Ancient Remedies - Medieval Hair Dye

Ainsley Highland

As many of you already know, the theory behind Lacewing & Kettle is to draw from the rich global tradition of cosmetics and skincare that women have passed down for millennia, and vet them through the lens of modern science and technology to create natural, effective skincare.

Because of that focus, I spend a lot of time looking at historic sources to see what ingredients were used, and how, and to look for themes and consistencies across time. Today I thought I’d share a recipe from possibly the first treatise specifically concerning women’s cosmetics and beauty aids, “De ornatu mulierum,” and take a look at how and why it might have worked.

Image from a 14th Century ed. of Trotula, sourced from Wikipedia with eternal gratitude to their CC0 class public domain images

Meaning literally “On Women’s Cosmetics” “De ornatu mulierum” is one of three distinct works comprising the 12th century Trotula manuscript, the most important medieval (European) compendium on women’s health.

The recipe I chose from that work is a black hair dye that the author identifies as “Saracen,” meaning it came from the Muslim world, a mere hop, skip and a jump from Salerno, the southern Italian city where the Trotula originated.

“A proven Saracen preparation. Take the rind of an extremely sweet pomegranate and grind it, and let it boil in vinegar or water, and strain it, and to this strained substance let there be added powder of oak apples and alum in a large quantity, so that it might be thick as a poultice. Wrap the hair with this, as though it were a kind of dough. Afterward, let bran be mixed with oil and let it be placed in any kind of vessel upon the fire until the bran is completely ignited. Let her sprinkle this on the head down to the roots. Then she should wet it thoroughly and again let her wrap her head (prepared thus in the above- mentioned little sack) in the same above-mentioned strained liquid, and let her leave it throughout the night so that she might be the better anointed. Afterward, let her hair be washed and it will be completely black.”

Before I get into how and why the ingredients might serve as an effective dye, let’s take a look at the dyeing process. Unlike modern hair dyes that would lift the cuticle and deposit a pure pigment in the core, this recipe functions along the same lines as any other process to affix natural dyes to natural fibers and would be closer to the hair staining process used in semi-permanent and temporary hair dyes.

In order to permanently dye a natural fiber, a natural plant extract is combined with a mineral mordant (or dye fixative). For high protein fibers — which in this case includes human hair — acid dyes are generally most effective. The basic process is to soak your fiber in the mordant for a while, and then add the dye. If you were paying close attention to the recipe, you may have noticed that the dye process came in two stages, and sure enough, these are neatly broken down into mordants and color. Now let’s take a look at the ingredients:

The main ingredients are:

        • Pomegranate Skins
        • Vinegar
        • Oak Apples
        • Alum
        • Ash (from Bran & Oil)

Pomegranate Peel

As most people know, pomegranate is incredibly rich in antioxidants. Pomegranate peel is particularly rich in one category of antioxidant called polyphenols, which include specific antioxidants tannins and catechins. While antioxidants in general are good at protecting from sun damage, and tannins in particular have been demonstrated to protect colored hair from fading, tannin is a fantastic mordant, used today in both wood staining and natural fiber dyeing.

Vinegar

Vinegar is effective at removing buildup from hair, increasing shine, and sealing the cuticle. Today we would use a weaker vinegar to help seal the cuticle after coloring, not as an ingredient in the dye. However, I expect that the reason vinegar was recommended, but not required here, is that it would lower the pH of the overall dye, making it more effective on a protein-rich fiber such as hair.

Oak Apples

Not a fruit at all, oak apples are a type of gall, or abnormal outgrowth, occurring in a particular species of oak tree. Caused by a specific form of wasp, oak apples have been used since Roman times to make to make ink, and are another source of tannic acid (a specific form of tannin) that - drum roll please - act as a mordant. Indeed, the word “tannin” actually comes from the Latin word for oak bark.

Alum

Alum is the last mordant on the list, and it’s possibly the heaviest hitter. Alum remains one of the most popular mordants today, and one of the reasons it is so popular is that it can be used at the same time as the dye without pre-seasoning.

Bran & Oil

It is interesting that neither the type of bran nor oil is explicitly specified here, but I suspect the reason is that as long as it blackened when burned, it didn’t much matter, because the burned bran is our only clear dye, and it would have been black. If the bran was oat bran however, it may have had the added benefit of having a high iron content, which would have further darkened the dye, and added a hint of brown. Iron is still used today to create a range of beautiful browns, and was the other component of that Roman ink dye I mentioned earlier, which is properly termed “iron gall ink.”

Conclusions:

Taking a look at this recipe piece by piece, I have the sneaking suspicion that it would have worked incredibly well. After all, it’s basically what you would do to permanently dye wool black today.

In fact, if I have concerns about this dye at all, it’s the possibility that it would be too harsh to use safely. Alum is one of the safest mordants you can use, but it can still cause irritation, burns and respiratory issues if inhaled. Similarly, tannins are safe in foods, but concentrated tannic acid can be toxic if applied directly to the skin. However, while I tend to doubt that pomegranate skins can yield a sufficient concentration to be dangerous, I do not know whether oak galls would be. After all, around this time, people were still applying lead to their faces and belladonna to their eyes, both of which are now known to be extraordinarily toxic.

Credit: 13th Century French copy of the Trotula, again shamelessly lifted from Wikipedia thanks to their public domain images.

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