Why monks had that haircut

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There was a lot of thought behind the style — and controversy.

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What was the deal with that monk haircut? In this episode of Vox Almanac, Phil Edwards explores the history and controversy behind the style.

Known as “tonsure,” the typical monk hairstyle has many variations throughout religions. The particular hairstyle worn by Christian monks has its own variations and controversies as well. Three different types of tonsure were popular: a coronal tonsure, a Pauline tonsure, and a third Celtic tonsure that came to represent the differences between the Roman Catholic and Celtic Catholic church.

The winding path of this tonsure is a new way to look at the division within the religion and the unpredictable ways something like hair can represent faith.

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Look at this painting. It's Saint Francis and Pope Honorius III. You can probably find the monks. It's the hair. This is not just a haircut. The more you look, the more this haircut shows
deep religious divides. One style was even lost to time, after being
banned by the Roman Catholic Church. The scalp is a statement of faith, but it's
also a battleground. Hair's religious rite extends far beyond
Christianity. Some Buddhist monks shave their heads and
some Orthodox Jews don't shave the corners of their heads. The Catholic monks were known for centuries
for their particularly distinctive hairstyle. This haircut, with the center shave, is called
a tonsure. It started in the 4th or 5th century. And the most recognizable is the Coronal tonsure, possibly modeled on Jesus' crown of thorns on the cross. It's actually one of three types. The Coronal is the Roman, or Petrine tonsure,
after Saint Peter. There's also the Pauline tonsure, named after
Saint Paul, and used more commonly in Eastern Orthodoxy. It is a fully shaved head. But in the Dark Ages, there was a third tonsure
too. And that's the shape that largely disappeared
from the Church. That hairstyle was a visible symbol of diverging
faiths and that's the reason that it was banned. When Pope Gregory sent missionaries from Rome
to the British Isles in the late 6th century, he found differences between the Roman Catholic
Church and Celtic Church. Ones that revealed serious disagreements about religious practice. Celtic Catholicism was out of sync with the
Roman Catholic Church. Roman Catholics would later use the differences
between them to portray Celtic Catholicism as Pagan or even as an offshoot celebrating
the power-hungry magician, Simon Magus. There were concrete disputes. Most importantly, they disagreed on when to
celebrate Easter and another significant disagreement was the shape of the tonsure. McCarthy wanted to learn the shape of this
tonsure, because it represented the split in the Roman Celtic Churches. He thought the old guesses about its design
were wrong. You can't just scroll through photos of 7th
century monk haircuts. Figuring out the shape of the tonsure these
monks use, is a detective story. It required McCarthy to parse texts like the
Book of Kells and records of old letters. From that, he could figure out
the shape. These old texts and illustrations only gave McCarthy a view of the front and back of the head. To picture an aerial view, he had to build
one. These differences over tonsure were outward
signs of a split in the Church. When the Roman Catholic Church took Ireland,
they slowly changed its tonsure too. In 664, the king of Northumbria agreed on
the Roman Catholic date for Easter and the Roman Catholic tonsure. The change wasn't instant, but over time the
triangular tonsure disappeared. Today some monks practice tonsure while others
don't. It varies across religion and monastery. In the Roman Catholic Church, clerical tonsure
ended in 1972. When it was common, this unusual haircut was
a powerful symbol of monastic separation and the Church's power. But it's actually
not so strange.

34 thoughts on “Why monks had that haircut

  1. What about the haircuts of English friars? Like that of the famous Friar Tuck. They were like tonsures but the middle was shaved above the brow creating a horseshoe or crescent shape of hair

  2. When I was a Marine we got a special type of haircut on occasion called a ," high and tight" and it was a show of motivation and love for the Corps.Other Marines would make fun and mock the haircut because of the symbolism.The Marine Corps is its own religion.OORAH!!

  3. If I were to found a religion, I would prove that god wants all his followers to paint their left ear green. Everybody would have to respect that and everybody who painted their right ear, or their left ear in a different color would have to be killed. How wonderful religious traditions are!

  4. I always thought tonsure had something to do with a halo and being holy. I mean that's why kings and queens wore crowns, to mimic the appearance of the halos on angels, in order to symbolize that they were not only God-chosen rulers but also demi-god-like themselves. Kings and queens believed that they directly connected to God above all others. Back to the monks, I also theorized it has something to do with the shaved head being a weird spiritual thing where god can look down from the heavens and see his followers from the tops of their heads. That mixed with just being able to stand out (obviously well achieved) from the ordinary people. I'm sure if I asked a monk from those times why… he wouldn't understand me because English has changed so much.

  5. At first i thought they modelled it after the shape of an Angel's halo but it turns out following the crown of thorns. Though its funny they cant figure out older men have genetic alopecia and why people get a tiny mohawk. Its just simple and practical.

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