England,  ER,  France,  Italy,  Western Europe

Hair care for the Medieval Woman

Scene from the Lutrell Psalter showing a 14th century English woman dressing her hair Photo Credit- Google Images

The Bible says a woman’s hair is her crowning glory.  Because of this, it was considered a very private thing.  It was fine for young girls to have unbound hair, and a maiden wore her hair completely unbound on her wedding day as a symbol of her virginity.  Once a lady was married however, it was a different story.  A married woman was to only show her unbound hair to her husband.  Any other time, ladies of quality made sure to cover it with veils, nets, hoods or hats.  Some women in warmer climates abandoned veils for comfort sake, but still adorned their hair with elaborate braids, beads and ribbon.  Even peasant women, attempted to make sure their hair was neat and tidy.  Only a woman of poor breeding or a prostitute did nothing with her hair and left it unconcealed.  

Necessity gave way to fashion and hair coverings became very elaborate, with many braids, jewels and ribbons.  They style of hoods changed as quickly as dress styles.  One thing people noticed about the younger, more fashionable Anne Boleyn was she wore a smaller, lighter French hood.  Catherine of Aragon wore the heavier, older style gable hood, which while considered modest was also dowdy.  Earlier, ladies wore hennins, which look very much like the traditional picture of a princess.  These were a tall conical hat with a veil attached to the peak.  The higher the better.  Ladies also wore a cornette of wire or wicker framing with a wimple, a veil worn around the neck and chin and covering the hair, over it.  In Italy, the fashion was to wear a translucent wimple to show off the elaborate braids underneath.  All of this was condemned by the Church as vanity, but did not stop the parade of fashion.

Because such emphasis was put on covering the hair, the medieval ideal was of a high, round forehead.  Women who were not blessed with this, aided nature by plucking their hairline towards the crown of the head.  To make the forehead even more prominent, eyebrows were plucked to a barely there line.  Again, this was condemned as vanity by the Church.  Instructions to clergymen told them to tell ladies in confession:

If she has plucked hair from her neck, or brows or beard for lavisciousness or to please men… This is a mortal sin unless she does so to remedy severe disfigurement or so as not to be looked down on by her husband.”

This did not stop the fashion, and ladies still plucked their hairlines to astonishing heights.  Tweezers made from copper alloy or silver were a common part of a medieval toiletry set.

Despite the fact hair was hidden, there was still an emphasis on color.  Blonde hair was the most desirable and preferred, and for those not naturally blessed there were ways to aid Dame Nature.  Olive oil, white wine, alum and sitting in the sun were proscribed for blonding.  Another recipe called for saffron, stale sheep’s urine and onion skins.  The “Roman de la Rose,” a 13th-century French poem, advises: “If (a lady) sees that her beautiful blonde hair is falling out (a most mournful sight)… she should have the hair of some dead woman brought to her, or pads of light coloured silk, and stuff it all into false hairpieces.”  As distasteful as that sounds, hairpieces and wigs were both worn by medieval women.  A hair piece made of silk was found in London dating to the 14th century.  Better than the hair of a corpse.

How did women take care of all this beautifully colored hair?  There were no hair brushes, but there were combs of ivory, bone and boxwood.  Some of these found are beautifully carved and elaborate.  For tangled hair, a conditioner of bacon fat and lizards was recommended.  To take out the scent of bacon, which would be insanely popular now, ladies were instructed to dip a comb in rose water, cloves and nutmeg.

A gravor was a long, slender instrument used for parting the hair and for partitioning the hair for braids.  Gravors were a must for the lady who wanted elaborate plaits.  Despite all this care, washing was not recommended.  The upper classes did wash their hair by stripping to the waist and leaning over a basin, but no shampoo was used.  Hair was cleaned with a mixture of ashes, vine stalks and egg whites.  Tonics and balms out of broom and vinegar were made to relieve “itch mites”.  Recipes for popular tonics of the day are found in “De Ornatu Mulierum / On Women’s Cosmetics” in The Trotula : A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. edited and translated by Monica H. Green.

“For itch-mites eating away at the hair. Take myrtleberry , broom, [and] clary , and cook them in vinegar until the vinegar has been consumed, and with this rub the ends of the hair vigorously. This same thing removes fissures of the head if the head is washed well with it.

Medieval pins Photo Credit- Google Images

Likewise, pulverize bitter lupins and you should boil them in vinegar, and then rub the hair between the hands. This expels itch-mites and kills them.”

Ladies also carried a long pin made of bone or metal between their cleavage.  These pins were very thin and had pointed tips so that an itchy scalp could be relieved though wigs and headdresses.  Also good for stabbing anyone who got fresh, I imagine.

So, dear readers, stay away from itch mites and get some bacon fat for your tangles!


 Sources available on request