Thursday, February 2, 2017

Historical Hair Care, Part Three, The Medieval Era

It is not known for sure how often people bathed in the Middle ages, though it seems to have been more frequent than the common stereotype: never. Certainly, washing was done with more regularity before the terrible outbreak of the plague and rumors that cleansing the body opened it up to illness. Nor is it known particularly how often men or women would have washed their hair.

As to how they did it, they did leave some indications, the Trotula, a series of texts composed in 12th Century Italy instructs thus:

“After leaving the bath, let her adorn her hair, and first of all let her wash it with a cleanser such as this. Take ashes of burnt vine, the chaff of barley nodes, and licorice wood (so that it may the more brightly shine), and sowbread… with this cleanser let the woman wash her head. After the washing, let her leave it to dry by itself, and her hair will be golden and shimmering…"


Now, I certainly won't be testing this method of shampoo, but there does seem to me to be a glimmer of something useful there. After all, soap is composed of lye and fats and lye can be derived from ash. So, the advice is not as strange as it seems to be on the surface. 

As with the Vikings we discussed yesterday, careful combing of the hair with fine-toothed combs made of natural materials would have distributed sebum from the scalp down the lengths. As very long hair was prized amongst both women and men of the nobility, it is reasonable to suppose that frequent, careful combing may have kept the scalp somewhat clean. Certainly, great care was taken in the production of combs for the wealthy. At left is a late Medieval (c. 1450) comb intricately carved to depict Jesus and the twelve apostles. At right is an example of a late Anglo-Saxon comb (10th or 11th century).

Styles varied by population and gender. Norman men are often depicted with short-cropped hair, whilst there are tales of other noblemen who so prized their long locks that they swore oaths on them. 

As for women, the hair was generally worn long, but covered. Uncovered hair was considered lurid and sexual. In fact, a law in the statutes of Arles between 1162 and 1202 banned prostitutes from covering their hair in case they should be mistaken for women of good virtue. It also encouraged others to take the veils from the heads of women of suspected poor morals. A common punishment for adultery was to publicly shave a woman's hair, thus depriving her of her beauty and tool for seduction. Thus, both free flowing hair and a shorn head were considered marks of shame.

During the latest part of the Middle Ages, these taboos lessened. Women in Italy set their veils and wimples aside and began the trend of wearing elaborate braids and bunned styles, covered only with a strip of gauze tied around the ears.

Despite the fact that a woman's hair was so often hidden away, there exist in the Trotula plenty of recipes for the beautification of it, not just for washing and conditioning, but also for dying it. 

To lighten the hair for example:

"For coloring the hair so that it is golden. Take the exterior shell of a walnut and the bark of the tree itself, and cook them in water, and with this water mix alum and oak apples, and with these mixed things you will smear the head (having first washed it) placing upon the hair leaves and tying them with strings for two days; you will be able to color [the hair]. And comb the head so that whatever adheres to the hair as excess comes off. Then place a coloring which is made from oriental crocus, dragon's blood, and henna (whose larger part has been mixed with a decoction of brazilwood ) and thus let the woman remain for three days, and on the fourth day let her be washed with hot water, and never will [this coloring ] be removed easily."

And to darken it:

"If the woman wishes to have long and black hair, take a green lizard and, having removed its head and tail, cook it in common oil. Anoint the head with this oil. It makes the hair long and black."

Yeah... I think I'll stick with the plain, old brown nature gave me.

In The Gates of Nottingham, I chose to include various hair styles, all of which I believed to be appropriate to the setting and characters. Robin somewhat unintentionally lets his hair and beard grow out at the beginning of the novel and later shaves it before battle. As a born peasant, he cares little for it's appearance.  Guy, who has risen in rank by doing the dirty work of the Norman lords wears his hair short after their manner. Marion keeps her dark hair very long and braided beneath a wimple. Prince John's long, golden locks are his vainly prized possession on which he pledges an oath he will later come to regret.

I did, however, chose to leave out the boiling of lizards.  

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