Roman tonsure

Tonsure /ˈtɒn.ʃə(ɹ)/ is the practice of cutting or shaving some or all of the hair on the scalp, as a sign of religious devotion or humility. The term originates from the Latin word tōnsūra (meaning "clipping" or "shearing"[1]) and referred to a specific practice in medieval Catholicism, abandoned by papal order in 1972. Current usage more generally refers to cutting or shaving for monks, devotees, or mystics of any religion as a symbol of their renunciation of worldly fashion and esteem. Tonsure also refers to the secular practice of shaving all or part of the scalp to show support or sympathy, or to designate mourning.

Tonsure is still a traditional practice in Catholicism by specific religious orders (with papal permission). It is also commonly used in the Eastern Orthodox Church for newly baptized members and is frequently used for Buddhist novices and monks. It exists as a traditional practice in Islam after completion of the hajj and is also practiced by a number of Hindu religious orders.


History and development

Tonsure was not widely known in antiquity. Tradition states that it originated with the disciples of Jesus, who observed the Torah command not to shave the hair around the sides of one's head (Leviticus 19:27). There were three forms of tonsure known in the 7th and 8th centuries:

Stone carving from ancient Bohemia, believed to depict the form of the Celtic tonsure (3rd century BC).

Ancient and medieval usage

Eastern Christianity

Clerical tonsure

St. Germanus I, Patriarch of Constantinople from 715 to 730, writes "The double crown inscribed on the head of the priest through tonsure represents the precious head of the chief-apostle Peter. When he was sent out in the teaching and preaching of the Lord, his head was shaved by those who did not believe his word, as if in mockery. The Teacher Christ blessed this head, changed dishonor into honor, ridicule into praise. He placed on it a crown made not out of precious stones, but one which shines more than gold, topaz, or precious stone with the stone and rock of faith. Peter, the most-holy, the summit, beauty, and crown of the twelve stones, which are the apostles, is the hierarch of Christ."[8]

Monastic tonsure

St. Germanus I writes "The total tonsuring of the head is in imitation of the holy Apostle James, brother of the Lord, and the Apostle Paul, and of the rest."[9]

Western Christianity

St Bartholomew (by Carlo Crivelli, 1473, in the Ascoli Piceno Cathedral)
Clerical tonsure

In the Latin or Western Rite of the Catholic Church, "first tonsure" was, in medieval times, and generally through 1972,[10] the rite of inducting someone into the clergy and qualifying him for the civil benefits once enjoyed by clerics. Tonsure was a prerequisite for receiving the minor and major orders. Failing to maintain tonsure was the equivalent of attempting to abandon one's clerical state, and in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, any cleric in minor orders (or simply tonsured) who did not resume the tonsure within a month after being warned by his Ordinary, lost the clerical state. Over time, the appearance of tonsure varied, ending up for non-monastic clergy as generally consisting of a symbolic cutting of a few tufts of hair at first tonsure in the Sign of the Cross and in wearing a bare spot on the back of the head which varied according to the degree of orders. It was not supposed to be less than the size of a communicant's host, even for a tonsuratus, someone simply tonsured, and the approximate size for a priest's tonsure was the size of a priest's host. Countries that were not Catholic had exceptions to this rule, especially in the English-speaking world. In England and America, for example, the bare spot was dispensed with, likely because of the persecutions that could arise from being a part of the Catholic clergy, but the ceremonious cutting of the hair in the first clerical tonsure was always required. In accordance with Pope Paul VI's motu proprio Ministeria quaedam of 15 August 1972, "first tonsure is no longer conferred".[10]

Monastic tonsure

Apart from this general clerical tonsure, some Western Rite monastic orders, for example Carthusians and Trappists, employed a very full version of tonsure, shaving the head entirely bald and keeping only a narrow ring of short hair, sometimes called "the monastic crown" (see "Roman tonsure", above), from the time of entrance into the monastic novitiate for all monks, whether destined for service as priests or brothers.

Contemporary practice

Eastern Christianity

Clerical tonsure (note the scissors in the bishop's hands) of an Orthodox man in conjunction with ordination to minor orders.

Today in Eastern Orthodoxy and in the Eastern Catholic Churches of Byzantine Rite, there are three types of tonsure: baptismal, monastic, and clerical. It always consists of the cutting of four locks of hair in a cruciform pattern: at the front of head as the celebrant says "In the Name of the Father", at the back of head at the words "and the Son", and on either side of the head at the words "and the Holy Spirit". In all cases, the hair is allowed to grow back; the tonsure as such is not adopted as a hairstyle.

Baptismal tonsure

Baptismal tonsure is performed during the rite of Holy Baptism as a first sacrificial offering by the newly baptized. This tonsure is always performed, whether the one being baptized is an infant or an adult.

Monastic tonsure

Monastic tonsure (of which there are three grades: Rassophore, Stavrophore and the Great Schema), is the rite of initiation into the monastic state, symbolic of cutting off of self-will. Orthodox monks traditionally never cut their hair or beards after receiving the monastic tonsure as a sign of the consecration of their lives to God (reminiscent of the Vow of the Nazirite).

Clerical tonsure

Clerical tonsure is the equivalent of the "first tonsure" in the Latin church. It is done immediately prior to ordination to the minor order of reader but is not repeated at subsequent ordinations.[11] This led to a once common usage that one was, for instance, "tonsured a reader", although technically the tonsure occurs prior to the prayer of ordination within the ordination rite.

Western Christianity

Clerical tonsure

Since the issuing of Ministeria quaedam in 1972,[10] certain institutes have been authorized to use the first clerical tonsure, such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (1988), the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (1990), and the Personal Apostolic Administration of Saint John Mary Vianney (2001).

Although the tonsure itself is obsolete, the wearing of a skull cap, called a zuchetto, in church to keep the head warm, which the fuller form of clerical tonsure led to, still survives. The zuchetto is worn by the pope (in white), cardinals (in red) and bishops (in purple) both during and outside of formal religious ceremonies. Priests may wear a simple black zuchetto, only outside of religious services, though this is almost never seen except on abbots, who continue to wear the black zuchetto; save for abbots of the Order of Canons Regular of Premontre, who wear white. Another congregation of Canons Regular, the Canons Regular of the Lateran, wear a white zuchetto as part of their proper habit. Some priests who held special titles (certain ranks of monsignori and some canons, for instance) formerly wore black zuchettos with red or purple piping, but this too has fallen out of use except in a few, extremely rare cases.

Monastic tonsure

Some monastic orders and individual monasteries still maintain the tradition of a monastic tonsure. While not required, it is still a common practice of Latin Rite friars, such as the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word. Some references compare the tonsure to the crown of thorns allegedly worn by Christ at his crucifixion.

Secular European


Among the Merovingians, whose rulers were the "long-haired kings",[12] the ancient custom remained that an unsuccessful pretender or a dethroned king would be tonsured. Then he had to retire to a monastery, but sometimes this lasted only until his hair grew back.[13] Thus Grimoald the Elder, the son of Pippin of Landen, and Dagobert II's guardian, seized the throne for his own son and had Dagobert tonsured, thus marking him unfit for kingship,[14] and exiled.[15]

Byzantine Empire

The practice of tonsure, coupled with castration, was common for deposed emperors and their sons in Byzantium from around the 8th century, prior to which disfigurement, usually by blinding, was the normal practice.[16]


In Buddhism, tonsure is a part of the rite of pabbajja and also a part of becoming a monk (Skt. Bhikshu) or nun (Skt. Bhikshuni). This involves shaving head and face. This tonsure is renewed as often as required to keep the head cleanly shaven.


A baby's first haircut, which is often a head shave, is a common rite of passage. It is called Caula, Chudakarana or Mundana sanskara in Hinduism.[17]

Tonsure is usually the part of three rites of passages in the life of the individual in Hinduism. The first is called Chudakarana (IAST: Cūḍākaraṇa, Sanskrit: चूडाकरण) (literally, rite of tonsure), also known as choulam, caula, chudakarma, or mundana marks the child's first haircut, typically the shaving of the head.[18] The mother dresses up, sometimes in her wedding sari, and with the father present, the baby's head is shaved and nails trimmed, washed and dressed in new clothes.[19] Sometimes, a tuft of hair is left to cover the soft spot near the top of baby's head.[18][19] Both boys and girls typically go through this ceremony, sometimes near a temple or a river, but it is not mandatory in Hinduism.[17]

The significance of Chudakarana rite of passage is the baby's cyclical step to hygiene and cleanliness.[20] The ritual is typically done about the first birthday, but some texts recommend that it be completed before the third or the seventh year.[19] Sometimes, this ritual is combined with the rite of passage of Upanayana, initiation to formal schooling.[18][19]

The second rite of passage in Hinduism that sometimes involves tonsure is at the Upanayana, the sanskara marking a child's entry into school.[21]

Another rite of passage where tonsure is practiced by Hindus is after the death and completing the last rites of an immediate family member, that is father, mother, brother, sister, spouse or child. This ritual is regionally found in India among male mourners, who shave their heads as a sign of bereavement.[22]

According to Jamanadas, tonsure was originally a Buddhist custom and was adopted by Hinduism.[23] However, Pandey and others trace the practice to Sanskrit texts dated to have been composed before the birth of Buddha, which mention tonsure as a rite of passage.[17][19]


The word tonsure is used less often to describe these Islamic practices. In general, partial tonsure is forbidden, unless a very urgent matter necessitates it, e.g. in medical treatment. On the other hand, shaving the head entirely is allowed.

A ritual in the hajj, called tahallul, requires men and women to cut some of their hair, but not to shave it.

Proscription of tonsure

Partial tonsure is forbidden in Islam. Muhammad forbade shaving one's hair on some parts of the head while letting it grow on other parts, as in tonsure. However, shaving the head entirely is allowed. The proscription is detailed in the hadith.

عَنِ ابْنِ عُمَرَ أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ – صلى الله عليه وسلم – نَهَى عَنِ الْقَزَعِ

From Ibnu 'Umar (he says), the Prophet – peace be upon him – forbids the Qoza‘ (i.e. shaving hair on some parts of the head while let it grow on other parts). Hadith Bukhori V/2214 no.5577 about Al-Qoza‘, and Hadith Muslim III/1675 no.2120, about the Proscription of Al-Qoza‘)

عَنِ ابْنِ عُمَرَ رَأَى النَّبِي صَلَّى الله عَلَيهِ وَسَلَّمَ صَبِياًً قَدْ حلقَ بَعْضَ شَعْرٍ رَأسَه وَ تركَ بَعْضاً فقال: اَحلِقْهُ كُلَّهُ أَوْ دَعْهُ كُلَّهُ

From Ibnu 'Umar (he says), the Prophet – peace be upon him – saw a boy whose head shaven on some parts and let the hair grow on other parts. Then, the Prophet commands, "Shave the head entirely or let the hair grow entirely" Hadith Ahmad II/88, Hadith Abu Dawud no. 4195, and Hadith An-Nasa-i no.5048)


It is customary (but not required) for men who complete the hajj to shave their heads completely as a reminder that they have been washed clean of all prior sins. Women (and men) are actually required to cut only a lock of hair rather than shaving the entire head. The ritual is called tahallul, which signs the lifting of many prohibitions concerning the ihram status, imposed to persons while performing the hajj.


The purification process of the metzora (one afflicted with tzaraath) involved the ritual shaving on the metzorah's entire body except for the afflicted locations.[24]

And as the term tonsure may be used as a broad description for such hair styling of devotees as a ritual symbol of their renunciation of worldly fashion and esteem, Orthodox Jewish males do not shave the corners of their beards or scalps with straight blades, as described in Leviticus 19:27.

See also

Media related to Tonsure at Wikimedia Commons


  1. "Charlton T. Lewis, An Elementary Latin Dictionary, tōnsūra". Retrieved August 8, 2015.
  2. 1 2 McCarthy, Daniel (2003). "On the Shape of the Insular Tonsure" (PDF). Celtica. 24: 140–167. Retrieved June 18, 2009.
  3. McCarthy, pp. 147–150
  4. McCarthy, p. 140.
  5. McCarthy
  6. Churchill, Winston S., "A History of the English Speaking Peoples The Birth of Britain", Book 1,"The Island Race",1956, Dodd,Mead and Company, New York, p. 75
  7. Carver, 2009
  8. St. Germanus:65
  9. St. Germanus:69
  10. 1 2 3 "motu proprio", Retrieved 2011-08-14
  11. In the West, the minor orders were those of porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte, and the major orders were subdiaconate, diaconate and priesthood, with the rank of bishop usually being considered a fuller form of priesthood. In the East, the minor orders are those of reader and subdeacon, (and, in some places, acolyte); the orders of doorkeeper (porter) and exorcist (catechist) now having fallen into disuse.
  12. Gregory of Tours' reges criniti
  13. Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, II.41.
  14. J. Hoyaux, "Reges criniti: chevelures, tonsures et scalps chez les Mérovingiens," Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire, 26 (1948)]; J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Long-Haired Kings and Other Essays (London, 1962:154ff).
  15. See also Conrad Leyser, "Long-haired kings and short-haired nuns: writing on the body in Caesarius of Arles", Studia patristica 24 1993.
  16. Byzantium by John Julius Norwich Published by Viking 1988
  17. 1 2 3 Rajbali Pandey (2013), Hindu Saṁskāras: Socio-religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments, 2nd Edition, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120803961, pages 94-100
  18. 1 2 3 Mary McGee (2007), Samskara, in The Hindu World (Editors: Mittal and Thursby), Routledge, ISBN 978-0415772273, pages 342-343
  19. 1 2 3 4 5 PV Kane, Samskara, Chapter VI, History of Dharmasastras, Vol II, Part I, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, pages 260-265
  20. Rajbali Pandey (2013), Hindu Saṁskāras: Socio-religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments, 2nd Edition, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120803961, pages 94-95
  21. Jörg Gengnagel and Ute Hüsken (2005), Words and Deeds: Hindu and Buddhist Rituals in South Asia, Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, ISBN 978-3447051521, pages 204-205
  22. Deborah Weymont and Tina Rae (2006), Supporting Young People Coping with Grief, Loss and Death, SAGE Publications, ISBN 978-1412913126, page 75
  23. K. Jamanadas (1991). Tirupati Balaji was a Buddhist Shrine. Sanjivan Publications. The traditional custom of tonsures performed at Tirumalai as religious ceremony can not be viewed upon as a custom of the Brahmanic [Hindu] religion.
  24. Mishnah Nega'im 2:4
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