Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tiff over Tonsures

by Kim Rendfeld

In my forthcoming novel, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, my heroine’s 9-year-old daughter asks an interesting question about accepting an offer of baptism in 772: “Do we have to shave our hair in that strange way?”

From the ninth century Sacramenty of Charles the Bald
The reply from Anglo-Saxon priest Father Osbald: “No, child. The tonsure is an honor reserved only for men of the clergy.”

To Father Osbald, there is only one true tonsure, the Roman style, or that of Saint Peter. It’s the style we’re most familiar with - the head shaved except for a circle along the outside, resembling the Crown of Thorns.

But the priest would have been aware of a century-old controversy over which tonsure is the right one, the Roman or the Celtic, associated with St. John. (Another type, the Eastern, or St. Paul’s, where the whole head is shaved, was not part of the dispute.)

Speculation about the shape of the Celtic tonsure varies. Either the back of the head is shaved ear to ear, or the forehead is shaved in a similar fashion, or the shaven area resembles a triangle. Scholar Daniel McCarthy, who examined primary sources, believes the Celtic tonsure was triangular, with the apex forming a V above the forehead. As the name implies, the Celtic tonsure was favored by the northern Irish and the Picts, especially those who followed the Rule of Saint Columbanus.

Stone sculpture of a Celtic hero
The controversy existed at least since 672. In a letter to the king of Cornwall and Devon, Aldhelm, abbot of Malmsbury, is none too pleased to hear rumors of clerics refusing to wear the tonsure of Saint Peter. Aldhelm goes on to allege that the Celtic style was worn by Simon Magus, a sorcerer who appears in the Acts of the Apostles.

Eighth century writers would echo Aldhelm’s claims of the Celtic tonsure’s link with Simon Magus, even though the evidence Simon wore his hair that way is hearsay at best. However, the triangular shape might have been favored by magi in Biblical times and resembled a style worn by druids.

The controversy over the clerical haircut, along with when to celebrate the Resurrection, would continue through the eighth century and at least into the ninth, as evidenced by an 817 order from Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, to the Abbey of Landevenec to conform to the Roman tonsure.

A clerical dispute over a haircut might seem a bit baffling to us in the 21st century. But in medieval times, a hairstyle was a statement of faith. According to a legend on the origin of the tonsure, people who wanted to mock Saint Peter shaved his head, but Christ blessed his apostle, transforming the dishonor into a crown “with the stone and rock of faith,” as Germanus of Constantinople puts it.

Priests and monks would want to imitate Saint Peter, the first pope, not a damned sorcerer.

Images are in the public domain or used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, via Wikimedia Commons.

"On the Shape of the Insular Tonsure," Daniel McCarthy
"Tonsure," Catholic Encyclopedia
On the Divine Liturgy by Germanus of Constantinople


Kim Rendfeld is the author of two books set in Carolingian Francia: The Cross and the Dragon, a tale of love amid wars and blood feuds, and the forthcoming The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, a story of the lengths a mother will go to protect her children. Fireship Press is the publisher for both. For more about Kim and her fiction, visit kimrendfeld.com or her blog, Outtakes. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Nice post.

    The shape of the tonsure was one of the things debated and decided upon at the Synod of Whitby, back in 664.


    However, the decision seems to have been primarily adopted in Northumbria. It is interesting to see you cite later sources that show that the Synod had not led to everyone following the Roman traditions.

  2. Daniel McCarthy mentions the Synod of Whitby in his paper, along with three Northumbrians who weighed in on the matter decades later. It was interesting to see this as an issue even in the ninth century.

  3. So interesting! I've always wondered about the origin of the tonsure. I never had any idea there was a controversy about it!

  4. The controversy goes back further than the synod of Whitby in fact. It was one of the causes of dispute between the augustine mission and the Welsh Bishops circa 603/604


  5. The picture of the stone statue is interesting - the one seems to show he celtic tonsure witha bare back of the head. It is hard to find any specific comments in 603 about what exactly was the difference so that is interesting.

  6. Daniel McCarthy goes into great length with the varied descriptions, including one that resembles the stone carving. He argues the Celtic tonsure might have had the shaved area shaped like a triangle and shows manuscript images consistent with it.


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