Scissors or Sword? The Symbolism of a Medieval Haircut
Simon Coates explores the symbolic meanings attached to hair in the early medieval West, and how it served to denote differences in age, sex, ethnicity and status.
To a twentieth-century audience this story seems strange. Why should a queen choose to have her grandsons killed rather than submitting them to a haircut? In the world of Merovingian Gaul, however, the story had a potent resonance and hair itself was of the utmost importance. The Merovingian kings, who had established themselves in the ruins of Roman Gaul, were known as the Reges criniti, the long-haired kings. For them, their long hair symbolised not only their aristocratic status but also their status as kings. It was invested with a sacral quality and believed to contain magical properties. The Byzantine poet and historian Agathias (c.532-c.582) had written: It is the rule for Frankish kings never to be shorn; indeed their hair is never cut from childhood on, and hangs down in abundance on their shoulders…their subjects have their hair cut all round and are not permitted to grow it further.
Hair was able to carry such symbolic meanings because it is a body part which is easily subject to change: it can be dyed, shaped, worn loose, bound or be removed. Moreover, since it surrounds the most expressive part of the body, the face, any changes made to it are inherently visible and noticeable. Once rules were prescribed about its meaning, function and treatment, it acquired a particular resonance depending on the way in which it was understood in local communities. These meanings were, of course, highly contextualised. A monk awaiting tonsure would recognise that the presence of a pair of scissors marked the point where he fulfilled his vow to leave behind the secular world and become a servant of God. Unless the monk was unsure of his vocation, this woud be unlikely to induce panic. The situation would, however, appear very different to a Merovingian king.
The relationship between long hair and high birth was an ancient one and was present in societies other than Merovingian Gaul. In Ireland, for example, cropped hair denoted a servant or slave. Tacitus had noted the importance of long hair in early Germanic society, commenting that it was the sign of free men. Hair colour, too, bore social significance. In the Irish epic, Tain bo Cuailnge, King Conchobar has golden hair which is associated with royalty, while brown and black hair are also attributed to chieftains and heroes. The association of long hair with a warrior class possessed strong Biblical validation in the story of Samson in Judges 16:17. Long hair denoted strength and virility. In women, moreover, it represented fertility. Since long hair was part of the social badge of a warrior aristocracy, it was protected by law. In the law codes of the Alamans, Frisians, Lombards and Anglo-Saxons, the cutting of hair brought forth penalties. According to the Laws of King Alfred, anyone who cut off a man’s beard had to pay a compensation of 20 shillings, and in Frederick Barbarossa’s Landfried of 1152, it was forbidden either to seize a man by the beard or to tear any hairs from his head or beard.