Have a look at this:
See the two guys on the right? They’re Normans, messengers from Duke William the Bastard. One of the ways you can tell they’re Normans (beyond the fact that the captions read, loosely translated, ‘yo, these guys are the duke of Normandy’s’) is their distinctive haircut: floppy fring, and shaved back of the head. It’s a very distinctive hairstyle – so where did it come from?
There are basically two camps. Camp 1 (represented, for instance, by the noted scholar Nicholas Brooks) pegs it as a Viking thing. The evidence for this comes from a letter from the early eleventh century, written by one Englishman to his brother (trans. D. Whitelock):
‘…you dress in Danish fashion with bared necks and blinded eyes…’
However, there is a second camp. Camp 2 situated the origins of the Norman hairstyle somewhere in Aquitaine, based on a passage in the Histories of Ralph Glaber. Glaber (the nickname means ‘bald’ – possibly there’s sour grapes here?) wrote of the entourage of the West Frankish queen Constance of Arles that they were:
‘stripped of hair from the middle of their heads, and shaved their bears like actors do…’
Both descriptions seem to encompass our hairstyle. So from which source did it come? Denmark and Aquitaine are about as far apart as you can get and still be in Europe, so although we could perhaps be dealing with independent origins, I find it unlikely.
How can we solve this riddle? Let’s turn to Dudo of Saint-Quentin’s Historia Normannorum, much beloved of this blog. Dudo describes Duke Richard the Fearless as follows (trans. E. Christiansen):
‘Most lovely to look upon, bristling with brilliant white hair, brilliant in eyebrows and in the pupil of the eye, resplendent of nostril and cheek, honoured for a thick, long beard…’
Dudo’s pen portrait of Richard, you’ll note, has both a thick head of hair and a big beard. However, this description of Richard is entirely conventional, in accordance with descriptions of other figures at the time – Widukind describes Otto the Great in a very similar way, as does Helgaud of Fleury with Robert the Pious. That itself is significant, though: I think in this case there’s an acknowledged look (in terms of personal grooming) for rulers which all three men are more-or-less pursuing (Widukind explicitly notes that Otto’s beard went against prior custom because he wore it long).
Given, therefore, that the one Norman we have a description of from someone who knew him in the years around the millennium does not have the characteristic hairstyle, it seems to me more likely that the Norman hairstyle was not a survival from a Scandinavian past, but an early to mid-eleventh century adoption based on trendy Aquitanian fashions.
Why might this matter? Norman hair is a microcosm of the wider development of Norman identity. It’s easy to get distracted by the fact that the Norman rulers had their point of origin in Scandinavia and declare that all kinds of things are authentically Viking. In practice, most things about Normandy that are distinct, from their powerful dukes to their ideas about what being Norman means, to their haircuts, come from Gaul. How these Frankish ideas mutated in this particular province, then, to produce a new and distinct ethno-political group requires subtle and careful thought within the context of West Frankish political and cultural developments. Vikings are fashionable – but not, in this case, literally.