Tonsure: why did monks shave their heads

Quite a few people likely noticed the circular bald spots shown on the heads of Catholic monks and priests in the paintings done by medieval painters. After it has been shaved, the name for this area of the head is tonsure.

In fact, religions that date back far further than Christianity have been known to encourage the practice of hair cutting. Buddhism is an example of one such religion. Shaving their heads is a traditional practice for Buddhist monks. Some people feel that the practice of basic hygiene was one of the primary motivating factors that led to the development of such a custom.

However, cleanliness of the body is not the only thing that Buddhists strive for. They merely relieve themselves of the responsibility of keeping an eye on their hair. In addition, the total removal of hair from the head and face is emblematic for followers of this concept of absolute depersonalization and rejection of the old and the worldly.


Tonsure haircut
Tonsure haircut

Around the sixth century, a Christian practice emerged in which individuals would shave the crown of their heads to create the form of a circle. Hermits and penitents were the ones who introduced it to Christians. Tonsure is the name given to the shaved portion of the head worn by Catholics. The word tonsure comes from the Latin word for “haircut.” Following the decision made at the 4th Council of Toledo, which took place

in the year 633, all members of the so-called “Catholic clergy” were mandated to wear the tonsure.

Symbolism of Tonsure

Tonsure: why did monks shave their heads

The round, shaved region on the top of the heads of priests and monks was, of course, one of the most recognizable characteristics of the clergy. Because of this, it was clear to any layman who was there that he or she was in the presence of a minister from the church.

Without a doubt, the tonsure was mainly meant to communicate a symbolic significance. A crown of thorns, which you are aware the Roman soldiers placed on the head of Jesus Christ, was represented by the top of the head being shaved into the form of a circle.

Concerning the wearing of the tonsure, it wasn’t until 1972 that the practice became voluntary for Catholic monks. Pope Paul VI, who is well known for his participation in other reforms, made this decision.

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