Launching the ‘Beards Project’!

This month sees the beginning of my three-year project ‘Do Beards Matter? Facial Hair, Health and Hygiene in Britain, c. 1700-1918’. Around September 2014 I applied for a postdoctoral fellowship from the Wellcome Trust, and was hugely lucky and privileged to have been granted the award in January of this year. It’s been a long wait to get to this point, but it’s finally here, and the next few years will see me delving into the archives to see what delights lay in store. But why should facial hair interest us? Surely something so prosaic as a beard can’t tell us much about the grand sweep of history? I thought it might be an idea to say a bit about why it is important and, in fact, takes us to the heart of a number of key issues in the history of the body, health and hygiene and masculinity.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

The project starts in 1700, a period when the bodily humours still dominated, and older ideas about the body prevailed. As it moves through the Georgian period, it charts a period of almost complete ‘beardlessnes’, which was to be the norm until at least the 1820s. Covering the Victorian ‘beard and moustache movement’ of the mid nineteenth century it culminates at the end of the First World War – a time when moustaches remained popular, while the military motivations for wearing them had declined.

Over time, changing views of masculinity, self-fashioning, the body, gender, sexuality and culture have all strongly influenced men’s decisions to wear, or not wear, facial hair. For Tudor men, beards were a symbol of sexual maturity and prowess. Throughout the early modern period, debates also raged about the place of facial hair within the medical framework of the humours. The eighteenth century, by contrast, saw beards as unrefined and uncouth; clean-shaven faces reflected enlightened values of neatness and elegance, and razors were linked to new technologies. Victorians conceived of facial hair in terms of Darwinian ideas of the natural primacy of men, and new models of hirsute manliness. The early twentieth-century moustache closely followed military styles; over the past 60 years the duration of beard fashions has shortened, influenced by everything from celebrity culture and the Internet to shaving technologies and marketing. At all points the decision to wear facial hair, or not, and its managements and style, involved not only personal decisions, but social, cultural and medical influences, as well as a range of practitioners. Also, from light beards to stubble, and whiskers and moustaches, there are questions about degrees of ‘beardedness’ and the significance of the beard as a binary to the shaven face.

Copyright - Wellcome Images
Copyright – Wellcome Images

But what was behind these changes? Despite recent media and popular interest in the cultural significance of beards (on which point a further blog post is to follow!), historians haven’t really taken up the baton. Works by Will Fisher, Christopher Oldstone-Moore and Susan Walton have explored the cultural and sexual significance of beards in the Renaissance and Victorians periods respectively, while my own article on eighteenth-century shaving charted its relationship with masculinity and emergent steel technology. So far the focus has been on broad changes in attitudes towards beards, elite fashions and concepts of masculinity at given points in history, rather than across time.

This project will be framed around a number of key research questions:

To what extent are beards a symbol of masculinity and what key attributes of masculinity do they represent?
• To what extent did the ‘barbering trades influence beard styles and the management of facial hair? How far did they shape trends that were then replicated in personal shaving rituals? How far did the ‘barbering’ trades cater to wider male health requirements before, during and after the high point of the ‘barber surgeon’ as a medical figure in the long eighteenth century?
• To what extent were beard trends led by the elite and by metropolitan fashion? How far and how quickly did these spread elsewhere? Did the distinct regions of the British Isles have distinct cultures of facial hair? How far did provincial trends influence metropolitan trends through migration?
• What impact did changing shaving technologies have on beard fashions/trends?

Firstly, I want to chart the changing nature of facial hair in men’s views of their bodies and masculinity over a longer period than hitherto attempted. The aim is to recover the series of cultural, scientific and intellectual changes that have affected views of facial hair, and to raise questions about the extent to which beards are indeed a symbol of masculinity, and indicate changing conceptualisations of masculinity.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

Secondly, the role of medical practitioners, and in particular barbers, in shaping both conceptions of, and the management of, facial hair has yet to be fully elucidated. How far, for example, were barbers responsible for shaving and how did the relationship alter over time? This period witnessed both the ascendancy and decline of the barbering profession, but the often-close link between barbering and medicine has yet to be fully explored. Margaret Pelling has demonstrated a close correlation between the two in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but we know far less about how that relationship changed over the course of the 18th century as the role of the barber surgeon disappeared, or of the health and medical functions performed by barbers, say, in the nineteenth century.

Alun loses his beard!
Alun loses his beard!

Thirdly, (and as you might expect from a Welsh/regional historian!) this project moves away from a London-centred and elite-focussed study, instead addressing different regions of the British Isles, and also the question of ‘beardedness’ at different social levels. What, for example, was barbering provision like across both time and location in Britain?

A final key question for me, one close to my heart after recently finishing my book on eighteenth-century technologies of the body, is that of the impact and nature of technologies of shaving upon facial hair over time. New technologies, from cast steel to safety razors and scissors, all had an impact upon men’s ability to fashion their own appearance, but the nature of the relationship between the propensity and ability to self-shave requires exploration. How far were new technologies directly responsible for changes in facial-hair styles?

Image from, used with permission.
Image from, used with permission.

And so, after all this, it’s time to deliver, and to do that will require a large and diverse body of source material. Amongst the things I’ll be looking at will be popular and religious texts relating to beards, self-help books such as Jean-Jacques Perret’s 1770 book Pogonotomia, instructing men how to shave, all of which serve to reveal the cultural context of beards. Medical texts from the 17th to the 19th centuries show everything from conceptions of facial hair to preparations to stimulate beard growth. A variety of personal sources, including letters and diaries from Parson Woodforde to the oral testimony of soldiers in First World War trenches are there to be mined for their gems. Portrait collections show the changing depictions of beards over time, while the records and advertisements of razor manufacturers and sellers offer a glimpse of the marketing of shaving technologies. A huge new database of medical practitioners in early-modern Britain will form the basis for discussion of barbers, along with references to the figure of the barber in popular culture, from literature to satires.

And so, let’s get started! I’ll be tweeting regular updates from the archives using #beardsproject, and a project website will hopefully be in place soon.

Medicine in a Vacuum – Practitioners in Early Modern Wales

In 1975, John Cule argued that the problems facing the historian of medicine in Wales are ‘quantitatively and qualitatively different’ to those of England. Even given the ever-expanding range of sources for medical history over the past twenty years of so, and the massive impact of digitization upon the availability of source material, this remains a truism.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

It has long been held that Wales was a land largely devoid of formal medical practice. Instead, there remains a belief that medical folklore dominated, with cunning folk and magical healers providing the mainstay of medical provision. There are certainly strong reasons to support this view. Favourable religious conditions, laxity in prosecution, a largely rural landscape and the cushioning factor of the Welsh language, all served to provide favourable conditions for unorthodox practice to flourish.

My book on Welsh medicine argued that folklore was only half the picture. The other half was of a country far less medically remote than previously acknowledged. Far from being insular, Wales was remarkably open to medical developments, both in terms of ideas, retail and consumption. The Welsh language, I argued, served to disseminate, rather than limit the spread of ideas, and a wealth of evidence suggests a thriving economy of medical knowledge, manifest in a strong culture of remedy sharing. When I began my trawl of the archives for this project, I was confident that the numbers of practitioners would quickly stack up, since no quantification had ever been attempted.

After three years, however, I have managed to locate only 1300 individuals. Whilst this might sound fairly healthy, it represents the whole of Wales (with a population then of nearly half a million) between 1550 and 1740. To put it another way, there were more medical practitioners in 17th-century Bristol than in the whole of Wales. Understandably this has got me thinking. Have I simply been wrong all along? Have I overestimated the breadth and scope of medical practitioners? Was Wales, after all, really a land of cunning folk? All possible. But, I also believe that the numbers alone don’t give us the whole picture. As I want to argue today, there are reasons why we should not become over-reliant on raw statistics.

To understand the nature of the Welsh medical landscape in the early modern period, it is necessary to understand the landscape itself. One of the most important factors affecting formal medicine was the nature of urbanization. In the early modern period Wales was a rural nation, with a sparse and thinly spread population. Compared to much of England, Welsh towns were extremely small. The largest town was Wrexham, with a population of around 3,500 by 1700. Most of the larger Welsh towns were between 1000 and 2000 inhabitants. This had crucial implications for the structure of medical practice. Since there were no towns large enough to sustain large groups of practitioners, there is no evidence of any medical guilds or companies. Wrexham was the only possible exception, but its practitioners apparently never attempted to formalise the practice of their trade in the town.

Secondly, Wales lacked any medical infrastructure until well into the nineteenth century. There were no hospitals or medical training facilities on Welsh soil. Neither, until the 1730s, were any medical texts being printed in the Welsh language, although there was a lively trade in English medical books. Without local facilities, prospective Welsh medics needed to look elsewhere for formal education. Even here we are frustrated though since it seems that a mere handful (perhaps 10) ever darkened the doors of European medical universities, and perhaps a few score to Oxford and Cambridge. Compared to Irish medical students, who travelled in numbers, the Welsh, for reasons that are unclear, remained steadfastly put. We could simply stop here and therefore assume that we are chasing shadows. But, even a brief look at the nature of Welsh source material reveals the extent of the problem.

In general terms, for example, Wales lacks many key source types – a problem familiar to Irish medical historians. Parish registers before 1700 are excellent for some areas, but virtually non-existent elsewhere. A lack of probate accounts inhibits large-scale analyses like Mortimer’s work on southern England. Wills and inventories for Welsh medical practitioners are few, rendering quantitative studies difficult. Other types of sources such as property deeds and parish registers offer statistical insights but offer little in qualitative terms.

Image from Wikipedia commons
Image from Wikipedia commons

As I have mentioned, there were no medical guilds or companies. Practitioners are fleeting figures in borough records; with small towns there is less evidence for things like apprentice registers which might otherwise be revealing. What remains is an unrepresentative patchwork map of practitioners. There are simply more sources in some areas too than others. Monmouthshire, Denbighshire and Glamorganshire are all relatively well served. But for Cardiganshire, for example, I can find only three individuals in total. By any measure, this is simply not correct.

If, however, the limitations are recognised, and the sources allowed to shape the research questions, it’s possible to recover a surprising amount of detail about the types of individuals engaged in medical practice in Wales, their status within local society, training, social networks etc.

To get the full picture we need to look again at the question of hinterlands. In fact, I would suggest it makes little sense to regard Welsh practitioners as a homogenous group at all. Large English towns influenced each area of Wales. For south Wales it was the massive port of Bristol. For mid Wales and the Marches, towns like Shrewsbury, and for North Wales it was Chester, each of which contained large groups of medics and, evidence suggests, strong connections with Wales.

Case studies of individual towns can be instructive, rather than county studies where population density and local conditions, can vary so much. In North Wales the mighty Wrexham gives a much deeper picture of medical practice in a Welsh town than anywhere else in the Principality due to excellent records. In fact, rough patient-practitioner ratios in Wrexham are comparable to those in many large English towns. But what stands for Wrexham does not necessarily follow for Carmarthen, Monmouth or Brecon, so regional comparisons are important as far as records allow.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

A second thorny issue, however, is that of the nature of medical practice itself. Our evidence highlights the dangers of drawing artificial distinctions between practitioner types. Much depends on occupational titles in sources. Medicine could be a part time occupation – perhaps especially important in the case of cunning folk. It must be assumed that such people did not earn a living wage through the occasional use of charming etc. The single practitioner in the tiny Welsh hamlet of Festiniog in the 1650s can hardly have been overworked! But more broadly, tradesmen like blacksmiths often found second occupations as tooth drawers, but this duality is not reflected in the sources. Shop inventories suggest medical goods available in a range of non-medical shops.

In the last analysis it may well prove true that the numbers of Welsh practitioners were lower than elsewhere. Indeed it seems logical that this was the case. But it also depends where the comparison is placed. Comparing, say, Cardiganshire with Cumberland, or parts of rural Ireland, is more realistic than comparing it to London! Many previous studies simply don’t differentiate. Equally, after effectively ignoring them in my book, it is likely that we need to put folkloric healers back in. Whatever the truth may be it is clear that numbers just simply don’t reveal the whole story. The unique characteristics of a country, nation, region, county or even town need to be fully understood before conclusions can be made.

(This is a version of a paper I gave at the ‘Medical World of Early Modern Ireland, 1500-1750, in Dublin in early September 2015).