In 1326 the women of Florence petitioned the Duchess of Calabria to ask her husband the duke to relax legislation preventing them from wearing false hair, part of a package of sumptuary laws that ordered people to wear clothing, accessories, and hairstyles suitable to their social positions. Class identification was so integral to social order that attempts to pass as a member of a different class were seen as attacks on the very fabric of society, and false hair might have made the ordinary women of Florence appear falsely aristocratic. Similar legislation was enacted in countries across medieval Europe. A little over a century later, Pope Eugene IV issued a statement, which no doubt pleased the women of Florence, saying that a woman should be allowed to wear false hair, provided she was trying to please her husband; keeping husbands happy was also viewed as integral to social order.
Across a series of rich, if sometimes overlapping, essays, A Cultural History of Hair in the Middle Ages—the second volume in a series about hair from antiquity to modern times—illustrates that in the medieval period hair was a “potent symbol of both individual and group identities,” as it still is to this day. If you saw a person on the street today with dreadlocks, a buzz cut, a turban, cornrows, a veil, an Afro, or a yarmulke, their hair or its covering would instantly communicate something of their identity. In the medieval period hair was just as much of a marker of ethnicity, class, gender, marital status, and religious calling. It was also a symbol of power and a focus of erotic interest, thus the styling or removal of hair was freighted with ideological significance.
Facial hair connoted sanctity and power. In medieval England, grabbing one’s beard was a sign of sincerity, and to do so while making a false oath might have consequences. The thirteenth-century Chronicle of Evesham Abbey relates a story about a man who did just that: “Scarcely had these words been uttered” when his beard “fell to the ground.” The laws of Æthelberht—a seventh-century English code—state that compensation of fifty sceattas (a bit more than the value of two oxen) should be paid for the crime of pulling a man’s beard or hair. In The History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century compendium of British mythology, a giant named Rhita demands that King Arthur shave his beard and send Rhita the trimmings, as a symbol of submission. Under the laws of the tenth-century Welsh king Hywel Dda, if a wife merely wished a blemish on her husband’s beard, it was one of three offenses deemed serious enough that he was permitted to beat her as punishment. (The other two were giving away property that was not hers and being found with a man under deception.)
The idea that power was vested in hair, which has an obvious biblical precedent in Samson, was so strong that its removal was sometimes the sentence for a crime. Twelfth-century Icelandic custom decreed that a man convicted of incest should fast and shave his head, while under medieval English law convicted prostitutes were forced to have their heads shaved. (More recently, at the end of World War II, French women who had consorted with Nazi soldiers had their heads shaved. Some were forced to parade through the streets.) Consenting to the removal of hair was symbolic. In the late 730s the Frankish leader Charles Martel sent his son to King Liutprand of Lombardy to have the first haircut of his adulthood, as a token of kinship.
Upon entering religious orders, both male and female novices were required to shave their heads. Men shaved their beards and took the apostolic tonsure, whereby the hair on the crown of the head was removed. After female novices cut their hair, they covered their heads with veils (and woolen caps if they lived in cold places). By the late Middle Ages married women similarly kept their hair largely covered beneath a veil or headdress, while unmarried women did not. The only married women permitted to show all their hair were queens, and then only at their coronation. The late-fourteenth-century Parisian text Good Wife’s Guide goes so far as to say that hair allowed to spill from a coif is a sign of “drunken, foolish, or ignorant women.”
As early as the late first century, Paul wrote in his First Epistle to the Corinthians that a woman’s hair is her “glory” and thus must be veiled. This “glory” was, however, for the use of man, not God. Paul continues:
The man indeed ought not to cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man.
In this, Paul may have been reworking a Roman idea. According to the scholar Molly Myerowitz Levine, “Roman marriage ceremonies…seem to privilege head covering. Indeed, the Latin word numbere ‘to marry’ literally means ‘to veil oneself.’” She notes that nubo “is probably cognate with nubes (cloud),” adding, “For a woman to become married (nubere) is for her to ritually cover/cloud her head.”
The Pauline injunction for women to be veiled was taken up enthusiastically by medieval thinkers. The late-fourteenth-century theologian Heinrich von Langenstein wrote that for a woman the veil is a
symbol of her subservience. The woman wears a headdress so that it may be recognized that she is subordinate to the man, who ranks above her. The veiled head is also a sign that woman [i.e., Eve] transgressed the first commandment [not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil] and violated its terms.
Despite these restrictions, late-medieval women used their hair and headdresses to display status, as well as creativity. Aristocratic women—those not subject to sumptuary legislation—styled their hair into highly elaborate designs using plaits, false hair, hairnets, and pins. A fifteenth-century manuscript of Historia de preliis Alexandri Magni (The History of Alexander’s Battles) in the National Library of Wales shows women in fashionable, contemporary dress. Their headdresses are magnificent, sculptural creations, often not entirely covering their hair, which can be seen spilling out in sumptuous plaits. One woman appears in something that could be the love child of a seahorse and a galleon; behind her another wears what might be an open book.
One of the most spectacular forms of women’s headgear fashioned in late-medieval Europe was the horned headdress. A manuscript of Christine de Pizan’s Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (Book of the City of Ladies) shows Christine presenting her work to Isabeau of Bavaria, the wife of Charles VI of France. Christine wears a horned headdress, covered in pleats of elegant white material. Isabeau’s wide-horned headdress, set with jewels, is altogether more spectacular, signaling her regal status. It sits high on her head; she is sporting the fashionable front bombé—a plucked or shaved hairline. Keeping this kind of contraption in place required serious underpinning: records show that in 1391 Isabeau purchased 9,800 hairpins. (Her pin-buying habits are modest by comparison with those of Princess Joan, daughter of Edward III of England, who ordered 12,000 hairpins for veils to be worn at her wedding in 1348.)
Isabeau’s elaborate headdress was a symbolic renunciation of the erotic power vested in her hair. A number of surviving images from the late medieval period indicate that a woman’s long, flowing hair was considered alluring, perhaps dangerously so. A tapestry woven for Louis I, Duke of Anjou, in the late fourteenth century shows the Harlot of Babylon—described in the Book of Revelation as “the mother of the fornications, and the abominations of the earth.” She is wearing a gown so tight “she appears to be naked from the waist up” and is seen combing her long blond hair and gazing at her reflection in a handheld mirror.
Surviving medieval ivory combs often depict scenes of courtly love; when combs are mentioned in courtly literature, they are often erotic symbols. In Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot, le chevalier de la charrette (Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart), while searching for a kidnapped queen, Lancelot finds a gold-and-ivory comb containing strands of her hair and nearly faints with anguish and longing. A Flemish casket from around 1400 held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows a man with his head bowed in a woman’s lap, having his hair combed by her. It is a scene of muted sensuality—the man delighted by the comb’s massage and the woman’s act of service. More often, however, images feature a woman combing her hair as she is watched by a man. In these instances, the viewer participates in the act of voyeurism—intruding on a private act of self-care and self-pleasure.
Combing hair may have been erotic in secular settings, but it was also an important devotional activity for ecclesiastics. Priests were required to comb their hair before conducting services. When the tomb of Saint Cuthbert was opened in 1104, 417 years after his death, one of the artifacts uncovered in his coffin was a comb, testifying to its importance as a devotional instrument. William Durandus, in his thirteenth-century Rationale divinorum officiorum (Rationale for the Divine Offices), said that the activity symbolized the removal of worldly or superfluous thoughts. It also had a more practical function: removing any lice that might otherwise find their way into the Host. (John Mirk’s fifteenth-century Instructions for Parish Priests states that if an insect enters the chalice, it should be swallowed, unless it is poisonous. Presumably, lice that made it into the Host would have been eaten.)
The secular, erotic appeal of combing may be related to the fascination with women’s toilette—a fascination as old, at least, as the story of the biblical David, who saw Bathsheba bathing and fell in love with her. A manuscript leaf held by the Getty Museum, once part of a prayer book made for Louis XII of France, shows Bathsheba bathing while David watches her from a window. To the modern eye, the image looks far too sexy for a religious book. The naked Bathsheba conforms to late-medieval aristocratic notions of beauty: she has a high, plucked forehead and long blond hair that trails behind her in the bathwater, which reaches to just above her pubic bone. The artist, Jean Bourdichon, has not rendered the water opaque. Instead Bathsheba’s hands, the tops of her thighs, and her vulva are all visible beneath its surface. Pink-red touches draw attention to her lips, nipples, belly button, and labia. Through the water’s shimmer, it is clear that she has no pubic hair.
A Cultural History of Hair in the Middle Ages suggests that it was the fashion for European aristocratic women to remove their pubic hair, though Penny Howell Jolly notes that “visual evidence of such…practices, however, remains elusive.” More than one essay cites a recipe in a widely circulated medical compendium called the Trotula that prescribes a way for noble ladies (nobilibus) to remove their pubic hair using an alarming-sounding preparation of quicklime and orpiment. (The recipe notes that if left on the skin too long, this mixture will burn, and it helpfully prescribes a cooling ointment made from poplar buds and violet oil or houseleek.) According to some versions of the text, the recipe was used by “Saracen noblewomen”; Laura Michele Diener writes that the fashion for pubic depilation “took hold in Europe after Crusading soldiers’ encounters with depilated Middle Eastern women.”
A number of literary texts seem to suggest an association between unkempt pubic hair and low social status. Several works in the pastourelle genre, which usually describe an amorous experience with a rustic woman, contain such themes. Niccolò Campani’s “Capitolo delle bellezze della dama” (Chapter on the Beauties of the Lady) describes a sexual encounter between a peasant and a miller’s daughter. The woman’s body is described in itemized detail, like an advertisement for a used car. This is a common trope in courtly poetry, but here she is described from the feet up, rather than the other way around, for comic effect. The imagery is rustic: her feet are large and look like “freshly turned-over sods”; her thighs are like “hams” and are “hairier than I can tell you—/So think what that other thing must have been like.”
Another text, by the poet Oswald von Wolkenstein, which uses some rather mixed metaphors, describes an encounter between an upper-class man and a peasant girl whose “brown-haired sickle” (vagina) initially brings delight, but her appetite is not satisfied, and when she asks him to “weed one more time in the garden below,” the narrator appears unable to make his flax “grow.” Von Wolkenstein’s poem, which also casts the man’s penis as a “little hatchet” and a goose’s beak, indicates that the hairiness of a woman was thought to reflect her lustfulness. The Touchstone of Complexions, an English translation of De habitu et constitutione corporis by the sixteenth-century Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius, says that “such women as be greatley desirous of carnall lust and copulacion, be verye roughe and thick growen with hayre thereabout the more lecherous, the more hayrie & fruictfull.”
The association between women’s pubic hair, social class, and sexual appetite gives added meaning to Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale,” which tells a story about some late-night japery involving butts in windows. It doesn’t end well. The story centers around Alison, the beautiful eighteen-year-old wife of an older carpenter, and two of her suitors. Alison is a creature of social pretension who wears silk tassels on her clothing, which contravened sumptuary legislation. She also wears a “filet brood of silk, and set ful hye” (a silk headdress, set up high), meaning she has the fashionable front bombé, emphasized by her “smale ypulled…browes two” (her two small plucked eyebrows).
After convincing her husband that the end of the world is nigh and he must hide in a barrel overnight to survive the coming flood, Alison and Nicholas (one of her suitors) have a romantic encounter, which is interrupted by the other suitor, Absolon, who stands at the window begging for a kiss from his lady. The night is dark “as pich, or as the cole” (pitch or coal). Alison and Nicholas decide to play a trick on Absolon. She presents her butt to the window. Chaucer tells us that, “ful savourly” (with great relish), Absolon kisses “hir naked ers,” thinking it is her face, but jumps back when he realizes something is amiss: “For wel he wiste a womman hath no berd./He felte a thyng al rough and long yherd” (For well he knew a woman has no beard./He felt a thing all rough and long haired).
The mechanics of this scene require some suspension of disbelief, but it’s probably safe to assume that Chaucer imagined him kissing her hirsute vulva. Absolon’s alarm was possibly influenced by contemporary beliefs about women’s genitalia and pubic hair as either sinful or unhealthy. The Pseudo-Aristotelian Problemata warned that excessive contact with female genitalia “caused male baldness and thus loss of social status.” A late-medieval medical text reports that a woman’s pubic hair mixed with her menses and buried in a dung heap will result in the production of “wicked venomous beasts.”
In view of these beliefs, it is hard to know how to interpret a twelfth-century carved stone relief in the Castello Sforzesco Museum in Milan showing a woman lifting her skirts and trimming her pubic hair with a large pair of shears. It once hung above the Porta Tosa city gate. In Purity and Danger (1966), Mary Douglas notes that “margins are dangerous”; matter issuing from the body, as well as bodily parings like “skin, nail, hair clippings and sweat,” have—troublingly—“traversed the boundary of the body.” Perhaps at the city’s boundary, the disposal of these disquieting pubic trimmings was intended to ward off evil.
The idea that some medieval aristocratic women removed their pubic hair may come as a surprise today. There is a popular misconception that medieval people rarely washed or cared for their bodies as we do, but there is abundant visual and textual evidence to the contrary. The emperor Charlemagne was known to have loved taking steam baths with his family, friends, and bodyguards, while the so-called Bad King John reportedly took more baths than any other English king before him. And it was not only the elite who bathed. People living in cities may have had access to public baths, which could have included steam baths (one recipe for depilation in the Trotula instructs that the treatment should be accompanied by a steam bath), while those in the rural areas used streams, pits, and rivers for bathing. Research by Barbara Hanawalt into coroners’ reports from medieval England shows that this practice sometimes led to accidental drowning.
Places in medieval Europe with large or predominantly Muslim or Jewish populations appear to have had more public baths, as Islam and Judaism both prescribe ritual cleansing practices. For Christians, the situation was a little different. The medieval Christian church had complex, even conflicting ideas about washing. The church prescribed certain kinds of ritual cleansing, like the ceremony of baptism or the Maundy Thursday ritual, which commemorated Christ’s washing the feet of his disciples.
Monastic orders encouraged their members to wash daily and bathe less often, but for ascetics like hermits and anchorites, the saintly ideal appears to have been to avoid washing and tending to one’s hair and person as a form of bodily abnegation intended to emulate the martyrs of the early church. (In these instances it would appear that cleanliness was not—as John Wesley would have it—next to godliness.) Male hermit saints grew long beards to symbolize their piety and rejection of the vanities of the world, while female penitent saints, like Mary of Egypt and Mary Magdalene, are often depicted with wild hair so long it covers their whole body. Lay Christians, therefore, may have had a range of ideas about the significance and necessity of bathing, depending on their levels of devotion.
The ascetic rejection of bodily care runs parallel to medieval concerns that too much attention to one’s hair and body might lead people (especially women) to vanity and sin. A particular fear among writers of the period centered on the cultivation of long hair by men. In some medieval societies, Hannah Hopwood Griffiths writes, long hair on a man denoted “nobility, ferocity, and virility”—as among the Merovingians, who were known as the “long haired kings.” But many medieval writers abhorred such behavior. Both Ivo of Chartres and Orderic Vitalis thought it would make men effeminate and sexually provocative, while William of Malmesbury thought that the English fashion for long hair partly caused their defeat by the Normans at the Battle of Hastings. In these instances, the fear was that men might take on the traits of women, rendering them feeble.
In the aftermath of a disastrous Viking raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne in 793, the monk and scholar Alcuin wrote to King Æthelred of Northumbria meditating on a similar theme. He admonished Æthelred and his subjects for their “luxurious habits,” in particular their “trimming of the beard and hair” in a Viking style, noting that they had been “menaced by terror of them whose fashion you wished to follow,” seemingly suggesting that having Viking hairstyles might have made them susceptible to Viking attack.
Alcuin’s concern points to the way hairstyles could be indicators of group or ethnic identity. Sometime between 620 and 636, Isidore of Seville wrote that the Goths could be identified by their mustaches and goatees, the Germans by their cirrus (which could be translated as “curls” or “topknot”), and the Britons by their tattoos. He also tells us that certain ethnic groups have particular hair colors, such as the Getae (who are blond) and the Scythians (who have white hair). Here both the treatment and the color of hair are indicators of ethnic identity.
By the twelfth century there was an “outburst of ethnic stereotyping” related to, and influencing, a revival of humoral and climatological theory in twelfth- and thirteenth-century universities. Descriptions of “alien” people increasingly associated physical appearance with traits that were perceived as natural and intrinsic. Jewish men were depicted with beards, hats, and sometimes red hair, and were described as melancholic and “exuding a noxious odor.” Saracen men—thought of as “lecherous and belligerent” and “cowardly”—were depicted with turbans, swarthy complexions, and long beards. Gerald of Wales wrote around 1188 that the Irish were a “rude people…living themselves like beasts” who allowed “their hair and beards to grow enormously in an uncouth manner.”
Gerald’s claim is a reminder of how many meanings hair could have. An enormous beard might be a sign of sanctity in one setting and a symbol of uncouthness in another, just as combing might be erotic in one instance but have the power to remove worldly thoughts (along with lice) in another. This is the strength of A Cultural History of Hair in the Middle Ages—its multifocal nature, which sweeps across a long historical period and covers a substantial geographical range, exploring a multiplicity of meanings. What comes through in every essay is that there is power in hair, which asserts identity and status. Thus, its covering or removal was, and remains, often a sign of submission or grief.
Power and hair were also sometimes braided together with sex. In the Icelandic Hrólfs saga kraka (Saga of King Rolf Kraki), the Danish king Helgi arrives unexpectedly at the court of Queen Ólof of Saxland with a large army. Helgi is intent on marriage, but Ólof, who wears armor and is both arrogant and beautiful, has “no intention of marrying any man.” At a feast Helgi gets drunk and is later brought to Ólof’s bed. She pierces him with a magical “sleep thorn,” then shaves off his hair as he sleeps, smears him in tar, and stuffs him in a sack. By the time he wakes, Ólof has gathered her army, and Helgi must limp back to Denmark in disgrace. Ólof thus performs a symbolic castration on Helgi, cutting off his hair and stripping him of his power. But—and this is the striking feature of hair, a constantly disruptive presence at the border of our selves and a means of communicating identity and displaying power—it grows back. Later, Helgi returns to Saxland, where he kidnaps and rapes the queen.