What is tonsure? Medieval Christianity

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A monk getting tonsured

A monk getting tonsured

Tonsure means to cut off someone’s hair. Monks and nuns in the Middle Ages generally showed that they were monks by cutting their hair short (when most people wore theirs long).  Christian monks got a special short haircut by shaving a bald spot in the middle of the back of their heads.

Because you could not be king (or emperor) if you were a monk, sometimes kings forced their rivals to get their hair tonsured. So that way nobody would try to make them king.

A monk drinking wine (from the British Library)

A tonsured monk sneaking a drink of wine (from the British Library)

Among the Franks, just having short hair by itself seems to have been enough to keep you from becoming king. And among the Visigoths, both men and women had their hair cut off as punishment for a wide variety of crimes. And again, tonsure would keep men from becoming kings. It’s possible that this idea that cutting your hair is bad comes from the Greeks and Romans. They cut the hair of people who were enslaved, to make them look different from free people.

Buddhist monks and nuns in India and China and Central Asia didn’t get tonsures, but they often shaved their heads completely. That’s pretty much the same idea, that they were setting themselves apart from regular everyday people.

Learn by doing: what do we learn about people today from their hairstyles?
More about Christian monks
More about Christian nuns
Or more about medieval clothing

Bibliography and further reading about medieval Christian monks:

  

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By | 2017-08-23T10:33:05+00:00 August 23rd, 2017|History|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is tonsure? Medieval Christianity. Quatr.us Study Guides, August 23, 2017. Web. December 12, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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