The beard occupies a significant symbolic terrain across time and cultures, and can be metonymical of the male person or of maleness, although this association is at times complicated by signs of cultural identity.
Thus, Hittite iconography, confirmed by Egyptian representations, indicates that while Hittite men, including warriors and priests, remain beardless with long hair (Haroutunian 2002, pp. 47-50), the mountain gods, weather gods, and vegetation gods represented at Yazilikaya rock sanctuary are bearded, signifying manliness, fertility, and power (Haroutunian 2002, p. 51).
The ancient cult of a bearded Ishtar may have combined the morning warrior star with the evening erotic star, but both the Cypriote Aphrodite (Krappe 1945) and the Venus Calva worshipped in Rome (Eitrem 1923) were coded as androgynous, with a beard and a comb. Both appear connected to marriage and fertility.
The beard could focalize anxious struggles between men over masculinity and virility, acting as an object of symbolic sexual transference. This is evident in the old Spanish Poema de Mio Cid, where the Cid grabs his beard and swears an oath by "this beard that no one has ever plucked" to avenge his daughter of the affront done to them (vss. 2829-2832, 3185-3186). Before appearing at court to confront the insulters, in a careful performance of power and manliness, he covers his hair with a coif so no one can pull it, and ties up his long beard with a cord, safeguarding it from attack, "to protect his entire person from direct personal physical insult" (vss. 3085-3100). He then insults an enemy by boasting of having pulled out his beard instead (vss. 3273-3290). This conflation of personal honor with manliness, virility, power, and the beard has been claimed in relation to other cultures throughout the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East, ranging from early modern Byzantium (Horowitz 1997) to modern Syria (McCartney 1938). Insistence on the beard as proof of virility and hostility towards beardless men are rife in the early medieval West. In the early twelfth century, shaving one's beard lumped a man with priests and women, and the new Christian militia, the Templars, was enthusiastically praised by Bernard of Clairvaux as a manly brotherhood, celibate and bearded, eschewing the effeminacy of worldly knights (McNamara 1994, pp. 9, 17). In the fabliau of the "Santier battu" (beaten path) a lady berates an unresponsive knight as beardless and effeminate: he bests her, claiming that she has no pubic hair "because grass does not grow on a beaten path" (Montaiglon 1973, R 3:247). Beyond insults, the text underscores that beard and hair are simulacra located in sex.
Yet, perhaps as a result of fashion, or because of ambiguity attached to facial hair, the Western European fifteenth century was largely beardless—a fact attested to in painting, as in the portrait of Pierre II, Duke of Bourbon by the Master of Moulins (Moulins cathedral) circa 1500, or of Etienne Chevalier by Jean Fouquet, circa 1450 (Berlin, Deutsches Museum)—apparently reflecting a conscious intent of setting oneself apart from those familiar "Others," Jews and Muslims, represented as very bearded. However, with the travels to the New World, and the encounter of Native American populations who seemed to carefully eschew any bodily hair, another European discourse of othering associated beardlessness, sodomitical tendencies, and an alleged inferiority that would justify enslavement and imprisonment of Native Americans. European men thus returned to wearing the beard in the sixteenth century (Horowitz 1997).
The beard marked enforceable gender-differentiation in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There was a post-Civil War campaign for male rights and the new masculinity, reflecting anxiety about the status of women. Thus, clergyman Horace Bushnell's 1869 tirade against women's suffrage extolled masculinity and the distinguishable emblems of a man's authority over women, specifically, "… the base in his voice and the shag on his face…." For him, women who sought the right to vote were such a "radical revolt against nature," that "the claim of a beard" could be no worse. Gender conservatives in the 1900s attacked pictorial portrayals of Jesus for showing him as too feminine, with "a womanly sweetness," as if the portrayal was that of "Christ with a woman's face, and an added beard," such a "scant beard" almost suggesting "a bearded lady" (Morgan 2005, pp. 213-215).
"Why do men have beards?" asked Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). The answer, that a beard is a mask made necessary to combat the wiles of women, may reflect "… a worldwide mythology of great complexity" (Taussig 1995, p. 108). The rituals of secrecy enacted and enforced by men have created a "theater of men making men," and justify another "theater of concealment and revelation playing with … the gender line fatefully implicating holiness and violence." This theater is real "as long as the men are looked at by women not as men acting but what it is they represent" (p. 113).
Thus, when women have beards, gender borders are dramatically raided, and the "natural" gender order is literally "defaced." The bearded androgyny of crucified female saints in the Middle Ages has been interpreted variously as linked to marriage rituals (Krappe 1945) or to fears of pollution and female danger (Sautman 1995, pp. 78-79). But late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century Western sexology theorized transgendered women as deviant and abnormal, enshrining the natural order as stable and unidirectional. Their views were unshaken by the existence of actual bearded women, and the bearded woman was relegated to and contained by the status of freak and anomaly. Thus "bearded women" in carnival and circus midways were and are a rich and contentious site of visual culture and gender construction. The fascination exercised by the bearded woman, including her eroticization, is paralleled by attempts to recuperate and soften anomaly by feminizing it (Adams 2001, pp. 117, 222). However, the bearded woman has remained a resilient icon of denaturized sex and gender. In the late twentieth and in the twenty-first century, bearded women have exercised strong agency to revisit and correct their marginal and disavowed status, offering radical readings of gender, especially in modern U.S. lesbian communities. The performance work of Jennifer Miller, active in the Coney Island counterculture "freak shows," is a strong expression of this perspective (Adams 2001, pp. 135-136, 219-228).
Adams, Rachel. 2001. Sideshow U.S.A. Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Eitrem, S. 1923. "Venus Calva and Venus Cloacina." The Classical Review 37(1/2): 14-16.
Haroutunian, Hripsime. 2002. "Bearded or Beardless? Some Speculations in the Function of the Beard among the Hittite." In Recent Developments in Hittite Archaeology and History, ed. K. Ashlian Yener, Harry A. Hoffner, and Simrit Dhesi. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.
Horowitz, Elliott. 1997. "The New World and the Changing Face of Europe." Sixteenth-Century Journal 28(4): 1181-1201.
Krappe, Alexander H. 1945. "The Bearded Venus." Folklore 56(4): 325-335.
McCartney, Eugene S. 1938. "On Grasping the Beard in Making Entreaties." The Classical Journal 33(4): 211-16.
McNamara, Jo Ann. 1994. "The Herrenfrage: The Restructuring of the Gender System, 1050–1150." In Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages, ed. Clare A. Lees. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Montaiglon, Anatole de, and Gaston Raynaud, eds. 1973. Recueil général et complet des fabliaux des XIIIe et XIVe siècles, 6 vols. Geneva: Slatkine Reprints. (Orig. pub. 1872–1890.)
Morgan, David. 2005. The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Pidal, Ramon Menéndez, ed. 1975. El Cid Campeador: Poem of the Cid, trans. W. S. Merwin. New York: New American Library. (Orig. pub. 1959.)
Sautman, Francesca Canadé. 1995. La Religion du quotidien. Rites et croyances populaires de la fin du Moyen Age. Firenze: Olschki.
Taussig, Michael. 1995. "Schopenhauer's Beard." In Constructing Masculinity, ed. Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis, and Simon Watson. New York: Routledge.
The Poem of the Cid: A New Critical Edition of the Spanish Text. 1975. Intro. and notes Ian Michael, trans. Rita Hamilton and Janet Perry. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
Francesca Canadé Sautman
The beard's absence or presence is fundamental to the male appearance, a prominent feature of the most visible part of the body—the face. Since deliberate action is required to remove this natural growth, a decision is necessary about whether to shave or not. Thus, all men must choose on this matter of taste, even if only to ignore its growth. This makes the beard most significant in the evolution of male visual identity. But its aesthetic impact should be viewed in conjunction with the other elements of the male image, such as dress, hairstyles, jewelry, footwear, and other personal accessories. The whole thus forms an aggregate of evolving designs, an interweaving of elements that constitutes the cultural history of male visual identity.
Beards have long been associated with maturity, masculinity, strength, wisdom, and virility. In ancient Egypt, the beard was so important as a royal symbol of authority that women ascending the throne were depicted wearing false beards made of spun gold. In the Middle Ages, to cut off a man's beard was often considered a worse offense than wounding him. But throughout their history, writers have vehemently defended or attacked beards as being either essential to—or destructive of—physical and mental health and even morality and decency.
Beards declined in fashion in Europe from the mid-seventeenth century. By 1789 smooth shaving was the norm among European elites, fashionable gentlemen, and commoners as well, especially in western and southern Europe. The daily trip to the barbershop—a center for conversation—was considered as much a social visit as a grooming obligation, though many aristocrats were shaved by servants. At the turn of the eighteenth century, to help westernize the appearance of his people, the Russian tsar Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725) even discouraged beards by ordering that they be taxed. But some men did wear beards, including Jews, southeastern European Muslims, a few artists (including English poet William Blake [1757–1827]), eccentrics, hermits, eastern and northern European peasants, and peasants elsewhere too, especially in remote mountainous or forested regions. Beards were then worn in armies (usually by regulation) almost exclusively by ax-wielding "pioneers," who preceded armies to clear away thick underbrush, an image evoking the woodsman.
During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, researchers who sought to understand the differences between the various human races asserted that the thickness of beard growth differentiated "superior" and "inferior" races. White Europeans' beards indicated their superiority, while less heavily bearded Africans, East Asians, and Native Americans were deemed inferior, although heavy-bearded Arabs and Turks were apparently ignored. Some medical writers linked beards to virility, asserting that male facial hair (and sweat) was semen that had been reabsorbed by the body.
Beards first revived in the late 1790s among nonconformist French artists called the "Barbus" (bearded ones), and some fancy Continental cavalry officers soon followed this trend with small, neatly trimmed beards. But beards only significantly increased in popularity around 1840, a reaction in part against the artificiality of the clean-shaven, self-indulgent, decadent, and arrogantly self-important image of the elitist "dandy" fashion look. The middle classes had gained substantially in economic power, due to the Industrial Revolution and expanded trade. Thus a more respectable outward appearance became socially required, as cities grew and business was thus increasingly conducted between strangers—an absolutely fundamental shift from the past. So the importance of a respectable public image became all-important. Because Christianity was then intrinsic to an appearance of respectability, beards gained in popularity in part because they were associated with the bearded Biblical patriarchs, and it was not uncommon for men by the 1840s and later to wear them without moustaches.
But in the long-term ebb and flow of fashion, the younger generation of this early Victorian era increasingly felt that a new look had become appropriate and desirable, symbolically rejecting the older generation's visual identity, with this emblem of their own. As usual, this was at first condemned, often for being "revolutionary"—an association that continues to the present—by those who felt disturbed by this deviation from the status quo. The "imperial," a small, stylish, pointed goatee-like beard, was popularized by French Emperor Napoleon III (r. 1851–1870), but more men wore the plainer, full beard, and its greatest popularity occurred from the 1860s to the early 1890s.
Afterward, the beard declined and became increasingly associated with older men, especially those viewed as being out of step with the changing times. Razors for self-shaving had appeared by the mid-nineteenth century, and more men shaved themselves, but as with other aspects of fashion, "the look" was what really mattered, and the usual arguments about convenience, health, and so on, were primarily rationalizations to legitimize taste. By 1914 the beard was again largely unfashionable.
Cooper, Wendy. Hair: Sex, Society, Symbolism. New York, 1971.
Corson, Richard. Fashions in Hair: The First Five Thousand Years. New York, 1965.
Leach, E. R. "Magical Hair." The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 88 (July–December 1958): 147–164.
Peterkin, Allan. One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair. Vancouver, 2001. Popular illustrated history.
Reynolds, Reginald. Beards: Their Social Standing, Religious Involvements, Decorative Possibilities, and Value in Offence and Defense Through the Ages. Garden City, N.Y., 1949.
Schiebinger, Londa. Nature's Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science. Boston, 1993. Good brief overview of cultural development of the beard.
Scott Hughes Myerly
When it came to the wearing of facial hair, Roman men went through several shifts in style over the long history of their civilization. From the founding of Rome in 753 b.c.e. until about 300 b.c.e., all men wore long beards and long hair. In a way, they had no choice, for razors hadn't been invented. Then, in about 300 b.c.e., a barber from the island of Sicily introduced the razor and everything changed. For the next several hundred years Roman men followed a simple rule about facial hair: slaves wore beards and free men and citizens did not. It took a vain emperor to change men's beard styles again.
The emperor Hadrian (76–138 c.e.) came to power as a result of his skills as a military general, and he ruled the Roman Empire from 117 to 138 c.e. In order to hide his facial scars, Hadrian wore a beard and curly hair. (In fact, it is likely that he curled both his hair and his beard.) In ancient Rome the emperor held all the power, and men across the empire followed his lead. Thus, beards once again came in style. Slaves, on the other hand, began to shave. When the emperor Constantine (c. 285–337 c.e.) came into power in 306 c.e., he brought a clean-shaven face back into fashion again.
When beards were in fashion, men took great care of them. They visited barbers to have their beards clipped, plucked, and curled. Wealthy men kept slaves whose sole duty was to care for their master's hair.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Symons, David J. Costume of Ancient Rome. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
beard / bi(ə)rd/ • n. 1. a growth of hair on the chin and lower cheeks of a man's face: he had a black beard. ∎ a tuft of hair on the chin of certain mammals, for example a lion or goat. ∎ an animal's growth or marking that is likened to a beard, e.g., the gills of an oyster, or the beak bristles of certain birds. ∎ a tuft of hairs or bristles on certain plants, esp. the awn of a grass. 2. inf. a person who carries out a transaction, typically a bet, for someone else in order to conceal the other's identity. ∎ a person who pretends to have a romantic or sexual relationship with someone else in order to conceal the other's true sexual orientation. • v. [tr.] boldly confront or challenge (someone formidable). PHRASES: beard the lion in his den (or lair) confront or challenge someone on their own ground.DERIVATIVES: beard·ed adj. [in comb.] a gray-bearded man. beard·less adj.
See also 149. FACIAL FEATURES ; 193. HAIR .
- Medicine. 1. an excessive growth of beard.
- 2. the development of a beard by a woman.
- a treatise on beards. —pogonologist, n.
- an admirer of beards; a student of beards.
- an abnormal fear or dislike of beards.
- the cutting of beards.
- the cultivation of beards, beard-growing.