the beard and its history through the ages
History of the Beard
Everyone loves a good story, and the history of the beard has been long and chequered. And the beard has not always been as popular as it is today. So let us head back in time and follow its long journey throughout history…
Throughout history, attitudes towards beards has been varied, and the beard styles and types that developed in each culture all have reasons for existing. From the long beards made colourful from hair dye to show that indicated wealth in ancient Egypt, to the clean shaven soldiers returning home from World War 1 who had to be clean shaven to wear gas masks in order to survive gas attacks; the history of beards is definitely a story worth telling, and a story worth hearing.
History of Beards – Where it all Began
The Early Beards
Scientists speculate that back when man (or caveman) was newly evolved and living in caves, completely animalistic and uncivilised, there were three reasons to grow a beard (apart from the fact razors had yet to be invented):
- Warmth: hair is a good source of protecting your skin from the harsh environments that we had to deal with before civilisation, houses, long-johns etc. which is why our body grows it over most of our skin, however beards grew noticeably larger and quicker due to how sensitive our skin is around the mouth when compared to other parts of the body.
- Intimidation: It is commonly held throughout history that with a beard comes power (as it makes our jaw line look much thicker and stronger), so it is clear that back when we were most primitive we would grow beards as a form of intimidating other males for their territory or to protect our family.
- Protection: Among protecting our families and territory through intimidation, with more hair comes more cushioning for our face from oncoming punches and blows. They would have grown thicker beards so that their face had better protection while they were fighting.
However, even though there were plenty of good reasons for growing a beard, there is evidence of shaving beards dating back to as early as 100,000 B.C., and the earliest razors dating back to 30,000 B.C. where they would use sea shells to rip the hair from their faces (ouch).
In Ancient Egypt the population would always follow the trends that the ruling classes set, so when the rich men of Egypt began to grow beards, the rest of the population would quickly follow, and not having a beard was frowned upon. We know that long beards were in style and popular in the earlier periods of Ancient Egypt as the men made immortal in the statues and wall paintings showed off long, well-groomed chin hair. Beards were specifically found on depictions of old rulers of Egypt and on the mummy masks that have been recovered from the ancient civilisation.
However, beards did not last forever in Egypt as soon the upper classes began to favour shaving instead of growing one out, and so it became fashionable to shave ones face instead of bear any hair on it. As shaving one’s beard became more fashionable, so did the growing distaste towards those that were too slow to get with the trend, and you were considered to be of poor status if you did not shave. You were only forgiven of growing a beard if you had recently lost a family member or close friend, and were mourning their death.
Although it was seen as a poor attribute to have a beard, they were still revered by the culture itself as the gods are depicted with beards even after they went out of fashion. Because of this, the pharaoh would strap one to his face on special occasions to show that he was indeed a god among man; as they were believed to be. This was seen as such a popular and necessary presentation of Egypt’s rulers that even depictions of Queen Hatshepsut and Cleopatra show them wearing false beards.
Ancient Macedonia and Greece
In Ancient Macedonia, among the soldiers specifically, beards were discouraged as the generals, Alexander the Great to be more specific, did not want them to have an effect on the battles that the soldiers would take part in. For example, a soldier with a long beard could have that beard grabbed by the enemy and used to pull him around, gaining an advantage over him. They could also get in the way of the equipment and be a general nuisance when on long marches or in battle. (just as a side-note, it is also speculated by some that Alexander the Great could not himself grow a long beard, so he outlawed it to hide this unfortunate loss of masculinity).
Macedonia is one of the only civilisations within the Mesopotamian civilisations that did not favour the beard. In the other civilisations of this period beards would be incredibly popular; they would be grown out to huge lengths, oiled, styled in many interesting ways etc. and it was only Macedonia that did not follow this trend (maybe due to Alexander the Great being unable to grow one, or maybe due to something else).
Moving on to Ancient Greece, the beards were very popular there. Grown out, groomed, considered a sign of power and wealth etc. even the infamous Greek Spartans put so much importance on their beards that if one among them was to commit cowardice, they would have a section of their beard shaved off as punishment. However, like the ancient Egyptians, as the civilisation progressed so did the popularity of shaving, and soon beards were an uncommon thing to see among the general population.
The Romans saw this same progression from beards to shaving, only it happened earlier than it did in Greece. When it became popular in Rome to shave ones face, beards were still common in Greece. So whether or not someone had a beard became an accurate way of assuming their nationality; if a Roman saw a man with a shaven face, he would assume he was looking at a fellow Roman, and if he saw a bearded face then he would assume he was looking at a Greek.
However, you would still see beards in Rome, common among the upper classes and philosophers especially; beards were a sign that you were experienced and wise. Because of this, some aspiring youngsters would smother their faces with oil in an attempt to grow a beard, as the individuals with them were so respected.
Of all of the Emperors of Rome only one ever grew a beard, and it was well after shaving had already come into fashion (he needed the beard to hide facial scars). After this, beards started to grow in popularity again as everybody was desperate to be more like their ruler.
Beards in Ancient India were very precious. It was unrestricted, allowed to grow as long as it could grow, and like the Spartans of Greece, if one was to commit a crime such as adultery, it would be a suitably punishing act to shave off the offending parties beard. The beard was so sacred to a man in India that if they were to find themselves in crippling debt, they would have to shave off their beard and give it to those they were indebted to as security for if they do not pay. It was not uncommon for a man with a long beard to style it to show off the symbol of wisdom that it was thought to be.
According to Chinese philosopher Confucius, no alterations should be made to the human body as it is a gift from one’s parents to oneself. This led to the Chinese people refraining from any altercations to their bodies (besides tattoos), including not cutting their fingernails or toenails, and not shaving their moustache or beard (it is important to note that there were no laws prohibiting shaving, it was just not encouraged). However, not everybody was able to follow this philosophy and its teachings, as some had jobs that would make it harder to comply with; soldiers and farmers for example did shave to avoid the hair from getting in the way of their work.
(Side note: most Chinese beards depicted from those times were long and thin, with the moustaches resembling the whiskers of a cat)
The Middle Ages (5th Century – 15th Century)
With the fall of the Roman Empire came the rise of Germanic tribes and Christianity; both holding very different views of beards.
The Germanic tribes considered beards to be an important part of their identity, and not unlike the Spartans in Greece, the beard was related to power, honour, strength etc. and if you wanted to shave it then you would have to prove yourself worthy of the change by shedding blood in combat for your tribe; until you killed a man, you would have to keep growing your beard. But this did not mean that long beards were frowned upon, it merely showed that you were capable of shaving if you were capable of killing.
To give a rough idea of just how important beards were to the Germanic tribes, their leader in the 8th Century ‘Odo the Great’ would (just as we ‘swear’ to God) ‘swear’ to his beard to put emphasis on the truth of his words.
(Side note: Not all tribes put this importance on beards however; The Celts of the middle ages were different from the Germanic tribes as they would have incredibly long hair and moustaches, but no beard at all)
As the Middle Ages progressed from the tribes into the different countries of France, England, Normandy etc. beards remained a very common feature of the men.
Again, the knights would treasure their beards as they would derive worth from them, and to grab a man’s beard would be a great insult and led to many duels to the death.
All Kings of the middle ages would sport large beards; William the Conqueror, King Richard the Lionheart, King Richard the Second etc. all have paintings depicting their thick beards.
Christianity however, took a different view on beards, and although it wasn’t frowned upon to grow one, the more important members of the clergy would be clean shaven as it was seen to them to be a sign of celibacy and purity if you had no beard.
So in the Middle Ages, unlike many previous civilisations that came before, it was not the case that beards started off common and progressed to be frowned upon, it was instead the case that throughout the era, unless you were a holy priest of Christianity, you had a large beard to take pride in.
The Renaissance (14th Century – 17th Century)
The Renaissance was a time of sorrow for all those who were poor and wished to sport a chin covered in thick hair, as when King Henry VIII came into power he introduced a tax against them. Growing a beard, or even going as far as wearing a fake one, was a taxable offense in England during the Renaissance if you were not of a suitable social class. In other words, if you were poor it was a crime to grow a beard, and if you were rich it was the latest fashion, due to the King growing one himself.
Even though the poor couldn’t grow beards, the rich were having plenty of fun with them. Louis XIII would amuse himself by shaving his subjects, and naming the result the ‘royal’. One of the more amusing facts about this time is that the beards became linked to masculinity again, but not for the reasons that the tribes of Europe gave. It was believed by the upper classes during the renaissance that the beard is hair leftover from the groin. With this belief came the reintroduction of no beards.
Shaving was reintroduced so brutally in the 17th Century that when Russia fell behind with the times and had beards when the rest of Europe did not, Peter the Great ordered the cutting off of all beards and introduced a beard tax (so desperate to rid Russia of beards, he personally shaved the beards of many Russian noblemen). Queen Elizabeth of England also hated beards, and so continued the beard tax that Henry VIII put in place. Europe remained beard-free during the 18th Century after the Renaissance.
The 19th Century
The 1800’s (19th Century) saw the rise of beards once again. In America, beards were made popular by the iconic chin hair of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, who was the first US President to sport a beard and sparked continuous beards and moustaches among all the following Presidents (apart from two) until William Howard Taft, the 26th US President.
Beards were not just reintroduced in America however, as Europe, especially in the 1850s, saw many leaders and cultural icons grow thick beards. This included Karl Marx, Napoleon III, and Charles Dickens. This brought back the idea that the Greeks had about beards; that they were a sign of experience and wisdom.
The 20th Century
The 20th Century saw us through two of the most brutal wars ever witnessed by humanity. Bloodshed, death, disease, starvation, and the decline of the beard once again. Although beards were on the general decline before World War 1, when it hit Europe every soldier had to shave any facial hair they may have been sporting due to the gas masks that they needed in the trenches (the masks could not be worn properly and safely by somebody with a beard easily the size of their face after all). So, with the end of the war also came the end of the beard for a few decades, as when the soldiers went home clean shaven, they stayed clean shaven. By the time of World War 2, the only facial hair one would see would be the pencil moustache (which came out of fashion monstrously fast after World War 2 for some reason…).
However, the 20th Century wasn’t even half over with the end of the last World War, there was still plenty of beard history to be made. Beards were not fully brought back into society until ‘counterculture’ of the 1960’s and 70’s. Hippie culture in America brought the beard back, with the sensational band ‘The Beatles’ sporting some of the best beards seen since Charles Darwin in the previous century. However, because of this culture it wasn’t just the hippies keeping their chins fluffy, the business men would follow suit as well; beards were practically all you could see in America during the 60s and 70s.
Beards in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church)
Mormonism (LDS Church) developed fairly recently in the US, and therefore their beliefs towards maintaining a beard are very similar to the rest of America at the time. It is generally encouraged for Mormons to be clean-shaven, but not because of the doctrine of the religion or texts at all, merely because the encouragement in society at the time was to be clean-shaven, with few beards being seen.
However, Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS Church, did have quite the beard in his time and so this encouraged many of his follows to follow suit. After leadership was passed down to someone else however, being clean-shaven was the more popular choice, and in higher education institutions funded by the church there was a prohibition against beards enforced on the students. Exceptions to this prohibition included serious skin conditions that need to be covered by the beard, and for being authentic during approved theatrical performances. Until 2015, no exception was given for any other reason to any of the students (regardless of if they were a member of the church or not).
The 21st Century
We aren’t even 1/5 of the way through this Century, and the beard has already left a significant mark on history, and who knows what those researching them in the 22nd Century will say. Although the history of the beard has it’s ups and downs, we can see that beards are cool and coming into fashion yet again (especially after 2010 and during this decade), and it is becoming increasingly common to see them. Hopefully the 21st Century is known as one that encouraged the growing of the beard, and fingers crossed there are no more beard taxes in the years to come.
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