‘Who are those Long-beards?’ Beards, hairstyle and identity among the Lombards.

This year, reading newspapers and chatting with friends, I discovered that Movember is becoming more popular than ever before in Italy. Thousands of Italians have joined the event growing and grooming beards and moustaches. But this is not the first time that the ‘Bel Paese’ has been invaded by ranks of bearded men. In 568AD, in fact, the Lombards entered the country, after centuries of migration from Scandinavia into Germany and then Austria and Hungary. And for them beards were, indeed, a big deal.

The clearest evidence for the importance of beards in Lombard tradition comes from their name. According to Paul the Deacon, who at the end of the 8th century wrote the History of the Lombards, it derives from the union of the words ‘long’ and ‘beard’.[1] Originally called Winnili, the Lombards were named as such by the god Godan (or Odin) on the occasion of the first legendary battle that they fought against the Wandals, at the beginning of their migration in the 1st century AD.[2]

The story goes that, once settled in the region of Scoringa, the Lombards were forced to pay tributes to the Wandals or to fight them. Led by the heroic brothers Ibor and Agio, and by their mother Gambara, the Lombards prepared for battle. They turned to the goddess Frea, Godan’s wife, for help and she suggested bringing the women of the community onto the battlefield, disguised as men. To do so they had to tie their long hair around their face in the fashion of beards. When Godan saw them he asked: ‘Who are those long-beards?’ and Frea answered: ‘As you have given them a name, give them also the victory’. Not only did he give them the name and the victory but he also used one of his own epithets as he, himself, was known as ‘long beard’.[3] The growing of the beards among the Lombards was much more than an embellishment to their physical character: it was a fundamental element of their myth of origin that linked them directly with the god Odin and with a Scandinavian and pagan tradition.

Hairstyle, as well, seems to have played a significant role in Lombard society. In the mid 8th century Aistulf ‘s law stated that the decalvatio (shaving of the head) was the punishment for every freeman who engaged in business with a Roman without the king’s authorization.[4] In 700/701 the duke of Bergamo Rotharit tried to dethrone king Aripert II and, as a consequence, was exiled but not before having his hair and beard shaved.[5] The deprivation of hair and beard was not only shameful but, symbolically, made a man harmless because of the loss of the power associated with them.[6] Arguably, the magical characteristics of as well as the importance attached to hair are also seen in the significant number of combs found in graves of this period, often placed near the head of the deceased.[7]

Paul the Deacon gives a detailed description of what a Lombard haircut might have looked like.[8] Discussing the frescoes of the palace of Monza, commissioned by Queen Theudelinda at the beginning of the 7th century, he writes: ‘They shaved the neck, and left it bare up to the back of the head, having their hair hanging down on the face as far as the mouth and parting it on either side by a part in the forehead’. Unfortunately these frescoes have not survived the passage of time but the material culture of the Lombard period provides other images in which hair and beard style can be seen to follow a recurrent pattern reflecting Paul’s account.

The so-called ‘Plate of Agilulf’, generally considered to be part of the front of a helmet, shows king Agilulf (AD 590-616) with a long pointed beard, long moustache and hair parting in the middle of the head. With a slight stylistic variation, the same iconography can be observed on two golden seal rings found in the cemetery of Trezzo d’Adda.[9] They were part of very prestigious sets of grave goods, including richly decorated weapons, gold brocade and belt fittings. The rings are characterised by a circular plate where a human figure is engraved. The busts depicted are of two very similar men both with moustaches, long pointed beards and hair divided into locks, parting in the middle of the head. Inscribed on the rings are the names Rodchis and Ansvaldo, probably their respective owners.

The bearded Agilulf represented on the so-called ‘Plate of Agilulf’. Image attributed to Sailko

The bearded Agilulf represented on the so-called ‘Plate of Agilulf’. Image attributed to

These are the only two rings of this kind found in a secure archaeological context. However, at least other eight rings with analogous features are known. All but one, which represents a woman, are characterised by an image of the bust or the head of a man with the typical long pointed beard and the hair parted in the middle of the head. Scholars have long debated the possible identification of the individuals on the rings: some believe that both the name and the image indicate the owner, while others think that the image represents the king and the text refers to one of his officials.[10]

Representations of bearded and moustached men are found on other types of objects dated to the Lombard period including gold crosses, brooches, belt fittings, pottery containers and necklaces. Two sets of coins, one issued by Ratchis (744-749/756-757) and one by Aistulf (749-756) bear a striking resemblance to the portraits on the ‘Plate of Agilulf’ and the seal rings [12].[11] This is even more significant considering that all the other coins of the Lombard kingdom are characterised by a very different iconographic style, modelled after types from the Byzantine Empire. It has been suggested that the style of image on Aistulf’s and Radchis’ coins was the result of a process of elaboration of a national type representing a stereotypical Lombard king [13].[12] Following on from this argument, it seems that a particular and well-defined type of beard and hairstyle developed over the centuries and became crucial in projecting the idea of ‘Lombardiness’. Beards, and hair more generally, provided a link with a mythical past giving to the Lombards a sense of identity and belonging.

 

Guilia Vollono is a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield

 

 

[1] [1] Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, trans. W. Dudley Foulke and ed. E. Peters (Philadelphia, 1974), pp. 17-19.

[2] Ibid. pp. 16-17; Origo Gentis Langobardorum, trans. W. Dudley Foulke and ed. E. Peters (Philadelphia, 1974), pp. 315-317.

[3] Stefano Gasparri, La cultura Tradizionale dei Longobardi. Struttura tribale e Resistenze Pagane (Spoleto, 1983) p. 12; Walter Pohl, Memory, identity and power in Lombard Italy, in Y. Hen and M. Innes (eds.) The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages (2000, Cambridge), p. 16.

[4] The Lombard Laws, trans. K. Fischer Drew (Philadelphia, 1973), pp. 228-229.

[5] Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, p. 265.

[6] Stefano Gasparri, La cultura Tradizionale dei Longobardi. Struttura tribale e Resistenze Pagane, p. 138.

[7] Paola Marina De Marchi Il pettine altomedievale del santuario repubblicano diBrescia (IV cella.), Notiziario della Soprintendenza Archeologica della Lombardia 2006, p. 191.

[8] Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, p. 166.

[9] For the image of Rodchis’ ring see http://www.altomedioevolombardo.it/html/cmilano5.htm (Last accessed 24-11-2014).

[10] For one side of the argument see for example Wilhelm Kurze, Anelli sigillo dall’Italia come fonti per la storia longobarda, in S.Lusuardi Siena (ed) I Signori degli Anelli. Un Aggiornamento sugli Anelli-Sigillo Longobardi (Milan, 2004), pp. 7-45; Silvia Lusuardi Siena, Osservazioni non conclusive sugli anelli sigillari longobardi ‘vecchi’ e ‘nuovi , in S.Lusuardi Siena (ed) I Signori degli Anelli, pp. 105-129; for the opposite argument see Ermanno Arslan, Ancora sugli anelli sigillo, in S. Lusuardi Siena (ed) I Signori degli Anelli, pp. 73-81; Paola Marina De Marchi, Il problema degli anelli in oro longobardi sigillari, in S. Lusuardi Siena (ed) I Signori degli Anelli, pp. 47-72.

[11] For the image of Aistulf’s coin see http://fas-history.rutgers.edu/skelly/MI.Longobardart.html (Last accessed 24-11-2014).

[12] Philip Grierson and Mark A. S. Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage (Cambridge, 1986), p. 65; Lucia Travaini, Anelli-sigillo longobardi: testi e immagini a confronto con le monete, in S. Lusuardi Siena (ed) Anulus Sui Effigii. Identità e Rappresentatione negli Anelli-Sigillo Longobardi (Milan, 2006), p. 55.

 

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