book-reviews

Beards: Their Social Standing, Religious Involvements, Decorative Possibilities, and Value in Offence and Defence Through the Ages

by Reginald Reynolds

Rating: ★★★★

Reginald Reynolds was a collaborator of George Orwell's, an intermediary between Ghandi and the British government, and, apparently, a serendipitist of the highest rank, who must have been a familiar and terrifying sight for the staff of the British Library, as he employed them in chasing down obscure references on the most delightfully bizarre of topics. This particular hunt begins with a puzzling declaration in some old lore:

THERE APPEARS TO BE SOME NECESSARY CORRELATION BETWEEN HIPPOPHAGY, POGONOTROPHY AND PERHAPS PAGANISM You may imagine that, after I had read this seven times, I made as many circuits of the floor space, looking (perhaps) not unlike Archimedes contemplating the memorable bath that brought enlightenment. Two courses lay open to me. To pursue the records of hippophagy, in search of eaters of horseflesh who wore beards; or to study the annals of pogonotrophy, in quest of bearded men who ate horseflesh.

We are, unfortunately, left with but a brief commentary on hippophagy, which investigations revealed at best incidental (and not necessary) connections, though plenty indeed with paganism. Reynolds takes here the path of the grand chin-wig. What results is an unapologetically irreverent treatise of esoterica, artfully serving up a great deal of edifying pogonological material with the spice of dried wit. He eventually finds his answer, but I'll not spoil the surprise.

There is, of course, a great deal to learn about the controversial subject of beards. If man is made in his image, does God therefore wear one? As the Christians believed him incarnated, there is strong authority that he did at least for a while. Did Adam wear one in Eden, as his descendants the prophets most certainly did elsewhere? What, exactly, did the 44th Canon of the Fourth Council of Carthage say about beards, and why did the Eastern and Western churches so disagree? Why does the Bayeaux tapestry present Saxons as clean-shaven? Reynolds delves voraciously into all of this, chasing down ancient references, mistakes and misquoted authorities. It will be no surprise to learn that this is not the first historical survey on beards, but it may well be the best.

Perhaps the most unexpected question to arise from this morass is whether, in fact, I have a beard. Surely the answer should be prima facie, resting as it does on my face. But Reynolds points out that for many of the factions strongly pro or contra 'shaving', a passable effort with a non-too-close razor, perhaps once a fortnight, would quite suffice to render you into the effeminate camp. My own rough face-fuzz, crudely cropped perhaps monthly with scissors, might count to those observers as a token of an entirely opposite camp to the one I thought I championed.

It is bizarre that Reynolds is not more widely-read. If his other works show even half the charm and liveliness of this survey, he is being monstrously underserved by history.