The Real Reason Monks Had That Haircut - Grunge (2024)


ByDB Kelly/

There are few hairstyles as distinctive as the Christian monks' tonsure. When you see someone sporting the shaved head with the ring of hair, there's absolutely no doubt about what vocation the wearer has chosen. But why on earth did such a strange haircut evolve in the first place?

The term "tonsure" is actually a reference to any religious or ceremonial clipping of hair. It's usually done to mark a stage in some kind of religious journey, and it's practiced in religions including Christianity, Eastern Orthodoxy, Buddhism, Hinduism, and it was even done in ancient Greece and Rome (via Britannica). And it's in Rome that the story of the Christian tonsure starts.

According to the Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History, it's unclear just when Catholic monks started adopting the trend of shaving the tops of their heads while leaving that little ring of hair. Historians do think it started around the same time men started organizing into devout communities of monks, which places the time frame around the second or third century A.D. There are a few reasons why early monks might have chosen to go for this sort of look, and one is that it had long been traditional to completely shave the head of slaves to denote their low status. Early monks styled themselves as "slaves of Christ," and the tonsure might have been a way to demonstrate their obedience to the divine.

There's another theory, too, and this one comes from Daniel McCarthy, a scholar in Dublin who has done a ton of research on the use of the tonsure. He says the distinctive hairstyle was a tribute to the crown of thorns placed on Christ's head during the crucifixion.

When men decided to enter the community, the first haircut they got wasn't the tonsure — it was just an incredibly short haircut done with scissors. The tonsure was reserved for marking the occasion of the novice taking his vows to become an actual monk, and monasteries had barbers who were responsible for maintaining the look. Straightforward enough, but if there's anything that's guaranteed about history and religion, it's that nothing is ever straightforward.

The tonsure that gets featured in all kinds of movies is actually one of three different styles. The one that everyone knows is called the Roman or St. Peter's tonsure, while some monks — particularly devotees of St. Paul — chose to shave their entire heads in what's called an eastern style.

Then, there was a Celtic or Simon Magus tonsure. Like the name suggests, it was common in the British Isles and Ireland, but its exact characteristics are debated. Some say Celtic monks would shave the fronts of their heads from ear-to-ear while leaving the rest long, while McCarthy's research suggests heads were shaved to include a fringe across the front. No one is completely sure because the Celtic tonsure was outlawed in 664.

According to Kaliaperumal Karthikeyan of the Sri Manakula Vinayagar Medical College, Celts had been sporting the tonsure well before they met anyone who ever called themselves Roman. There was no religious belief or basis for the head-shaving (that historians have been able to determine), and when Christianity came to the Celts, they decided to keep wearing their tonsures in the same way they always had.

McCarthy says that was a huge problem for a few different reasons, and the church's outrage over this different hairstyle was so great there was call for clerics who wore it to be excommunicated.

English Heritage says the different monks' tonsures were a visible sign of something the Christian church absolutely didn't want: different views not just on hair, but on other traditions, too. The bigger point of contention was how the date for Easter was figured out each year. Both traditions used the lunar cycle to find the date, but the methods were so different that the Roman and Celtic dates could be as far as a month apart. And it wasn't just a few people following one tradition or the other — even royal households were divided down the middle.

This was a huge deal, and as Bede put it in his eighth-century writings, "This dispute rightly began to trouble the minds and consciences of many people, who feared that they might have received the name of Christian in vain."

They couldn't be having that, so in 664 the two factions met at Whitby. They presented their cases to the king, who chose to follow the Roman faction and outlaw the Celtic tonsure in favor of the St. Peter's tonsure. Why? Because of the answer to one simple question: "Who is the gatekeeper of heaven?"

For the next 1,300 years, monks following accepted church tradition shaved their heads in the style of St. Peter. It wasn't until 1972 that Pope Paul VI ordered the hairstyle to relax a little (via theNew York Times), declaring that those studying to be priests no longer had to shave their heads (but could if they wanted to). The reason? It was described as an "empty ceremony," and some church leaders even suggested the hairstyle might have been making some rethink entering the priesthood.


The Real Reason Monks Had That Haircut - Grunge (2024)


Why did monks cut their hair like that? ›

Tonsure can also refer to the secular practice of shaving all or part of the scalp to show support or sympathy, or to designate mourning. Current usage more generally refers to cutting or shaving for monks, devotees, or mystics of any religion as a symbol of their renunciation of worldly fashion and esteem.

What is the monk haircut called? ›

If you are a monk that shaves all or some of your hair for religious reasons, that bald spot is called a tonsure. The act of creating that spot is also known as tonsure.

Why did Japanese men shave the tops of their heads? ›

However, warriors going to battle in the medieval age untied their topknots so that they were able to put on “kabuto” (helmets) more smoothly. In addition, they removed hair from the frontal part of the tops of their heads to keep their heads cool inside the helmet.

What does shaving your head symbolize? ›

While a shaved head on a man is often seen as a sign of authority and virility, a shaved head on a woman typically connotes androgyny, especially when combined with traditionally feminine signifiers. Drag queens have sometimes adopted shaved heads to express a genderqueer image.

Do female monks have hair? ›

On the other hand Buddhist monastics, who renounce their sexuality, wear the same robes and shaved heads, regardless of their sex.

What is a female monk called? ›

A female Buddhist monk, more commonly known as a Buddhist nun, is called a bhikkhuni. Bhikkhu and bhikkhuni live in monk communities called a sangha, which are traditionally comprised exclusively of either bhikkhu or bhikkhuni.

Do monks get paid? ›

An American monk looks at traditional Buddhist economy. According to the Buddhist monastic code, monks and nuns are not allowed to accept money or even to engage in barter or trade with laypeople. They live entirely in an economy of gifts.

Why do monks stay silent? ›

Part of the emphasis is on achieving spiritual ascent, but monastic silence also functions to avoid sin. Although speech is morally neutral per se, the Epistle of James (3:1–12) and writers of the monastic tradition see silence as the only effective means of neutralizing a tendency towards sins of the tongue.

Why do Japanese don't have beard? ›

Because in some societies, having facial hair is associated with unkemptness. Or even unprofessionalism. In some countries, you might even see job listings with “no beard” requirements. As you may have guessed, Japanese society tends to prefer a clean-shaven look.

Why do Chinese men shave half their head? ›

They then forced Han Chinese to adopt the queue as a sign of submission. A year later, after the Qing armies reached South China, on 21 July, 1645, the regent Dorgon issued an edict ordering all Han men to shave their foreheads and braid the rest of their hair into a queue identical to those worn by the Manchus.

Why do Japanese have beautiful hair? ›

Hair Care with seaweed, Camellia oil, and tsuge comb

Japanese are famous for the beauty of their hair, which typically retains its health and sheen well into old age. They have used Camellia oil, Tsuge wood combs, and seaweed to cleanse and beautify hair for a very long time.

Why was tonsure abandoned? ›

The reasoning was not given why the practice was abandoned, but it was speculated that it kept young men from exploring the priesthood. The Oriental style of tonsure was traditionally in Eastern Orthodoxy, the entire head was shaven and clean, but now it is considered adequate to cut the hair closely.

How often do monks shave their heads? ›

The vinaya explains that the monk must shave at least every two months or when the hair grows two finger-breadths (whichever expires first). Normally, monks shave every Uposatha Day, or the new and full moon days. Also, some communities also shave every week on Sundays or the small Uposatha days.

Why are monks silent? ›

Part of the emphasis is on achieving spiritual ascent, but monastic silence also functions to avoid sin. Although speech is morally neutral per se, the Epistle of James (3:1–12) and writers of the monastic tradition see silence as the only effective means of neutralizing a tendency towards sins of the tongue.

Does tonsuring help in hair growth? ›

No significant differences in total weight of hair produced in a measured area, or in width or rate of growth of individual hairs, could be ascribed to shaving. The probable reasons for the misconception could be the shortness of the shaft of a shaved hair allows changes in its length to be noticed more easily.


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