Today knights are usually depicted with long hair and beards by Hollywood. But is that a true depiction of a medieval knight? Or in other words: Did knights really have long hair and beards in the Middle Ages?
In the Early Middle Ages, the Merovingians had long hair that distinguished them from the common Franks who cut their hair short. Later, the Normans also cut their beards and hair short. And some even completely shaved the sides and the back of their heads. In the Late Middle Ages, it was fashionable among soldiers and knights to have short hair and almost no beard. So it seems like most people throughout the Middle Ages kept their hair and beards rather short.
Let`s take a closer look!
But first, we have to address the elephant in the room. The Middle Ages lasted for more than 1000 years and included vastly different geographical regions in Europe. So when talking about the hairstyle of medieval knights we always have to differentiate depending on the time and location we look at.
Having said that, I will present 3 different times and the different hairstyles of the specific time. So let`s start out in the Early Middle Ages by looking at the Merovingians, the family that ruled over the Franks from the middle of the 5th century until 751.
The kings and princes of the Merovingian dynasty (which ruled over the Franks from the middle of the 5th century until 751) wore their hair at least shoulder-long, often even longer. Gregory of Tours, one of the most important sources for the time, describes, that the Merowingians forced their rivals to cut off their long hair as a visual act of them abandoning any political claims since a man without long hair was seen as unfit to rule as king.
So long hair was seen as a symbol of power by the Merovingian dynasty in the Early Middle Ages. But unlike the Merovingians, who were sometimes referred to as „reges criniti“ (Latin: longhaired kings), the Franks outside the royal dynasty cut their hair short.
Later, the Normans also wore pretty short hair. That is actually depicted pretty well in the Bayeux Tapestry which shows the Norman conquest of England.
The Normans kept their hair and their beards pretty short. And some even completely shaved the sides and the back of the head. That is pretty well depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. There, some of the Norman soldiers almost look like they have a high and tight.
And for later periods there are also countless medieval depictions of knights and men with relatively short hair and a clean-shaved face or a relatively short beard. But there are also written sources indicating popular hair and beard styles. One example of such a fashion can be found in the years between 1460 and 1490.
Sources from the years between 1460 and 1490 indicate that it was fashionable for late medieval soldiers, but especially knights and high-ranking soldiers, to have pretty short hair and almost no beard. That also had practical reasons.
The suits of plate armor that late medieval knights used were highly flexible, tailored to their bodies, and basically fitted them like a second skin. The downside of these suits of armor was that long hair and long beards could easily get caught between the plates. And everybody who has a long beard and has already managed to get that beard stuck in the zipper of a jacket knows that that is not a good feeling. And it is especially bad when wearing armor and being in combat.
By the way. The reason why the fashion of short hair and almost no beard was also shared by normal soldiers and not only knights is that late medieval soldiers usually also wore more or less complete suits of plate armor.
Ok, so it seems like most men throughout the Middle Ages had rather short hair and either almost no beard or short beards. By the way. Butting both hair and beard was a service that was offered in public bathhouses. Here you can find more about bathing in general in the Middle Ages, the private and public bath houses of the Middle Ages, and the answer to the question of how often people in the Middle Ages really bathed.
But when we look at the statues of medieval knights then many of them are depicted in armor but also with long hair and a long beard! So does that negate everything I wrote until this point?
Well, no. When it comes to the depiction of a medieval king, then we always have to remember that the guy who commissioned the depiction (usually the king or someone close to him) wanted to express something with the picture rather than show the reality. (that by the way is the same reason why Roman Emperors and Gladiators are usually depicted as muscular and ripped, even though they weren`t.)
Somebody who no longer had to fight could grow longer hair without the risk of it hindering his movement in armor.
That is why medieval kings are sometimes depicted in armor while also being shown with long hair and long beards. It sends the message that while the king had archived glory and his status in combat (represented by him wearing armor), he now no longer has to fight since his rule is secured (so he can grow a beard and long hair that would potentially hinder his movement in his armor).
So the depiction of medieval kings with long hair and beards is more of a symbolization of their status than an actual depiction of how they looked like.
Speaking of hair cuts.
The best way to get a haircut in a medieval city was to visit the public bath house. While today these medieval bathhouses are oftentimes wrongly portrayed as brothels, they served an extremely important purpose in the Middle Ages, and visiting them was extremely affordable. Here you can find out more about how much a visit to a public bathhouse cost in the Middle Ages and how the cost differed depending on taking a steam bath or a tub bath.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).
Karl Brunner: Ritter, Knappen, Edelfrauen: Ideologie und Realität des Rittertums im Mittelalter (Wien 1981).
Martin Hofbauer: Vom Krieger zum Ritter: Die Professionalisierung der bewaffneten Kämpfer im Mittelalter (Freiburg 2015).