Shorn Slaves in the Early Modern Mediterranean: Hairy Stories of Oppression and Agency

Sixteenth-century German razors used for shearing hair. Johann Dryander, Artzenei Spiegel/ Gemeyner Jnhalt derselbigen/ Wes bede einem Leib vnnd Wundtartzt/ in der Theorie/ Practic/ vnnd Chirurgei zu[o]steht (…) (Frankfurt am Main: Christian Egenolff, 1547), fol. 140v–41r, ULB Sachsen-Anhalt, Halle (Saale), Uf 509, 4° (2),
This HWO article accompanies Stefan Hanß’s new History Workshop Journal article – Hair, Emotions and Slavery in the Early Modern Habsburg Mediterraneanwhich is free access until June 2019.

After Michael Heberer was taken captive by Muslim North Africans following a shipwreck in the early 1580s, the German Protestant spent three years imprisoned in Ottoman Egypt. He was one of millions of people who lived as slaves in the Habsburg and Ottoman empires. The border conflicts and wars of these empires made human trafficking, enslavement and ransoming of slaves, well as the exchange of captives, an important element of subjects’ life experience. “In this severe imprisonment”, Heberer wrote after his return to German lands, his new master had “started to cut the hair on the head as well as the beard entirely with a clipping knife. This made us even more distressed and such mockery hurt much more than the actual imprisonment itself.”

Why should the moment of having one’s beard cut be more painful than the years-long experience of being a galley slave? I was intrigued by this question and soon discovered that plenty of returning Habsburg as well as Ottoman captives wrote dozens of pages about forced shearing of their head and facial hair. This was certainly a common act of humiliation and a widespread ritual to integrate slaves into new societies across the Mediterranean. However, the prominence of such references in both Habsburg and Ottoman captivity narratives of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – often bestsellers written by returning slaves for a wide audience – shows that there was more going on.

An Istanbul street-barber at work, depicted in a Venetian diplomatic album (c.1650). From Alt-Stambuler Hof- und Volksleben: Ein türkisches Miniaturenalbum aus dem 17. Jahrhundert, ed. Franz Taescher, Hannover, 1925, no. 21.

My new article for History Workshop Journal explores the emotional qualities of slaves’ experiences of forced shavings, by charting the broader early modern bodily, medical, social, and cultural significance of head, facial, and pubic hair. Habsburg subjects, I argue, lived in a hair-literate society in which estate, gender, and affiliation were expressed through hair; and it was this that made hair such an important reference when talking about experiences of enslavement.

Connecting ideas about the body to the trade in bodies, I show that the performance and description of hair-cutting and hair-care helped Habsburg and Ottoman subjects to express and shape the emotional resonance of Mediterranean slavery. Across the religious divide, early modern Muslim and Christian societies considered hair-care as crucial to a healthy life. Health-related notions of hairdressing lay behind both the cross-cultural appreciation of barbers and accounts of forced shaving and shearing of slaves’ hair. Having returned home, writing about hair gave male captives cultural capital and allowed them to shape the meanings of enslavement in foreign lands inhabited by people of a different faith. By writing about hair in general and ritual shearing in particular, former slaves addressed their own spiritual well-being and defined emotional communities of religious, confessional, and social belonging.

Such acts of definition heavily affected the possibilities for former captives’ reintegration into societies that were highly suspicious of their past lives in the Ottoman empire. Had they converted to Islam? Did they learn Near Eastern languages such as Arabic; for instance, by reading the Qur’an? Did they start believing the stories outlined in such religious writings? Did they collaborate fighting against Christians? Did they marry? How integrated had they been in Ottoman society? When writing about hair, returning slaves could provide convincing stories about how they had contested the threat of a potential conversion and also gave explanations for their behaviour in Islamic lands. Describing experiences of forced shavings in terms of suffering and oppression strengthened captives’ emotional alliance with communities at home and are therefore crucial in understanding the social relevance of post-slavery storytelling.

My article also shows that these captives’ descriptions of shearing rituals were deeply rooted in medical understandings of the sexual meanings of hair. Enslaved men built upon Renaissance medical thinking about hair in order to legitimate their different sexual behaviour during captivity. Writing about changes to one’s own head and facial hair allowed ex-slaves to talk about bodily alterations that had made them behave differently, both physically and sexually. Some enslaved Christian men later wrote about flirting with Muslim women, addressing their beauty by describing their hair.

Having been denied bodily autonomy, hair-related storytelling also allowed returning captives to regain interpretative authority over their actions while living among communities of different faith. Living as slaves in the Ottoman Empire or Muslim North Africa, in new environments whose different climate, food and religions were seen as affecting body and health, Habsburg subjects built “healing communities” by drawing on, and elaborating, medicinal knowledge around hair. As a physical and spiritual act, hair-care was rooted in the early modern understandings of the body’s highly unstable fluxes, its environment, and embodied emotions. Talking about hair-care – its practices, possibilities, restrictions, and implications – allowed captives to define emotional bonds and boundaries. Hair-care was a social activity that empowered enslaved Christians and Muslims to care for each other, thereby building and articulating strong emotional ties with each other and against their oppressors.

Early modern ‘hair literacy’ is a concept that I develop in my History Workshop Journal article and on which I will elaborate further in my monograph project on hair in the early modern Habsburg world. Having access to someone’s hair was highly intimate in a society that considered hair such a crucial element of social and cultural life. This is why some former captives were ready to talk about hair in relation to emotions. Such affective performances allowed returning slaves to reflect on cultural, religious, and sexual intimacy, as key concepts through which people judged their loyalty.


  1. Fascinating. In Hapsburg (and later Bourbon) Mexico, well into the 20th c the figure of the pelado or pelón (shorn-hair male) conveyed a lack of freedom. The custom was for prisoners or for those interned at an institution who were likely to attempt to eascape to be easily identified by the lack of hair which was a marker. The phrase pelón de hospicio (shorn haired person from an asylum) is quite common.

    1. Thank you so much, Victor Macias! This is super interesting feedback just at the right moment in time since I will spend some months at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, RI, studying the role of hair in the colonial Habsburg world! Thank you!

  2. Muy interesante Stefan, en Perú he visto dos casos de mujeres trasquiladas en el s. XVI (en Trujillo y Lima), como un signo de humillación.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *