Scissors or Sword? The Symbolism of a Medieval Haircut

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  1. Apocales 4:35a.m. just one more episode..

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    Simon Coates explores the symbolic meanings attached to hair in the early medieval West, and how it served to denote differences in age, sex, ethnicity and status.


    Whilst residing in Paris in the sixth century, Queen Clotild (d. 554), the widow of the Merovingian ruler Clovis, became the unwilling subject of the inveterate plotting of her sons, Lothar and Childebert, who were jealous of her guardianship of her grandsons, the children of their brother, Chlodomer. Childebert spread the rumour that he and his brother were to plan the coronation of the young princes and sent a message to Clotild to that effect. When the boys were dispatched to their uncles they were seized and separated from their household. Lothar and Childebert then sent their henchman Arcadius to the Queen with a pair of scissors in one hand and a sword in the other. He offered the Queen an ultimatum. Would she wish to see her grandsons live with their hair cut short, or would she prefer to see them killed? Beside herself with grief, Clotild stated that if they were not to succeed to the throne she would rather see them dead than with their hair cut short. Rejecting the scissors, she opted for the sword.The sequel to this story, told by Gregory of Tours (d. 594), reveals an alternative to death or short-haired dishonour. A third grandson, Chlodovald, was well guarded and escaped his uncles. Seeking to escape the fate of his brothers, he cut his hair short with his own hands and became a priest. Voluntary tonsuring did not carry the ignominy of shearing under duress.To a twentieth-century audience this story seems strange. Why should a queen choose to have her grandsons killed rather than submitting them to a haircut? In the world of Merovingian Gaul, however, the story had a potent resonance and hair itself was of the utmost importance. The Merovingian kings, who had established themselves in the ruins of Roman Gaul, were known as the Reges criniti, the long-haired kings. For them, their long hair symbolised not only their aristocratic status but also their status as kings. It was invested with a sacral quality and believed to contain magical properties. The Byzantine poet and historian Agathias (c.532-c.582) had written: It is the rule for Frankish kings never to be shorn; indeed their hair is never cut from childhood on, and hangs down in abundance on their shoulders...their subjects have their hair cut all round and are not permitted to grow it further.

    The ultimatum offered by Lothar and Childebert thus hit straight to the heart of Merovingian high politics. What they were effectively saying was 'Do you wish to live non-regally or to die?'. Determined to compromise their nephews' rights to rule they utilised the scissors as a potent symbolic weapon. In sixth-century Gaul a haircut meant political coercion and social exclusion. If you removed the long hair of a king, you removed his claims to kingship itself. The obituary of the long-haired kings was written into the history of the family who supplanted them in 751, the Carolingians. According to Einhard, the biographer of the most famous Carolingian, Charlemagne, the later Merovingians were rois fainiants, decadent and do-nothing kings, whose power had been effectively supplanted by the Carolingian dynasty in the form of Mayors of the Palace. The last Merovingian, Childeric III, was king in name and hair only, reduced to travelling around his kingdom in a cart pulled by oxen. The scissors came out again. The Carolingians, with papal backing, cut off Childeric's hair and incarcerated him in a monastery. They also effectively desacralised the significance of hair. Charlemagne's head and his right to rule - was distinguished not by his hair but by his coronation and anointing at the hand of the pope. Holy oil, not holy hair, made a king. Furthermore, the Carolingians prided themselves on being descendants of a saint who had not been subjected to the ritual of forcible tonsuring. Gertrude, the daughter of a high-ranking Frankish nobleman, Pippin, was to be married off to the family's advantage. Pippin, however, died before he was able to enforce his will and carry out his plan, leaving Gertrude in the charge of her mother, Itta. Acquiring the support of a holy man, Amandus, mother and daughter decided to found a convent at Nivelles and, 'so that the violators of souls should not drag her daughter by force back into the illicit pleasures of the world', Gertrude's mother, 'seized iron shears and cut her daughter's hair in the shape of a crown'. Gertrude was the great aunt of the Carolingian Mayor of the Palace, Charles Martel, and became a patron saint of the Carolingian house. The long-haired kings were deposed by a family who cultivated the cult of a tonsured nun. Whereas forcible tonsuring was perceived as shaming, the cutting of hair in accordance with a vow could be regarded as meritorious.

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