign.