Beards, Masculinity and History.

The continuing popularity of beards over the past two years or so has surprised many. A mere few months after beards first became apparent, several media articles suggested that ‘peak beard’ had already been reached, and that the decline of facial hair was imminent. That was Summer 2012 and, despite repeated claims of its impending demise (some wrongly attributed to me!), the beard is still apparent as we near 2016. Several interesting things have accompanied this ‘trend’. First, it is the most sustained period of facial for around thirty years. Second, the style – the so-called ‘Hipster’ or ‘Shoreditch’ beard – may well prove to be the defining facial hair style of this generation, in a way, say, that ‘designer stubble’ recalls the rampant consumerism of Thatcher’s 80s. Furthermore, where male grooming products for men have catered for removing facial hair, a new market has emerged for beard care, including oils, moustache waxes and even beard moisturisers.

Aside from the issue of ‘how long will it last’, ‘what do beards mean’ is a common question. Indeed, it is a question that has repeatedly been asked through the centuries. The relationship between men and their facial hair is complex, but is usually closely bound up with prevailing ‘ideals’ of masculinity. At times in history the beard has represented a basic component of masculinity and manliness. Will Fisher’s work has shown how facial hair in the Renaissance formed part of medical understandings of gendered bodies, and the function of the four ‘humours’. Viewed as a waste product (in fact a type of excrement) it was seen as resulting from heat in the ‘reins’ – the area including the genitals. A thick beard thus spoke of virility and sexual potency, since it indicated the fires burning below. Not only was the beard held up as an ensign of manhood, it was a highly visible symbol of his ‘natural’ strength and authority.


“Moroni Don Gabriel de la Cueva” by Giovanni Battista Moroni (circa 1525–1578) – Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Remarkably similar claims were made for beards in mid-Victorian Britain, when the beard made a spectacular return to favour as the ‘natural’ symbol of a man. Everyone from writers such as Dickens and Thomas Carlyle, to physicians like Mercer Adams, were enthusiastically extolling the virtues of this “badge of manly strength and beauty”. More than this, as Adams argued, a moustache was “nature’s respirator while the hair covering the jaws and throat is intended to afford warmth and protection to the delicate structures in the vicinity, especially the fauces and the larynx”. (A. Mercer Adams, ‘Is Shaving Favourable to Health?: Edinburgh Medical Journal, Dec 1861). Here again, facial hair was closely bound up with themes of masculinity, health, male appearance and conduct.



“Edward Bates – Brady-Handy” by Mathew Brady – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. CALL NUMBER: LC-BH82- 4097 <P&P>[P&P]. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

The eighteenth century, however, represents something of an anomaly in the relationship between man and his beard. While much of the sixteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth centuries saw men wear at least some sort of facial hair, the eighteenth century has been described as the first truly beardless age in history. The exact reasons for this are unclear but, by 1750 beards, moustaches and whiskers were seriously démodé and, by 1800, the author William Nicholson was able to assert that “the caprice of fashion […] has deprived all the nations of Europe of their beards”.

In many important ways, this flight from the beard seems to run counter to what should have represented the masculine ideal. First, humoural understandings of the beard still prevailed. As such it was, at least technically, still an important component of the man. To shave it off, then, was to remove this important ‘signal’ of masculinity. Secondly, the eighteenth century was a period obsessed with the damaging effects of effeminacy in British men, not least in their ability to fight. Importantly this was not effeminacy, with its modern connotations of homosexuality, but literally becoming more feminine. Anxieties surrounded the feminising effects of Frenchified fashions upon young British men. The extreme form of new fashions was the ‘Macaroni’ – the foppish, bewigged and affected dandy. Even wigs were a source of tension in terms of their effect on male appearance. And yet, shaving the face actually rendered it more smooth and feminine.


(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps most interesting, however, is the apparent conflict caused by concepts of the ‘natural’. Nature underpinned the enlightenment, and much time and effort was expended in trying to uncover its meanings, and apply this to new ideals. The body was certainly part of this. Straightness in posture and deportment was considered components of the ‘natural body’. The artist Joshua Reynolds lauded the symmetry of perfect nature, suggesting the ‘Serpentine line’ of beauty, and suggesting that nature was the true model. The face was the most public of bodily surfaces, and smoothness, neatness and elegance were prized. But all of this glossed over the fact that the beard was in fact the natural state; shaving was inherently unnatural. Logically, if the beard was natural, why then get rid of it?

There are several potential reasons for the decline of the eighteenth-century beard, each of which highlights the close relationship between facial hair and contemporary ideals of masculinity. Social status certainly played a part. Whilst neatness and elegance were badges of the refined gentleman, facial hair marked out the uncouth rustic, the hermit, or the elderly derelict. This also raises the important issue of control. Just as enlightened masculinity championed rationality and manners, it also emphasised self-control as a key male feature. According to conduct literature of the time, whilst delicate ladies might blush and swoon, a man should remain in control of his senses and be measured in his emotions. The new vogue for shaving, spurred on by newly invented, sharper razors, fits this well, in terms of mastery and control over one’s own body.

Changing aesthetic ideals also fed into the freshly shorn face. The veneration of ancient sculpture, identified by George Mosse as an important element in the construction of manliness, yielded admiration at the smoothness and tactility of the stone, as well as the subjects. The obvious paradox was that many statues of Greek and Roman heroes were bearded, but this did not seem to have an effect. Coupled with this was the so called ‘cult of youth’. To affect a delicate, fey appearance was highly sought after in the later eighteenth century; shaving the face immediately rendered it more youthful.


(Image ‘Statue of a youth in heroic repose – Mostra di Nerone, – from Wikimedia Commons)

More broadly, however, the shaven face almost literally reflected enlightened ideals of openness and enquiry. Shaving opened up the countenance to the world, in turn symbolising a mind open to new possibilities. In fact it was even acknowledged that beards were inherently masculine. What mattered, though, was the ability to be able to grow one, rather than the need to actually display it.

Through history, therefore, beards have been a central issue in the construction of masculinity and sexuality, but there is no simple, linear path to how they have been construed. At some points in time the beard has been the very symbol of sexual potency, authority and power. At others, however, the clean-shaven face has prevailed. In more recent times, indeed, shaving has become part of the grooming routines of men, and still strongly linked to health and hygiene.

One of the downsides of researching a topic like facial hair is that it carries perceptions of quirkiness. How, after all, can something as basic and mundane as the beard tell us anything about history? In fact, though, beards, moustaches, whiskers and beardlessness tell us a very great deal about the ways that masculinity, gender and sexuality have all shifted through time.

Steel and the body in the Enlightenment:

To celebrate the launch of my new book ‘Technology, Self-Fashioning and Politeness in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Refined Bodies’ (Palgrave, 2015), here’s a post from 2012, giving a broad overview of the themes it covers. Hope you enjoy.

Dr Alun Withey

Whilst I was a research fellow at the University of Glamorgan, working with Professor Chris Evans, I was lucky enough to be part of a project far away from my usual research on Welsh medical history, but one which opened my eyes to an extraordinarily fruitful and fascinating area of research.

As the sociologist Richard Sennett commented, the eighteenth-century body was a ‘mannequin’ upon which were hung conventions of fashion, taste and politeness. Historians, however, have been slow to recognise the important influence of ‘enlightened’ manufactured goods in this process. New industrial technologies yielded products aimed specifically at the body, of which articles made from steel were central. Steel is not often thought of in terms of its contribution to culture, but rather as a prosaic industrial material. Technological breakthroughs between the 1680s and 1740s (such as Huntsman’s crucible steel) made steel an increasingly abundant and important good. It was…

View original post 853 more words

Can’t Stay Moustache: Bans on Facial Hair in Medieval Ireland

In 1457 Dublin’s city council issued an ordinance that ‘men with bardys [beards] above the mowth’, as well as Irishmen and their horses and horsemen, should not be lodged within the city walls.

St Audoens

St Audoens and Dublin’s City Wall [’s_Church_Over_Dublin_City_Wall_and_Gate.JPG

By Eric Fischer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons]

Men with moustaches were persona non grata in the city. At first glance, this seems a strange matter for the council to concern itself with. Most of Dublin’s civic ordinances from this period dealt with the regulation of commerce, the city’s economic life-blood, or more patently dangerous problems like fuel storage, always a concern in medieval cities due to the fire risk, the disposal of sewage, or controlling pigs, which might dig up gardens and cemeteries and even attack unattended children.

However, it seems that moustaches were considered similarly dangerous, and in 1523 Galway’s council jumped on the anti-moustache bandwagon, and ruled no man should be made a citizen ‘unlesse he can speche the Englishe tonge and shave[s] his upper lipe wickly (weekly)’.

This detail in the Galway ordinance about speaking English, and further anti-moustache enactments passed by the Irish parliament provide context for these curious moustache bans. The central problem with moustaches was that they were worn by, and associated with, the Irish. In particular, the Irish favoured a luxuriant long moustache called the crommeal. Sixteenth-century renderings show Irishmen with these moustaches, like this image by the German artist Albrecht Dürer.


[Attach JPG

By Альбрехт Дюрер [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

For the Irish moustache, see the three men on the right, who are, supposedly, Irish soldiers. They also wear the Irish ‘glibbs’ hairstyle, with a long fringe over the eyes.

Moustaches were banned alongside other visual signals of Irishness, like yellow saffron-dyed shirts or tunics and the hairstyle known as a cúlán. This elite Irish-warrior style entailed long-hair on the back of the head and short or shaved hair around the top and side, rather like an extreme mullet!

De Heere

[Saffron tunics, Lucas de Heere, ‘Irish as they stand accoutred being at the service of the late King Henry’,  circa 1575. Public Domain (, after Théâtre de tous les peuples et nations de la terre avec leurs habits et ornemens divers, tant anciens que modernes, diligemment depeints au naturel par Luc Dheere peintre et sculpteur Gantois)]

The Irish parliament provided practical reasons for these bans on Irish attire and hairstyles. In 1447, for example, it banned moustaches for the English of Ireland and complained that ‘there is no difference in apparel between the English marchers and Irish enemies’. This allowed Irishmen to enter the colony as ‘marchers’ (settlers who lived on the extensive unsettled borderlands of the colony) and ‘rob and pillage by the high roads’. Moustaches threatened the very safety of the colony, and Englishmen who disobeyed the moustache ban suffered a harsh penalty. They lost the protection of English law, and could be captured along with their possessions and ransomed ‘as Irish enemies’. Essentially, if you looked Irish, you were treated that way.

This 1447 enactment provided an admirably clear definition of what precisely a moustache is (and all without using the word ‘moustache’ (!), which was not in English parlance in the fifteenth century). It stated that ‘no manner of man who will be accounted for an Englishman have any beard above the mouth, that is to say, that he have no hair upon his upper lip, so that the said lip be at least shaven within two weeks, or of equal growth with the nether lip’.

Mistaken identity was identified as a major problem with both moustaches and cúláns in a 1297 parliamentary enactment. It stated that colonists mistakenly killed other colonists wearing these Irish styles, assuming they were Irishmen. This was problematic because ‘the killing of Englishmen and of Irishmen requires different forms of punishment’. Englishmen faced capital punishment for killing fellow Englishman, but not Irishmen. If any restitution was provided for the deaths of Irishmen it was normally by payment of a fine. Therefore, an understandable mistake about someone’s ethnic identity could be deadly. These homicides within the colonial community also caused feuding and ‘rancor’ between settler families. All Englishmen in Ireland, therefore, were instructed to wear the ‘custom and tonsure of the English’.

The problem of mistaken identity and consequent threats to the property and even lives of English colonists was perhaps the most pressing reason for moustache bans (which continued into the sixteenth century), but it was not the only one. Enactments regulating appearance and visual display were passed alongside those regulating the use of the Irish language, intermarriage between the English and Irish, and other practices frowned on by the colonial administration. English outward appearance was part and parcel of English identity, which colonists feared was increasingly under threat in the later middle ages, as cultural exchange between the colonists and the Irish continued apace. The moustache was, for colonial authorities, an ominous marker of the erosion of ‘Englishness’ in Ireland.


Dr Sparky Booker is a postdoctoral researcher at Swansea University on the AHRC funded project ‘Women Negotiating the Boundaries of Justice, Britain and Ireland 1100-1750’. Her research for this project examines the legal capabilities, strategies and successes of Irish and English women in the English colony in Ireland from 1300-1500. Other research interests include relations between the English and Irish in late medieval Ireland; the Irish church; sumptuary law; and medieval understandings of race and ethnicity. Her monograph on cultural exchange and identity in ‘the four obedient shires’ of Ireland from 1399-1534 is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.

Healthy Beards? A ‘Decembeard’ Special!

Today marks the start of ‘Decembeard‘, in which tens of thousands of men across the UK and beyond will be donning the facial hair to raise money for research into bowel cancer. It’s often forgotten how closely facial hair has been linked to men’s health. In fact, the health and hygiene history of beards is the subject of my current research. To celebrate ‘Decembeard’, therefore, I thought it might be interesting to explore some of the recent (and not so recent) health aspects of the beard.

Ezra Meeker
Image from Wikipedia Commons

I was struck by a recent report of a new study relating to the health and hygiene of beards. In fact, the health and hygiene history of beards is to be a central theme of my research into facial hair over the next few years. How, healthy – or otherwise – are beards? It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot by the media recently. Earlier in the year came the brief furore caused by reports that beards might be dirtier than toilet seats. Apparently, beard hair traps all manner of germs and microbes, which easily find access into the mouth.

But Australian scientists have concluded that beards have many health benefits, including reducing the impact of ultra violet rays by almost a third. Beards apparently have a SPF factor of 21! Other claims were made by the study, including the trapping of pollen and dust (good news for asthma sufferers), maintenance of moisture on the skin underneath the beard, and also a barrier against the elements.


Both camps are firmly dug in. On one side sit those who see beards as dirty and unsanitary; on the other, those who promote the health benefits of beards. These scientific studies might be viewed as the result of modern research techniques allowing us new insights into the workings of the body. But, I would suggest that they are merely a continuance of longstanding arguments about facial hair that have continued on almost identical lines for centuries.

The supposed health benefits of beards have a long history. In the 1850s, the massive popularity of beards was sparked in part by men’s desire to emulate military moustaches, and other bearded heroes, such as explorers. Promoting health benefits was another means of convincing doubtful men of the natural protection afforded by their whiskers.

In March 1859, the Crayon periodical emphasised the protective nature of beards. Wherever there was an important organ, it was argued, nature gave it extra protection. The ‘hard pan’ of the skull, after all, protected the brain. The beard was therefore nature’s protection against extreme heat or cold, and protected the nose and throat, and even the teeth, against disease. ‘Clergymen who are close shavers are much more frequently troubled with disease of the throat, than lawyers, who for the most part wear the beard’.

Arguments for healthy beards went back further than that. In the 1530s, Pierius Valerianus argued that a beard drew off superfluous humours, preserving the teeth from rotting and, interestingly, ‘defends the face from the burning rays of the sun’ [my emphasis]. And this nearly five centuries before the current study!

Another central health claim in Victorian texts was that the beard acted as a filter against germs and smuts. In 1881, Tom Robinson M.D. extolled the virtues of moustaches in ‘preserving the soldiers from catarrhal complaints’. Beardless recruits were apparently far more frequent visitors to the barracks infirmary with bronchial infections, than their hirsute companions.

A report into the health of workers on the Great Northern Railway also noted that only 16 enginemen and firemen on the line shaved, with 77 having a moustache and a further 42 with beard and moustache. The ‘utility of the beard as a hygienic agent’ was seemingly reinforced as ‘the latter enjoyed better health than those who shaved’.


Henry Morley and William Wills, author of the pro-beards article ‘Why Shave?” asserted that beards and moustaches protected the opening of the mouth and filtered the air for people working in smoky or dusty environments. More than this they ‘acted as a respirator and prevent[ed] the inhalation into the lungs of air that is too frosty’. Several eminent physicians were quoted in the article as recommending beards as a preventative against consumption, as well as against the harsh conditions and poor air quality of urban environments.

Indeed, for some, shaving the beard off positively invited illness. According to the Scottish physician Mercer Adams in his ‘Plea for Beards’, (Edinburgh Medical Journal, Dec 1861) an 1853 experiment tested 53 healthy, bearded men who were compelled to shave. According to Adams, ‘all of them at first experienced very unpleasant sensations of cold’, 27 had ‘painful afflictions of the teeth and jaws’, 11 had facial neuralgia, and 16 rheumatism of the gums. For Adams, the medical benefits of beards were proven.

There was some debate, however, about whether physicians should wear beards. A correspondent to the British Medical Journal in 1896 noted the fashion for beards amongst doctors, ‘to stroke and look wise whilst making a doubtful diagnosis’. But, they cautioned, the ‘bacteriology of the beard…has not yet been exhaustively studied’. Was it possible that diseases carried in the beards of physicians could transfer themselves to patients? Should ‘doctors sacrifice their beards on the altar of hygiene’? The answer, they suggested, was the ‘careful sterilisation of the beard’.



Others were less circumspect. In a1907 Tatler article titled ‘How to Tell Character by Beards’, Frank Richardson made it clear that he was no fan. ‘Beards are absolutely unhygienic. They are microbe traps. They are not permitted in such clean places as convict prisons and barracks. Therefore they should not be allowed on the streets of Modern Babylon’. Even shaving brushes have caused scares. Between 1915 and 1917 contaminated brushes made from animal hair caused 56 cases of anthrax, with 21 deaths!

And so the seeming fascination with beard health rumbles on. It is interesting how arguments about clean facial hair are separated from that of hair on the head. Does it make sense to argue, for example, that beard hair should trap germs any more than head hair? More, and probably contradictory, studies will undoubtedly follow, but it is clear that questions about the cleanliness of beards are nothing new.

(all images from Wikimedia Commons)