Bigger is Better: Anglo-Saxons and their Beards

In a post-Freudian world, we tend to have certain conceptions of masculinity which are built around the penis and its success specifically in intercourse rather than at procreation. Hence the creation of popular comedy films such as the 40 Year Old Virgin and the frequent television advertisements for Viagra, which reinforce the notion that it is humiliating if a man hasn’t had sex or, to use a colloquialism, can’t ‘get it up’, just as it is equally funny for those men who have and can, as the comparison increases their own sense of masculinity. However, this connection between the male member and manhood was not always as apparent in past societies as we would tend to assume today.

To the Anglo-Saxons the beard may have been an equal, or greater, signifier of masculinity than the genitals. This is not to suggest that the male genitals were not important in Anglo-Saxon society; they were still the source of reproduction, and producing children in a kin-based society with a feuding heritage was fairly crucial. Jay Paul Gates has highlighted an important transition in the Anglo-Saxon injury tariffs, which listed various injuries which might occur and their assigned monetary compensation, between the seventh-century laws of Æthelberht and the ninth-century laws of Alfred the Great. Æthelberht’s laws (Æthelberht 64) state that ‘If anyone destroys the generative organ, he shall pay for it with three times the wergeld.’[1] However, the later laws of Alfred (Alfred 65) lessen the compensation for injury to the ‘generative organ’. If a man is so badly wounded in the testicles that he cannot beget children, 80 shillings shall be paid to him as compensation for it.’[2] Gates suggests that this decrease in the value of the male member marks a transition between a family based society, in which the inability to produce children was extremely detrimental, to a society in which a man’s loyalty was redirected toward a king, who was less concerned by a subject’s inability to reproduce than the man’s wife would have been.[3] The latter clause from the laws of Alfred uses the word herðan, meaning testicles, which are the source of reproduction, rather than ‘genitals’ or ‘phallus’. It seems the male genitals were highly valued because of reproduction, which was important to society as a whole, but held no particular applied symbolic notion of manliness. Shoulder wounds, losing an arm from the elbow down and losing a leg at the knee were also worth 80 shillings compensation in the injury tariffs of Alfred and severing the tendons in another man’s neck so badly that he loses control but it still alive was worth at least 100 shillings. Thus injury to the testicles was not necessarily valued any higher than other disabling injuries.

On the other hand, the beard was a very personal and visible symbol of a man’s honour and pride. Men were known to grab their beards as a testament of honesty. The thirteenth- to fifteenth-century Chronicle of Evesham Abbey records the story, during the reign of Æthelred, of peasant who grabbed his beard while swearing a false oath on relics in a land debate with the abbey. The dishonest gesture caused his beard to fall off.

‘The countryman was an elderly man, who had a very long beard. He stood up, laid his cloak down on the ground, and grasped his beard with his hand, saying, “I swear by this beard of mine, I will remove the saint, because it is my land, and I will possess it by right of inheritance.”… Scarcely had these words been uttered, when, see! he [sic] pulled out his beard so that it fell to the ground as if it belonged there, and had not grown naturally.’ [4]

My What Lovely Beards We Have

Fragment of the Old English Hexateuch, BL MS Cotton Claudius B IV, f. 59r

Like the elderly countryman, Anglo-Saxon Kings are often depicted in manuscripts with thick, long beards (often parted in twain). BL MS Cotton Claudius B IV f.59r shows a pharaoh hanging his baker, however he is dressed as an Anglo-Saxon, as are his court. His beard and hair are long and flowing (although interestingly he does not appear to have a moustache). In the Bayeux Tapestry, Edward the Confessor, whose judicial rulings and practices were held in high esteem by the incoming Normans, is embroidered as having a lush, parted beard. Late Anglo-Saxon kings were supposed to have been the best of men, so would have been depicted with the manliest of traits, the beard being one of these.

Look at that beard... no wonder he's the king

A fragment from the Bayeux Tapestry showing Edward the King.

While grabbing one’s own beard was a symbol of good character, grabbing another man’s beard or hair was offensive and shaming. Æthelberht’s 33rd law states ‘For seizing a man by the hair, 50 sceattas shall be paid as compensation.’[5] In the Anglo-Saxon poem Judith, an Old English version of the biblical story, Judith was held captive by the leader of the enemy pagans, Holofernes, but when he had drunk too much to have his way with her, she managed to decapitate him. Some modern scholars have commented on the sexual violence of Holofernes’ death, suggesting that his decapitation by a woman while in such an inebriated state was a metaphor for castration.[6] The decapitation in Judith may, indeed, be gendered, but perhaps with a less sexual focus than immediately comes to mind today. Judith drags Holofernes’ body to her by his hair, before she beheads him:

‘She then took the heathen man firmly by his hair, dragged him ignominiously towards her with her hands and carefully laid out the debauched and odious man so as she could most easily manage the wretch efficiently.’[7]

Judith does un-man Holofernes, but it is perhaps through abuse of the visible signs of prowess as a man and a warrior – his hair and sword – rather than a direct metaphor for castration.

It was also incredibly insulting to cut another man’s hair or beard. Alfred 35 combines cutting a man’s hair and laying bonds on an innocent man in the same law.

35. If anyone lays bonds on an unoffending commoner, he shall pay 10 shillings compensation.

  1. If anyone scourges him, he shall pay 20 shillings compensation.
  2. If he places him in the stocks, he shall pay 30 shillings compensation.
  3. If he cuts his hair to insult him, in such a way as to spoil his appearance, he shall pay 10 shillings compensation.
  4. If he cuts his hair after the fashion of a priest’s without binding him, he shall pay 30 shillings compensation.
  5. If he cuts off his beard, he shall pay 20 shillings compensation.
  6. If he lays bonds on him, and then cuts his hair after the fashion of a priest’s, he shall pay 60 shillings compensation.[8]

Ten shillings compensation is the highest compensation mandated for any part of the body which might grow back (i.e. finger nails). It is also higher than the compensation mandated for wounds an inch long on the skull, knocked out teeth, the loss of the little finger, and the loss of the middle, fourth and little toes, and the same as that for a broken rib. Cutting another man’s beard is worth 20 shillings, twice that of cutting the hair, and is worth more than the compensation for breaking the chin, jaw bone, or arm above the elbow, piercing the throat, shin below the knee, loin, or outer bone of the cranium, severing the first, second or middle finger, or second tow, and removing a rib or bone from the shoulder. Considering that a man’s beard has the ability to regrow, it is significant that the compensation is higher than certain injuries which are potentially life threatening, or at least debilitating. Perhaps the shame of having one’s beard cut was temporarily socially disabling.

In Anglo-Saxon England pride and, conversely, humiliation were integrated in the idea of public visibility.[9] The injury tariffs make this evident, as injuries which are more visible receive higher compensation. For instance Alfred 66.1 states that ‘For every wound in front of the hair, and below the sleeve and beneath the knee, the compensation shall be doubled’.[10] Therefore it is understandable that the symbol of a man’s pride and character would be apparent, rather than based in private knowledge. In Anglo-Saxon England, where the only evidence in judicial proceedings was the word of character witnesses and perjury usually resulted in the removal of the tongue, honesty and good character were superlatively manly features. Thus, the real distinction between conceptions of manliness in the Anglo-Saxon period and Western civilisation in the twenty-first century is the qualifier. Sexuality was an important part of (non-clerical) life, in order to continue the family name in social memory; however, regardless of any humiliation which may have been ascribed to infertility, it does not seem to have been a mark of character, and character made the Anglo-Saxon man. An image from the first folio of the late eighth-century Barberini Gospels (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Barb. Lat. 570) illustrates this idea rather nicely. The manuscript image depicts a man, who dwells or is trapped in hell. A snake bites his genitals, which suggests a sin of a sexual nature, but a second snake also bites his beard, indicating both his utter social shame and that he was dishonest to God by his sin. [11] In conclusion, the Anglo-Saxon valued, and most likely enjoyed, sex; but a real man still needed a thick head of hair and long, full beard.


[1] Attenborough, F.L., trans. 1922. The Laws of the Earliest English Kings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 13

[2] Ibid, p. 91

[3] Gates, J.P. 2013. The Fulmannod Society: Society Valuing of the (Male) Legal Subject. In Castration and Culture in the Middle Ages, L. Tracy, ed., 131-148.. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

[4] Sayers, J. and L. Watkiss, trans. 2003. Thomas of Malborough: History of the Abbey of Evesham. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 81.

[5] Attenborough, F.L., trans. 1922. The Laws of the Earliest English Kings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 8-9

[6] See for example Hermann, J.P. 1989. Attenborough, F.L., trans. 1922. The Laws of the Earliest English Kings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press; Litton, A.G. 1993. The Heroine as Hero: Gender Reversal in the Anglo-Saxon Judith. CEA Critic 56: 35-44; Lochrie, K. 1994. Gender, Sexual Violence, and the Politics of War in the Old English Judith. In Class and Gender in Early English Literate: Intersection, B.J. Harwood and G.R. Overing, eds., Bloomington: Indiana University Press; Olsen, A.H. 1982. Inversion and Political Purpose in the Old English Judith. English Studies 63: 289-93

[7] Bradley, S.A.J. 1982. Anglo-Saxon Poetry: An anthology of Old English poems in prose translation. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Everyman’s Library. p. 499

[8] Attenborough, F.L., trans. 1922. The Laws of the Earliest English Kings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 79

[9] Richards, M.P. 2003. The Body as Text in Early Anglo-Saxon Law. In Naked before God: uncovering the body in Anglo-Saxon England, B.C. Withers and J. Wilcox, eds, Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 97-115.

[10] Attenborough, F.L., trans. 1922. The Laws of the Earliest English Kings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 91

[11] Karkov, C.E. 2003. Exiles from the Kingdom: The Naked and the Damned in Anglo-Saxon Art. In Naked Before God, B.C. Withers and J. Wilcox, eds., Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 181-220. p. 188


Alyxandra Mattison is a PhD Student in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield

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