In a Word: Beard

Facial hair on chin and cheeks survives fashion changes but purpose remains elusive

I don’t get beards. Or tattoos. Back in the last millennium when I was younger tattoos were so verboten they were associated only with low, violent criminal types. Now even my lovely niece has one. In a discreet place, I’m told.

Fashions change and yesterday’s taboo is today’s mainstream. Such as with tattoos, beards and gay people.

But beards! What purpose do they serve? Why, biologically even, are they there? Why is it (generally) only men have them and women don’t complain?

Indeed, I have often wondered why Cambridge academic Mary Beard does not change her name.

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Attach the word ‘beard’ to a name and immediately great horrors are conjured up even in the dullest imagination. Such as Bluebeard, for instance, that 17th-century rich Frenchman who had the generally unacceptable habit of murdering his wives. England’s Henry VIII had a similar passion even if he got others to do the dirty job for him.

Henry also had a beard. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who managed the quite extraordinary feat of dying naturally, from cancer, did not like his beard. She pestered him daily to get rid of it. And he did, if briefly. Like his marriages.

His father, Henry VII, had decreed that even moustaches be forbidden and that every man should shave his upper lip at least every two weeks. Son Henry, of course, went further. He introduced a tax on beards. In his time bearded lawyers had to pay double for daily meals. A lovely sanity clause!

In 1698, Peter the Great of Russia also introduced a beard tax. Those who refused to pay were forcibly shaved in public. Beautiful justice.

But it went back further. Pope Leo III (died 816 AD) was the first shaved pope in history, while Pope Gregory IV (died 844 AD) outlawed bearded priests and in the 12th century this was extended to laymen.

I had a moustache once, and a beard. Or, rather, it had me. The moustache was there for years before anyone noticed and, as for the beard, its existence was brief. One morning I woke up to find it fiery red, somewhat incompatible with my being fair of head. It did not survive the hour.

But the great mystery remains – what are beards for?

From Old English beard and Latin barba, as in medieval Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa (red beard) .

inaword@irishtimes.com