TONSURE (Lat. tonsura, from tondere, to shave), a religious observance in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Eastern Churches, consisting of the shaving or cutting part of the hair of the head as a sign of dedication to special service. The reception of the tonsure in these churches is the initial ceremony which marks admission to orders and to the rights and privileges of clerical standing. It is administered by the bishop with an appropriate ritual. Candidates for the rite must have been confirmed, be adequately instructed in the elements of the Christian faith, and be able to read and write. Those who have received it are bound (unless in exceptional circumstances) to renew the mark, consisting of a bare circle on the crown of the head, at least once a month otherwise they forfeit the privileges it carries. The practice is not a primitive one; Tertullian simply advises Christians to avoid vanity in dressing their hair, and Jerome deprecates both long and closely cropped hair. According to Prudentius (IlepuT. xiii. 30) it was customary for the hair to be cut short at ordination. Paulinus of Nola (c. 490) alludes to the tonsure as in use among the (Western) monks; from them the practice quickly spread to the clergy. For Gaul about the year 500 we have the testimony of Sidonius ApoUinaris (iv. 13), who says that Germanicus the bishop had his hair cut " in rotae speciem."
The earliest instance of an ecclesiastical precept on the subject occurs in can. 41 of the Council of Toledo (A.D. 633) : " omnes clerici, detonso superius capite toto, inferius solam circuli coronam relinquant." Can. 33 of the Quinisext council (692) requires even singers and readers to be tonsured. Since the 8th century three tonsures have been more or less in use, known respectively as the Roman, the Greek and the Celtic. The first two are sometimes distinguished as the tonsure of Peter and the tonsure of Paul. The Roman or St Peter's tonsure prevailed in France, Spain and Italy. It consisted in shaving the whole head, leaving only a fringe of hair supposed to symbolize the crown of thorns. Late in the middle ages this tonsure was lessened for the clergy, but retained for monks and friars. In the Eastern or St Paul's tonsure the whole head was shaven, but when now practised in the Eastern Church this tonsure is held to be adequately shown when the hair is shorn close. In the Celtic tonsure (tonsure of St John, or, in contempt, tonsure of Simon Magus) all the hair in front of a line drawn over the top of the head from ear to ear was shaven (a fashion common among the Hindus). The question of the Roman or Celtic tonsure was one of the points in dispute in the early British Church, settled in favour of the Roman fashion at the Council of Whitby (664). The tonsure at first was never given separately, and even children when so dedicated were appointed readers, as no one could belong to the clerical state without at least a minor order. From the 7th century, however, children were tonsured without ordination, and later on adults anxious to escape secular jurisdiction were often tonsured without ordination. Till the 10th century the tonsure could be given by priests or even by laymen, but its bestowal was gradually restricted to bishops and abbots.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)