See the fun, engaging video version of this essay here.
In today’s Western world, people generally eschew the wearing of hats or headcoverings of any sort unless Mother Nature forces us to cover our locks – for instance to protect against cold, against overpowering sunlight, or driving rain. But in the not-so-distant past, it would have been unheard of for people to walk around without some sort of fabric bundled onto their pates. Bare heads were simply not done!
For most of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, people of all levels of society covered their hair with linen, silk, or wool worked into some shape or another (the shapes evolved over time, some of them reaching fascinating proportions, in fact, see below…).
And why, you might ask?
Well, a variety of very good reasons that extend beyond fashion – although really, when it comes to adorning oneself, does one need a practical reason?
Nevertheless, on a practical level: headwear can provide insulation from heat AND cold AND sun. You have to remember that before central heating, homes could get quite cold in the winter, especially any rooms that did not have fireplaces (most of which did not until the 18th century). Covering one’s head was a way to help retain heat, which is why one sees so many depictions of medieval people bathing with their heads covered and even sleeping with covered hair. Inversely, in the summer, a white linen coif, veil or straw hat will reflet the light of the sun, thereby helping wearers maintain a comfortable body temperature (and I know many modern medievalists who soak their coifs in cold water and place them upon their head to encourage evaporative coiling in brutal climes).
But coifs can also possibly serve to keep one’s hair cleaner. One must consider the air quality indoors in the medieval world – chimneys were not invented until the 14th century and not widely dispersed until after the medieval period, so homes were generally filled with soot and smoke. Which will make one’s hair most unpleasant after not long.
When one does not have running water – let alone hot water! - to hand, one does not simply bathe every day (I mean, I suppose there are some humans who enjoy dunking their warm bodies into freezing cold water – looking at you, Finnish and Swedish friends!, but I digress….). And even though feasible, hairwashing over a basin can become quite a time-consuming chore when using a pitcher of water to rinse (video on that amusing process coming soon…), not to mention the requisite drying time for the long hair that women usually had (and in an unheated home in the winter? Just imagine how joyful that would be). And although medieval combs, with their closely spaced tines, do go a long way to helping remove detritus from hair, there is only so much they can do when faced with the real serious grime that could result from prolonged exposure to soot and/or the dust from fields and roads.
Particularly for people engaged in messy manual labor, then, a linen coif could therefore help keep one’s locks lovelier and more pleasant. Or at least delay the need for a proper washing (and medieval people were fastidious about cleanliness!). As mentioned earlier, a linen coif can also help absorb sweat away from the head and hair and help keep one cool on hot days through evaporative cooling. I have myself personally experienced this phenomenon while living medievally for weeks on end in sweaty, dusty, dry conditions while engaging in, um, energetic physical activity such as dancing – the linen coif multitasks in so many ways (and can be easily and quickly washed, drying and bleaching rapidly in the sunshine).
In certain times and places, head coverings could also be utilized to denote certain identities – whether religious identity, age, gender, or marital status. In places like Florence, for instance, unmarried women (especially adolescent ones) exposed their beautifully coiffed hair when in public spaces, while married women covered their likewise intricately wrought tresses with silk and linen coifs and veils. Covered hair could therefore be a visual sign that a lady was off the market or of a certain age.
The practice of women in Europe covering their heads with a coif or veil may also have arisen from scriptural admonishment by famous misogynist Paul of Tarsus, who wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians:
3 But Y wole that ye wite, that Crist is heed of ech man; but the heed of the womman is the man; and the heed of Crist is God.4 Ech man preiynge, or profeciynge, whanne his heed is hilid, defoulith his heed.5 But ech womman preiynge, or profeciynge, whanne hir heed is not hilid, defoulith hir heed; for it is oon, as if sche were pollid.6 And if a womman be not keuered, be sche pollid; and if it is foul thing to a womman to be pollid, or to be maad ballid, hile sche hir heed.7 But a man schal not hile his heed, for he is the ymage and the glorie of God; but a womman is the glorie of man.8 For a man is not of the womman, but the womman of the man.9 And the man is not maad for the womman, but the womman for the man.10 Therfor the womman schal haue an hilyng on hir heed, also for aungelis.
….. But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man…every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.)
In some polities, there was even legislation in place to regulate how women dressed themselves, specifically mandating that they cover their hair. Bologna was such a place, for instance. On September 30, 1279, Cardinal Latino Malabranca issued a set of regulations for his entire Legation, consisting of six chapters: (1) on people who illegally occupy churches; (2) on visitation of monasteries; (3) against clerical concubines (the inevitable consequence of forbidding priests to marry); (4) on granting and remitting penances; (5) on indulgences; and (6) on the dress of women. In his chronicle, Fra Salimbene informs us that Latino issued this tough ordinance on female dress in his campaign to quell the sort of factional strife that so characterized the Italian city states of this era (imagine the competitiveness between the neighborhoods of the Palio in Siena, but with weapons and trained men at arms…). He banned long trains and required all women to veil their faces when they left home. As happens with all sumptuary legislation, Cardinal Latino's regulation of female attire was denigrated, bemoaned, and utterly disregarded.
In other places, covering one’s hair was a sign of an “honest” woman – i.e. not a prostitute, actress or acrobat, in some cases. For example, if a “respectable” woman from the French town of Arles espied a prostitute wearing a veil, she was apparently legally entitled to rip it off!
The association between head coverings and respectability can even be seen in this manuscript illumination depicting a female cadaver and her anatomy – even though every part of her, inside AND out is exposed, the artist has still portrayed her in veil and wimple, thereby maintaining her dignity and respectability in the eyes of the reader.
In contrast to - or perhaps in support of - the strictures governing women’s head coverings and the identity function involved, the symbolism of the bare-headed maiden was tied to the Virgin Mary and purity in the medieval world – you will notice that in many images, she is depicted with her tresses flowing, pate uncovered. And in fact, this same symbolism then made appearance in certain rituals and ceremonies of the Middle Ages, specifically coronations. In the Liber Regalis, an English book of royal ceremonies from the 14th and 15th centuries, English queens are instructed to be “bareheaded and her hair must be decently let down on to her shoulders. And she shall wear a circlet of gold adorned with jewels to keep her hair the more conveniently in order on her head.” The symbolism here is of course that the Queen is assuming a new personage, in essence, from a ritualistically virginal state to marrying the kingdom and the people. In fact, many contemporary depictions of the Virgin Mary would seem a verbatim interpretation of these instructions!
And no, there seems to be no equivalent sign of bachelorhood for men in this era, at least not that I could find (but let me know in the comments if you have evidence of sartorial symbols of men’s bachelorhood). Apparently no visual sign was wanted or required, a double standard that probably indicates women’s status as possessions to be controlled in many polities of this era….But I digress…
Linen coifs could often be worn in combination with other pieces of headgear – under hoods and hauts-atours (hennins, as you may know them), for instance. They could range from a simple rectangle of fabric tied in the back of the head, to carefully tailored items that frame the face beautifully.
There were of course periods of time and polities in the Middle Ages in which men of a certain social class might fully expose their neatly coifed hair – one notes this especially in the 14th century - but this is nearly always in combination with a very well-kempt hairdo and a hooded cowl which presumably could be raised to perform all of the aforementioned functions, and perhaps even more (woolen hoods are GREAT against rain, for instance. Until they aren’t that is…Ah, the magical properties of wool and water…).
Wearing a lovely head-covering is all very well, but what about the production of coifs and veils? Interestingly, the best place to find evidence of this is not in the account books (at least not that I have found – they seem to be remarkably silent on the expenditures on hats, at least the account books I have found! Let me know in the comments if you have evidence of hatmakers from inventories). It is in tax records that one must look – and you thought no one would ever be interested in your tax returns!
And the tax records generally seem to indicate that veil and coif making was a predominantly female trade. In French, for instance, they are referred to as coiffieres or crespiniere. The tax rolls and statutes of guilds even indicate that these were of linen. There was even a street in Paris called “rue coiffiere”. And it was not just Christian women, but Jewish women from this era are also listed in official records as being veil makers and milliners
As a final note, modern reason for wearing an era-appropriate head covering, I make the following argument: a modern person wearing medieval garments but having a bare head with a modern hairstyle looks like a modern person wearing a costume, whereas a modern person wearing appropriate medieval headwear but modern clothes looks like a medieval person in modern costume.
And so I say to you: research the right type of headwear (and verify if there is headgear for your persona at all) and then cover your heads as prescribed! :-DAlong these lines, I offer a workshop on making a specific kind of linen coif that was popular in England, the Low Countries, Burgundy, and France during the second half of the 15th century and into the early 16th century. Known as the winged coif (or the “Milkmaid” coif), it allows one flexibility in how it is worn – with wings turned back for cute facial framing, or with wings forward, thereby providing sun, wind and even some rain protection. No experience necessary, all stitches and techniques will be taught. I hope you decide to join in, and note that all classes are recorded so even if you miss the session itself, you can still participate at your leisure!