Every Sunday school student is acquainted with Scripture’s great hair. First comes Esau the hairy man—possibly a better guy than his smooth, deceptive twin. But Jacob is beloved of Yahweh, so the hairy man is left to his appetites. Samson and Absalom also come to ruin by way of appetite and hair. The names “Rapunzel” and “Lady Godiva” may be secular bywords for long-haired women, but their biblical sister is the anonymous lady who used her hair to wipe the anointing oil from Jesus’s feet.
The Scriptures address women’s hair more frequently through apostolic injunctions than through historical narratives. The Corinthian church is instructed that women should have their hair covered during public worship, and that long hair is a woman’s glory and covering. 1 Timothy and 1 Peter both teach that a woman’s beauty should not come from braided hair. But braiding has received a long and circumspect treatment in the Church’s practical wisdom. Over the centuries, Christians arrived at an understanding of braiding that is faithful to Scripture, while accounting for culture and practicality.
The Church fathers considered braiding and other elaborate hairstyles attention-seeking and artificial. Cosmetic artifices were as scandalous to the Fathers as the acting profession, since both ran on deception and manipulation. In their arguments against the affectations of appearance, the Latin fathers had the way paved by classic poetry. Ovid, in The Amores, chuckles through a sardonic elegy at his lady Corinna, whose hair lies piled in her lap after an aggressive coloring job.
But unlike dyeing, braids are practical. Braids keep hair neat and clean, and are as useful under a covering as in full view. For some hair types, braiding is nearly essential for keeping one’s crown of glory under control. Like a dress or a shoe, a braid can be plain and functional, or showy and provocative. Since married women normally covered their hair in most places, and hair was certainly covered in church, braids could be worn by Christian women without being showy, or even shown at all.
Unmarried women made a selling point of their hair, wearing it loose or as interestingly styled as they could afford, but avowed virgins were not to participate. Cyprian set the standard in his treatise On the Dress Of Virgins: “[N]o one on seeing a virgin should be in any doubt as to whether she is one. Perfectness should show itself equal in all things; nor should the dress of the body discredit the good of the mind. Why should she walk out adorned? Why with dressed hair, as if she either had or sought for a husband?”
A thousand years later, the virgins needed a refresher. The Council of Vienne (1311-1312) mandated an annual visitation of convents to deal with lax discipline, specifying: “The visitors are to be very careful that the nuns—some of whom, to our sorrow, we have heard are transgressors—do not wear silk, various furs or sandals; do not wear their hair long in a horn-shaped style, nor make use of striped and multicoloured caps.” The “horn-shaped style” may refer to the hennin, a conical headdress fashionable in the late medieval period, and known to contemporary children who have read the right books as a “princess hat.” A veil flowed from the peak of the hennin, and superior hair specimens (natural or supplementary) might also be pulled through the tip. But the hennin was more popular in the century after Vienne. The Council’s more likely target is a “ramshorn” style of braids coiled around the ears, such as those worn by actress Sophie Marceau as Princess Isabelle of France in Braveheart.
Both the hennin and ramshorn braids exhibited the immodesty to which the church objected on the basis of 1 Timothy and 1 Peter. Elaborate hairwork was intended to draw attention to the wearer as a person of beauty and means, and it consumed time and money that could be more charitably spent. If the nobles and their admirers could not be talked out of such things, at least the nuns ought to live right, hair-wise. Most sisters religious had their long hair cut at their avowal, for both freedom from vanity and ease of care. Since the historical Princess Isabelle became a Poor Clare, this is almost certainly what became of whatever horn-shaped style she preferred in her royal capacity.
It may seem surprising that St. Catherine of Alexandria, a martyr of the fourth century, occasioned a connection between virginity and braids. Ebenezer Brewer, in his 1890 Reader’s Handbook, cites the Latin father Jerome in tracing the tradition: “Her real name was Dorothea, but St. Jerome says she was called Catherine from the Syriac word Kethar or Kathar, ‘a crown’, because she won the triple crown of martyrdom, virginity, and wisdom. … To braid St. Catherine’s hair means ‘to live a virgin.’”
Brewer does not cite which of Jerome’s works makes this claim, and the attribution is omitted from later editions of the Handbook. The historical record shows a real association, regardless. In France, St. Catherine was a favorite in popular piety, thanks to her involvement in the visions of Joan of Arc. It became customary for French women who were unmarried at the age of twenty-five coiffer Sainte Catherine (to dress the hair of a statue of St. Catherine) on her commemoration (November 25). Coiffing St. Catherine was usually an act of petitioning for a husband. Occasionally, it could show a woman’s intention not to marry.
Coif can mean dressing the hair with a covering, or styling the hair itself. Despite her appearance in art with the unbound hair of a maiden, that second meaning of coif inspired visions of a more involved encounter with St. Catherine. Brewer offers an example from Longfellow’s Evangeline: “Thou art too fair to be left to braid St. Catherine’s tresses.” Oddly, the idiom has died while the tradition survives. A parade of cheery middle-aged women in ineffable hats still coifs St. Catherine every November 25 in New Orleans.
Though unobtrusive braids are traditionally exonerated in ecclesiastical petit courts, Scripture’s explicit prohibitions remain. Bo Giertz’s novel The Hammer of God sets up a conflict in an early-nineteenth-century Swedish Lutheran parish. The curate, Savonius, has upset the flock by railing against personal vanities. The dean counters his legalism with practicality:
And so you would forbid my little Eva-Lotta to braid her hair after this! Or do you intend to ask the women of Sörbygden to refrain from doing up their hair properly?” Savonius was taken aback by the dean’s words. He had never thought about braided hair in that light. If the women could not braid their hair, how should they wear it?
Savonius recovers: “In that way you can defend almost any kind of worldliness.” The tension between righteousness and self-righteousness or scrupulosity always remains to the people of God. It is helpful for us to observe that the Church’s effective teaching on braids over the centuries amounts to, “Keep your braids Christian.”
Yet the question of what a Christian braid might look like should not be dismissed, considering the testimony of our early fathers. On May 1, 1924, the Monroe County Mail of Fairport, New York reported on a blowup between bobbed and unbobbed women at Wheaton College. Traditionalists argued that bobbing hair was contrary to Scripture, and urged that all be done to the glory of God. Bob supporters rejoined that God looks at the heart. 1 Samuel 16:7 is the constant failsafe of the behavioral innovator, who manages, for the historical moment, to avoid the question, “But what’s right with it?”
Apparently the thing that’s right with short hair is the same thing the church has found un-wrong with braids: ease of use. Perhaps the only difficulty many Christians can see with tastefully bobbed hair (outside of defining “tastefully”) is that it serves poorly to dry our Savior’s anointed feet. So do braids, but braids can be retooled into towels more quickly than a bob can. Then again, braids make an equally fleeting hurdle to the Richard Lovelaces of the world, urging their modestly coiffed Amaranthas to dishevel themselves:
Amarantha sweet and fair
Ah, braid no more that shining hair!
As my curious hand or eye
Hovering round thee, let it fly!
Lovelace’s plans go beyond checking her for ticks. The trendsetting braids of HBO’s Westeros, The Hunger Games, and Frozen show that the antique style still holds feminine intrigue. An artfully set braid has all the promise of a graceful shoe or a becoming dress. Ironically, in reconciling itself to women’s cutting their hair short, the Church has offered a partial refuge to the majority of women whose hair can’t compete with Daenerys, Katniss, or Elsa. The hair-poor in many churches can no longer cover their meager endowments without risking charges of legalism, R. C. Sproul’s prairie-muffinism, or other weirdness. But in the same churches, short and easy hair on women attracts no ethical attention.
Two hundred shekels worth of hair is problematic anyway—though we should not overstate the case. In his forthcoming commentary on 2 Samuel, Old Testament scholar Andrew Steinmann identifies Josephus and the Mishnah as sources of the reasonable surmise that Absalom was entangled in the tree by his hair. Scripture says only that Absalom’s head was caught. Entanglement of either the hair or the head is surely ill-advised. However, life is lived in the body, and the body normally comes with hair. Managing the glory and honor hidden in the mammal’s humble halo will always keep us a little lower than the angels.
Rebekah Curtis has written for Touchstone, Modern Reformation, and Salvo.