Beards, Moustaches and Facial Hair in History

 (This is not me by the way)

Today in the town of Bad Schussenried, Germany, will be held the World Beard and Moustache championships. Attracting hirsute entrants from across the globe, competitors can enter in no less than eighteen categories, from chin beards to Imperial moustaches. The Germans seem to be particularly adept at this competition, and have fielded a number of champions in recent years. Men’s relationship with the beard has changed a great deal over time and it is interesting to see how wearing (or indeed not wearing) some form of facial hair can often be linked to broader social and cultural trends.

In the Renaissance, for example, beard-wearing was a sign of masculinity and almost a rite of passage. To be able to grow a beard represented the change from boy to man. As Will Fisher put it in his article on beards in Renaissance England,  “the beard made the man”. It is noteworthy, for example, that almost every portrait of a man painted between, say, 1550 and 1650 contains some representation of facial hair – from the Francis Drake-style pointy beard to the Charles I ‘Van Dyke’. Beards were the coming thing.

The wearing of a beard, especially during this period, was actually linked to beliefs about the body. As people believed that the body consisted of four fluid humours in a perpetually precarious state of balance, so there were different ideas about how it got rid of waste material. Most people can associate bloodletting with the early modern period, and this was done to rid the body of excess blood, and carry with it any troublesome or dangerous waste. People routinely took laxatives and emetics to purge themselves of any potentially problematic substances.

Where does the beard fit in with this? Until at least the late seventeenth century it was widely believed that facial hair was aactually a form of excreta – a waste material generated by the body as a result of heat in the testicles! But this also provides the link with masculinity. Since the beard was linked to the genitals, it was an outward sign of virility and masculinity.

But in the eighteenth century something changed. For reasons that are so far obscure, men stopped wearing beards and, more than this, the beard even became socially unpopular. The eighteenth-century culture of politeness certainly played a part in this. The ‘man of letters’ was clean-shaven; the beard was seen as hiding the face, whereas shaving it left it clean and smooth and, therefore, more aesthetically pleasing. Having an ‘open countenance’ was also a metaphor for an open mind – the keystone of the enlightened thinker.

New shaving technologies also played a part. The invention of cast steel in the mid-eighteenth century meant that sharper and longer-lasting blades were available, making shaving a less uncomfortable experience. As newspaper advertising expanded, so razormakers capitalised on this new vogue for shaving, offering not just new types of razors ‘on philisophical principles’, but also a range of other goods. These included ‘razor strops’ to keep your shiny new razor sharp, to other things such as face creams, shaving powders and scents. We tend to think of male pampering as a modern thing, but the Georgians got there first!

A century later, though, the beard was back with a vengeance! In fact, in the Victorian period, there was even a ‘beard movement’. The reasons for this are more certain. By the mid-nineteenth century, the British Empire was in full flower, and the power of the British military was a matter of pride at home. Some military regiments had begun to wear moustaches, and British men began to imitate this style, with all its attendant military, masculine associations. There were other factors too. This was the age of explorers heading out into untamed lands and living amongst wild nature. Such men were the heroes of their day. Often unable to shave ‘in the field’ they sported large beards, and to imitate this was to link yourself to their rugged masculinity.

But there was also a rediscovery of the beard as both a symbol of natural virility and masculinity, and even in health terms. Rather than being a form of excreta, some writers now extolled the virtues of the beard in stopping disease before it could get to the face and mouth! The beard as a visual symbol of innate manliness also made a comeback in this period, and many popular writers of the day – from Trevelyan to Dickens – not only supported the beard, but sported fine examples. (See Christopher Oldstone-Moore’s excellent article on the Victorian beard movement in the Victorian Studies journal, 2005)

Fashions for facial hair seemed to change more rapidly in the twentieth century. In the 10s and 20s the fashion was for moustaches. By the 40s and 50s, the clean-shaven look was partially favoured before stunning ‘badger beards’ made a comeback in the 60s and 70s. My father sported a particularly fine ginger example c. 1975! But these things do show that facial hair has a history of its own. It is linked to the way men have experienced their own gender and sexuality, and how society and cultural values have intervened in the construction of male appearance. I’ve just finished an academic article on beards and shaving in the eighteenth-century, and it’s been an interesting journey.

There’s a bug ‘going round’.

Again last week I had to nurse a poorly toddler as he was sent home from nursery with yet another variety of stomach upset. There is, I’m told, something going around. I need to confess here to being a terrible hypochondriac. When I worked in an office I hated it when people used to come in, green-faced, and that say that they’d been ‘up all night’ being sick. In my mind, it is only a matter of time before this thing finds its way to me! If I read on the internet (as has recently occurred) that the norovirus has closed hospital wards anywhere near where I live, the sense of a creeping tide of contagion gets worse. In fact, there always seems to be something ‘going around’.

Talking to a colleague last week, we were speculating about whether the same conception was true in the early modern period – whether people believed that the same nasty bit of pathogenics was doing the rounds. It would be interesting to know whether early modern people had any sense of one particular ‘bug’.

In some ways this seems unlikely. Humoural beliefs held that illness was a personal thing; it was one’s own humoural balance that generally dictated sensitivity and vulnerability to sickness. If, for example, someone was naturally sanguine (i.e. had a predominance of blood in their humoural makeup) that made them naturally more susceptible to apoplexy, plethora and venery!

But there certainly was some conception of a sickness that moved around populations; what, after all, were epidemics of plague and smallpox if not mobile and progressive conditions? But it also seems clear that people were aware of flare-ups of particular diseases or conditions in their vicinity. The letters of Owen Davies, an Anglesey parson in the early eighteenth century, certainly reveal evidence of this, noting episodes of epidemic fevers in his area. The diarist Phillip Henry of Broad Oak in Flintshire referred to an outbreak of fever in seventeenth-century Glamorganshire, which was particularly affecting children. In fact, when we look closely, there was a constant dialogue about illness, and people were ever vigilant for what sorts of things might affect them.

If we think about domestic recipe/remedy collections (books of favoured remedies sometimes accumulated in literate households), it is possible to see them as part of a domestic arsenal against sickness. They were in some ways a pragmatic response to disease; it made sense to have some sort of weaponry in your arsenal to attack whatever symptoms you might have. In other ways though, they were also an insurance policy. They provided at least some means of recourse in an environment where sickness was almost always lurking. And it wasn’t just remedies that were written down; people simply knew remedies, and were able to memorise and internalise information in a way that in today’s internet-dominated world we would find impressive.

The terminology of sickness has certainly shifted. When people in the past referred to the local presence of conditions, it is more likely that they were referring to something deadly, rather than a minor stomach upset. Nevertheless, something of the fear of contagion must be innate. While we might not all regard ‘bugs’ to the same degree of pathological hatred as I do, we feel uncomfortable when sickness gets too close.

Now where’s my antibacterial spray? This keyboard looks filthy…

Writing Welsh History (3)

A couple of weeks ago I took part in the ‘Writing Welsh history’ event at Swansea University. One of the main topics of the evening was how we approach Welsh history; is it somehow different to other countries or regions? Are there any specific problems facing historians that are uniquely Welsh? That last question is one that vexes me. The recent television series was titled The Story of Wales. As a participant in the television debate following the series noted, it is not The story, but A story. I believe that we are lacking a grand narrative of Welsh history. It is natural to think in terms of chronologies, but it is difficult to think of the sweep of Welsh history without using the broader British history as a reference point. In other words, could we even tell a story of Welsh history?

This problem is particularly relevant for me as I contemplate my next academic project. I’m thinking about tackling a narrative of Welsh medicine from earliest times to the present day. This hasn’t been attempted before, and there is certainly a need for such a study. The problem, though, lies in structure. From available source material, for example, is there enough evidence to fill chapters before, say, the tenth century? The obvious solution is to adopt a thematic approach, rather than a narrative chronology. But in other ways it highlights the fact that Welsh history cannot always be neatly compartmentalised.

There have been many ‘history of Wales’ volumes (I’m thinking of works by John Davies, Geraint Jenkins and Prys Morgan) and these ably take on the difficult task of constructing a narrative. Geraint Jenkins’s Concise History of Wales is excellently written on what he describes as a ‘formidable task’ of writing the entire history of a country. In terms of periodization, the first chapter, ‘the earliest inhabitants’, covers everything from Celtic and Roman Wales up until around 380AD. Chapter two covers around seven hundred years, up to 1063. But after 1063 the pattern changes to around two hundred years per chapter. This isn’t a criticism; it just underlines the reality for any chronological history of Wales that, before the 11th century, it is difficult to go into forensic detail.

But I also think that we do need more of these types of ‘stories’ to get a more fixed idea of what our history actually consists of. In my first book, I purposefully avoided a narrative, firstly because the evidence wasn’t suited to this type of approach, and secondly because I wanted to address a number of different themes in broader medical history. But this time I’m tempted to bite the bullet and try and answer my own question of whether we should think in terms of ‘Welsh medical history’ or ‘medicine in Wales’.

Finding that one special source…

I’m sometimes asked why I became interested in Welsh medical history, and people are usually surprised when I tell them it was a complete accident. In 2003 I had just left a 10-year career with a high-street bank and had returned to study. Actually, ‘returned to study’ is a bit of a misnomer; I left school with 6 GCSEs and packed in A-levels after one year with a burning ambition to work in an office and have my own swivelly chair and desk. Suffice to say it wasn’t all I had hoped! But, after starting my degree studies with the OU I decided to take the plunge and go to Uni full time, joining in the second year.

In the summer before my final year I was on the hunt for a dissertation topic. I had little idea what I wanted to do beyond a vague notion of looking at seventeenth-century Wales and the civil wars. Aside from a little bit of reading about James Lind and the cure of scurvy, I had no experience of medical history whatsoever. I headed off for the Gwent Record Office and asked the archivist what was available. In what turned out to be a prescient comment, he said “if you’re interested in the seventeenth century, you might like this”, and produced the notebook of John Gwin of Llangwm. Tony Hopkins, I’m very grateful to you!

Gwin’s book is a miscellany. It contains everything from farming notes to accounts, from biblical verses to poetry and from family records to church seating disputes. But what caught my eye were the medical remedies.  This was my first real experience of early-modern handwriting, and at first I couldn’t make out much, and what I could see wasn’t familiar. “The sesticall stone to cure sore eyes by mistress Moone” was one. Another recorded “Mr Cradock’s directions to us for our two children being afflicted by the small pox”. One even had a receipt “to make a horse pisse”. Something about these remedies piqued my curiosity; I wanted to learn more about Gwin and the medicines he used.

It was then that the second stroke of massive good fortune occurred. Having taken a photocopy of one page to show my supervisor, Dr David Turner (later my PhD supervisor and now a good friend and colleague at Swansea), it was he who first suggested that there was little work on medicine in seventeenth-century Wales, and that this might prove a fruitful topic for research. David, I’m very grateful to you too! This led to my undergrad dissertation, to an MA and then to a PhD, funded by Wellcome…all this from one visit and one source. I often wonder what shape my academic career might have had, if any, had I not gone to the record office that day. It is a point that I often make to students looking for a dissertation topic, that it often only takes one really good source to spark off an idea.

Nearly ten years later and although my research interests have broadened, I still like to return to the Gwin book from time to time. There is a danger in over-using a source; you can become too close to them and, to use a term I hate, risk ‘valorising’ your subject. But in this case, the richness of detail in the book, its value for so many areas of Welsh history and its insight into daily life all render it an amazing – but largely unused – resource for Welsh historians.

I am part of the ‘History Research Wales’ network of historians working in Welsh universities, and we’re now into the third series of articles for the Western Mail, my first two concentrating on medicine in Wales. For this series, ‘Iconic places in Welsh history’ I thought I’d do something different. My iconic place was Llangwm – home of a certain Monmouthshire yeoman. One day I might get around to doing something more definite with the book; maybe an edited edition. But for now it was nice to revisit the book and use it for something wider than medicine. Here’s a link to the article.