A short history of long beards

October 09, 2019 3 min read

A short history of long beards

Once a month, I play poker with friends. In an increasingly uncertain, frantic and chaotic world, it’s nice to have the discipline of a monthly meet-up, during which we can discuss deep philosophical issues and catch up with what’s happening in each of our lives. Who am I kidding? It’s just a great opportunity for them to take my money and berate me for limping under-the-gun with suited connectors, then calling a pot-sized re-raise, before playing the rest of the hand out of position and folding the river to a Jack-high bluff.

But I digress.

One of the regular attendees is an old friend called Roy; a Latin scholar (yes, I know some pretty funky people). Roy has the sort of impressive beard that can be tucked inside a jumper to keep his body warm during a chilly snap, so he’s always interested in what I’m doing in the world of beard products.

After we’d played a rare hand (by ‘rare’, I mean that I hit a pair on the flop), Roy congratulated me on my skill by uttering the words “unus aliquis ex barbatis illis”. I looked at Roy like a dog being shown a card trick (a look that Roy has got used to over the years). With a semi-patient sigh, he enlightened me: It’s a quotation from Cicero and means “someone from among the bearded ones”. Apparently, it refers to the Roman times, when it was usual for a man to sport a beard.

This started Roy off on a Latin-based diatribe (it really doesn’t take much).

He recounted one of Cervantes’ short stories in which a man who is appointed to a teaching job grows a beard purely ‘to lend authority to his position’. It’s a good point. A well-tended thatch can add definition to the jaw and look pretty powerful and commanding, so I’m not surprised that someone would grow a beard to look authoritative. After all, it certainly worked a treat for my old woodwork teacher, Mrs. Wilson. 

Roy also went on to tell us about the early years of the 20th century (he won’t mind me telling you that he’d have only been about 12 back then). During this time, schoolboys would play a game which involved being the first to spot a bearded man in the street – remember this was a time when men were generally clean-shaven (before Shoreditch was gentrified). Upon spotting a rare bearded man in the wild, the first boy to shout “Beaver” would score a point. 

I’ve observed the game being played in modern times too, but sadly, using an entirely different set of Neolithic rules.

The evening drew to a close and as the guests left, Roy gave me a hug and looked at me with glistening eyes (I blame the scotch), before uttering the words “Barbatus Magister”. I obliged him with the whole dog-being-shown-card-trick face, before he gently explained that it means “Bearded Master”. This was a phrase apparently used by Juvenal (a Roman poet active in the late first, and early second century AD – so only marginally older than Roy). Apparently, Juvenal used the term “Barbatus Magister” as a roundabout way of referring to someone as a philosopher.

Like I say, I know some funky people.

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