The History of The Beard

The History of The Beard

Throughout various epochs and numerous cultures of human civilization, there have always existed countless traditions relating to beards, motivated by either religion or society.

Whatever the reason for growing a beard, it was always believed that if a man could grow a beard, he was old enough to stand up for his convictions. Growing a beard is challenging and requires patience; even more patience is required to maintain it. The beard is the object of male pride.

Since ancient times the beard was a sign of virility, wisdom, strength, and power. A man whose beard was forcefully shaved off was disgraced. Beards were symbols of prophets, kings, apostles, patriarchs, and even Jesus Christ himself.

The beard as a symbol has always had great significance to history; as Karl Marx once said, history itself, from antiquity to the present, unfolded not around economics, but around the beard. Beards were taxed; there were beard-shaving edicts signed into laws by ecumenical councils. There were periods of history during which possession of a beard was cause for execution. At other times, the opposite was true.

Beards in the Ancient World

Initially a natural solution for keeping the sensitive skin of the cheeks and chin warm, in the middle of the first millennium BCE, the beard became a means of facial decoration.

Nomads have always held the beard in high esteem. In Mesopotamia, in the first millennium BCE, the Assyrians maintained luxurious beards and used curling wands to create multi-level designs. The entire Ancient East, from the foothills of the Pamir Mountains to the Sahara, was obsessed with large beards. Beard length correlated with rank. While Persian foot soldiers opposing phalanxes of Alexander the Great had beards reaching their clavicles, the beards of high-ranking dignitaries covered their entire chests. Similar fashion was also prevalent in Ancient Greece; the Spartans' respect for the beard was so great that removal thereof was the punishment for the gravest of sins: cowardice.

The Beard in Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, only the Pharaoh had the right to have a beard, which was a symbol of his land ownership, though his beard was artificial. All other men had to shave. Egyptian pharaohs were considered to be earth-bound incarnations of the god Horus and, therefore, had to be male; female pharaoh Hatshepsut had to wear men's clothing and a false beard during all official ceremonies.

Like wigs, false beards were made of wool or cut hair intertwined with gold thread, attaching with a chin cord. This ceremonial beard could be styled in various ways, but the most common was a braid, curled at the end like a cat's tail.

Beards in Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, the beard was a symbol of one's affinity for wisdom and philosophy. The shape of the beard denoted its owner's affiliation with a particular school of thought.

The Beard shave

And then, all over the ancient world, people started shaving. This happened in ancient Greece, as well; according to a legend, Alexander the Great could not grow a beard.

Alexander the Great

Not having a beard, Alexander the Great ordered his army to be clean-shaven, apparently so that in battle, their opponents could not grab onto his soldiers' beards and hold the warriors in place while they were being killed – quite a cunning explanation to conceal his peculiarity! And so, thanks to Alexander the Great, the ancient world made it fashionable to have a "youthful face." In Ancient Greece, a beard meant that a boy was legally old enough to be bedded. At the Olympics, the beard was the criterion for separating the participants into adults or juniors. In Athens, only scientists or philosophers were allowed to keep their beards.

The Beard in Ancient Rome

The Ancient Greek fashion of a 'bare' face spread to Ancient Rome. Roman emperor Nero was the first to organise the shavings.

Roman Emperor Nero

Citizens of the first republics of Western civilization treasured youth, energy, liveliness, and free will, instead of the length of life experiences. In the Roman Empire, a clean-shaven face and short hair were the sign of a civilized man, separating him from the "wild" peoples; ancient Romans considered all bearded men to be barbarians.

The Beard in Ancient Israel

In ancient Israel, to shave or not to shave was never a question; shaving was considered unnatural. During Biblical times, Israel was surrounded by pagan tribes, whose lifestyle (that included bestiality and human sacrifices) was an abomination to Israelites. Eventually, those tribes died out and disappeared, but they remained in the memory of people of Israel. The Law of Moses guaranteed the death penalty for homosexual behaviour, and men were banned from wearing women's clothing or shaving their beards; women were prohibited to wear men's clothing.

In general, Jewish men wore their hair short (1 Cor 11:14; Ezek 44:20); the exception being the Nazarenes, who made a vow to never cut their hair

(Numbers 6:5, 9; Acts 18-18.), or certain individuals, such as Absalom (2 Samuel 14:26). The Nazarite vow included three important aspects: hair could not be cut, wine could not be consumed, and the dead could not be touched. The Bible also tells the story of Samson, strong and invincible as long as his hair was long, and who lost his powers when his head was shorn (Judges, 17: 17-19).


The fall of the Roman Empire brought about the end of the clean-shaven fashion. In the second century, Roman Emperor Adrian (76-138 CE) helped end this trend; it is believed that his beard concealed facial defects.

Roman Emperor Hadrian

And then, at the beginning of the fourth century, the fashion changed once again. Emperor Constantine the Great, who favoured Christianity, made shaving compulsory. When Christians followed the imperial decree, their clean-shaven faces distinguished them from the bearded Jews and followers of other religions.

Emperor Constantine the Great

Following the iconoclastic controversy of the 7th-9th centuries, the beard-wearing trend returned. With adoption of Christianity, beard fashion migrated from Byzantium to Eastern Europe. Beards were seen as a facial reflection of God's presence.

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Beards in Europe

It has been determined that in Western Europe, Germanic tribes favoured the bearded appearance. The Franks, on the other hand, shaved. Rulers of the Carolingian dynasty, including Charlemagne, also did not grow beards – in the 9th century miniatures, men are usually portrayed with moustaches and bare chins.

It was only at the turn of the millennium that a bushy beard came into fashion in France and central Europe. According to written sources, a secular person was easily distinguished from the clergy by his clothes, his beard, and other signs of a worldly existence.

In the Middle Ages, Christian Europe favoured beards, although the styles followed the changing whims of fashion. At the beginning of the ninth century, all emperors were depicted with a beard, albeit of different lengths. The Golden Gospels of Henry III depict the King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor with a long beard, while on his seals, he is shown with a short beard, and some of his miniatures portray him only with a moustache.

Bishop Le Puy urged the Crusaders besieging Antioch to shave off their beards, so they would not confuse their own with the enemy in the heat of battle. And Serlo, the Bishop of Sées, had many things to say about the sins of bearded men; in a sermon attended by the king, Serlo complained that the male congregation did not shave their beards "for fear that their stubble will prickle their mistresses' faces while kissing."

In the 12th century France and England, fashion at court dictated shaving the chin, but having a moustache. It was decreed that during coronation, "the emperor should be shaven," when the Pope kissed the Emperor on the forehead, cheeks, and mouth. It is unknown why the practice became popular in the 12th century, specifically. Perhaps, it was due to the growing rift with the Eastern Church, which traditionally encouraged bearded faces.

The revival of classicism – the Renaissance – brought about the clean-shaven fashion. 'Bearded' Middle Ages gave way to 'shaved' Renaissance, with its bare Protestantism. Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci and then the next era ushered in the bushy beard and the long moustache yet again.

Arrival of King Francis I to Italy in 1526

The beard went out of fashion at the start of the Baroque period; since circa 1680, the moustache also disappeared. The clean-shaven male face dominated until the middle of the 19th century. After the European revolution of 1848, beards and moustaches were all the rage again, while the second quarter of the 20th century turned fashion towards the clean-shaven look.

The trend of alternating periods of clean-shaven and hairy male faces can be examined within the context of the ever-changing male ideal, prevailing during a particular historical period. At a time when the image of virility is the dominant ideal, beards and moustaches are popular, as they are always seen as the natural and most striking symbols of masculinity.

On the other hand, when society idealizes the feminine, male faces become clean-shaven, as facial hair, a male secondary sexual characteristic, is removed. Yet, while the prevalent trends always sweep through the general population, regardless of occupation or social status, there always remain some social strata, which preserve their independence from trends and continuity of appearance.

Among the famous European beard owners are: Francis I, Henry VIII, Charles IX of France, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Victor Hugo, Charles Darwin, Claude Monet, Giuseppe Verdi, Jules Verne and others. Karl Marx, Charles Darwin

The Beard in Ancient Russia

Northern Slavs grew beards and revered them since ancient times, long before the adoption of Christianity. In Russia, it was believed that every man must grow a beard, because it was a sign of virility, wisdom, and strength. The beard was given a lot of attention through maintenance and care. There was no insult worse than spitting into another man's beard.

However, some experts believe that the pagan Southern Slavs (including Kievan Rus) were beardless. Historians explain this difference between the bearded and the beardless Slavs with climatic conditions of the country: the weather in the north is cold, and the beard protects and warms the face; the climate in the south is much warmer.

There was no association between beards and religion until the 10th century; beards were grown and honored without the involvement of the Church. But in the 10th century, Russia was officially baptised, converting to Christianity. Following the example of the Byzantine clergy, Russia adopted the beard as the symbol of ancient Biblical prophets and Christ's apostles, thereby reconfirming the already existing folk tradition of maintaining a full beard. This, in turn, made the beard a symbol of both Russian nationality and the Russian faith. The state protected the beard, as if it were sainted; Yaroslav the Wise established a fine for damaging the beard. If wishing to offend an ambassador, Russian princes would order him shaved. Even Ivan the Terrible apparently said that shaving the beard was a sin so great, it could not be washed away by all the blood of martyrs. Russian priests refused to give blessings to the beardless. Patriarch Adrian once said, "God gave man a beard; only cats and dogs go without." Damage to the beard came with a particularly high penalty, 12 hryvnia, which was about a third of the penalty for killing a man. Since shaving the beard was common punishment for sodomy or adultery, shaving was expressly forbidden. The ban, aside from commitment to past traditions, was also due to the fact that clean-shaved faces were associated with feminization of a male face.

In the era of the Time of Troubles (a period of Russian history between the death of the last Rurik Tsar in 1598 and the ascension of the Romanov dynasty in 1613), beard-shaving was considered a Western custom and was associated with conversion to Catholicism. For example, False Dmitri I (first of the many false pretenders to the throne) shaved. His lack of beard was seen as a betrayal of the Orthodox faith and proof that he was an imposter.

During the times of Tsar Fedor III (brother to Peter the Great), there was an increased tendency toward shaving among the Russian boyars (members of the highest rank of feudal Russia). In response, the Patriarch (highest rank of bishop in Eastern Orthodoxy) said, "Beard-shaving is not only a disgrace and dishonor, but also a mortal sin." And in the Middle Ages, there was a belief that a beardless man was a liar and a conman.

Peter's Reforms

Peter I

Peter I was the first to make drastic changes to the boyars' appearance, by a decree to abandon beards. The tsar was famous for his desire to make the Russia Empire resemble Germany or the Netherlands (and other developed European countries), and Russian clothing and long beards were not to his liking. In 1698, a day after his return to Moscow from a trip abroad, Peter was receiving boyars at court, and the transformation began there. Wielding an axe, Peter himself cut off his boyars' beards, and shortened hems of their long kaftans. A royal decree made beard-shaving and German fashion mandatory. Shaving the beard was at odds with the traditional orthodox conceptions of male beauty and dignity, so the decree caused massive disapproval and protests. Peter I banished the dissenters, and executed the disobedient. There were uprisings across Siberia, which were suppressed by the troops. Punishments for disobedience and revolt were hanging, drawing and quartering, the wheel, burning at the stake, and impalement.

In 1705, seeing so much resistance among the people, Peter I replaced his decree with another law, which required all men, except for the clergy, to shave. The dissenters could pay a fine (the amount depended on their social rank) and receive a metal token (beard kopek) in return, which served as receipt of payment of the beard tax. Peasants were not required to shave, but they were levied a kopek "per beard" entrance tax each time they came into the city (by comparison, the cheapest beard token cost 30 rubles, at 100 kopeks to a ruble).

It was not until 1772 that Catherine II abolished the fee, with a caveat: government officials, the military, and men at court had to be clean-shaven. Finally, in 1863, Alexander II abolished all beard-related bans.

History after Peter

The question of the beard since the 18th century was constantly the subject of government decrees. The issue was finally decided by the personal example of Alexander III, as well as his son, Nicholas II, both of whose faces, bearded and moustachioed, paid tribute to Russian traditions and customs.

Peter I forced upon the country traditions that were very foreign to the Russian Orthodoxy; yet, since his times, beard-shaving took such strong root in Russia that bearded men to this day are often met with confusion and disapproval. Frequently, a man with a lumberjack beard would be required to shave as a condition of his being hired for a job.

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