The image of a beautiful young woman combing her long, oftentimes blonde hair is a well-recorded feature of folklore and fairytale that many of us can probably recall from childhood…
Indeed, it’s a single strand of Isolde’s hair, the Goose Girl’s unbraiding, the Virgin Queen’s coronation splendour or Rapunzel’s tresses that capture the imagination and are truly evocative of spun gold. Thinking of Eve; of Lady Godiva; of goddesses and mermaids – when it comes to adornment, a woman need only be dressed by letting her hair fall to cover her body to protect her modesty. Or that’s the jist, at least. Hair has an interesting history – whether it’s the subject of bestiaries, curiosity (as was the case of Petrus Gonzales at the court of Catherine de Medici) or harems.
The image of a woman combing her hair is a feature of Medieval art well-worth exploring with these themes in mind. Let’s consider the comb as a love token; a commonplace enough object, loaded with all sorts of allusions, promises and unspoken desires. For the purposes of our study, we’ll be taking a closer look at the comb – a seemingly innocent-enough possession and accoutrement, tenaciously interwoven with notions of vanity and eroticism.
These were the times when women were warned against the vice of vanity, dissuaded perhaps by the image of the devil conjured up to flash his bottom at you just by looking in a mirror found in one particular illumination. This horrific yet comedic apparition seems to be a parody on the concept of the ‘miraculous sighting’, whereby one may see the face of god or a weeping saint in everyday environs and objects to invoke piety. In the case of the devil’s bottom, it’s a diversion tactic to ward against sin. Helen Costantino Fioratti deals with the moral contention of vanity in her writing on the use of mirrors in the Medieval period. Such objects were painted with a broad brush: on the one hand they were a source of wonder, on the other a mere beauty aid. Down the path of intrigue, we can consider the mirror as it was viewed through the lens of moral education – indeed, a book of advice written by Geoffrey de la Tour Latour Landry and addressed to his daughters warns of the diabolical horrors that can be enhanced through a mirror’s misuse. Here, a parable proclaims with alarm:
“What! Will this lady never be done combing herself! Staring at herself in the mirror? It proves however to be a mirror of evil omen and as it pleased God to make an example of her, even as she stared into the mirror she perceived the enemy, who bared his behind, so ugly and horrible that the woman lost her reason, as if possessed by the devil”
For the church-going and the god-fearing, there was a very fine line between making practical adjustments in the mirror and what Fioratti calls ‘narcissistic excess’. The message seems to be: don’t spend too long, then, combing your hair or gazing into the mirror for fear of sinful entrapment. At the same time, aesthetically pleasing objects and beautiful, virtuous women were duly worshipped. Why else would poetry extol women above repute and household items be adorned with the fashionable treatment of the decorative arts?
Arguably, the most beautiful combs can be traced back to those of the late-Medieval and Renaissance period; where the romantic cult of courtly love was at its chivalric height. Here, we find examples of which the craftsmanship is remarkable: using the ‘H’ model, combs of this sort typically had adjacent spines of teeth framing the structure. One side could be used to style the hair, whilst the other fine-toothed side had a more practical use – combing for nits, etc. Beauty regime and hygiene taken care of on the utilitas (usefulness) and firmitas (structural) front, the venustas (visual) aspect of the piece came through its artful decoration. Like a welsh love spoon, the hand-carved and worked intricacy of these personal effects is a joy to behold. With the H comb, craftsmen had the space to map out popular allegorical and romantic themes. Those made in Northern Europe, principally France and Italy, owed their desirability to such decoration. Not only this, but as a commodity, other trinkets could be added to complete the trousse de toilette – for example, a mirror to match. I rather enjoy a portion of a fifteenth-century poem by Eustache Deschamps which translates as ‘The complaint of the newly married‘ where the wife asks ‘a hair comb, dressing comb, and mirror to fix myself up’ of her husband with the specification that these are ‘all of ivory’. She goes on to request ‘a carrying case that is noble and nice, hung with silver chains’ to complete the set.
You can find examples of combs in ivory, bone and boxwood – cut by a saw to achieve the desired effect. Noted down in inventories, few survive. One such example currently belonging to the collections at the V&A (circa 1500-1600) serves as a visual aid and can be examined, perhaps, as a gift appropriate for a lover. Contrary to the utilitarian nature of plain, ordinary combs, others were elaborately carved, pierced and elevated to the status of love tokens. It has been suggested that boxwood combs of the 15th century were used as such among the upper classes and nobility to the west of Europe. Here, we can connect their existence to the trade of luxury objects in the Medieval and Renaissance world. Indeed, Gustav Ludwig accounts for boxwood combs in the inventories of 16th century Venetian shops where they were listed alongside such exotic items as ivory, ebony, silver, perfume and mirrors. Equated to luxury goods, we can assume that the finest examples of boxwood combs held the same status.
Diane Wolfthal situates the comb as an intimate household object, owned by and at the service of a woman for her personal, privatized use. She writes how their proximity to the user could invoke an erotic performance, in which the seductress lets down the hair from its covering in the manner of a Venus, something that could equally signify sexual availability. The fetisishised notion of the comb relates to it being an extension of the body – something smooth, sensual and used by the woman. Indeed, usually richly carved with allegorical love notes, the object itself becomes charged with a kind of sexual, fantastic magic. It’s very much ritualistic. Wolfthal recounts the words inscribed on an ivory comb produced in northern France around the year 1500 which sighs ‘Ayes de moi merci’ (“Have mercy on me”) – which we could translate into felt ecstasy, wishful thinking and even the double entendre of a lover begging for mercy…
The comb, then, is an object worthy of our romantic attentions throughout history.
‘Mirrors in the Medieval Period’, L’Antiquaire & the Connoisseur Inc., http://www.lantiquaire.us/mirrors-in-the-medieval-period.html
 Steward, S. Painted Faces: A Colourful History of Cosmetics (Amberley, 2017).
 Wolfthal, Diane, ‘The Sexuality of the Medieval Comb, in Gertsman, Elina and Stevenson, J. (eds.) Thresholds of Medieval Visual Culture: Liminal Spaces, Boydell Press (2012), p.179.