Long, shiny, gleaming, steaming hair

Auckland Theology’s Movember poll coincides with news from the US that federal authorities have charged seven members of a “renegade Amish group” with, “a series of beard- and hair-cutting assaults against Amish men and women.”

What is it with hair and religion? I’m glad you asked that. Or at least I’m glad someone in class recently asked why the Protestant reformers grew big beards. Cases in point: Johannes Oecolampadius, John Knox, Thomas Cranmer, plus a less impressive but nonetheless commendable effort by Jean Calvin.

Clement VII
Clement VII (r1523-1534)

Someone else in class suggested that they were doing it to differentiate themselves from shaven clergy of the traditional church.

Maybe, but the counter-examples to that theory are the reformers Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Luther (both clean shaven) and all of the bearded popes between Clement VII (elected 1523) and Alexander VIII (died 1691).

But, even if beards didn’t mark out some Catholic/Protestant divide, something did change in the early 16th century to make beards fashionable among the previously clean-shaven clergy.

In 1531 a scholar at the papal court, Giovanni Pierio Valeriano Bolzani felt compelled to write a tract In Favour of Priests’ Beards against those who argued that priests should be clean-shaven. I came across this work a couple of years ago, while rifling through a collection of 16th cent pamphlets in the British Library. I’ve always meant to go back and look at it, but now I don’t need to, because it’s available on Google books.

The pamphlet is interesting because it wouldn’t have been written (a) unless clergy were growing beards, and (b) someone thought it was worth getting upset about.

Bolzani recognised that, until recently, western clergy had usually been clean-shaven. But, as a good Humanist scholar and historian, he also recognised that this had not always been the case. Canon law had once required priests to have short hair and beards. At some point, and with no explanation, that ruling had changed to require both short hair and shaven faces.

Ingeniously, Bolzani suggested that his change had been introduced prior to the 10th century, arguing that if earlier popes in this period had been required to wear beard like his own pope Clement VII, Pope Joan would never have got herself elected.

Bolzani claimed that Pope Clement VII started wearing a beard as a sign of his grief after the German sack of Rome in 1527. It’s not clear whether Bolzani thought this was the beginning of the new fashion, but he did point out that it had good precedent: obviously – he thought – Jesus, John the Baptist and the apostles all had beards, too.

Bolzani didn’t speculate on why western clergy started shaving their faces, and modern commentators aren’t really sure either. In his “The Symbolic Meaning of Hair in the Middle Ages” (yes, people do research on this stuff) Robert Bartlett argues that there’s no clear evidence that hairiness or the lack of it had any stable meaning across the Middle Ages. Instead:

What mattered, it seems, was the function of hair as a marker in a system of oppositions (57)

In other words, if people on your side were hairy, then theological justifications could be found for it; if not, not. Bartlett thinks it’s possible that shaven heads and faces came in with the priestly celibacy promoted by the Gregorian reform movement: it may have distinguished the clergy from their hairy, married counterparts in the Eastern church.

Second, as Bartlett points out elsewhere in his article, long hair was often associated with effeminacy in this period. He notes that:

On Ash Wednesday 1094 Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury refused to give ashes or his blessing to those young men who ‘grew their hair like girls’ unless they had their hair cut…. (50)

If this is the case, then all-over clerical hairlessness may have been intended to represent a kind of hyper-masculinity!

According to the recent stories about the Amish hair assaults, Amish men grow their beards long “for religious reasons.” Yet we’re never told what those religious reasons are, and these alleged religious reasons sound to me suspiciously like one of those things journalists receive on hearsay but never actually investigate. I suppose that it is possible that the Amish have developed a biblical case for beardage, though I can’t imagine what it is. And even if they have an explicit religious justification, I suspect the historical origins of this fashion are just as complex and obscure as those of clerical hairiness (and otherwise) in the west.


Solomon as political leader?

With the media in New Zealand currently preoccupied with the imminent General Election, it is perhaps apposite to leave aside for the moment all thoughts of teapots, taping devices, and tactical voting and turn our attention to some biblical politics – First Testament style. One particular biblical figure that has always come under his share of political scrutiny is King Solomon, who took over the throne of the united kingdom of Israel after his father David’s death. Over the years, biblical scholars have attributed Solomon with an array of soubriquets that range from ideal ‘gold-plated’ king to selfish dictator; there seems to be as many opinions about his political acumen and leadership style as there were subjects in his kingdom: ‘as many as the sand by the sea’ (1 Kings 4.20). These widely conflicting views all stem from the Solomonic traditions in 1 Kings 3-11 themselves, which chart both the dizzying heights and humiliating lows of this character’s monarchical career. So, it is to these traditions to which our attention will now turn, as we consider a few of Solomon’s political strengths and weaknesses.

Domestic Policies

According to 1 Kings 4, Solomon’s new and expanded temple-state bureaucracy, which he set up in his new capital Jerusalem, was highly successful; Israel and Judah ‘ate and drank and were happy’, each person living in safety under his [and her?] own vine and fig tree. However, this centralized Jerusalem-based administration did appear to come at a cost – to some of Solomon’s subjects at least. The king imposed a new structure of territorial organization on the kingdom, dividing ‘all Israel’ into 12 fiscal districts for tax collection purposes (1 Kings 4.17-19a), with each district providing food for ‘the king and his household’ one month per year. This structure of organization replaced the more traditional division and naming of the land according to tribal boundaries, thereby seriously undermining time-honoured tribal authority, identity, and power networks, which David had tolerated when he was king. While around half of the twelve districts did retain the original tribal boundaries and place names, tribal autonomy was still essentially lost, as all 12 districts were now under direct supervision by crown-appointed prefects. One wonders just how popular this loss of customary and age-old tribal authority and individuality was, given the obvious importance of tribal affiliation for group and community identity in Israel at the time.

Moreover, Solomon’s taxation of ‘all Israel’ starts to look decidedly dodgy when we note that he appeared to be taxing only the northern territory of the kingdom, whilst giving the southern area of Judah a generous tax ‘break’ (1 Kings 4.19b). Given the huge extent of provisions each territory was supposed to supply for the royal larder, one can imagine that the exemption of Solomon’s own southern homeland from this burden would have caused a considerable amount of resentful mutterings among his northern subjects. [A rather similar scenario took place in Scotland in the 1980s.]

A further cause of north-south unrest likewise comes to the fore when we consider Solomon’s ethically dubious decision to keep unemployment figures down by using conscripted labour. In 1 Kings 9.15-25, we are told that he utilized slave labour from among the indigenous Canaanite people still living in the land to complete his many massive building projects. While the writers of this narrative may have expected readers to laud Solomon’s policy of exempting Israelites from such slave labour (1 Kings 9.20-22 – cold comfort for the indigenous slaves, surely), it is less clear what they intended their audience to make of the king’s decision to conscript ad hoc temporary forced labour from among the Israelites in order to complete the building of the new temple-palace complex in Jerusalem (1 Kings 5.13-17). Even more dubiously, this conscripted labour was pulled only from the northern territory of Israel; as with his system of taxation, Solomon felt inclined to let his fellow southerners have an easier time of it than their northern cousins. Again, this surely makes us wonders if everyone in Solomon’s kingdom really did ‘eat and drink and be happy’ under their own fig tree or vine.

International Policies

At first glance, Solomon appears to have posessed some fairly decent diplomatic skills that allowed him to ensure a time of peace and security for his kingdom. He participated in a number of diplomatic marriages to foreign women (1 Kings 3.1, 11.1), which enabled him to formalize peace treaties and diplomatic entente with potentially rival ancient Near Eastern polities. He also formed political alliances with other international powers through trade agreements and some impressive diplomatic hospitality; who, for example, can forget his famous schmooze-fest with the Queen of

Solomon meets the Queen of Sheba

Sheba (sadly for us, sans teapot and tape recorder), where Solomon’s status and wisdom so bedazzled the queen that she bestowed upon him a huge gift of gold, spices, and precious stones?

On closer inspection, however, it appears that Solomon’s diplomatic relationships with other ancient Near Eastern rulers were sometimes less impressive than first imagined. Take, for example, his affiliation with King Hiram of Tyre, where Solomon’s status vis-à-vis this king is more akin to that of servant or vassal subject than political counterpart. Hiram, we are told, supplied Solomon with timber for the construction of his temple in exchange for an annual payment from Solomon of extravagant quantities of wheat and hand-pressed oil for Tyre’s royal household (1 Kings 5.9-11). This treaty essentially put Solomon in the same submissive and subordinate position in relation to Hiram as his northern subjects were with him – providing food for the royal table.

Economic Policies

As we’ve already seen, Solomon took full advantage of trading opportunities with other foreign powers that at times appeared financially beneficial; in 1 Kings 9-10, there are various descriptions of his new commercial ventures, including maritime and land trade, which seem to have been fairly successful, given the dazzling display of luxury goods and wealth he is reported to have accrued through these new business enterprises. However, there are also hints in the text that strongly allude to some glaring inadequacies in Solomon’s economic expertise. For example, 1 Kings 9.11 mentions Solomon ceding 20 cities in Galilee to King Hiram as payment for timber and gold imported from Tyre. Such a payment method implies that Solomon’s state treasury had a serious fiscal deficit, despite all the alleged wealth accrued through international trade and tribute. Moreover, his policy of importing skilled foreign labour and luxury goods (ivory throne or peacock, anyone?) in exchange for exports of staple products such as wheat and oil would surely put any treasury minister into a tailspin.


So, what conclusions can we reach about Solomon’s political performance? If he were standing as a NZ parliamentary candidate for the Theocrat Party on the 26th November, would we be likely to put a cross in his box? Well, in his favour, he did manage to maintain the Damoclean unity of the very fragile kingdom that he inherited from his father David and that in itself was no mean feat. However, he achieved this at an indefensible cost to his subjects, particularly those Israelites in the north and the indigenous Canaanites who remained in the land. Unjust systems of taxation, conscripted and slave labour, and questionable economic policies all serve to make Solomon’s political portrait look distinctly unattractive. Furthermore, there is some irony in the fact that a number of these policies that he used to hold his kingdom together seem to have ignited a tinderbox of resentment in the northern kingdom of Israel, which ultimately led to its secession from its southern neighbour Judah immediately following Solomon’s death. While 1 Kings 11.1-4 blames Solomon’s apostasy against God for this breakup of the united kingdom, we could hypothesise that there may have been other, more secular political reasons for the split.

Groping the pope

I’ve just finished teaching CTHTHEO 254/354 Continuity and Change, a survey of the history of Christianity between c500 and c1600. It coincided happily with TV3’s screening of The Borgias.

In the first episode Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (played by Jeremy Irons) is elected Pope Alexander VI (r1492-1503) and before his election is announced, he’s required to sit on a portable throne while his nether regions are groped by a functionary. The assembled cardinals are then assured: habet duos testiculos et bene pendentes (he has two well hung testicles).

Pope Joan giving birth during a procession. Illustration from Johann Wolf, Lectionum memorabilium et reconditarum centenarii XVI (1600)

Some of the students in Continuity and Change already knew about the ritual and its connection with the story of Pope Joan. It’s alleged that this test of the pope’s masculinity was introduced after “Agnes” a German woman of English descent managed get herself elected as “Pope John” in the 9th century. Her subterfuge was only found out when she gave birth somewhere between the Colosseum and the basilica of San Clemente while on a procession to Saint John Lateran (there’s a little edicule at the corner of via dei Querceti and via Santi Quattro which is said to mark the spot — but probably doesn’t).

People I once thought quite reliable have assured me that the ritual shown on the Borgias (or something like it) was performed well into the 20th century. Ex-MP and raconteur Giles Brandreth likewise claims on BBC’s QI, that it “still happens”. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve even passed this anecdote on to a class or two.

Habet! ("He's got them") illustration from Johann Wolf, Lectionum memorabilium et reconditarum centenarii XVI (1600)

But in fact it doesn’t happen and and never did. It’s not clear whether the story of Pope Joan or that of the ceremonial grope came first. However, as Alain Boureau suggests in The Myth of Pope Joan, the two became connected in a well circulated rumour which coloured what eye-witnesses to mediaeval and early modern papal coronations believed they were watching. The result was the oft-repeated report of a, “a public rite always seen by others, never by the narrator” (Boureau, 27).

In fact there were at least two rituals involving seats or chairs around the Lateran basilica, both of them connected with the papal election and coronation. One of these seats was called the sedes stercoraria or stercorata (the “dung seat” or commode). Cardinals ritually seated and then raised the pope from the chair in the portico of the Lateran basilica. This was supposed to represent the words from Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:8 (“He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap – de stercore erigit pauperem — to make them sit with princes, and inherit a seat of honour). The pope then went into the Lateran basilica and was invested with symbols of office as he sat alternately on two seats made of porphyry. Both seats had holes in them; they were originally either posh toilets or birthing chairs. One is apparently preserved today in the Vatican Museums (though I don’t trust anything anyone tells me about this stuff any more). The 15th century historian of the papacy Bartolomeo Platina confused matters by claiming (understandably) that the “dung seat” was the one with the hole in it. Whatever the case, rumours of a gender test became attached to the ritual involving a seat with a hole, and thus handy access to the papal undercarriage.

The mediaeval sources relating to the legend of Pope Joan and the gender test were collected together in 1600 by the German legal scholar and antiquarian Johann Wolf in a book with the racy title, Sixteen centuries of memorable and abstruse reading matter. This became the chief source for later purveyors of the Pope Joan legend and of the papal gender test. Thanks to the wonders of Google Books, a digitized version can now be read online, and it’s the source of the illustrations above.

All of this leaves unanswered the question of where the original rumour came from. Alain Boureau’s Myth of Pope Joan deals in lavish and entertaining detail with the origins and long life of Pope Joan story. The female pope may have her origins in Roman carnival rituals designed to mark and mock the papal coronation. Interestingly, too, the oldest surviving version of the story is from the mid-13th century, about the time a cult developed in Italy around Saint Guglielma, who was venerated by her followers as the Holy Spirit incarnate. Her successor, a Sister Maifreda was described as a “popess” and Guglielma’s “vicar” on earth.

Regarding the test itself, I haven’t been able to find any source earlier than the connection made between Pope Joan and the ritual chairs. I wonder whether the rumour echoed some earlier procedure for ascertaining whether or not a bishop was a eunuch. The Canons of the Council of Nicea (and western canon law subsequently) forbade the ordination of those who’d deliberately castrated themselves. On the other hand they permitted the ordination of those who’d been involuntarily castrated — e.g. by barbarians or doctors — so this conjecture is a pretty flimsy one.

I’d welcome any further information.

Cultural representations of Delilah… a whore or more?

In recent years, there has been a growing interest within biblical studies in the interplay between the Bible and popular culture, particularly, the representations of biblical themes and characters within cultural texts such as film, literature, music, and art. One biblical character that has had her fair share of cultural portrayals is Delilah, the woman who, in Judges 16, played her part in the Philistine capture and imprisonment of Israelite judge and strongman Samson the Nazarite. Yet, as a number of scholars, including Dan Clanton, J. Cheryl Exum, and Bruce Herzberg, have noted, Delilah’s various cultural ‘afterlives’ often bear little resemblance to the rather ambiguous figure that we are presented with in the biblical narrative.

Hedy Lamarr

For example, in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic movie, Samson and Delilah [Paramount, 1949], Delilah, played by Hedy Lamarr, is a pathologically jealous and emotionally volatile femme fatale, while in David Maine’s 2006 novel, The Book of Samson, she takes on the persona of a sociopathic, conniving whore. Meanwhile, in Camille Saint-Saëns’ operatic retelling of the narrative, Samson et Dalila, Delilah
appears as a scornful and vindictive harpy, who seeks to wrest the priest-like Samson away from his loyalty to God.

Common to all these colourful and at times shocking cultural representations of Delilah is the fact that they play fast and loose with the biblical depiction of this character, whose persona, emotions, and motivations within the text itself actually remain tantalizingly obscure. Despite such textual ambiguity, Delilah, as character, is wont to inspire a strongly disapproving response from those she encounters within her ‘cultural afterlives’, often emerging from these encounters as a thoroughly ‘wicked woman’, whose treatment of Samson is steeped in a cruel, unfeeling treachery. Even her very name is enough to conjure in the minds of many readers a portrait that is tinted (or tainted) by feminine guile, betrayal, and dangerous sexuality.

According to Dan Clanton, such cultural renderings of biblical personas that twist and reshape the biblical text arise as the result of the authors’ desire to produce a characterization that is more ‘identifiable’ to the particular audience for whom the renderings are intended. That is, the authors of these cultural texts portray biblical characters in such a way that they become more familiar and make sense to their audience, displaying them in light of the recognizable, the comprehensible, the comfortably proverbial. These portrayals can therefore serve as a valuable mode of insight into the cultural contexts, worldviews, and ideological presumptions held by their authors and by the audiences who receive them. Delilah’s frequently uncomplimentary depiction as both a highly sexualized and lethally disloyal woman whose perfidy brings even the strongest warrior to his knees might therefore be regarded as wholly at home in those cultural contexts where physical potency, aggression, and sexual prowess are lauded as markers of idealized masculinity and where the potential for women to use their femininity and sexuality to threaten and undermine these markers is a source of male anxiety. Her very negative cultural representations may thus attempt to ‘explain’ her within the cultural milieus in which she is paraded, soothing the audiences’ disquiet regarding her ambivalent biblical characterization and reinforcing their presuppositions surrounding gender roles and relationships.

One particular way in which popular culture texts often ‘negativize’ Delilah’s characterization is by their suggestion that she did (initially, at least) reciprocate the love that Samson felt for her. While the biblical text itself leaves Samson’s love for Delilah in no doubt (Judges 16.4), it remains silent on the issue of whether Delilah had any reciprocal feelings of love towards Samson, either sexual or platonic. However, within a number of cultural representations of Delilah, her love for Samson is assumed, at the beginning of their relationship at any rate. Such love on her part does not evoke the audience’s sympathy, however; rather, she becomes even more disparaged given her capricious and shocking ‘betrayal’ of the man she was supposed to care so much about. It is bad enough, after all, to do the dirty on someone you don’t like; but, to turn over the man you love to his enemies in return for hard cash…well, that’s really scandalous!


This shocking mix of love and betrayal presented within cultural representations of Delilah’s response to Samson is illustrated nicely in the painting Samson and Delilah by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). As in other pictorial representations of Delilah, Rubens presents her bare breasted here, thus symbolizing both her overt sexuality and her maternity vis-à-vis a somewhat vulnerable-looking Samson. That Delilah is intended to be regarded as a faithless harlot within this painting is confirmed by the presence of the elderly crone peering over her shoulder; this character appeared frequently in 17th Century Dutch art as an embodiment of sexuality that has been sullied for financial gain. Meanwhile, the maternal element of Delilah’s character within this picture is likewise confirmed by the very gentle way she rests her hand upon Samson’s back and by the way in which she gazes down at him with a placid and rather sleepy affection. As nursing mother, Delilah holds great sway over the giant who is dozing in her lap – she can nourish and strengthen him and sustain his life, providing persuasive guidance to this creature who is ultimately dependent on her. On the other hand, the calculated withdrawal of her care will ultimately lead to his demise. In one sense, the viewer of this painting may therefore stand appalled at Delilah’s willingness to betray Samson here, given the clear sexual and maternal bonds depicted therein; nevertheless, both her dangerousness and his vulnerability, as depicted in this painting, may also confirm an already-present male cultural anxiety regarding the destructive power of those women who are able to defeat a strength even as great as Samson’s.