Barbers and Boyhood: Shaving and the end of Movember

‘In the meantime, Vortigern, as if desirous of adding to the evils he had already occasioned, married his own daughter, by whom he had a son. When this was made known to St. Germanus, he came, with all the British clergy, to reprove him: and whilst a numerous assembly of the ecclesiastics and laity were in consultation, the weak king ordered his daughter to appear before the, and in the presence of all to present her son to St. Germanus, and declare that he was the father of the child. The immodest woman obeyed; and St. Germanus, taking the child said, “I will be a father to you, my son; nor will I dismiss you till a razor, scissors, and comb, are given to me, and it is allowed you to give them to your carnal father.” The child obeyed St. Germanus, and going to his father Vortigern, said to him, “Thou are my father; shave and cut the hair of my head.” The king blushed, and was silent; and, without replying to the child, arose in great anger, and fled from the presence of St. Germanus, execrated and condemned by the whole synod.’[1]


For the end of a blog series on hair and hairstyles, and for the end of Movember, it is perhaps appropriate to end with a post on losing hair. For since having hair and wearing it in the right style was important the act of losing hair was correspondingly imbued with ceremonial weight. This ranged from priestly tonsures to the harsh penalties of the Germanic law codes for the illegitimate provision of a short-back-and-sides. At the pinnacle of this perhaps sits the image of Queen Clotild who, being presented with the choice of allowing her grandsons to be killed or to have their hair cut, opted for their death saying ‘”If they are not to ascend the throne, I would rather see them dead that with their hair cut”’.[2] In this post I will not focus on these unhappy visits to the barber but instead on the rites of passage that centred on altogether happier trims.

Childeric III is tonsured and removed from the throne. The Last of the Merovingians by Evariste-Vital Luminais (1822-1896)

Childeric III is tonsured and removed from the throne. The Last of the Merovingians by Evariste-Vital Luminais (1822-1896)

Ceremonies, known as barbatoria or capillatoria existed from the Roman into the Medieval world and offer us a fascinating insight into the importance of cutting hair. The capillatoria, or hair cutting, was performed on the hair of an infant while the barbatoria, or beard cutting, was the ceremonial first shaving on the beard of an adolescent.

The barbatoria and capillatoria of the Roman world, as Rob Heffron has already noted in these blogs, was often an occasion for dedication to the Gods. Little is known about the shaving itself but it seems to be an occasion of some pride. In the Satyricon of Petronius the narrator observes in his host Trimalchio’s lararium: ‘a golden casket by no means small, which held, so they told us, the first shavings of Trimalchio’s beard’.[3] Given that this ritual meant the beginning of puberty and thus adulthood it must be presumed that the size of Trimalchio’s casket was intended as a testament to his undoubted virility.

The ceremony seems to have been consistent regardless of status in the Roman world. In the Satyricon Trimalchio, inviting the slaves to join in the fun of an outrageous dinner party comments: ‘Today a slave of mine has celebrated his barbatoria. He’s an honest lad, so help me, and careful with the money’.[4]

The tradition of these rituals continued into the Late Antique and Medieval periods but shifted so that beard-trimmings were instead a statement of Christian piety. The Christian devotion of beard-cutting (ignoring the particular associations of the tonsure) was certainly in evidence by the early fifth century century as Paulinus of Nola, a man particularly interested in hair, would address to St. Felix: ‘Then also, I shaved off the offering of my first beard before your tomb, almost as if you were plucking it out’.[5]

Yitzhak Hen has demonstrated that, in the Frankish sources, the barbatoria was sufficiently adopted such that it became part of the liturgy.[6] The eighth-century Gelasian Sacramentary contains an ‘Oration for Him Who Cuts His Beard for the First Time’: ‘O God, through whose providence every adult creature rejoices in growth, be gracious to this servant of yours, flourishing in the youthful blush of age and shaving his bloom for the first time…’.[7]

In the Middle Ages the barbatoria thus took on a Christian tinge having been incorporated into Christian rituals. Janet Nelson has observed that despite this the barbatoria was, in the Middle Ages at least, more an expression of paternal than Christian authority.[8] In the Medieval period we find the clear indication that the act of performing the first hair or beard cutting for a boy transformed the wielder of the scissors into an honorary father as he transformed the boy into a man. Indeed even the act of touching another man’s hair, if done with a little pomp and circumstance, could create a lasting bond.

The seventh-century Chronicle of Fredegar tells us that the Visigothic king Alaric II touched Clovis’ hair and in so doing, without even needing to wield a razor, became his godfather.[9] Likewise, according to Paul the Deacon in the Historia Langobardorum, Gregory the Patrician of the Romans ‘promised Taso that he would cut his beard, as is the custom, and make him his son’.[10] This did not end well as Gregory used the custom as a pretext for slaughtering Taso and his brother although, to his credit, he did cut Taso’s beard once his head has been cut off. As with Clotild the sword and the scissors were rarely far apart.

The last barbatoria ceremony that we know of in the Frankish world was that of Pippin III in 738.[11] Pippin’s father Charles Martel sent him to the Lombard king Liutprand for his barbatoria with the intention that through this ceremony Liutprand should, as Adrevald of Fleury put it a century later, ‘be the first to cut his hair and thus become his spiritual father’.[12] Paul the Deacon likewise described that ‘Charles the ruler of the Franks dispatched his son Pippin to Liutprand that the latter should take his hair according to custom. And the king, cutting his hair, became a father to him and sent him back to his father enriched with many royal gifts.’[13]

The value of the ceremony as a diplomatic tool is clear. In the Mabinogion Culhwch clearly expresses its value when Arthur makes him some extravagant promises:

‘Quoth Arthur, “Though thou bide not here, chieftain, thou shalt obtain the boon thy head and thy tongue shall name, as far as wind dries, as far as rain wets, as far as sun runs, as far as sea stretches, as far as earth extends, save only my ship and my mantle, and Caledfwlch my sword, and Rhongomyniad my spear, and Wynebgwrthucher my shield, and Carnwennan my dagger, and Gwenhwyfar my wife.”’

Culhwch responds ‘”I would have my hair trimmed”’ And Arthur obliged ‘”That thou shalt have.” Arthur took a golden comb and shears with loops of silver, and he combed his head.’[14]

The value of this ceremony was not simply in the symbolical expression of a father-son relationship but could result in cold hard cash. Much as a bar mitzvah is seen as an occasion to receive savings bonds or the 16th birthday a time to throw an absurd party featuring unicorns the barbatoria was a moment for a gift.[15]

In the story of Culhwch and Olwen in the Mabinogion, introduced above, Culhwch does not randomly ride to ask Arthur if he’s handy with a pair of scissors. Rather the hero, having been quickly convinced of the necessity of his marriage to Olwen, is unsure how to achieve his goal and his father offers the helpful advice: ‘“It is easy for thee to achieve that son,” said his father to him. “Arthur is thy first cousin. Go then to Arthur to trim thy hair, and ask that of him as his gift to thee.”’[16]

Culhwch arrives at Arthur's court. Imagy by Alfred Fredericks

Culhwch arrives at Arthur’s court. Imagy by Alfred Fredericks

In the sixth century Laws of the Salian Franks this gift to boys for the barbatoria was somewhat like that for girls on their marriage:

‘If a father … gives a girl in marriage, whatever was given to her on that day, a like portion should be reserved for her siblings. Likewise when a son reaches cuts his beard whatever is given to him, a similar portion should be kept when the rest is divided.’[17]

Like marriage the barbatoria indicated a new stage in life as a boy transitioned into adulthood, gained some gifts, and perhaps formed new relationships.

In the Medieval period cutting hair or shaving a beard could be an act of aggression or devotion, an occasion for a fine or the moment for a significant gift. As Movember draws to a close for another year many men (and some saintly women) might be contemplating shaving and we all might consider a gift.


Hannah Probert is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield


[1] Nennius, Historia Brittonum III.39

[2] Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, tr. L. Thorpe (London, 1974), III.18.

[3] Petronius, Saturicon, tr. W. G. Firebaugh (New York, 1922), II.29.

[4] Ibid., II.73.

[5] Paulinus of Nola, Carmen 21, l. 377-378, translation in D. Trout, Paulinus of Nola: Life, Testament, and Letters (London, 1999), p. 284. See also Paulinus of Nola, Letter 23 for Paulinus’ extensive hair metaphors as the man himself said: “It is pleasant to give free rein to words… to weave an entire letter out of the subject of hair.” (tr. P. G. Walsh)

[6] Yitzhak Hen, Culture and Religion in Merovingian Gaul, A. D. 481-751 (Leiden, 1995), p. 142.

[7] Gelasian Sacramentary III.83, translation in Yitzhak Hen, ‘Converting the Barbarian West’, in D. Bornstein (ed.), Medieval Christianity (Augsbury, 2010), pp. 46-7.

[8] J. L. Nelson, ‘Parents, Children and the Church in the Earlier Middle Ages (Presidential Address)’, in D. Wood (ed.), The Church and Childhood (Oxford, 1994), p. 99.

[9] Fredegar II.58, MGH SS rer. Merov. 2 p. 82: ‘ut Alaricus barbam tangerit Chlodovei effectus ille paternus’.

[10] Paul the Deacon, Historia Langobardorum, tr. W. D. Foulke (Pensylvania, 1907), IV.38,

[11] The cutting of hair seems to have been phased out in favour of the presentation of arms as a rite of passage. Yitzhak Hen, ‘The Early Medieval Barbatoria, in M. Rubin (ed.), Medieval Christianity in Practice (New Jersey, 2009), pp. 23-4.

[12] Adrevald of Fleury, Miracula sancti Benedicti, I.14, MGH SS XV.1, tr. Yitzhak Hen, ‘The Early Medieval Barbatoria, in M. Rubin (ed.), Medieval Christianity in Practice (New Jersey, 2009), p. 23.

[13]Paul the Deacon, Historia Langobardorum, tr. W. D. Foulke (Pensylvania, 1907), VI.53,

[14] Mabinogion, Culhwch and Olwen, Discussion in T. M. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 350-1064 (Oxford, 2013), pp. 301-3.

[15] ,

[16] Mabinogion, Culhwch and Olwen,

[17] Pactus Legis Salicae, Cap. 67.


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