‘The Very Head and Front of My Offending’: Beards, Portraiture and Self-Presentation in Early Modern England

  • Margaret Pelling
Part of the Genders and Sexualities in History book series (GSX)


This chapter makes particular reference to sixteenth-century English portraiture, especially miniatures and their connections with contemporary culture and behaviour, but also suggests the applicability of distinctions derived from twentieth-century anthropology and sociology. The focus is on the early modern head, principally the hair and the beard. It is suggested that, contrary to most approaches, masculinity is not the best organising principle for beards in history, because it is insufficiently broad to encompass the full range of early modern beard phenomena and beard behaviour. We need to raise issues of communication, fashion and control as well as sexuality. Evidence can be drawn from drama and satire as well as portraiture, all sources using extreme degrees of artifice in order to convey their messages.



This chapter was first given as a paper in Durham in 1993. Institutional circumstances then prevented its publication, but it was subsequently aired with little alteration in Oxford, Manchester, Leicester, Lausanne, Warwick, Sussex and as a keynote at the ‘Framing the Face’ workshop in London in November 2015. I am grateful to all these audiences for their comments, references and enthusiastic engagement. I owe special thanks also to both editors of this volume, to Robert Bartlett, Peter Burke, Karen Hearn, Don Herzog, Rob Iliffe, Mark Jenner, Lauren Kassell, Martin Porter, Gervase Rosser, John Stewart, Charles Webster, Helen Weinstein and all those whom I pestered about spheres and circles.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Margaret Pelling
    • 1
  1. 1.Wellcome Unit for the History of MedicineUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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