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From the Latin tondere (to shear), tonsure referred the rite of cutting the hair by which a layman was admitted to the clerical state. Tonsure was not an order but rather a ceremony of initiation required for the reception of orders. Originally it was not a distinct rite, but was part of the first of the minor orders to be received. In 1972, as part of the reorganization of the minor orders, Pope Paul VI abolished the requirement of tonsure.

History. There is no evidence of a ceremony of tonsure before the 8th century, and then only in Gallican documents. Essentially, the rite of tonsure consisted in the cutting of the hair of the candidate by the officiating prelate and the recitation by the candidate himself of the prescribed form. The ceremony of investing with the surplice, which appeared for the first time in the Pontifical of Durand at the end of the 13th century, is of only secondary importance, but it may never be omitted.

The wearing of the tonsure was an outgrowth of the Eastern custom of cutting the hair of slaves. It was adopted first by the monastic orders and later by the secular clergy for its symbolic value in manifesting the dedication of the cleric to the service of the Church. Until the 9th century there were three types of tonsure. The "crown" tonsure consisted in shaving the entire head except for a small ring of hair encircling the head and was commonly called the tonsure of St. Peter. The second type was prevalent among monks of both East and West and seems to have been more ancient. It consisted of cutting the hair close, and was called the tonsure of St. Paul. Among the Celts the so-called tonsure of St. John was in vogue, whereby only the front of the head, from ear to ear, was shaven; the hair on the remainder of the head was allowed to grow long. This third type occasioned harsh discussions and was called in Rome the "tonsure of Simon Magus." None of these forms, however, can actually lay claim to apostolic origin. Among Gallican clerics there developed rather early in the Middle Ages the custom of shaving only a small circle on the top of the head, and this practice came to be universally accepted in the high middle ages.

Bibliography: "De tonsura clericorum," Appendix ad omnia venerabilis Bedae opera, Patrologia Latina, ed. j. p. migne, 217 v. (Paris 187890) 95:227332. p. gobillot, "Sur la tonsure chrétienne et ses prétendues origines païennes," Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique 21 (1925) 399454.

[t. j. riley/eds.]

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One of the most mysterious and striking of medieval hairstyles was the tonsure (TON-shur). Beginning in the seventh and eighth centuries, members of Christian religious orders began to shave the top of their head in order to show their purity and chastity. The size and shape of the tonsure could vary. Some wore a semi-circle tonsure, others a full circle. Some shaved just above the ears and left a full head of hair below. In some Catholic orders monks shaved all but a narrow piece of hair, leaving a fringe that looked like a crown.

The origins of the tonsure are something of a mystery. Early Celts, a people based in northern Britain, were thought to have worn the tonsure prior to their contact with the Roman Empire (27 b.c.e.476 c.e.) and with no relation to religion. Members of both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church wore the tonsure, and both claim that its origins go back to the time of Jesus Christ (c. 6 b.c.e.c. 30 c.e.). The tonsure was still worn by members of some Catholic religious orders until its abolition in 1972.


Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

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ton·sure / ˈtänshər/ • n. a part of a monk's or priest's head left bare on top by shaving off the hair. ∎  [in sing.] an act of shaving the top of a monk's or priest's head as a preparation for entering a religious order. • v. [tr.] [often as adj.] (tonsured) shave the hair on the crown of.

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tonsure a part of a monk's or priest's head left bare on top by shaving off the hair. In the Eastern church the whole head is shaven (the tonsure of St Paul), in the Roman Catholic Church, the tonsure consists of either a circular patch on the crown, or the whole upper part of the head so as to leave only a fringe or circle of hair (the tonsure of St Peter), and in the ancient Celtic Church, the head was shaved in the front of a line drawn from ear to ear (the tonsure of St John).

Recorded from late Middle English, the word comes from Old French or from Latin tonsura, from tondere ‘shear, clip’.

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tonsure shaving of the head. XIV. — (O)F. tonsure or L. tonsūra, f. tons-, pp. stem of tondēre shear, clip; see -URE.

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Tonsure (shaving of the top of the head): see HAIR.