Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Hairy Business

Sometimes, in my quest for knowledge, I jump on a hobby-horse and ride it into the ground. This time, I’m galloping along on the historical practice of tonsuring. I don’t have any particular aspirations; my interest in tonsures are purely research-oriented.

What caught my interest was an account by the Venerable Bede (ca. 731) of St. Theodore of Tarsus, the eighth Archbishop of Canterbury. St. Theodore was a Greek monk and, according to St. Bede, had the “tonsure of St. Paul,” which meant that his head was completely bald. It took St. Theodore four months for his hair to grow out so he could receive a Roman tonsure.



Contemporary icon of St. Theodore, with Roman tonsure.
I found this passage curious. As we all know, Eastern Orthodox monks do not keep their heads shaved but rather let their hair grow long. Moreover, I have found no iconographic evidence of this complete tonsure. My search for the “tonsure of St. Paul” yielded many references to the same event as related by St. Bede. In other words, what was presented by many as being the Eastern practice was only based on one historical source.

However, I did find one other reference in St. Germanos, the Patriarch of Constantinople. In his commentary on the Liturgy, he makes reference to the “total” (ὁλοτελῶς) tonsuring of the head “in imitation of the holy Apostle James, brother of the Lord, and of the Apostle Paul, and of the rest.” Thus, there was indeed a practice in the East to completely tonsure the head, and it was related to the Apostle Paul. However, whether or not this tonsure was a one-time event, or if the monks had to maintain their shorn state, is not known. Since St. Theodore was living in a Greek monastery in Rome, he might have been following the particular custom of his monastery. But this is simply speculation.


The Roman tonsure that St. Theodore received was named after the Holy Apostle Peter. St. Germanos relates the story of how St. Peter was shorn in this particular way by his enemies to make him a laughing-stock. Indeed, tonsures in Late Antiquity were given to slaves. However, the shorn head became instead a symbol of honor for Peter, and “changed dishonor into honor, ridicule into praise.” St. Peter’s tonsure in this case is a clerical tonsure, which was worn by all in the clerical state in both the East and West, and merely involves shaving the top part of the head. We can see it in this 7th century mosaic of Pope St. Symmachus:



St. Symmachus (†514)
The tonsure was also common among clerics in the East, as can be seen in this icon of St. Gregory Palamas (†1359):



Note: Some icons do not depict St. Gregory with a tonsure.
This kind of tonsure was known in the East as a papalethra (παπάλεθρα). It is also called a “wreath” (στέφανος), which is why St. Stephen is always depicted in his icon as having a tonsure:




The first (indirect) reference to the papalethra was in the Quinisext Council (692), which in its 21st canon penalized clerics who commit canonical crimes by deposing them and making them grow back the hair on their heads. In the West, monks also wore this kind of tonsure, but also shaved the hair along the bottom as well, making a kind of wreath of hair.




To sum up what I have found out so far:



  1. There was a common clerical tonsure shared by both East and West, in which the hair growing on the crown of the head was shaved off.
  2. There was also a tonsure particular to monks. In the East, this was the complete tonsuring of the head. In the West, the hair on both the top and bottom was shaved, making a wreath of hair.
Of course, I did not even yet mention the third option, the Celtic tonsure (ascribed to St. John), which was basically shaving all the hair on the front half of the head and letting the hair on the back grow long. This style of tonsure was very controversial and a cause of contention between the Celtic monks and their more Latin-minded brethren, who advocated the Roman tonsure and declared the Celtic practice as originating from either Druids or Simon Magus. However, from what I have read so far, this kind of tonsure was also practiced in parts of Gaul.

Clerics in the West continued to wear tonsures until Vatican II (which is why, incidentally, they started to wear skullcaps, in order to cover their tonsures). In the East, we started to grow out our hair after the Fall of Constantinople. St. Nicodemus, in The Rudder, advocated a return to wearing the papalethra, as “it is not correct to do away with ancient devices which our Fathers had devised.” There is some merit to this. After all, it is an ancient practice, common to both East and West. Moreover, a priest can take off his cassock, but he cannot really take off his tonsure.


Despite these good points, I do not advocate a restoration of this ancient practice, as it has fallen into abeyance for such a long time that it would become an affectation (not to mention an eccentricity) to wear a papalethra. Tradition is something which we receive not out of a book but from our forefathers in the faith, in a direct lineage. Thus, I hope that there aren’t any over-zealous seminarians out there getting their razors ready!

1 comment:

  1. Greetings from deacon Jeremy from Holy Transfiguration Antiochian Orthodox Church in Warrenville, IL. I was reading in Palamas and my wife and I had a question about the icon of Palamas. This post was very helpful, thank you! I find the last sentence here very helpful, particularly about the "direct lineage" of Tradition.

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