A History of Beards – Part Four
A beard, a beard, my Kingdom for a beard. I think that’s how it goes!! What’s that? My Kingdom for a horse. I’d rather have a beard. We have lived through the Viking invasions and now we enter the dark and gloomy middle ages. What kind of face fur did they used to sport in these troubling times? Find out in A History of Beards – Part Four.
The Middle Ages were a time of Kings, Knights, mighty battles, wizards and beards. Okay, maybe not so much the wizards, although who knows if they were real or not. We weren’t alive so the stories could all be true!
Middle Ages, or the medieval period actually started around the 5th Century. It went on until the 15th Century and encompassed three divisions of Western history. The classical antiquity, medieval period and the modern period. The medieval period is split into three separate time frames; Early, High and Late Middle Ages.
In the High Middle Ages, around 1000ad, population throughout Europe started to increase. There was the Crusades, where Christians attempted to regain control of the Holy Land from Muslims. Several Kings ruled different parts of the UK in order to bring peace, law and order in their recognised Kingdoms. And beards ruled everything!
Beards in the Middle Ages
Beards were most commonly worn by Knights and it was a sign of virility and honour. It wasn’t just Knights that wore beards though. They were quite popular among men of standing such as lords or noblemen. Kings would generally sport beards but it was the Knights that were most commonly associated with facial hair.
Grabbing hold of someones beard in the Middle Ages was an extremely serious offence. Anyone who touched or held another mans beard had to face the consequences, usually in the form of a duel. In extreme circumstances it would lead to execution or murder, depending on whose beard had been manhandled and who was around to witness it.
Just like the Vikings and bearded men before them, there was a beard care routine undertaken in order to keep their facial fur clean. Washing the beard took place at least once a week and oils were used to keep it healthy and nourished. It is rumoured that sesame seed oil was the preferred choice for high born lords and Knights to use.
Strange to think that many men with beards in the modern day don’t take the same amount of care as they used to back then. A lot of it is being uneducated in the ways of beard maintenance but back then they knew how important it was to keep facial hair as clean as the hair on your head.
Beards continued to be popular amongst men in general throughout these times, unless you were part of the clergy. Men who were committed to the church and lived monastic lives were clean shaven. It was to symbolise their celibacy and prove their worth to God.
When Henry Vlll was King of England it is rumoured that he introduced a beard tax. According to this rumour, the tax would go up the higher the social position you had. Now, we have to take this information with a pinch of salt and that is because King Henry was depicted as wearing a beard himself. It wouldn’t make sense to tax people for wearing a beard when he wore one. Still, stranger things have happened but there is no evidence to support this theory, thankfully!
In the 1560s beards were gaining more popularity than ever and many men had taken to wearing them. William Shakespeare is one of the most famous beard lovers of this time and often wrote about bearded men in his plays. In fact, in these plays women mocked beardless men, asking if they were supposed to dress them in their clothes.
To beard or not to beard, that wasn’t even a question! It was however a necessity and those without beards were seen as boys or feminine men. Having a beard was a sign of masculinity and of manhood itself. It wasn’t Shakespeare himself who made the beard famous but he certainly added to the glamour of having one. The beard maketh the man.
Peter the Great
One person who did introduce a beard tax was Peter the Great.
In the 17th century, Peter the Great came to power in Russia. He ordered all men to shave off their beards. He then announce a beard tax and anyone seen with a beard had to pay or face serious consequences. Members of the public were allowed to enforce this tax themselves and more often than not would humiliate men who did have facial hair.
It is thought that the reason this came about was from his travels to Western Europe in the late 1690s. He saw evidence of men without facial hair and a lack of bearded men everywhere. He decided that was what he wanted to have in his country. Not wanting Russia to fall behind the rest of Europe he implemented his tax and eliminated beards in Russia. It was 1772 before this most ridiculous of taxes was eliminated.
I sometimes wonder if the current government of the UK might start to charge a beard tax. It wouldn’t surprise me if they did but I imagine it would cause more of a stir now than it did back then.
Thank you for reading A History of Beards – Part Four. Don’t forget to read Parts One, Two and Three if you haven’t already. In the penultimate A History of Beards we look at the 18th and 19th centuries and what having a beard meant in those days.
Take care and keep growing
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