The fools of fashion and the madness of crowds

The World of Books

It is very curious to see how over the last two years or so young men in their twenties and thirties have so largely taken to wearing beards. They are not as yet quite the grand things once worn by Parnell, or Lord Salisbury, or Anthony Trollope. But they seem strange to an older, clean shaven generation, reminding us of just how all controlling mere fashion can often be.

This, of course, is not new thing. The classic book on fashion changes and the strange enthusiasms of the past is Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841). This is an entertaining account of the delusions, financial, social, and religious, that so often beset people.

One of Mackays’ chapters is devoted to “the influence of politics and religion on the hair and beards”. St Paul’s declaration “that long hair on a man is nothing to be admired” (I Corinthians 11:14), over the centuries encouraged both churches and governments to make regulations against long hair, beards and moustaches.

This was not a new idea. Alexander the Great had his soldiers shave so that their enemies in battle would not be able to lay hold of their beards. 

Over time views on hair ebbed and flowed in a steady tidal action over the centuries. But this is true of other enthusiasms.

Greed has largely motivated many mad enthusiasms such as the Mississippi Scheme promoted by John Law, or the South Sea Bubble. But in our own time we have seen the same occurring with the Dot Com Bubble and the idiotic enthusiasms that preceded the recent financial disasters.

Then there were the alchemists who over the centuries tried converting some base material such as lead into gold, so as to achieve continuing wealth. These people, though they pioneered many important chemical and scientific discoveries, were for the most part charlatans of one kind or another.

The great wave of fortune-making dealing in rare tulips promoted an international mania that has often been written about – usually by authors with the implicit notion “that such things could not happen today”. The whole mad period is recounted by British historian Mike Dash in Tulipomania (Broadway Books, $11.85)

Cures for all kinds of ills have also been a rich field for strange enthusiasms (to someone’s profit), as we can see on an almost daily basis with the changing views about diet and food types. No pharmaceutical company gets poorer by announcing that they would have “a new cure for cancer in 10 years’ time”.

But to return to hair in history. The Church over the centuries, Mackay comments, “never showed itself so great an enemy to the beard as long hair on the head”, zealously following St Paul.

Yet over the centuries many have wondered if long hair was a shame to a man, why was Jesus always shown with long hair. Some writers, like Thomas Browne in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (otherwise known as Vulgar Errors), claimed long hair was then the custom of the Jews.


Others denied this, otherwise the rule of the Nazirites (Numbers 6:11-21) would be meaningless. Nazirites were men who dedicated themselves to the service of God who wore their hair long, did not drink alcohol, and avoided dead bodies.

But as Jesus took wine and touched the dead, he was not a Nazirite (which some seem to have confused later with Nazarene).

But the art tradition of Jesus with long hair came to be underwritten by a forged letter to the Senate in Rome attributed to Publius Lentulus which initially made its appearance (perhaps from a Greek source) in 1421 and was widely published.

As the author was said to have preceded Pilate as governor in Jerusalem in the 1st Century, the letter supplied a supposed description of Jesus from life. However, the letter presented an image of Christ as the late Middle Ages saw him. Jesus’s hair was not as worn by 1st Century Jews, but as fashion decreed in 15th-Century Italy.

So it was that Christian belief was manipulated by a forger, not for the first time, of course.



The Splendid Years

Prof. Anthony Roche of UCD, the reviewer of Maire Nic Shuiblaigh’s memoir The Splendid Years (New Island Books, €15.95) about the early decades of the Abbey Theatre and the days of the Irish revolution, has asked that an amendment to the printed version be noted by readers.

The paragraph beginning:  ‘He describes how Yeats’ should read ‘She describes how Yeats’, since the reference is to Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh, and not to the poet’s son, Michael Yeats, in the previous paragraph. In the editing this was altered through a misunderstanding, which we regret.