Last week I shared with you the medieval recipes for bleaching hair and dying it blonde. These days, while these recipes are academic, I still feel obliged to say that I hope no one tries to duplicate them. I understand they work—the astringency of the bleaching agent, the antibacterial qualities of some ingredients, the dye additives for a range of colors—but the difficulty of procuring the ingredients aside… darling, four days??
No, these recipes, while historic in nature and coming from a brilliant woman (and other contributors as well), are difficult, malodorous, time-consuming (and you thought double-process dyes were a pain?) and downright, well, icky.
We’ll get to that later.
If a lovely brown was your goal, say, a glorious chestnut, you could do that in half an hour—assuming you had all the ingredients handy and prepared.
Take one part of lead calcined, ie., heated to a high temperature but below melting point, thus causing it to lose moisture, reduce or oxidize, and decompose its compounds (but hello! It’s still lead!), and mix with sulphur (peeuw!)and one part quicklime. Thin this with water and apply to hair, rubbing it in well. Let it dry a quarter hour, more or less. (If you had an hourglass in the 12th century, you were lucky. In its absence, you might have a candle clock, a candle with lines marking the hours and that burned at a steady rate. Clocks of the period were installed only in churches (cathedrals) or wealthy homes (think tower clocks), and with their single hand told the hour only.) The longer the dye stays on, the deeper the brown becomes. Wash off the dye with soap and multiple rinses. The coloring will not dye the scalp and is long-lasting.
(This recipe was gathered by Hugo Plat in a book published in 1602, and is not from Trotula di Ruggiero.)
Now brunettes are another story, and where the icky comes in.
Trotula advises that if a woman wishes long and black hair, she might take a green lizard and, having removed its head and tail (she makes no mention of removing its entrails), cook it in common oil. When cool, anoint the head with the mixture.
Another recipe mentions that having prepared the head for dye, place oak apples in oil and burn the mixture, then pulverize and add to vinegar which has been mixed with blacking made in Gaul, and anoint the head.
Now, I couldn’t find out precisely what blacking from Gaul was. In medieval era reading, there’s mention of a wax called blacking made of tallow and lampblack, and also mention of pans for blacking, but no specific mention of blacking from Gaul. Perhaps pulverizing a wax with vinegar and oak apple ashes would result in a fine enough dressing to be used on hair, but I can’t guarantee it.
Also from Trotula’s De Ornatu mulierum (also called “Trotula Minor” or “Women’s Cosmetics”) is a proven mixture from the Saracens. Grind the rind of a sweet pomegranate, boil it in vinegar or water, strain and add powdered oak apple (see last week’s post) and alum in a large enough quantity to form a thick poultice (or paste). Apply to hair and wrap ‘as though it were a kind of dough’. I think that means cover, as you would a dough you set to rise.
Then, mix bran with oil in a pot and heat until the bran is completely ignited. Sprinkle this on the head right down to the roots. Wet the head and wrap it again, and leave it overnight. Wash hair in the morning. It will be black.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about redheads? They were considered morally inferior as the red color supposedly showed moral degeneration and a bestial sexual desire, and when paired with green eyes, were a sign of the witch, the werewolf, and the vampire.
So, get thee to thy colorist!