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.
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.