Why Did Monks Have This Haircut?
Tonsure, the only hairstyle allowed for medieval monks
Have you ever looked at a medieval painting of a Catholic monk and wondered why and who came up with the hilarious haircut they rocked? Many religions and their practitioners follow strict regulations of their individuality to get closer to their God or achieve enlightenment.
One of the more common regulations is haircut: in Buddhism, monks shave their heads clean to symbolize cutting ties with the secular world. In medieval times, the same applied to Catholic monks, except it was a unique cut where only the top of their scalps are shaved and the edges left untouched.
Why was it that Catholic monks only shaved the top of their heads?
The haircut that these monks had was called the Tonsure, or Tonsura in Latin. The word tonsure means “clipping”, as in clipping one’s hair off. The bizarre haircut started around 1073 when Pope Gregorio VII was enthroned. During this time, the culture in the church was very lenient on haircuts, dress code, and even dating amongst monks, priests, and nuns.
During Gregorio VII’s time was also when corruption was very rampant in the church as well. To tackle the old corruption problem within the church, the Pope decided to enforce abstinence on every priest, monk, and nun. Marrying or any kind of sexual relationship for monks, priests, and nuns was forbidden and they were forced to practice abstinence daily. One of the most significant changes that Gregorio VII brought was the standardized haircut for monks.
To symbolize the giving of their lives to God, monks were to mimic Saint Paul’s hair. Saint Paul was said to be a bald man; which meant that every monk was to shave their head clean. Saint Paul was revered by many Catholic Christians for writing thirteen books of the Bible and spreading Christianity across the Roman Empire in his lifetime. It seemed appropriate for Gregorio VII to think that mimicking Saint Paul’s hair would bring the church closer to God.
One of the problems with doing so was that the bible forbids cutting the hair at the edge of one’s head or beard. Leviticus 19:28 from the Old Testament goes:
“You must not cut off the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.”
This presented a dilemma for many monks who wanted to mimic Saint Paul but were afraid to go against the bible.
A solution to this dilemma was a haircut that satisfied both the bible and the pope. Monks shaved the top of their heads to show tribute to Saint Paul and kept the edges of their hair to also respect the bible. The new bizarre haircut was named the tonsure and was worn by almost every Catholic monks in Europe in medieval times.
How did it disappear?
The tonsure began to disappear from the church overtime as Catholicism went through changes over time. Challenges like the Crusade wars, Martin Luther’s Reformation, the thirty-year war, and the Industrial Revolution brought cultural changes within the church. Centuries after Gregorio VII’s introduction of the mandatory tonsure, many monks abandoned the haircut. In 1972, Pope VI banned the tonsure haircut for any monks within the Catholic Church, declaring the end of the 900-year-old haircut.