Friday, February 3, 2017

Historical Hair Care, Part Four, The Renaissance

After the great catastrophe of the black plague a school of thought came into being that bathing was dangerous because it “allowed the venomous airs to enter and destroyeth the lively spirits in man and enfeebleth the body” (Thurley).

So, it would seem that both the body and hair were washed less frequently during this period than before. We know, for example, that King Henry the XIII in his later life stank, though on medical advice he would take "medicinal, herbal baths" in "a large square lead cistern full of water in which he bathed; the water comes from Rosamund spring, is cold in summer and warm in winter.” (Thurley) His daughter, Queen Elizabeth the I was known to bathe twice per year, a practice which does not appear to be frowned upon.

Scented soaps, the best of which were the Castille Soaps made purely with olive oil, were available to the rich whilst the poor made due with coarser animal fat soaps. It is likely this is what the hair was washed with, however infrequently. Scents came in a wide variety of type and cost, from light florals to fresh mints and heady musks.

Lice and fleas were rampant and vinegar was used to combat them. Interestingly, when one washes their hair with soap the scales along the shaft are raised due to the alkaline nature of the lye. This can lead to a rough, tangly feeling. If, however, this is followed up by an acidic vinegar rinse, the scales are closed and the hair feels conditioned. If this did not work, some of the higher class took to shaving their heads and donning wigs.

Fine-toothed combs were still in common and daily use. The Young Children's Book (c. 1500) advises, "Arise betimes from your bed, cross your breast and your forehead, wash your hands and face, comb your hair..."The picture at right is a collection of double-sided combs found in the remains of the ship Mary Rose which sunk in 1545.

Following the late Medieval period, women's hair continues to come out from under its coverings and up into more and more elaborate styles. During the earlier part of the period ornate wimples, beaded snoods, and decorated cauls somewhat covered the hair of the wealthy, whilst the poor stuck with simpler cauls and scarves. Later, braids and coils begin to take on the softening benefit of curls worn loose at the back and sides. Long hair worn loose became a sign of purity and virginity and as such was often seen worn by brides on their wedding day.

Meanwhile, the men took to shaping their beards in various styles whilst the hair was generally worn short. In 1619 The School of Virtue admonished men:  "Thy head, let that be combed and trimmed,Let not thy hair be long; It is unseemly to the eye, Rebuked by the tongue."


As in previous centuries, blonde hair was highly prized. Both simple sun-bleaching in crownless hats and a variety of home-brewed concoctions were used to achieve golden and red-gold locks. These could include everything from alum to human urine. Likewise, homemade tonics and pomades were concocted to aid in the condition and styling of the hair.

I chose, in So Many Secrets, which is set in the very early Renaissance to include a conversation between the women on whether or not the hair ought to be covered during a Masquerade ball. The conclusion? Maybe, but only as little as possible.

Historical Hair Care, Part One, Introduction
Historical Hair Care, Part Two, The Vikings
Historical Hair Care, Part Three, The Medieval Era
Historical Hair Care, Part Five, The Victorian Era
Historical Hair Care, Part Six, The Experiment



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