European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

27 March 2015

The Growth of the Beard

All the media assure us we are living in a new age of the beard.

A landmark in pogonology is the pioneer study A Barba em Portugal. Estudo de etnografia comparativa [The Beard in Portugal.  A Study in Comparative Ethnography] (Lisbon, 1925; British Library 10009.t.29) by  José Leite de Vasconcellos  (1858-1941).

Beards - Leite de Vasconcelos                                    José Leite de Vasconcellos (with beard). Image from Wikimedia Commons

Beards - Barba em Portugal tp                                                    Title-page of Leite’s A barba em Portugal.

Leite (1858-1941) was a distinguished professor of Latin and Medieval French at the University of Lisbon and editor of the journal Revista Lusitana, but the bulk of his publications are ethnographic studies of topics such as the “figa” gesture: in this respect his work prefigured much 20th and 21st-century research on the body.  The figa’s opposite number in British culture is the V-sign, now sadly depleted to the single finger.

Beards - Figa tp José Leite de Vasconcellos,  A Figa : estudo de etnografia comparativa, precedido de algumas palavras a respeito do ”sobrenatural” na medicina popular portuguesa. (Porto, 1925). Ac.3709.d.

Like many Portuguese men of letters (Júlio Dinis and Trindade Coelho  among them), Leite studied medicine although he practised for  only a year on account of his own ill health.

The chapters of A Barba em Portugal cover: The beard anthropologically, the making of the beard, beard forms and cuts, the beard through the centuries, the symbolism of the beard, and the beard in vocabulary and literature; in an appendix Leite edits the ordenances of the guild of barbers from the 16th century.

Beards - Effigies
A selection of historical Portuguese beards from A Barba em Portugal

A habit which 21st-century hipsters seem not to have adopted is swearing on the beard.  The Cid did it, and Leite was told by an old man of A Beira that he had heard in his youth that in olden times the oath was “Juro por estas minhas barbas” [I swear by these my beards], accompanied by the appropiate gesture.  

Perhaps its time has come again, by my beard!

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies

Beards - Herod                                  Beards - Ancient
Ancient beard ideas for the hipsters of today? King Herod (left) and an Bronze Age figurine (right) from A barba em Portugal


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