Why Are Monks Tonsured?
Tonsure is the name given to the rite of shaving the crown of the head of a cleric entering certain religious orders. It is particularly associated with monks and is a sign of dedication to religious observance. In the Eastern Orthodox Church tonsure was practiced as early as the 4th Century. Prayers of the 9th Century which accompanied such ceremonies show clearly that tonsure was regarded as an outward manifestation of the casting off the earthly values and vanities to dedicate oneself to the service of God.
There are three kinds of tonsure: the Roman type consists in shaving the whole head, leaving only a fringe of hair supposed to symbolize the crown of thorns. The Eastern or Greek style used to involve shaving the entire head, but is now held to have been observed if the hair is closely shorn. The Celtic tonsure means shaving in front of a line stretching over the top of the head from ear to ear.
Long before Christianity there was a religious practice among the Romans and Semites of cutting some of the hair and offering it to a deity as a sign of dedication. Current usage more generally refers to cutting or shaving for monks, devotees, or mystics of any religion as a symbol of their renunciation of worldly fashion and esteem.
Tonsure is still a traditional practice in Catholicism by specific religious orders (with papal permission). It is also commonly used in the Eastern Orthodox Church for newly baptized members and is frequently used for Buddhist novices and monks. It exists as a traditional practice in Islam after completion of the Hajj and is also practiced by a number of Hindu religious orders.
Monks and nuns in the Middle Ages generally showed that they were monks by cutting their hair short (when most people wore theirs long). Christian monks got a special short haircut by shaving a bald spot in the middle of the back of their heads. Because you could not be king (or emperor) if you were a monk, sometimes kings forced their rivals to get their hair tonsured. So that way nobody would try to make them king.
Among the Franks, just having short hair by itself seems to have been enough to keep you from becoming king. And among the Visigoths, both men and women had their hair cut off as punishment for a wide variety of crimes. And again, tonsure would keep men from becoming kings. It’s possible that this idea that cutting your hair is bad comes from the Greeks and Romans. They cut the hair of people who were enslaved, to make them look different from free people.
Both men and women traditionally had their hair cut or removed in specific ways when they entered a monastery or convent. The practice may relate to ancient rites in which people in various cultures offered their hair as a religious sacrifice. Monks and nuns also take a vow of celibacy, and hair has historically been associated with eroticism and sexuality and as a means to attract the opposite sex.
Historians say that monastic hairstyles also may relate to the ancient custom of shaving the heads of male slaves. Some early monks who began shaving their heads voluntarily referred to themselves as “slaves of Christ.” Such hairstyles thus would show that a person entering religious life intends to subordinate his own will to the will of God.
Groups of Christian men began to form organized religious communities during the second and third centuries. These men, who became known as monk, lived apart from other people and developed distinctive modes of dress and appearance. Some monks cut their hair short, while others shaved it off completely or shaved part of their head.
Partial shaving may have its origins in ancient Egypt, Greece, and other places where men shaved a circular bald spot on top of their heads to honor the sun god. Some orders of monks who left a narrow crown of hair around their heads said that this signified the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head during his crucifixion.
Historians are unsure about the earliest origins of the tonsure, but church officials came to accept it and then required that all Catholic monks adopt this hairstyle. The tonsure is “a sacred rite . . . by which a baptized and confirmed Christian is received into the clerical order by a shearing of his hair”.