What’s the Deal With the Long Hair?

“The long-haired kings.” The phrase is familiar, but of all things why would hair be the signifier of kingship? The sources don’t tell us why, but they do tell us that long hair was important.

Seal_of_Childeric_I_Tournai_tomb
Seal of Childeric I (5th century)

Gregory of Tours has a couple of examples. While summarizing some of the earliest writings about the Franks, he notes that they came from Pannonia and “set up in each country district and each city long-haired kings.”1.Gregory, History, book II, section 9

Gregory also tells the story of Chararic, a rival king of Clovis I. Clovis defeated the king and sons, then “had their hair cut short.” He did not kill them, but had them imprisoned in a monastery.2.People too important to kill but too troublesome to let loose were commonly sent to a monastery. Later, however, when the sons “were threatening to let their hair grow again and then to kill [Clovis], he had their heads cut off.”3.Gregory, History, book II, section 41

Scissors
4th century scissors

The Liber Historiae Francorum tells of “A one-time cleric named Daniel whose hair had grown back on his head was established in the kingdom by the Franks, and they called him Chilperic.”4.Liber Historia Francorum, chapter 52, p.112 So it wasn’t necessary for the hair never to have been cut, just that it was long. Einhard describes the last of the Merovingian kings, “his hair long and his beard flowing.”5.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, book I Which Pepin then cut off.

J.M. Wallace-Hedrill believed that cutting the Merovingian’s long hair “may have signified a deprivation of the magic power of their royal race,” but he is no more specific than that.6.Wallace-Hedrill, Long Haired Kings, p.245 The truth will probably never be known.

But a better man than I has already sailed these waters. Take a look at this fantastic article by Simon Coates, writing in History Today. His essay describes the role of hair in ancient and medieval history, beginning with Samson’s locks. However, he can offer no more of an explanation than that “the language of hair treatment was open to as many interpretations as the treatment of hair itself.” You will have to come up with your own explanations for the mystical power of a king’s long hair.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Gregory, History, book II, section 9
2. People too important to kill but too troublesome to let loose were commonly sent to a monastery.
3. Gregory, History, book II, section 41
4. Liber Historia Francorum, chapter 52, p.112
5. Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, book I
6. Wallace-Hedrill, Long Haired Kings, p.245

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