By Emily Ward
From discussions about how to decorate it for Christmas, to a phenomenon called ‘peak beard’, and even an entire forthcoming Somerset House exhibition, one thing is certain – beards are having their moment in the media spotlight. Facial hair has been linked with a range of characteristics across a number of studies, including one article in Behavioural Ecology in 2011 which noted that human perceptions of age can be augmented for those who have a beard. But, turning back the clock several hundred years, can the portrayal of beards in images in the central Middle Ages tell us something about age in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries?
That beards and growing up were linked was as obvious in the central Middle Ages as it is today. The German law text from the start of the thirteenth century, Sachsenspiegel, stated that proof of age for a man was “if he had hair in his beard and down below and beneath each arm”. In medieval images, beards are certainly a useful way of contrasting between elder and younger figures. This is especially well-demonstrated in depictions of fathers and sons. In an image from the Welf Chronicle, Frederick Barbarossa (Holy Roman Emperor, 1155-1190) stands in the middle with his two sons flanking him. To the right is the eldest son, Frederick, who was made Duke of Swabia in 1167, and to the left is the younger son, Henry, who was co-crowned as Henry VI with his father in 1169. Despite the royal and ducal titles of the two sons, they are both depicted entirely beardless. The illustrator who drew this image evidently wanted to contrast the full power of Frederick Barbarossa with his two sons. Such a contrast is achieved through a number of distinctions, of which the facial hair is only one, in order to stress the powerful adult rule of Barbarossa (who holds the royal regalia of orb and sceptre). His children are shown in more deferential poses and, when this image was drawn, would still have been very young – Frederick was, at most, 10 years old and Henry a year younger.
Could medieval beards be used not simply to denote age, but also as a distinctive marker of majority or minority? For child kings in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the crossover between childhood and adulthood was a crucial time, often involving the assertion of status as an adult ruler and the maintenance of distance from unpopular decisions made on the king’s behalf whilst he was underage. In light of this, it is interesting to look at a Scottish case where a specific seal of minority was produced in which the child king was depicted entirely beard-less. Alexander III came to the Scottish throne in 1249 when he was eight years old, following the death of his father. During his period of minority, the seal which was attached to grants showed Alexander as an un-bearded king, seated on a throne and holding a sceptre, with a sheathed sword across his lap. The combination of the lack of facial hair and the sword across the lap rather than in Alexander’s hand, was probably a conscious choice to reflect that Alexander was underage and not yet in his full adult rule. This image can be contrasted with those on the Great Seal of Alexander, issued when he was of age, where he is shown on one side as a bearded king and on the reverse as a mounted knight with sword raised.
Facial hair was thus not the only way in which age could be demonstrated for child kings on images, but it was certainly a prominent distinguishing factor. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that ages of minority and majority would have been more nuanced in reality than the images of medieval beards would have us believe. Both chronicle images and seal casts show either a bearded or an un-bearded figure of kingship – nothing in between. However, although the portrayal of a period of transition between child king and adult king does not exist in the imagery of medieval beards, as an illustrative topos of child kingship they can still prove very useful.
- Simpson, Grant G., ‘Kingship in miniature: a seal of minority of Alexander III, 1249-1257’, in Alexander Grant and Keith J. Stringer (eds.), Medieval Scotland: Crown, Lordship and Community – Essays Presented to G.W.S. Barrow (Edinburgh, 1993), pp.131-9
- Stafford, P., ‘The meanings of hair in the Anglo-Norman world: masculinity, reform, and national identity’, in M. van Dijk and R. Nip (eds.), Saints, Scholars, and Politicians: Gender as a Tool in Medieval Studies (Turnhout, 2005), pp.155-71
 Bartlett, R., ‘Symbolic meanings of hair in the Middle Ages’, TRHS, 6th series, iv (1994), p.44.