Thursday, March 23, 2006


A younger JoshPaul Bunyan, Modern-Day Sex Symbol:
"It's a sign of the times," Mr. Martin said. "People are into beards right now."
This development brings joy to a bearded man such as myself, and brings hope that the absurd practice of men shaving their leg or chest hair has passed away.

It also sends me to Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay. It is a vital component of any skeptic's library, and the chapter on "Influence of politics and religion on the hair and beard" is a source of constant illumination. It begins:
The famous declaration of St. Paul, 'that long hair was a shame unto a man,' has been made the pretext for many singular enactments, both of civil and ecclesiastical governments. The fashion of the hair and the cut of the beard were state questions in France and England, from the establishment of Christianity until the fifteenth century.
Mackay reports that St. Wulstan, Bishop of Worcester, would carry a small knife about with him to take a lock of hair when a supplicant knelt before him, then tossed the hair in the person's face, demanding a haircut or an imminent trip to Hades.

Mackay's writing is a fascinating mix of skepticism of fads and deference to religious authority. Henry I briefly shortened his locks, but regrew them again. "Having offended the Church in this and other respects, he could get no sound, refreshing sleep, and used to imagine that he saw all the bishops, abbots, and monks of every degree, standing around his bed-side, and threatening to belabor him with their pastoral staves." Hank the first would leap naked from his bed, and lash out at the imagined clerics. His physician, who had been trained as a priest, "never hinted that his dreams were the result of bad digestion," instead suggesting that he shave his head and make peace with the Church. Mackay reports that "he would not take this good advice" until he nearly drowned at sea, whereupon "he repented of his evil ways, cut his hair short, and paid proper deference to the wishes of the clergy."

As for beards, Mackay says that "the Church never shewed itself so great an enemy to the beard as to long hair on the head." The Emperor Charles V rose to power without a beard. "It was not to be expected that the obsequious parasites who always surround a monarch, could presume to look more virile than their master." They shaved, and "sober people in general saw this revolution with sorrow and alarm." People took to saying "We have no longer souls since we lost our beards."

The Times article points out that it's easy to speculate about deeper symbolism behind the shift in bearded fashion. If history is any guide, it marks a rejection of religion's arbitrary authority over every little thing in society, an encouraging sign indeed.

Update: The LFHCfS must be overjoyed.