I got a haircut this past week. I also shaved off my beard and mustache. Spring cleaning. I also stumbled on the image above of a medieval monk. I wondered what was going on with that haircut.
I know that many religions require practitioners to follow strict regulations. Some of those are designed to lessen individuality. The individual is not good for the path to God or enlightenment.
I studied for a time at a Buddhist monastery. Those monks shave their heads clean. It symbolizes that they are cutting ties with the secular world.
In medieval times, Catholic monks also needed a special haircut. It was not a full shaved head. It was only the top of their scalps that were shaved and the edges were left untouched. This unique haircut is called the Tonsure, or Tonsura in Latin. The word tonsure means “clipping”, as in clipping your hair off.
It goes back to around 1073 when Pope Gregorio VII was enthroned. Things were pretty laid back about haircuts and dress. There was even dating amongst monks, priests, and nuns. Gregorio decided to clamp down on everything from corruption and abstinence – to standardizing haircuts.
He thought that imitating Saint Paul, who was depicted as balding with a high forehead (which apparently was supposed to signify great wisdom and learning), would show that like Paul they were giving their lives to God. Saint Paul wrote thirteen books of the Bible and spread Christianity across the Roman Empire in his lifetime. He seems like an exemplary model.
But there was a problem with shaving the monks’ heads. The Bible forbids cutting the hair at the edge of one’s head or beard. See Leviticus 19:28. According to that, I violated the rules this past week because it says “You must not cut off the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” I cut off all of my beard.
The Pope and the monks wanted to imitate Saint Paul but were afraid to go against the Bible. So, the monks shaved the top of their heads to show tribute to Saint Paul but kept the edges of their hair to respect the Bible. And so, the tonsure became the look of almost every Catholic monk in Europe in medieval times.
It started to disappear as the Church went through changes like the Crusade wars and Luther’s Reformation. But it was not until 1972 that Pope Paul VI banned the tonsure haircut for any Catholic monks and the haircut from 900 years before disappeared.