“Daddy, why does that man have such funny hair?”
If she wasn’t but a couple years old, the fact that she didn’t know who that man was would have caused me great shame in my parenting skills. “That man” was Martin Luther and my daughter had noticed his funny hair style. “Why in the world would he cut his hair that way?”
At the time I simply told her that it was because he was a monk and that is what monks do. But soon her curiosity had become my own. Why did that man have such funny hair? Where did this practice come from and what was it supposed to represent?
If you are inspired by Luther’s sweet hair cut and you want to go to your barber the name for this unique hair style is “tonsure”. To be tonsured means to be sheared. There were three forms of tonsure. The Oriental—which purportedly followed the practice of Paul and was practiced by the Eastern Orthodox required the shaving of the whole head. The Roman—which we are likely most familiar with and which graced Luther’s head, required the shaving of the top of the head.
The practice is quite old. It’s at least as old as 633 because there the Celtic form (the third form) was considered unorthodox by the Council of Toledo. (So apparently teenagers weren’t the first ones to wear unorthodox hairstyles). The Council of Trent, as to be predicted, actually dates the practice back to the apostle Peter. This, though, isn’t very likely as the early disciples likely wouldn’t have worn a hairstyle which would have immediately invited persecution. Some sort of the practice likely began around the time of Augustine and slowly morphed into the accepted form that we see demanded by the Council of Toledo.
But why? Why cut your hair this way?
Not every believer was to have this done. Some upon initiation would have a cross cut into their hair. When monks would receive their orders then they would have their hair cut in this fashion. It was a way of setting them apart. Some believed it marked them off as a slave of Christ, as slaves would often endure a similar hair cutting. Others saw this as a religious offering—a sacrifice which showed their dedication to Christ. We aren’t exactly certain of the origin but we do know that it was used as an initiation into being a monk.
Bede, a 7th century monk, taught that it modeled the crown of thorns which both Peter and Christ had taken. That which the world meant to shame them is now worn as a symbol of pride. It was also to model the Christ who wore a crown of thorns. The monk, above all, was to live a life which constantly reflected that of Christ.
So this is why Luther had “such funny hair”. He was a monk at the time of his conversion and many pictures of Luther show him with his cowl (hood) and tonsure. It’s interesting that not long after Luther’s conversion he eschewed the tonsure but hung onto the cowl (hood). The key thing for the reformer was not outward appearance but the heart. A monk wasn’t made a monk by his outward garb but by his faithfulness to Christ. Therefore, in his mind it didn’t matter if he wore the cowl and the tonsure.