Hair, Beards, Clothing, and Masculinity in Early Christianity

Above Image:This is an image of Jesus created by a CGI model in 2001 suggesting that Jesus’s skin color would have been darker and more olive-colored than his traditional depictions in Western art. Note also his short hair, in contrast to common modern depictions of a long haired Jesus, which is likely accurate in light of general Hebrew and Christian condemnations of long hair on men during the first century.

Something a bit different here, but what follows is a brief selection from a much lengthier chapter of my dissertation that looked at warrior manliness and crusading. This is taken from an early chapter that considered early Christian views of appropriate hair and dress and how those views later influenced the way medieval clerics judged warriors on the same. 

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Many early Christian commentators worried about the effeminization of Christian men on issues related to hair and clothing. Their concerns were primarily over the abilities of men, who had adopted hair and clothing styles that were perceived as feminine, to remain strong in an age of persecution. Tertullian, for example, worried that the Christian man who had lost the visible signs of manliness would fail when the virtue of his manhood was challenged by the threat of martyrdom.[1] Thus, for many early Christian writers, it was important to promote a standard of masculine dress and hair that would, in their view, contribute to the manly resolve with which Christian men faced the physical and spiritual dangers of the world.

Concerns over Christians maintaining appropriate male hairstyles began as early as the era of the New Testament. Although some Old Testament texts had encouraged the growth of longer hair for men in some cases, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians specifically prohibited long hair, noting that “…if a man grows his hair long, it is a dishonor to him.”[2]  Paul’s condemnation was referenced well into Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages by Christian authors who sought to discourage men from growing their hair long because it was viewed as a sign of femininity.[3]  Indeed, Paul explicitly associated long hair with femininity observing that, in sharp contrast to men dishonoring themselves with long hair, long hair was a woman’s “glory.”[4]

Paul’s views on hair may have influenced many later Christian authors who also saw the maintenance of long or non-traditional hair styles to be unbecoming of a man.[5] Clement of Alexandria, for example, the early third century head of the noted Catechetical School of Alexandria and the teacher of Origen, also emphasized the distinction between men and women concerning hair, noting it was “womanly” for a man to comb himself “for the sake of fine effect and to arrange his hair at the mirror, shave his cheeks, pluck hairs out of them, and smooth them!” Clement objected because “God wished women to be smooth and to rejoice in their locks alone growing spontaneously, as a horse in his mane.” As for men, Clement noted, “But He has adorned man, like the lions, with a beard, and endowed him as an attribute of manhood, with a hairy chest, a sign of strength and rule.”[6] Indeed, the early fourth-century Christian apologist Arnobius lashed out against men who did not maintain such distinctions and instead feminized their appearance by curling their hair and shaving their bodies. He complained that although “in the forms of men,” they “…curl their hair with crisping-pins, to make the skin of the body smooth, to walk with bare knees.” In doing so, Arnobius argued, they “lay aside the strength of their manhood to grow in effeminacy to a woman’s habits.”[7] One may also consider Prudentius’ fourth century account of the life and conversion of Cyprian of Carthage. Prudentius writes of a physical transformation that happens to Cyprian as a result of his conversion, in which his long hair, elegant style, and softness of skin were replaced by short hair and an austere look when he became a Christian.[8] The concern of these writers was not only that this type of effeminate behavior gave men the appearance and mannerisms of women, but that such behavior could also soften their moral resolve in times of crisis.[9]

The beard also served as a sign of manhood in the early Christian community as the ability to grow facial hair separated men from boys.[10] Additionally, many influential early Church fathers promoted the beard as a sign of Christian manhood. Clement of Alexandria, for example, noted that the beard was a sign of man’s superior nature while Lactantius held that the beard contributed to the “beauty of manliness and strength.”[11] Indeed, eunuchs, who by means of their castration had lost the ability to grow facial hair, were no longer recognizable as men in the Christian community.[12]

Early Christian masculine ideals also extended to clothing and appearance, which provided for sharp distinctions to differentiate early Christians from non-Christians.[13] In the first and second centuries the toga clearly marked the Roman male citizen from the non-citizen. Early Christian men also used dress as a marker by favoring much simpler garments like the pallium, a rectangular cloak associated with philosophers, and simply thrown over the body in contrast to the much more complicated stylish folding of the toga. Indeed, Tertullian argued that the cumbersome toga was not suited to the simpler and humbler life of the Christian man and asserted it would be wrong for a Christian to wear a toga because of its association with the Roman civic and political world, which was the traditional domain of Roman men alone.[14] The Romans would have viewed the Christian unwillingness to embrace Roman fashions as a sign of their inferiority. Indeed, the Roman phrase a toga ad pallium referred to the lowering of one’s social status, and this also held significant gendered implications for how Romans viewed Christian men.[15] To Romans, the Roman way of doing things, including dress, defined masculinity, and anything that fell outside that definition was inferior and feminized. Thus non-Roman men, as well as Roman men who did not abide by Roman norms, were not seen as masculine and were often equated with women.[16]

Regardless of Roman criticisms, early Christians defined their own standards of masculine dress with seemingly little concern about Roman opinion on what Christians, either men or women, should wear. To begin with, Jesus saw it as unimportant for his followers to maintain the fashions of their day as he reportedly told his followers on multiple occasions to have no concerns for their clothing.[17] Paul of Tarsus echoed the lack of concern Jesus had for fashion by calling for Christians to dress plainly and modestly. This was particularly the case for Christian women, whom he called on to dress, “with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.”[18] Thus both Jesus and Paul called on Christians, men and women, to have no regard for Roman ideals of clothing, regardless of whether such ideals promoted a particularly masculine or feminine appearance according to Roman standards. Indeed, Roman standards of dress were supposed to be irrelevant for Christians, who were to forge their own standards of appropriate masculine and feminine dress.

In defining new Christian standards of dress, early Christian writers would have been familiar with the prohibition on men wearing women’s clothes as found in Deuteronomy.[19] Clement of Alexandria, for example, reminded his readers of the prohibition on men wearing women’s clothing: “What reason is there in the Law’s prohibition against a man wearing woman’s clothing? Is it not that it would have us to be masculine and not to be effeminate in either person or actions?”[20] Similarly, Tertullian argued on multiple occasions that, according to God’s law, men who wore women’s clothes were cursed.[21] Indeed, Christian men and women dressed in recognizably different ways as men were expected to wear rougher clothing than women and women were expected to cover more of their bodies to avoid engendering lust in men.[22] Thus Christian men were to avoid feminine clothing mostly for the same reasons they avoided womanly hairstyles; to avoid becoming “effeminate in person or actions.” Yet the issue of men as a temptation to women was also a concern as were practical issues related to gendered dress. In Clement’s gendered distinctions on footwear, for example, he notes that a woman should “for the most part” wear shoes as it is not suitable for the foot to be shown naked and because a woman is a “tender thing.” In contrast, Clement argues that men, presumably much more rugged than women, should go barefoot with the exception of when they are on military service.[23]

During the fourth century, a number of Christian writers also condemned the pagan Galli priests, who represented one of Christianity’s chief rivals.[24] Christian condemnations focused on the perceived femininity of Galli men, allowing for clear gendered distinctions between Galli norms and Christian masculine ideals. According to the mid-fourth century Latin Christian writer Firmucus Maturnus, Galli men were impure, polluted, and unchaste, and transgressed the boundaries of gender through their hair, dress, and mannerisms. Maternus condemned the Galli for their “effeminately nursed hair” and “soft clothes,” which he claimed made them “alien to masculinity.”[25]

The fifth-century theologian John Cassian wrote about the appropriate dress for monks. He devoted much of his Institutes of Coenobia to the issue and attributed his views on the issue to the teachings of the early Fathers.[26] In outlining the proper dress of monks, Cassian noted that “as a soldier of Christ ever ready for battle, [a monk] ought always to walk with his loins girded.” The ideal he pointed to for emulation was based on a biblical description of the prophet Elijah, who Cassian claimed could be “recognized without the slightest doubt” as a “man of God” by the “evidence of the girdle and the look of the hairy and unkempt body.” He much preferred the modest and practical functions of the monkish robe, noting it should be used to cover the body, prevent nudity and protect from the elements. It should also be modest in appearance and “so far removed from this world’s fashions as to remain altogether common property for the use of the servants of God.” Monks also might wear sheepskin or goat skin, which was meant to signify that they had “destroyed all wantonness of carnal passions.” [27] Monks also sometimes wore  hair shirts for the purpose of self humbling and as a form of mortification to impede the passions.[28]  Indeed, at the time of Anthony’s death in the mid-fourth century, his biographer Athanasius claims that all he left behind to his fellow monks was a hair garment and two sheep skins, literally the clothes on his back.[29]

[1] Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch, 219.

[2] See 1 Corinthians 11:14, Judges 13:5 and Numbers 6:5. Paul’s concerns of hair may also have reflected Roman influence. Paul was a Roman citizen and Roman authors of the first century wrote of short hair as a distinctly masculine trait. See Bernadette J. Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 52.

[3] See Robert Bartlett, “Symbolic Meanings of Hair in the Middle Ages”, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 4 (1994), 51-52.

[4] I Corinthians 11:14.

[5] Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch, 225.

[6] Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, 275. The emphasis on hairiness for men and smoothness for women was not solely a Christian concept. Since at least the first century, Roman philosophers had written of hairiness as a natural distinction between men and women. See Brooten, Love Between Women, 276-277.

[7] Arnobius, “The Seven Books of Arnobius Against the Heathen: Adversus Gentes,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 6: Gregory Thaumaturgus, Dionysius the Great, Julius Africanus, Anatolius and Minor Writers, Methodius, Arnobius. Eds. Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe.  (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1978), 450. In addition to prohibitions on curling or combing hair, Christian men were also to avoid dying their hair to look younger. See Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, 255. Cyprian also admonished those who dyed their hair. See Cyprian of Carthage, “Treatise II: On the Dress of Virgins,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, Appendix. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. Eds. Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, A. Cleveland Coxe,  (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1951), 434. Clement also advocated that men keep their hair clipped short for practical reasons and “not for the sake of elegance.” See Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, 286.  Epiphanius of Salamis, the fourth-century metropolitan of Cyprus, argued that Jesus, who represented the Christian masculine ideal, had short hair while the Apostolic Constitutions, compiled around the year 390, declared that men were to cut their hair short in an effort to diminish their appearance and avoid enticing women. See “Constitutions of the Holy Apostles,” in Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7. Eds. Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, A. Cleveland Coxe, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1951), 392.

[8] Prudentius, “Peristephanon Liber, “ in Prudentius Vol. II. Trans. H.J. Thomson (Cambridge: Havard University Press, 1953), 330. See also Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch, 143.

[9] Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch, 218-219. Kuefler notes, “Such effeminate behavior not only gave men the appearance and mannerisms of women… but it also softened their moral complexions along with their physical complexions…the Christian man who had lost his manliness could not but fail when his virtue was tested by the threat of martyrdom.”

[10] Bartlett, “Symbolic Meanings of Hair,” 43.

[11] Lactantius, “On the Workmanship of God, or the Formation of Man,” in Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7. Eds. Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, A. Cleveland Coxe, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1951) 288.

[12] Brown, Body and Society, 169.

[13] Harlow, “Clothes Maketh the Man,” 44.

[14] Harlow, “Clothes Maketh the Man,” 62-63. See also Mary Harlow, “The Impossible Art of Dressing to Please: Jerome and the Rhetoric of Dress.” Objects in Context, Objects in Use: Material Spatiality in Late Antiquity, ed. Luke Lavan, E. Switft, and T. Putzeys (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 540.

[15] Harlow, “Clothes Maketh the Man,” 47.

[16] Harlow, “Clothes Maketh the Man,” 44-45.

[17] Matthew, 6:25. “…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” See also Matthew 6:28, “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.”

[18] 1 Timothy 2:9-10. Paul’s views on feminine dress were reiterated by the author of the First Epistle of Peter, which advises Christian women that their beauty “…should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” See 1 Peter 3: 3-4. The Christian aversion to immodest dress was further reinforced in the Book of Revelation, in which the “great harlot”, who is “Babylon the Great,” is described as wearing “…purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.” See Revelation, 17: 1-5.

[19] Deuteronomy 22:5.

[20] Clement of Alexandria, “The Stromata,” in The Ante Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: WM. B.  Erdmams, 1979), 365. The early Fathers also seem to have been especially concerned with dyed clothing, as their works contain several prohibitions against it. Clement, for example, noted that Christians should only wear white clothing as it was “befitting to seriousness.” See Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, 284. Tertullian also argued that Christians should wear only natural colors, for God had not made sheep fleeces purple. See Tertullian, “On the Apparel of Women,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth ; Minucius Felix ; Commodian ; Origen, Parts First and Second. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4 Eds. Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, A. Cleveland Coxe, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1956), 17. Similarly, Cyprian of Carthage noted that “God neither made the sheep scarlet nor purple, nor taught the juices of herbs and shellfish to dye and color wool.” See Cyprian of Carthage, On the Dress of Virgins, 434.

[21] See Tertullian, “On Idolatry,” in  Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian : Three Parts, I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Eds. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1957), 71. See also Tertullian, “The Shows, or De Spectaculis,” in  Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian : Three Parts, I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Eds. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1957), 89.

[22] For the risks associated with women engendering lust in men see Matthew 5:28 and Paul’s efforts to address such concerns in 1 Timothy 2. Clement held men should wear rougher clothing than women. See Harlow, “The Impossible Art of Dressing to Please,” 542. See also Cyprian of Carthage, who emphasized the importance of modest dress for the maintenance of “continence and modesty.” See Cyprian of Carthage, On the Dress of Virgins, 431.

[23] Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, 267. Another possibility is that Clement sought to be obedient to what he may have interpreted as a biblical prohibition on Christ’s disciples wearing shoes as found in the Gospel of Matthew 10:10. John Cassian, however, has a much more ambiguous attitude towards shoes. He acknowledges the concerns of earlier Christian writers, such as Clement of Alexandria, but also makes allowances for the wearing of shoes under certain circumstances. For example, while Cassian cites the biblical prohibitions on the wearing of shoes on holy ground to argue that monks should be barefoot when they “celebrate or… receive the holy mysteries,” he is also willing to allow for the use of sandals “if bodily weakness or the morning cold in winter or the scorching heat of midday compels them.” See Cassian, Institutes, 204. On the biblical prohibitions on wearing shoes on holy ground see Exod. 3:5 and Josh. 5:16.

[24] Will Roscoe, “Priests of the Goddess: Gender Transgression in Ancient Religion,” History of Religions 35:3 (1996):195-196.

[25] Roscoe, “Priests of the Goddess,” 196. Roscoe points out how, in a similar way, Augustine of Hippo had condemned the Galli for their “dripping hair” and “painted faces” as well as their “flowing limbs and effeminate walk.”

[26] John Cassian, “The Twelve Books of John Cassian of the Institutes of the Coenobia and the Remedies for the Eight Principle Faults,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series, Vol. 11. Eds Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids, Mich.: WM. B. Eerdmans, 1978) 403-708. Cassian notes, “And, therefore, whatever models we see were not taught either by the saints of old who laid the foundations of the monastic life, or by the fathers of our own time who in their turn keep up at the present day their customs, these we also should reject as superfluous and useless.”

[27] Cassian, Institutes, 201-203.

[28] Sterk, Renouncing the World, 52.

[29] Athanasius, Select Works and Letters, 220.

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