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Technologies of appearance: Hair behaviour in early medieval Europe
By Steve Ashby
The Archaeological Journal, Vol.174:1 (2014)
Abstract: Personal appearance in general—and the grooming of hair in particular—has long held a position of interest in historical, art-historical, and literary scholarship. The same cannot be said of archaeology, and the material aspects of personal grooming in the construction and communication of identity have not been fully synthesized. As a result, little attempt has been made to understand the social role of hair in less well documented societies, such as those of early medieval northern and western Europe.
This paper considers archaeological, iconographic and documentary evidence for the significance of, and physical engagement with hair in early medieval northern and western Europe, and offers a model for the interpretation of grooming as a social phenomenon. It is argued that grooming was a socially meaningful practice, and that it played a key role in the construction of early medieval identities, as well as in the maintenance and manipulation of boundaries and distinctions between individuals and groups.
Introduction: Early medieval historians have long been aware of the symbolic significance of hair; so much is clear from the Burgundian and Salian Laws, and Gregory of Tours’ Historia Francorum in particular. However, archaeologists have traditionally paid much less attention to the question. This means that the material implications of this rather abstract notion have not been fully widely applied for early medieval Europe. In what follows, I will outline the archaeological evidence for a concern with hair and grooming between the fifth and eleventh centuries AD, drawing upon archaeological, anthropological, documentary and iconographic evidence and consider how this phenomenon might be situated in social terms.
Top Image: Merovingian comb, dating to the 6th or 7th century. Image courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum