I got all tangled up in the beards of my red herrings while writing my last book, which was exactly as messy and confusing as it sounds. You can’t just pick beards out of a hat, you know; not if you’re writing historical fiction. If you’re a woman, you can’t experiment with your own chin and then go look in the mirror either.
Men have restrictions on how much they want to alter their features for experimental purposes too, of course. Try asking a guy with a long-established beard to shave it off so you can watch it grow back and take notes! Better to get out there and do your homework.
These are poorly documented. Cave painters didn’t do self-portraits. The Short History of Beards makes this rather disingenuous claim: “Prehistoric men grew beards for warmth, intimidation and protection. Facial hair kept prehistoric men warm and it also protected their mouths from sand, dirt, the sun and many other different elements. A beard on a man’s face creates the look of a stronger looking jaw line; this exaggeration helped them appear more intimidating.”
Hm. Perhaps. I’m curious about those “many other different elements.” Lips, perhaps? It also may have had something do with the discomfort experienced after shaving with a stone knife. Obsidian rash can be so uncomfortable.
A Potpourri of Beards
My problem was that the beard was a clue to my murderer’s identity. I wanted a notable style, therefore; something fashionable. I started out thinking about a sharply pointed beard like Sir Walter Raleigh’s in the dishy miniature shown below, but I doubeted they were stylish yet in 1589. It’s mainly a 90’s style, or so I thought, at least until the Earl of Essex returned victorious from the Battle of Cadiz with a long, square-cut beard.
I had to observe the rules about beards and other elements of fashion at Gray’s Inn. According to Wilfred Prest in his indispensable The Inns of Court under Elizabeth I and the Early Stuarts (1972, Longman), gentlemen in residence were expected to shave, at least on a semi-monthly basis. “That none of the said companies, under the degree of a knight, being in commons, do wear any beard above three weeks growing, upon pain of xl s. and so double for every week after monition.”
That’s a fine of 40 shillings, which seems incredibly steep. I must have mis-read and mis-typed that note. You only had to pay 3 shillings and 3 pence for wearing “breeches of any light color nor coifs of English lawn, velvet caps, scarfs, or wings on their study gowns,” double cuffs on your shirt, or feathers or ribbons in your caps. Of course, you also had to forfeit your finery and could be expelled for a second offense.
But these rules come from the 1570s. I also have a note saying that long hair and beards became increasingly fashionable in the 1590s. Maybe the governors of Gray’s Inn just finally gave up? To be on the safe side, I gave both Francis Bacon and his sidekick, Thomas Clarady, a nice brushy rill of two-week’s growth. You wouldn’t want the constant itch of a brand new beard, nor would you want to visit the barber every day, although I’ll bet there were several barbers in Holborn who specialized in the Inns of Court regulation style, whatever it was at the time. (And now I’m thinking about a barber shop scene…. why haven’t I done that?)