It’s Medieval Monday again! This week, we are going to pick and pluck our way through hairy tidbits of Medieval haircare and hairstyling. By the end of this post, you’ll be groomed to regale your friends with useless trivia about hair fashion and hygiene in the Middle Ages.
Have you ever wondered how women managed to take care of unibrow and mustache issues before nail salons and hot waxing pots were invented? What? You haven’t? Oh, well, I bet you are now! Also, in artwork – especially from the Renaissance onwards, you never really see those robust nude females sporting hairy underarms or hairy legs. As for the pudenda, most of them look like they had Brazilian wax jobs before Brazil was even discovered.
I worry about these things. They prey on my mind. This is why I end up reading so much non-fiction. I need answers.
Big Hair is not a New Thing
Let’s start with the easy stuff. In the Middle Ages, it was fashionable and desirable for women to have really long hair. Down-to-their-knees-long. Keeping that much hair clean was a serious challenge.
Actual washing was done several times a year – more often if you had enough money and servants to heat and carry water for bathing. Everyday hair maintenance included combing (which spread the hair’s natural oils and also did a decent job of helping to keep lice at bay – except when you got lice, and then you were screwed). Medieval women discovered “dry shampoo” long before us. Various types of powders were used to soak up scalp and hair oils (and to suffocate lice).
When you did wash your hair, you didn’t pull out your Paul Mitchell or Herbal Essences shampoo and conditioner. You whipped up a delightful little mixture of ashes, vine stalks, and egg whites to cleanse your hair. Of course, this meant that you’d want to finish with a pleasantly-scented rinse or oil, like rose or lavender because no one wants their hair to smell like a veggie omelette when they come out of the shower.
Women in the Middle Ages didn’t have Miss Clairol or Garnier to cover up the grey, but they did have some charming recipes from the Trotula, a 12th century compendium of women’s medicine and healthcare. Blonde was the preferred shade, and several recipes guaranteed golden tresses. You could choose from a combination of Barberry tree ash and water, or honey and white wine with a finishing conditioner of calendine roots, olive-madder, oil of cumin seed, box shavings and saffron. The success rate of these recipes was never recorded.
As much as long, glorious, and – if possible – golden hair was desirable, it was crucial that it all be hidden at all times. A woman’s hair was considered highly erotic and was seen as a sign of their innate sinfulness (thanks, Eve).
Bernard de Clarivaux (who was kind of grim and ascetic anyway) decried women’s vanity and hair, went so far as to affirm that wigs were the work of the Devil. Which, technically makes everyone with hair extensions today a sinner…with fabulous hair.
Unmarried women and occasionally nobility would still wear their hair on display, intricately woven with golden threads, nets, beads, jewels, and pins. However, married women and any woman attending church had to cover her head. This is where we get caps, wimples, and gorgets, making women uncomfortable and hot for centuries.
Getting Rid of all that Hair
The basic principle of the wimple was a length of cloth wrapped around the head and under the chin. Then, another length of cloth was wrapped around the head like a crown. You literally topped it all off with draped fabric that concealed the straps and the pinned braids underneath.
What’s a woman to do if she can’t show her hair that she spend so much time fussing with? She simply finds another way to set a fashion standard. With the advent of the wimple, a high, prominent forehead became the epitome of style. To achieve this look, women plucked and depilated with a nasty ye olde version of Nair that was made of ants’ eggs, red orpiment, and gum of ivy mixed with vinegar. Or, she could boil together a solution of one pint of arsenic and eighth of a pint of quicklime. In both cases, once the skin started burning, it was time to wash it off.
These pastes were used to remove hair on all parts of the body, and what they didn’t get, copper tweezers or primitive straight razors would (and based on the pictures of Medieval razors, it seems that arsenic and alum-based depilatories were the safer option). Other depilatory recipes included mixtures of cat dung and vinegar, or pig lard, mustard, and juniper if that was your preference.
My bet is that they ended up doing a lot of plucking on very sore, slightly raw skin.
Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow
I don’t know. I just wanted to use that for a subheading. Surprisingly, Wikipedia did not turn out to be a very good source for this post. It was a lot of Pinterest and Google instead. The closes to a generalist Wikipedia source I found was Rosalie’s Medieval Woman. It gave me quite a good grounding for knowing what to hunt for.
There’s lots more I could do – I mean, there are entire articles I could write about liturgical combs, hair nets, and hair pins (also quite useful for scratching itchy, lice-infested scalps). I figured, I’d go ahead and get the interesting and gross stuff out of the way, first.
I may also switch over to footwear. I have some very strong opinions on chopines.
I will leave you with the wise words of Martial from his Epigrams (1st century AD): “Calvo turpius est nihil comato.” There is nothing more unsightly than a bald man who wears hair.
Proving that toupees have always been a bad idea.