Putting a name to a (hairy) face: Moustaches for Algernon

From the hairy-faced poilus of French infantry soldiers of World War I, to the shaggy-bearded hipsters of modern day Shoreditch, (via the ludicrously-mustachioed Australian cricket team of the 1970s and 80s) hair, and more specifically facial hair, has always had an incredible ability to define, shape or transform the identity of the group or the individual hiding behind it.

A Poilu displaying some excellent facial hair

A Poilu displaying some excellent facial hair

For the French poilus of the trenches, their nickname (meaning ‘hairy ones’) was a source of pride and belonging. During a visit to a smart restaurant in Bar-le-Duc, Raymond Jubert described the slightly strange sense of pride the poilus drew from their unkempt, unshaven appearance: ‘We were Red Indians’, he remarked when he realised the contrast between his appearance and that of his fellow customers. At first his reaction was one of embarrassment, bordering on shame – as if the traits of battle were something to apologise for. Yet swiftly the feeling of pride resurfaced when he noticed the admiring, almost envying looks of the other diners. The poilus revelled in their name and made a cult of beards and unbarbered moustaches which set them apart from not just non-combattants, but other soldiers as well. To them their wild appearance was a symbol of their bravery. Marc Bloch described an occasion when his colonel told his men that ‘they could follow him with confidence’, adding that he was a true poilu. Bloch response was to point out that his full and unkempt beard justified this epithet.[1]

In a similar way, during the 1970s and 80s a (usually oversized) moustache was almost a prerequisite for being a member of the Australian cricket team. This unsightly phenomenon could partly be explained by the fashions of the time when the likes of Dennis Lillee and the Chappell brothers started sporting their lip-warmers in the 70s, but by the early 90s, when moustaches were about as fashionable as nationalised industry, the monstrous appendages adorning the faces of David Boon and Merv Hughes were far more statements of identity than statements of fashion. (Merv’s moustache is reportedly insured for £200,000 these days). The fact that Mitchell Johnson’s spectacular return to form this time last year coincided so dramatically with his growing of a Merv Hughes style handlebar for Movember came as no surprise to Australians. It was as if Mitchell was channelling the exploits of his moustachioed predecessors through this modern-day homage. Mitchell has pointed out that a moustache gives you ‘that little bit of extra agro when you have the stare going on.’

The Mustachioed Merv Hughes

The Mustachioed Merv Hughes

More recently, a shaggy beard has become one of the semi-compulsory accessories of the post-millennial hipster, along with a checked shirt and a six-pack of Pabst. This was a look that, not so long ago, was largely confined to the trendier parts of Brooklyn and Shoredtich, but one that has become so ubiquitous in the past couple of years that the Guardian reliably informed earlier in the year that we had reached ‘peak beard’ (apparently the very moment Ashley Cole adopts a fashion it instantly becomes unfashionable).[2]

In this sense, the people of the middle ages were not that different. They too used their hair to help construct identities. Sometimes this was to mark them out as belonging to a specific ethnic or cultural group. Yet often it would just have been an individual statement marking individuals out from other people in their locality. What is clear is that, the way men, and women, wore their hair and fashioned their facial hair played an important role in the creation of their identity. One way we can see this is through their bynames. Medieval bynames, unlike modern day hereditary surnames, were not passed down through a family, but were created specifically for the person it referred to (although many original bynames did develop into hereditary surnames during the later middle ages).

As such, while given names are created by a family community, bynames were created by the community for the individual. In this way, bynames often tended to pick out the most important or striking element of a person’s appearance, character or heritage in the eyes of the community. So what if your parents called you William after the new king? If everyone in the village wants to call him William Toad-bollock, then there’s not much you can do to stop them. And that unfortunate image becomes, whether you like it or not, part of your identity.[3]

Bynames often reflected one of the following aspects of an individual’s life: who their parents were; the place they lived or came from; the occupation or role they played within the community. But a significant number of bynames were what we would call ‘nicknames’, which often referring to the bearer’s physical or personal characteristics – although these were not necessarily mutually exclusive. Some nicknames relating to physical characteristics did refer to lower parts of the body, for example, Foleiaumbe (‘crazy leg’), Clenehand (‘clean hand’) and Qwytpuntel (‘white penis’). But by far the most common type of physical nickname were those focussing on the head and face, and predominantly to hair and facial hair. These visible and highly malleable features of physical appearance were clearly of great importance to medieval people.[4]

Some early hair-related nicknames appear well before bynames became a common part of medieval life. Harald, the first King of Norway, crowned in 872, bore the epithet Fairhair, in contrast to his father, Halfdan the Black. Similarly, Sweyn, father of King Cnut and briefly King of England, was known as Sweyn Forkbeard. Indeed, it appears that the nature of a man’s hair or beard was a common source of bynames for medieval Scandinavians, at least if the Icelandic Sagas are a reliable guide. Hair colour bynames are very common in the Sagas. But more evocative are those bynames relating to facial hair, like: Breiðskeggr (Broad Beard), Flǫskuskegg (Flask Beard), Lafskegg (Dangle Beard), Refskegg (Fox Beard) and Þunnskeggr (Thin Beard). It’s almost as if these particular beards carried in them some essence of the individual behind them. Indeed, the presence of the byname Skegglauss (Beardless) suggests that, in fact, most men had beards but that only certain beards were singled out as nickname-worthy. And the very fact that a man has no beard was significant enough for it to form a part of his identity, whether this be through personal choice, or an inability to grow one.[5]

This phenomenon was by no means purely Scandinavian. William II of England, whose more illustrious father was known initially as the Bastard, and later as the Conqueror, only managed the rather mundane epithet Rufus, because of his red hair. And the names of the Winton Domesday reveal that several townspeople of eleventh-century Winchester had bynames related to their hair. Alan Blunt (Blonde), Ralph Russel (Red) and Edwin Gule (Yellow) were so-called almost certainly because of the colour of their hair. And we can assume that Burewold Crul was known as such because of his curly locks. A number of medieval Wintonians were also named after their hirsute faces, such as Brunestan Blachebiert and Aluric Fulebiert. The black nature of Brunestan’s beard seems fairly clear, yet quite what made Aluric’s beard so foul is anyone’s guess.[6]

Harold and his English Moustache

Harold and his English Moustache

But what of the moustache? If bynames are anything to go by, it would appear that moustaches were less common in medieval England than beards (at least post-1066). Whilst the specific nature of a beard is often described in bynames, the mere presence of a moustache seems enough to have warranted the label ‘with a moustache’. Yet, somewhat mysteriously, while moustaches were apparently very common amongst the people of Anglo-Saxon England – enough for their appearance to be a marker of Englishness in the Bayeux Tapestry – it is a Norman French term, aux gernons, that is used almost exclusively to form moustache-related bynames in post-Conquest England.[7] In contrast, the Middle-English term beard forms the basis of most beard-based bynames in the same period.[8] Whether this gives us a clue to the respective pogonotrophic tendencies of these two post-Conquest ethnic groups is unclear. But we can, to some extent, still see the medieval English moustache bristling down towards us through the ages in the modern personal name Algernon, which is derived from that original Middle-English byname.


James Chetwood is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield


[1] Marc Bloch, Ecrits de Guerre (1914-1918) – Textes réunis et présentés par Etienne Bloch (Paris, 1997), p. 138.

[2] Just one of the Guardian’s many articles on the relative fashionability of the beard ‘Fear not the hipster beard – for it too shall pass’, The Guardian, 16 April 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/16/hipster-beard-guys-growing-a-beard [accessed 13 November 2014]

[3] Taddebolloc appears in the Winton Domesday as a byname, although von Feilitzen suggests that is might actually be Caddebolloc, a not unusual tautological byname, effectively meaning ‘bollock-bollock’, von Feilitzen ‘The personal names of the Winton Domesday’ in M. Biddle, ed., Winchester in the Early Middle Ages, Vol. 1, (Oxford, 1972), p. 216.

[4] David Postles, Talking ballocs: nicknames and English medieval sociolinguistics, (Leicester, 2003), pp. 11-33.

[5] Sara Uckelman, ‘Viking Bynames found in the Landnámabók’ (2001), http://www.ellipsis.cx/~liana/names/norse/vikbynames.html [accessed on 13 November 2014].

[6] These names are found in the Winton Domesday printed in M. Biddle, ed., Winchester in the Early Middle Ages, Vol. 1, (Oxford, 1972).

[7] Robert Bartlett, ‘Symbolic Meanings of Hair in the Middle Ages’ in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series, Vol. 4, (1994), pp. 45 and ‘The Bayeux Tapestry’ in BBC History of the World, http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/legacy/ahistoryoftheworld/2010/08/the-bayeux-tapestry.shtml [accessed on 13 November 2014]

[8] Postles, Talking Ballocs, p. 30.

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