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In The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, my heroine’s 9-year-old daughter asks an interesting question about accepting an offer of baptism: “Do we have to shave our hair in that strange way?”

The reply from Anglo-Saxon priest Father Osbald: “No, child. The tonsure is an honor reserved only for men of the clergy.”

To Father Osbald, there is only one true tonsure, the Roman style, or that of Saint Peter, in eighth century Europe. It’s the style we’re most familiar with – the head shaved except for a circle along the outside, resembling the Crown of Thorns.

But he would have been aware of a century-old controversy over which tonsure is the right one, the Roman or the Celtic, associated with St. John. (The other type, the Eastern, or St. Paul’s, where the whole head is shaved, was not part the dispute.)

Clerics with tonsures

9th century illustration, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Speculation about the shape of the Celtic tonsure varies. Either the back of the head is shaved ear to ear, or the forehead is shaved in a similar fashion, or the shaven area resembles a triangle. Scholar Daniel McCarthy, who examined primary sources, believes the Celtic tonsure was triangular, with the apex forming a V above the forehead. As the name implies, the Celtic tonsure was favored by the northern Irish and the Picts, especially those who followed the Rule of Saint Columbanus.

The controversy existed at least since the 664 Synod of Whitby, where the tonsure was debated. In a 672 letter to the king of Cornwall and Devon, Aldhelm, abbot of Malmsbury, is none too pleased to hear rumors of clerics in that area refusing to wear the tonsure of Saint Peter. Aldhelm goes on to allege that the Celtic style was worn by Simon Magus, a sorcerer who appears in the Acts of the Apostles.

Eighth century writers would echo Aldhelm’s claims of the Celtic tonsure’s link with Simon Magus, even though the evidence Simon wore his hair that way is hearsay at best. However, the triangular shape might have been favored by magi in Biblical times and resembled a style worn by druids.

The controversy over the clerical haircut, along with when to celebrate the Resurrection, would continue through the eighth century and at least into the ninth, as evidenced by an 817 order from Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, to the Abbey of Landevenec to conform to the Roman tonsure.

A clerical dispute over a haircut might seem a bit baffling to us in the 21st century. But in medieval times, a hairstyle was a statement of faith. According to a legend on the origin of the tonsure, people who wanted to mock Peter shaved his head, but Christ blessed his apostle, transforming the dishonor into a crown “with the stone and rock of faith,” as Germanus of Constantinople puts it.

Priests and monks would want to imitate Saint Peter, the first pope, not a damned sorcerer.


On the Shape of the Insular Tonsure, Daniel McCarthy

Tonsure” by William Fanning, Catholic Encyclopedia

On the Divine Liturgy by Germanus of Constantinople

This post was originally published on Sept. 17, 2013 at English Historical Fiction Authors.