Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Title: The abbess of White Nuns cuts the hair of a novice
  • Creator:
  • Description: This illumination appears in the fourteenth-century French manuscript, Lancelot du Lac, which tells the history, adventures, and romances of Sir Lancelot, the best and bravest knight in the mythical court of King Arthur. In this image, a blond-haired novice is in the process of getting her hair cut by the abbess of the White Nuns. She wears a white gown like the other nuns, however she does not wear a black veil. The absence of her veil implies that she has not yet made her profession is not fully ordained. The abbess stretches out the hair of the novice in one hand, and in the other she holds a pair of oversized scissors that are poised to sever the hair. Surrounding the novice and the abbess are other nuns who watch the scene and hold books in their hands. When a woman entered a convent, she was required to relinquish her possessions. Nuns often had their hair cut or were tonsured, and this was the most drastic part of the divestment process. In the medieval period, hair was an important sign of social status, ethnic identity, age, and sex. It was commonly believed that long hair was appropriate for women while it was expected for men to have short hair. Long flowing hair was a sign of maidenhood and was a source of self expression. Robert Bartlett suggests that hair was highly sexualized and that the cutting of hair was a sign of sexual renunciation. The wielding of the scissors by a religious superior signaled the novice‚Äôs abandonment of the secular world in favor of devotion to God.
  • Source: British Library
  • Rights: Open access
  • Subject (See Also): Abbesses Arthurian Literature Hair Monasticism Novices Nuns
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 14
  • Date: 1316
  • Related Work: Lancelot du Lac: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=18463&CollID=27&NStart=10293; L'estoire del Saint Graal (ff. 1-76); L'estoire de Merlin (ff. 76-216): http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=8572&CollID=27&NStart=10292
  • Current Location: London, British Library, Additional 10293 f. 261
  • Original Location: France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai)
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Manuscript page
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 290.5 cm/230 cm/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Bartlett, Robert. "The Symbolic Meanings of Hair in the Middle Ages." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series. Vol. 4 (1994). pp 43-66.; Koslin, Desiree G. "'He hath couerd my soule inwarde.' Veiling in Medieval Europe and the Early Church." in The Veil: Women Writers On Its History, Lore, And Politics. edited by Jennifer Heath. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2008. pp. 162-163