Beards and Hair on an Irish Cross at Monasterboice (Louth)
and in the earlier Book of Kells (early 9th century).

Mutual masturbation and the accompanying guilt was a common concern amongst celibate monks, but the beardpullers on Muiredeach's Cross at Monasterboice do not seem to be monks, since they have their hair (and perhaps their beards) in a kind of bag worn by the rich and known as a tresse. These figures seem therefore to represent luxury and strife - and very possibly represent the poly-autonomous monastic Coptic-Celtic Irish church's anxiety at being slowly and inexorably taken over and superseded by Continental catholisicm.

Burgundian Romanesque beardpullers ->
Compare with a superb High Romanesque Burgundian capital with the same subject, and a tongue-sticking beast, at Anzy-le-Duc.


Also on Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice is a clever interlace of beards (below) symbolising - what ? - the companionship or the mortal danger lurking in the companionship of monks ?


And what are the cat-like lions doing underneath this panel - are they the hellish beasts so omnipresent on and in Romanesque churches ?

Muiredach's Cross, South side.



In the Book of Kells (f.253v) is an interesting pair of men each of whom holds the other's beard at the point where it becomes a single tendril or stem which becomes a typically insane piece of knotwork.

Why one of them is holding his leg in such a surely significant manner is a mystery to me, though perhaps explained somewhere in the vast literature which has accrued around this and other Irish manuscripts.


Ithyphallic Norse statue of the male fertility god Freyr from roughly the same time.

click for more metal examples



Compare the picture above with a contemporaneous (or slightly earlier) carving at Meigle in Perthshire (Scotland).

Click for beards on a remarkable 12th century Irish reliquary-shrine

Click for beard-pullers on several Romanesque capitals >

A wonderful beard which is also a giant cockle-shell (emblem of St James)
on the church of San Marinha de Xinso la Limia in Galicia.





century, when a pudding-bowl hairstyle and shaved face became popular among the upper classes. This lasted until the beginning of the 1520s, when the fashion for beards resumed amongst the princes and dukes of Italy, and quickly spread beyond the Alps. If shaving mimics the female face (and thus suggests androgyny), a beard mimics the female pubic area - and thus also has an androgynous quality.

In the same years that beards came back into fashion, swords for the first time became fashionable accoutrements in polite company. This was a time of retro-fashion, with portraits of gentlemen holding helmets, wearing fancy spurs and breastplates.

Ranuccio Farnese son of pope Paul III.

Controversies raged in the 16th century over the wearing by, and proscription of beards on, the higher and lower clergy, but beards became so fashionable that even some popes sported splendid growths.

Pope Paul III - whose Bull Sublimus Dei specifically allowed clerical beards.

In 1534, Henry VIII of England introduced a tax on the recently-fashionable beard.

In Russia, Peter the Great tried to proscribe beards in the interests of 'modernisation'. On his return in 1698 from a Grand Tour of the West, where beards had become deeply unfashionable, he shaved off his advisers' beards himself and made those who defied the law pay a hefty fine and carry a special gold beard token.

The last time that beards were actually proscribed in Eurasia was in post-war Albania, because Enver Hoxha (whose first name means 'Imam') hated Orthodox Christians and Bektashi Muslims alike - and hence their characteristic beards. Even the few tourists who were allowed into Albania had to be clean-shaven.

The next period of general beardlessness started towards the end of the 17th century and coincided with the restoration of the monarchy in England and the accession to the French throne of the young, beardless Louis XIV, whose father sported a handsome moustache and a little triangular hairy bit under his mouth.

I heard on the radio that Chopin wore a beard on only one side of his face.

But by the middle of the 19th century, beards crept back into view, via military necessity during the Crimean War, and through the elongation of side-whiskers (or sideburns, named after the American general Burnside) which eventually met around the chin. Moustaches (which have a separate history, sometimes being fashionable when beards were not - as in the 1920s and 1930s) were added.

Leopold II of the Belgians, the butcher-by-proxy of the Congo.

Queen Victoria recorded in her diary her orgasmic reaction to bearded 'heroes' returning from the Crimean War, during which the sanction against beards in the British army was lifted because of the difficulty of shaving. Almost everything in the second half of the 19th century was inspired by militarism and by militant Christianity, and beards are no exception. Charles Dickens was also instrumental not only in creating the ghastly modern Christmas out of nothing, but also in making the beard de rigueur - but only for men. The devastating Frontier mentality of the USA associated beards with superiority (the natives were beardless), as did the empire-builders and snatchers of Europe. Abraham Lincoln was the first US President to sport a full beard (via converging side-whiskers). Four more followed, before President Taft bowed out at the beginning of the First World War, when beards quickly disappeared (their removal also encouraged by the discomfort of lice), and have not re-appeared until recently. However, President Clinton sported one in his pseudo-hippy phase, but would have been ineluctably unelectable for almost any important office had he retained it.

Gillette's invention of the safety razor with disposable blade in 1904 enabled the subsequent rapid disappearance of beards, and the first World War finished them off because gas masks required a seal with smooth skin in order to function.

British politicians have tended to be trichophobic. One of the few British prime ministers to have a beard for a while - and a pathetic tuft at that - was Benjamin Disraeli.

Beards may slowly be coming back into fashion, via the 'unshaven look' designed to emphasise the 'manly' jaw that beards tend to hide, and via a homo-erotic sub-culture which admires them for a variety of social and æsthetic reasons.

read more on the BBC website +>


beards as defenders against infection +>



"I cultivate this beard, not for the usual given reasons of skin trouble or pain of shaving,
nor for the secret purpose of covering a weak chin,
but as pure, unblushing decoration, much as a peacock finds pleasure in his tail.
And finally, in our time a beard is the one thing a woman cannot do better than a man,
or if she can, her success is assured only in a circus."

- John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley (1961)

A mediocre beard, alas!

Female beards

The most impressive female beard in history belonged to Queen Hapshetsut (c. 1480 BC) who proclaimed herself Pharaoh after the death of her husband, Thutmose II, and wore a long, plaited false beard as part of her royal dress. St Wilgefortis and St Paula both sprouted miraculous beards to preserve their chastity by discouraging potential rapists.

The current world record holder is Vivian Wheeler from Illinois, who started growing her fine beard in 1993 after her mother's death. "It showed me I could be proud of being me," she said. "It made me feel like I had a chance in society."

More bearded ladies.
click for more

In the 16th century, hirsute ladies were not regarded as freaks. Members of the Gonzales or Gontsalvus family (from Tenerife) had a condition known as Hypertrichosis (excess of hair), and one of them, Antonietta, was painted in Parma 1585 (aged 11 or 12) by a female painter, Lavinia Fontana. This portrait can be seen in the Musée de Blois, in France. She is holding a handwritten account of her life up to that time. Her father, also wonderfully hairy, had been received as a boy into the French court, and became Royal Breadserver to king Henri II, but later moved to Italy.

In France, also, are several images of the spurious Saint Wilgefortis, unsurprisingly de-canonised by the Second Vatican Council in 1969.
The statue shown below is at Wissages in the Pas-de-Calais. Not far to the south, at Arques, is another one, which was the subject of devotion by Ernest Dowson when he was in France comforting Oscar Wilde after the latter's release from prison.

St Wilgeforte

The best known statue of Wilgefortis, however, is in the church of Loreto in Prague, in the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows. (Postcards are available.)

The legend recounts that as a young noblewoman, Wilgefortis' father (in some versions he is the king of Portugal) had promised her to a pagan king (in some versions the King of Sicily, who might or might not have been a Moor and not a king). The pious Wilgefortis would have nothing to do with such defilement, so she took a vow of virginity and prayed for a miracle to save her from a fate worse than death.. Lo and behold! (for the Lord works in myserious ways) Wilgefortis sprouted a beard worthy of any freak-show. The engagement was, of course called off. Because the patriarchy is awesome, her father flew into a rage at her unfeminine miracle and had Wilgefortis crucified. She is now prayed to by women who wish to be “unencumbered” of abusive husbands, but it is a mystery which Edward Dowson, a seeker after young girls, prayed to a statue which only a pervert like myself would find attractive.

The real story, however, is as good as the legend created to explain a wooden carving from the 11th century. The 'Volto Santo' or Holy Face in Lucca is an unbearded carving of Jesus on the cross, believed to have been the work of a certain Nicodemus.. Instead of the customary, attractively-arranged loin cloth, Jesus is less titillatingly clad in a full-length tunic. He was commonly clothed this way in the earlier Middle Ages, but the practice had been discontinued.

Thus, when copies of the Volto Santo of Lucca began to appear in Northern Europe,.where real men wore trousers and women wore dresses, the unfamiliar image was explained by the wonderful legend of St Wilgefortis. This name derives from the Old High German “heilige Vartez”, or Holy Face. Wilgefortis became extremely popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with different names all over Europe (Liberata, Kummernis, Uncumber, and (in France) Livrade), translating to everything from “Strong Virgin” to “The Liberator”. She is easy to overlook - but just keep an eye out for a statue that looks exactly like Jesus in a frock.

click here for an even more bogus saint

and here for one perhaps a bit less bogus (6 on the Bogus Scale)

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Click for more photos of the late Oscar Wolfman


I would like a lover
who looks like my teddybear
who will ask me to do
what I want to do
and travel with me
to the inner and the outer.

As for sex
I have no preference -
but not many women look like my
though I saw a splendidly
hirsute lady in Paris.




Saint Onouphrios spent forty years in the desert "clad only in his own hair".

More on St Onouphrios

click the picture for more on St Onouphrios

St Kiaran's Well, Dumfries

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Beards have often been an indication of holiness or unworldliness.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.


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