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Medieval Hair Care
Grooming Tools, Treatments & Colouring


Brushes & Combs
Hairbrushes as we know them today do not appear to be mentioned during the middle ages. Combs are widely depicted and written about, not only as a grooming tool, but as a suitable gift from a lover to his beloved lady.

Such combs were often very elaborately carved or painted with scenes of courtly love or birds and animals and could be a part of a toiletries set.

Some folded out to form a kind of X whilst others were rigid and flat like the combs of today. Many show a high degree of fine workmanship.

Archaeologists have uncovered some very beautiful examples of boxwood, bone and ivory combs, like the 1320 ivory comb depicted above at right. It is believed to be of Parisian workmanship. The design is typical of those of the period and it is likely to have been owned by a woman in the upper classes.

Another hairdressing aide widely used in the middle ages was the gravour.

The gravour was a long, slender instrument which looked like an oversized hairpin. used for parting the hair and probably also used for partitioning the hair whilst plaiting or styling some of the more elaborate hairstyles.

Some gravours had beautifully carved handles, as seen here at the left in this handle dated at 1330 and made in Paris. It shows a man and a women. The carved tip shown here is 7cm in length.

A French Royal account from 1316 describes a set of four grooming instruments: mirror, comb, gravour and leather case purchased for the sum of 74 shillings, which was an astronomical amount of money in the start of the 14th century. .

Hair balms and tonics
Medieval women were just as concerned with beauty products for their skin and hair as women are today.

Many herbal preparations were used to cleanse, protect, lighten or dye the hair.

Hair loss was also a concern which was attended to with herbal balms and tinctures. These recipes were found in manuscripts like the Tacuinum Sanitatus, which were copied and recopied.

Most recipes were herbal, but some had more exotic ingredients. The Trotula, or the texts attributed to Trotula, include On Women's Cosmetics, and include recipes for beauty including a beautiful-smelling hair powder, so that the hair remains sweetly scented. In the section about On Various Kinds of Adornments, it reads:

But when she combs her hair, let her have this powder. 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.

The entire process of living history experiment recreating the hair powder according to the recipe, is here on the TROTULA'S HAIR POWDER page. It absolutely did smell amazing!


Hair loss remedies
Hair tonic remedies for hair loss included:

  • Aloe vera, when mixed with wine will assist with hair loss.
  • Hound's Tongue leaves bruised or the juice boiled in hog's lard and applied to the head is good.
  • Juice of Onion, Allium cepa, rubbed on the head then laid in the sun will help.
  • Peach tree kernels should be bruised and boiled in vinegar until they become thick and then applied to the head is a restorative and causes hair to grow upon bald places or where it is thinning.
  • Quince Tree cotton or down of quinces boiled and laid as a plaster made up with wax, brings hair to them that are bald or assists with hair loss.
  • Ashes of Southernwood or Old Man Tree, Artemesia abrotanum, mingled with salad oil causes hair to grow again whether on head or beard.
  • Walnut, Juglans regia kernels, shown at right, burnt and taken in red wine stay the falling of hair on the head and make it fair, being anointed with oil
  • White Maidenhair, the lee made thereof is singularly good for the skurf, and stays the falling of the hair, causing it to grow thick, fair and well-coloured. Boil it in wine, put smallage seed and afterwards, some oil.

Headlice treatments
Headlice was as much an issue to the medieval woman as her modern counterpart and herbal remedies were used to help combat them. The detail at right is a detail taken from a 15th century French manuscript by Boccaccio, the de Claris Mulieribus. It shows a woman using a medieval comb with close set teeth on one side not unlike our modern headlice combs.

Herbal headlice remedies were the most popular with many suggestions on offer.

The juice of the young branches of Broom-Rape made into an ointment with hog's grease and heated as oil was one remedy to kill both body and head lice. Parsley, Petroselinum crispum, repelled head lice, as did the oil from the seeds of Spurge or Garden Spurge. Staves-Acre seeds coarsely powdered and strewed in the hair was also an option.

Dandruff treatments
To treat dandruff or a dry, flaky scalp, an infusion of Cleavers, Galium aparine, not only helped clear the skin but made a wash for dandruff.

It was also believed that the leaves or bark of the Willow tree in wine would take away dandruff by washing with it and a wash of the juice of beets with water and vinegar cleansed the head of dandruff and was warded off the shedding of hair. As would the head washed with Lesser Field Scabious.

Colouring the hair
According to treatises which contain herbal remedies, medieval women did indeed dye their hair. Although blonde was the often preferred and most fashionable colour, recipes for darker hair were known, perhaps to disguise grey hairs as they are today.

One assumes that these recipes were intended only for townswomen who had access to such ingredients or the funds to purchase them. The advice from the Old Women in the popular medieval manuscript the Roman de la Rose offers this advice for colouring the hair:

..and if they need colour, she should dye them with many different plant-extracts, for fruit, wood, leaves, bark and roots have powerful medicinal properties.

Saffron or Saffon or Saf-Flower crocus sativus, shown at right, was a popularly used hair dye, although to produce which colour is uncertain. Possibly blonde.

Recipes to turn the hair yellow include-

  • The hair when washed with the lie made of ashes of the Barberry tree and water, will make it turn yellow.
  • To dye the hair yellow, honey and white wine left overnight on the hair then a mixture of calendine roots, olive-madder, oil of cumin seed, box shavings and saffron was recommended. Wash off after 24 hours.

Recipes to turn the hair black include-

  • Gall Oak omphacitis coals of burned galls being quenched in wine or vinegar;
  • the leaves of bramble boiled in rye, a recipe which was perhaps available to poorer women who lived in the countryside and did not have the stuffs of the towns freely available to them.
  • a mixture of iron, gall nuts and alum boiled in vinegar and left on the head for two days was recommended.
  • Both Hortus Sanitatis and Dioscorides claimed that sage tea, Salvia officinalis dyes the hair black, although the Tacuinum Sanitatis indicated that Sage removes dark colour from the hair..
  • Schroeder says women in Germany use the buds of Black Poplar to make their hair grow thick and ornamental, although he does not state how.

According to Trotula, opal necklaces were a favourite with blonde ladies as it was considered that opals protected fair hair from fading or darkening. Where they got opals from, is not mentioned.

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