A Brief History on Bearded and Shaven Clergy

Henry Chadwick

Curiously a social difference between some Greeks and some Romans would survive from the age of the Roman Republic to provide abrasions between the Greek and Latin Churches. In the first century before Christ Cicero (Pro Caelio 33) regarded beards as indicating Greek culture; philosophical tutors had beards (Epicetus 3.1.24). Early in the second century in the Greek orator Dio of Prusa (36.17) and in Apollonius of Tyana (Ep. 63), to be clean-shaven was effeminate. The philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius could have an impressive beard, reported by Herodian (5.2.3-4) and Julian (3, 17 C), but Caracalla appearing clean-shaven at Antioch was thought less than heroic (Dio Cassius 78.20). Late in the fourth century Jerome (in Isai. 3.7.21-22, p. 115 Vallarsi) felt it worthy of note that the Gothic tribesmen invading the Balkans were clean-shaven; not what he expected. Beards were a sign of virility. But unkempt beards could provoke comment, and at Antioch the emperor Julian’s provoked mockery answered in his embarrassing Misopogon (the Beard-Hater).

Jerome’s attack on Jovinian, a monk and priest, declared that the only difference between Jovinian and a goat was that he shaved off his beard (2.21). This is the earliest evidence for the custom with western clergy. Those who felt that a beard added dignity and authority wanted priests to keep their beards, and this was included among the rulings in the Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua produced by a fifth-century canonist is southern Gaul, repeated by a synod at Barcelona in 540. These rulings, however, imply that shaving had become normal in the Latin Church.

In the Greek east the sixth and seventh centuries appear to have been the period after which the clergy and monks became expected to be bearded, and by the tenth century the custom had become a painful issue in the disputes between the Greek and Latin churches. In the eleventh century Sardinian clergy failing to remove their beards were threatened by Pope Gregory VII with confiscation of property (Ep. 8.10). He was perhaps a pope for whom what was not forbidden was compulsory; such a matter could not be left to personal discretion. Early in the thirteenth century in Calabria, where the Greek and Latin clergy existed side by side, Joachim of Fiore suggested that their difference was prefigured in Scripture by hairy Esau and smooth Jacob. (East and West: The Making of a Rift in the Church From Apostolic Times Until the Council of Florence pp. 11-12)

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