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Medieval Hair Care – Traditional Ways to Tend Your Locks

Simone Jonker worked in NTD Inspired for two years. She wrote light articles and inspiring stories.
Published: December 9, 2021
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Women of the middle ages covered their hair not only for the sake of modesty, but also because it helped keep the locks clean and tidy. Medieval hair care addressed many of the issues we face today, as well as some problems that have been greatly reduced. (Image: Hans Splinter via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

Who doesn’t like legends about knights, kings, queens, princesses, castles, magical swords, and dragons? Among all the magic and mystery of the Middle Ages, one might ponder: “How did they maintain their hair?” Medieval hair care featured tidiness, functionality, and showing social class more than merely being fashionable. Plaits kept the hair out of the way for people who worked. Braids were a common way for upper-class women to keep their hair in place when they wore headdresses. Throughout this time, hair accessories were trendy, and hairstyles changed with the times.

Women’s hair was thought to be beautiful, alluring, and a sign of social status, so many cultures expected women, especially married women, to cover their hair, except when she was in her husband’s company. Traditionally, ladies wore long and wavy hair styled in complicated updos and half updos, with beautiful braids and twists in romantic designs. Headdresses and accessories, such as silk or gold thread or ribbon, indicated their social and financial position. Young girls and unmarried women kept their hair loose and uncovered, while plaits were worn on occasion. A woman’s untidy hairstyle might lead to charges of depravity or even witchcraft.

Medieval hair washing

Because most medieval women braided their hair and covered it with a cap or veil, they only needed to wash their hair once approximately every three weeks. The kerchiefs would prevent dust and grit from getting into the hair, and the linen would absorb any extra oils and sweat that might accumulate. 

Hair washing was done by setting a large bowl on the floor, stripping to the waist, then leaning over the bowl with a pitcher to perform the task. A creamy mixture of ashes, vine stalks, and egg whites was the most common way to clean the hair and scalp. Plant extractions were often combined with licorice extract and used topically as a wash. Herbs and other botanicals, such as olive oil, were employed as treatments to promote growth or to make it smooth and curled. Early cosmetic handbooks passed these recipes down through the15th Century and beyond.

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Herbs and flowers were commonly used in fragrant coloring and tonic applications, with their strong scents masking other less pleasant odors. (Image: Tara Winstead via Pexels)

Plant and flower essences were also used for mind-body magic and medicine, just like aromatherapy is used now. People thought that flowers and herbs could repel  demons in the Middle Ages, so they used them in everything from their daily baths to their clothes, hair rinses, and even their food. Moreover, the heady and mysterious art of combining flowers, herbs, woods, spices, and even animal essences into beautiful layers of scent, served as a sort of “love potion,” and could make one fall for another in an instant.

Brushes & Combs

Hairbrushes as we know them are hardly mentioned in medieval writings, while combs are often illustrated and written about. They were considered not only an excellent way to groom yourself but also a fine gift. Combs carved or painted with scenes of courtly love or birds and animals were key components of toiletries sets. 

Archeologists have found some beautiful examples of boxwood, bone, and ivory combs owned by women in the upper classes.

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Late 15th century comb from France, made of boxwood. The fine teeth were presumably used to remove lice and their eggs, a common problem among all classes. (Image: Honolulu Academy of Arts via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

Gravoures

The gravour was another popular medieval hairdressing tool, resembling a long, thin hairpin-like tool used for hair parting, plaiting or intricate styling. Some gravours featured magnificently carved handles. A mirror, comb, gravour, and leather box could be acquired for 74 shillings in 1316, an astronomical price for that time.

Critters

Head lice were a common problem for medieval women, and they affected all classes of society. Herbal concoctions were employed against them. The juice of young branches from Broom-Rape was used to make an ointment with hog’s fat and heated as oil to kill lice. Parsley, rosemary and the oil of spurge seeds are also believed to be effective repellents. Fifteenth century French manuscript De Claris Mulieribus by Boccaccio includes a comb illustrated with close-set teeth, resembling contemporary head lice combs.

Hair tonics

Other herbal preparations were used to cleanse, protect, and nourish the hair. Hair loss was addressed with herbal balms and tinctures, such as aloe vera mixed with wine, or straight onion juice. Such remedies were rubbed on the scalp, perhaps stimulating hair follicle activity. 

A dry, flaky scalp would be soothed by washing with willow tree leaves or bark soaked in wine, and the juice of beets mixed with water and vinegar was thought to remove dandruff and prevent hair loss. One solution for knotty hair was a conditioner made from bacon fat and lizards. Ladies were encouraged to use rose water, cloves, and nutmeg on a comb to remove the bacon scent. 

These recipes were found in manuscripts like the Tacuinum Sanitatis, which expounded on the importance of medieval medicinals. Most of the recipes were herbal, but some had more exotic ingredients, and they were copied and re-copied over the years.

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Lady Godiva, pictured with her long blonde locks. (Image: Edmund Blair Leighton (1852-1922 Leeds Art Gallery) via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

Coloring the hair

Trotula de Ruggiero from Salerno authored a treatise De Ornatu Mulierum, also known as Trotula Minor, on hair-dying. Blonde was the preferred hair color for ladies in the Middle Ages, and there were many methods recommended for lightening the hair; including boxwood with agrimony, saffron and onion skins combined with stale sheep’s urine, and sitting in the sun after applying olive oil and white wine to the hair. Black henbane or sage were used for dyeing hair black.

Many medieval hair color instructions included preconditioning the hair with pomegranate peel, vinegar, oak apples, alum, or ash before applying the coloring agent.

According to Trotula, opal necklaces prevented light hair from fading or darkening,  making them a popular choice among blonde women at the time. 

The color auburn was popularized later in history during the reign of Elizabeth I when high-ranking men colored their hair and beards to show their support to the queen. To accomplish that effect, men could use a combination of ground saffron and sulfur powder.

While the middle ages seem very romantic and enchanting, the complications of hair care in those days may give us a greater appreciation for our modern conveniences, including showers and shampoos; but it’s nice to know that if we needed to, it would be possible to manage without.