Of Combs and Saints by Barbara Steinberg

Of Combs and Saints by Barbara Steinberg

It was a time before nations. Celtic tribes ruled Gaul until they were conquered by the Roman Empire (121 – 51 BC).

In the early 5th Century, Roman Gaul was overwhelmed by the Visigoths, Burgundians, and Franks until 481, when Frankish King Childeric I defeated the Visigoths, and his son King Clovis I united all Frankish tribes under his rule in 486. They founded the Merovingian Dynasty, but they couldn’t win Burgundy.

In 496, Clovis converted to Roman Catholicism at the behest of his wife Clotilde, a Burgundian princess. He was the first king to do so, which might have played a role in his son Clothar’s ability to conquer the kingdom in 550 AD. Around this time, liturgical combs became part of the pre-Mass ritual of the Western Church.

In the 6th Century, the Roman Catholic Church owned 20% to 30% of the land in Europe. As money was scarce, land was the main source of wealth and power. Kings and noblemen were in constant political and military conflict with the Pope. Corruption was rife.

Yet amidst these power struggles, there were those who understood the spiritual profundity of Christianity, and how it offered an alternative to the violence and greed inherent in man.

In 573, Count Betton of Tonnere of the royal house of Burgundy had a son, who became Bishop of Sens and died in Brienon on September 1, 623. His name was St. Loup, known for his piety, charity, fasting, and attention to the poor.

An ivory liturgical comb was made for him around the early 7th Century. We can presume it was used in the Bishop’s preparations to say Mass, and the comb was subsequently buried with him. Rediscovered in the 13th Century, the arch with the silver-gilt inscription “Pecten S. Lupi” was added.

The famous “le peigne St. Loup de Sens” resides in the sacristy of the Sens Cathedral of St. Etienne, a city south east of Paris. (The cathedral was rebuilt in the 12th century). The thin tines at the top and thicker ones at the bottom encase an intricately carved zoomorphic image in the middle, which forms a large, vertical rectangle. A gold band with 6 cabochons lies just below the arch above the teeth. The shape might belie a Coptic influence because the comb was probably made by a Byzantine craftsman.

Two lions stand against the tree of knowledge and of good and evil, around which is wrapped a tempting serpent. A ram’s head rests on top. Scholars argue. in “Notices of sculpture in ivory,” Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt says the design “bears a marked resemblance to some Celtic remains.” Perhaps he is referring to the ram-headed snake that accompanies the Gaulish gods Mercury and Mars on the Gundestrup cauldron (see picture 7, bottom, center-left). Christians who lived in the Middle Ages also associated lions with the Resurrection. They believed that baby lions were born dead, and only their father’s roar could bring them to life. 

These combs were sacred instruments, which cleansed and arranged the bishop’s hair before he put on his mitre and entered the church to celebrate Mass. 

According to Jen Cruse, author of ‘The Comb: Its History and Development’ , “Durandus, Bishop of Mende, writing around 1280, describes the liturgical use of combs as symbolic of the ordering and tidying of the mind. While the bishop sits on the throne (the faldstool) having his sandals put on, a deacon covers his shoulders with a white linen cape known as a peignoir, and “combs his hair respectfully and lightly”: Tobellia, quando pectitur, collo circumponend. The amice was a form of hood worn by the celebrant priest during the singing of various parts of the service. When removed, the disarranged hair was then combed by the deacon. Likewise a bishop’s or an abbot’s hair required tidying after the mitre was taken off. The comb was also used in the preparation of a bishop during the vesting ceremony before celebrating High Mass. Such rituals took place either at the altar, in the sacristry or in the vestry. Although in early and medieval times the tonsures of monks and clergy appeared much the same as now, the remaining circle of hair also required combing prior to the liturgy. According to the missal of Lunden, 1514, a prayer used by both bishops and priests, asks that as the head is cleansed, so also may be the heart.”

In Latin, the prayer is “Corripe me, Domine, in misericordia tua ; oleum autem peccatoris non impuinguet caput meum”

Correct me, O Lord, in thy mercy; Let not the oil of a sinner disorder my mind.

A History of the Franks