Medieval Hair Care
- So that hair might grow wherever you wish. Take barley bread with the crust, and grind it with salt and bear fat. But first burn the barley bread. With this mixture anoint the place and the hair will grow.
- Cook down dregs of white wine with honey to the consistency of a cerotum and anoint the hair, if you wish it to be golden.
- If the woman wishes to have long and black hair, take a green lizard and, having removed its head and tail , cook it in common oil. Anoint the head with this oil. It makes the hair long and black.
- If, needed, you wish to have hair soft and smooth and fine, wash it often with hot water in which there is powder of natron [Native hydrous sodium carbonate] and vetch.
- Take some dried roses, clove, nutmeg, watercress and galangal. Let all these, powdered, be mixed with rose water. With this water let her sprinkle her hair and comb it with a comb dipped in this same water so that [her hair] will smell better. And let her make furrows in her hair and sprinkle on the above-mentioned powder, and it will smell marvelously.
("De Ornatu Mulierum /On Women’s Cosmetics." in The Trotula : A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2001))
image: Lorenzo Costa, Portrait of a Woman
Fun fact-some of these do work. And, they can work for Medieval POC, too! Just keep in mind that “Natural” isn’t always “Better”; the risk of allergic reactions and irritations is going to be there with pretty much any treatment or cosmetic made from plants or animals.
The “dregs of white wine” is probably dilute vinegar, which will lighten your hair, and the honey will moisturize it. This is fairly safe and beneficial for all hair types including Black hair, and can gently add highlights. Don’t, however, use undiluted vinegar on your hair or scalp.
The powder of natron is a powerful water softener, also called “washing soda” and “soda ash”. This makes water clean the hair more effectively, which in turn will make it softer. If the “vetch” referred to is milk vetch, the root is still used sometimes topically to increase blood flow to the area, which can theoretically increase hair growth. Although using soda ash in higher concentrations can significantly damage your hair, in controlled applications, it also loosens curls. It’s even used marketed as “Natural Hair Relaxer” for Black hair, under brand names like “Natralaxer”. In more dilute mixtures, it’s very good clarifier for any texture of oily hair, especially if your hair is very thick or coarse.
The dressing for hair growth with bear fat is an almost universally used recipe all over the world. Bear tallow pomade has been used by Indigenous Americans, Ancient China, Medieval Europe…pretty much everywhere. You can actually still buy it for that purpose. I think that the barley bread ash (charcoal, basically) was probably used for color and shine; a lot of different people mixed pigments into bear grease to add color and shine to their hair.This dressing used on long Black hair would have created a style much like this one:
Rather than bear fat, I find coconut oil to be an improvement. I often use it for braided styles myself, and I think that adding a bit of pigment or color to it would be a fun experiment.
Speaking of coloring hair…I have no clue whatsoever whether lizard frying oil would make a difference in hair color, but there’s honestly no reason to suppose that some kind of chemical produced by its skin couldn’t have caused a change in color…dyes and pigments can come from unlikely sources. Remember when everyone was freaking out because Starbucks used a coloring made from crushed beetles to color some of its drinks? All sorts of items have been used by all genders throughout history to add that extra special something to their hairstyles.
The hair perfume would certainly have smelled lovely, but a lot of the ingredients, like the clove, nutmeg, and galangal are not native to Europe and would have been imported from Southeast Asia and quite expensive. The ingredients as well as the recipes would have traveled from those areas. Galangal especially has beneficial topical uses similar to ginger, or tea tree oil. It’s mildly antimicrobial, so if there’s anything like fungus or dandruff clogging up your follicles, it can remove impediments to hair growth. Nutmeg oil can also mildly lighten hair a little. And all of them will result in a tingly, “spicy” scalp, and can cause burning if you have sensitive skin.
A last note-these cosmetic recipes come from a book known as “The Trotula”, which was created by Trotula of Salerno, who revolutionized Medieval medicine by and for women, synthesizing knowledge flowing out of Asia and the Middle East regarding medicine and specifically gynecology. In Medieval Europe, some of the most well-known people of color were physicians, because African and Asian medicine was well-known and revered.
Wikipedia page for Trotula