The Historical Accuracy of Permastubble in the Middle Ages

unnecessary visual aid

Permastubble seems to be the standard male fashion for much media set in the Middle Ages. It’s certainly the standard in the BBC Robin Hood and Merlin, two more recent medieval adaptations, and TV Tropes says it’s standard for an action hero. I’ve spent years complaining about it, but I’ve recently found evidence to indicate that permastubble may have actually been the standard in the Middle Ages.

Beards weren’t very popular in the Middle Ages, though they were trendy for small amounts of time. In 1190, Muslims wanting to disguise themselves to attack Acre shaved off their beards [1], which shows they associated beardlessness with the standard look of Western Europeans. In the thirteenth century, lay men, particularly Frenchmen, rarely wore beards. [2] It can be hard to clearly identify fashions, but in the fourteenth century, art depicts men as clean-shaven as often as it does with beards. [3] After reading massive amounts of Arthurian literature, I can only recall a single reference to a man having a beard. (Of course, I can also only think of a single reference to a man shaving.) When one looks at medieval standards of attractiveness, the descriptions are largely feminine by modern standards, especially when the subject is a young man whose smooth face and long hair symbolize youth and innocence.

The young men who star in medieval-themed movies and TV shows would be much less likely to wear beards than their elders. The BBC Merlin and Arthur are both always clean-shaven. Most of the cast of Robin Hood and most of King Arthur’s knights, all heros who have action scenes in every episode, wear permastubble. My research originally led me to assume that “beardless” and “clean-shaven” were equivalents, thus making Robin Hood’s chin historically inaccurate, but this summary isn’t exactly true.

Life in a Medieval City mentions that razors weren’t very good in the Middle Ages, so “Only a rough shave can be achieved with available instruments” and in the city, many men would visit the barber only once a week. It concludes, “Men’s faces are stubbly.” [4] All of this points to the conclusion that permastubble was probably the norm for young medieval men. We depict permastubble on our comic book characters by a series of dots covering the chin, but there’s no reason medieval art would do that if permastubble was really the closest equivalent to a clean shave. Just when I think I fully understand the basics of medieval life, I learn something new.

  1. Bartlett, Robert, “Symbolic Meaning of Hair in the Middle Ages,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society,  4 (1994), 59.
  2. Ibid., 60.
  3. Payne, Blanche. History of Costume: From the Ancient Egyptians to the Twentieth Century, (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 186.
  4. Gies, Joseph, and Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval City, (New York, HarperPerennial: 1969).

Comments

The Historical Accuracy of Permastubble in the Middle Ages — 4 Comments

  1. I seem to remember something about the Romans using shells to keep their faces plucked clean. Also, the conclusion that “razors weren’t very good” is rather a sweeping one. Does the author cite convincing facts and examples to back it up?

    • That’s an interesting point. I would treat plucking and shaving as very different practices. I have found references to plucking beards in pre-medieval society, but I haven’t found any references to it in medieval history or literature (though I have also not found references saying it was not done). The few times I’ve found references to shaving in medieval literature, it specifically mentions a razor. Life in a Medieval City also mentions trips to the barber being common, and I assume that plucking would be done at home, judging from the number of tweezers found in pre-medieval graves. Shaving would require a barber since it was dangerous (risk of infection from cuts). Medical books often have some information on caring for hair and skin, and these usually mention shaving and barbers, but not plucking.

      The assertion that razors weren’t very good is a sweeping one, but it seems an appropriate summary. All my research on metalworking has been related to swords, but since the razor would be a far more common and cheaply-made instrument, unlikely to be quality steel that takes a good edge, I expect that many of them would be inferior by modern standards.

      I tentatively expect that if plucking beards was common, I would have found some references to it by now, but I hesitate to make an assertion from a lack of evidence. Life in a Medieval City is written for a popular audience so it doesn’t have footnotes, but I recall it displaying appropriate thoroughness of research throughout. I think it had a bibliography at the end–it was a borrowed book, so it’ll be some time before I can verify that. Other costume books that I’ve looked at have not mentioned plucking, though I seem to recall a few references to shaving.

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