Q — In movies about medieval monks, they always seem to have the tops of their heads shaved. What’s with the funny haircuts? Is there a meaning? Do any monks today still have them?

A — The cutting of the hair was a religious ritual/ceremony of many Eastern peoples. For example, shaving the head is often used for Buddhist novices and monks. As far as I am aware, it is also a Muslim practice associated with completing the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca. In the West it is usually known as “tonsure.”

Tonsure is the religious and especially monastic practice of cutting or shaving some or all of the hair on one’s head, as a symbol of religious devotion or commitment. We hear about it in the Acts of the Apostles 18:18; we read about St. Paul cutting his hair: “At Cenchreae he had his hair cut for he was under a vow.” New Testament commentators when addressing this passage usually suggest that St. Paul was making a form of the vow described in the Book of Numbers 6:1-21, a way of describing and expressing one’s commitment to God.

Tonsure became a generally received custom in fourth and fifth century monasticism. The Roman form of tonsure involved the shaving of the crown of the head, and that is what one often finds in movies concerning medieval monks.

Another form of tonsure was the Celtic, which seems to have involved shaving the head from ear to ear, though this is disputed by some scholars who suggest that the shaving was from the forehead as far as the ears. In both the Roman form or the Celtic form this partial shaving of the head was a sign of one’s vowed commitment to God in the consecrated state.

Then it was gradually introduced into the West as the form of admission to the clerical state about the sixth, seventh centuries. In the 1917 Code of Canon Law tonsure was a requirement for those proceeding to minor orders. That is no longer the case. Although the tonsure itself is no longer observed, the wearing of a skull cap, called a zuchetto, has been maintained. Originally, its purpose was to keep the head warm. Today it is more ceremonial so that the zuchetto is worn by the Pope (white), cardinals (red) and bishops (purple), most often during religious ceremonies.