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22.10.01 Coxon, Beards and Texts

22.10.01 Coxon, Beards and Texts

That beards mean things has been sometimes painfully obvious to me for decades: as a brown man with a beard, airports make me nervous, largely because as a brown man with a beard, I know that I make other people in airports nervous. My beard, perhaps especially in the cities favoured by North American airlines as hubs, screams Osama. I shudder to think what would happen to me if I added a turban to it. It was not always thus: when I was growing up in India in the 80s and 90s, the middle-class Indian beard (unless that of a Sikh man), if coupled with spectacles and shabby clothing was a marker of the more or less left-wing, more or less impractical and ineffective intellectual, always reliable as a provider of long discourses on Marx and Lenin, but not, generally, of anything else of more practical value; it was not something to be scared of for any other reason than the potentially soporific effect of the discourse of its wearer, and was also certainly not a marker of the sort of aggressive masculinity of, for example, the North American biker beard. My beard was supposed to be the Indian beard of the last decades of the last millennium, but transplanted to North America in the 2000s, it has come to mean something very different for most people.

That beards can so obviously mean things to many people now is, perhaps as a result of the “war on terror,” obvious to most people, though it is regrettably less obvious that beards can mean many different things, and not always what the wearer intends. Clearly, we need to have more pogonographic scholarship, with greater public reception, to make men like me more comfortable in airports. It is thus rather nice to note that in medieval studies beards are coming into fashion. Of the 47 hits reported by the International Medieval Bibliography under the search term “beards,” almost a third are from 2002 or later (is the Osama beard to blame for this surge in interest?), and 20--close to half--are from the last decade. If the IMB is to be believed, the book under review is the very first monograph in medieval studies devoted to the beard, truly a milestone in the annals of pogonophilia. (No, I didn’t know that word and its cognates either, before reading this book.) The beard, Sebastian Coxon argues, is not just possibly the “pre-eminent ‘natural’ symbol of masculinity” (1); “at times the poetic description of the beard evinces to striking effect a concern with humanity” (23). These rather large claims about the meaning of the beard are set forth primarily through careful close readings of core texts from different segments of what it is (I hope) still safe to call the Middle High German canon, along with some imitations and continuations: the Rolandslied and associated material; Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Willehalm and its continuations; the didactic verse of, in particular, Frauenlob, Thomasin von Zerklaere, and Hugo von Trimberg; and the bawdy comedy of Heinrich Wittenwiler. (There is also a short chapter with a useful survey of materials on the most important beard of all, that of Jesus Christ, though there is very little said here that is very innovative.) Each chapter’s close readings of these texts and authors are enriched by comparison with the (mostly French) sources, cognate texts, and other works from around the same milieu. Each chapter also provides a careful analysis of the many images of beards in the illuminated manuscripts of these texts, which reveals inter alia that--as has been shown also by other studies of other aspects of these manuscripts--illuminators did not always follow the text precisely, and sometimes conferred beards on men who were not said to have beards in the texts.

Coxon is a careful and attentive reader of texts with a keen eye for hirsute detail (which he makes a point of enumerating: if you ever wanted to know how many beard references there are in some of the major works of Middle High German literature, this is the place to go), and his readings of what beards mean in each of the texts he analyses are convincing, if not especially surprising. Beards denote mature masculinity; the lack of a beard frequently denotes either immaturity (sometimes belied by the actions of the young man in question, resulting in his appearing as an exceptionally valorous youth, like Vivianz inWillehalm) or effeminacy. Given that beards were at various points less than fashionable in courtly society, this change in fashion itself can be a figure of implicit critique: the smooth knights of the day cannot compare to the bristly heroes of old. Great kings were bearded, and the greatest of them all in history, Charlemagne, very prominently so in all the works about him that view him positively. (There are some that don’t do so; in one French text the young Charles glues a fake beard onto his chin--which also makes the point about the importance of the beard for the image of the valorous and in this case experienced king.)

Beards signal valour in battle, and also hardship faced in battle: the unkempt beard of Willehalm is explicitly described in Wolfram’s work, in contrast to the beard of the king who is depicted as rather failing in his royal duties, and whose beard is mentioned only in an enraged speech of Willehalm in which the latter says he will split the king’s head down to the bottom of his beard. Beards can signal age: white and grey beards abound on the faces of old and often wise men, and teenagers earning their first spurs are frequently described as only just sprouting their first stubble. Beards are signs of wisdom, but the wrong sort of person wearing a beard is a sign of foolishness and imposture (this comes across especially in the didactic works). Beards are the objects of action of various kinds: Rennewart’s stubble is singed in Willehalm, and since here it signifies a manhood that has been brought into life by the kiss of his beloved, its disfiguring is especially insulting; Charlemagne and others, when faced with shocking events, stroke their beards in thought or pull on it in anger; the yokels in Wittenwiler’s Ring pull on each others’ beards in their many brawls. The ideal beard “was supposed to bestow dignity upon its wearer” (133), a function that is made most explicit in the personified, apostrophised beard of Frauenlob, who tells “Herr Bart” to “teach your men to love manly dignity” (107), the personified symbol now being given the task of enforcing the existence, through its teaching, of the quality it is supposed to symbolise.

Beards also differentiate between people of different categories, or help readers to break down such differences. In the Rolandslied, the Christian warriors are told to display their beards as they go into battle in “a symbolic gesture of defiance” which does not, however, result in a “beard competition between Christians and Saracens” (34). It is Charlemagne whose beard is constantly described, and the revelation of the beards in battle is a marker of affiliation between the Christian ruler and his men; Saracen beards are not mentioned. By contrast, Wolfram--“outstanding in terms of the quantity and poetic quality of his beard references” (77), whose work “set the standard in matters pogonographic for narrative poets for the next hundred years or more” (63)--uses beards to point to the common humanity of Christian and heathen alike. And this is as good a point as any to consider the broader perspective an analysis of beard references in a text might--or might not--reveal. Literary sources, Coxon tells us, are revealing about historical ideas concerning beards, and the beard in turn “can be used to measure developments in vernacular literature itself” (1). It is not entirely clear, however, what it is that we learn about such developments with the benefit of the beardy perspective that we didn’t already know, at least with regard to texts that have had the benefit of years of careful and insightful analysis, like the Rolandslied and Willehalm. The differences between how these two texts depict heathens and contrast them with Christians, and even the “concern for humanity” in the latter, have been much discussed and are well established in the scholarship. I don’t think the beards tell us more about these issues than we already knew, though Coxon certainly demonstrates very effectively how pogonographic detail is used to support the communication of ideological points in these texts and gives us a salutary reminder that there is still more to be discovered in Wolfram’s mastery of his art; and how it is not an exaggeration to say that in Wolfram’s work, and in great literature more broadly (if less comprehensively), everything down to the last hair really does have meaning.

It is perhaps an awareness of the fact that pogonological analysis can take us only so far in providing fresh insight that leads to the lack of discussion of one of the most intriguing absences of face-fungus in German literature: King Arthur was not bearded in the German tradition--something I confess I had never noticed, and one of many interesting and often significant details that emerge from Coxon’s pogonology. While it is perhaps unfair to cavil at a lack of discussion of a lack of a beard in a book on beards, I can’t help wishing that Coxon had devoted more than a couple of paragraphs to the meaning of the silence regarding Arthur’s facial hair; but what he does say suggests that further discussion wouldn’t necessarily lead to new understandings of the German Arthur.

These are minor quibbles, really not worth bearding the author about. This is a carefully researched book that turns up a wealth of fascinating detail, and also brings to light a number of texts that are not very well known in the scholarship (how many Altgermanisten have ever heard of the poem Von den berten by König von Odenwald?). While not quite a comprehensive study of medieval German pogonography (for example, more could certainly have been said of Wolfram’s Parzival and the works of Hartmann von Aue; I wonder if beards feature in Walther von der Vogelweide’s poetic corpus, or for that matter in the lyric of the earlier Minnesinger, and if they do, what function they serve--not something I’d ever thought about when reading those works), it is certainly a wide-ranging overview. It delivers magnificently on its title, if perhaps less so on the more ambitious pogonological statements of its first pages. And it is an excellent masterclass--sorely needed!--in how to read texts closely and extract meaning from detail, a skill that unfortunately few tend to be taught these days, and even among those who possess it, increasingly few seem willing to exercise it. If Wolfram gives us a “masterclass in beard referencing” (94), Coxon gives us no less of a masterclass in close reading: even if beards aren’t your thing, this is a book worth reading simply for the pleasure of seeing this most fundamental skill of literary scholarship employed so well. (And now I’m off to read the Apologia de barbis.)