Medieval Hair Dye

hair samples


You know I’m dedicated to this blog, but I wasn’t about to trust the Middle Ages when it came to hair dye. Not with my hair. I’m not insane.

Still, I wanted to try it out. I tried to con a few close friends into letting me do it to them. No luck. They’re not insane either. Then it dawned on me–the hair didn’t  have to be attached to my head for me to dye it! I just needed to get a haircut.

Genius, right?

I thought so…until I got to the salon.

“I know this sounds crazy,” I told the stylist, “but I need to keep some of the hair you cut.”

Scared Woman
photo credit: Worried bride via photopin (license)

“You, uh, need it for a medical test?”.she asked

“Nope,” I answered.

And at that moment, I think we were both in agreement that I was the single creepiest person to ever walk into that salon.

You’re welcome, readers.

Anyway…medieval hair dye

English: Pen and wash drawing showing a female healer, perhaps of Trotula, holding up a urine flask to which she points with her right hand. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Medieval women didn’t have Cosmo–They had the Trotula. The Trotula was the go-to book for all things health and beauty. It was  written by a group of 12th century physicians in Italy. Over the next few centuries the book spread across Europe, reaching its peak in the 14th century, the period my book Beneath the Destined Stone takes place.

I bought an English translation of Trotula, and I’ve got to admit, I geeked out a little bit when I read it. It was so interesting, full of the stuff you don’t learn in history class. It covered everything from whitening your teeth to tricking your husband into thinking you’re a virgin. Crazy. And the stuff they used. Even crazier. Can you imagine smearing your face in white lead or quick lime? Talk about a chemical peel!

PETA Would Have Had a Lot to Protest in the Middle Ages

This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art.

The medieval woman wasn’t opposed to sacrificing a few animals for beauty. Want black hair? No problem. Just cut off the head and tail of a lizard and cook its body in oil. Want to whiten the hair instead? Trotula has you covered. Just catch as many bees as possible and set them to burn in a new pot. Then grind them up with oil and you’ve got yourself a hair tonic.

Needless to say, when I was searching Trotula for a recipe, I decided against the ones involving slaughter.

My Recipe

I went with a recipe Trotula describes as, “a proven Saracen method.” I wanted a black hair dye because my hair is (let’s pretend naturally) blonde. There were several recipes, but I went with this one because it was both humane, and called for ingredients that were actually available.

*I’m sorry about the photo quality. My husband usually takes the pics for me with his fancy camera, but he was out of town. I had to take these at night, so there are a lot of shadows.

IMG_1621The Ingredients:

  1. The rind of a pomegranate
  2. Vinegar or water
  3. Alum
  4. Powdered oak apples/galls
  5. Bran
  6. Oil

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*Oak Apples–if you’re not familiar with these, you’re not alone. I had to look them up. Basically they are deformities that occur on oak trees because of the oak apple gall wasp. You’ll have a hard time finding these in a store. Fortunately, the lovely Stacy Hatfield over at Pineneedlessweetgrass on Etsy was able to ship me some in no time at a low cost. I ground these in my food processor.

*Alum–You can find this in any grocery store in the spice section.

Ground pomagraniteStep 1:

Grind your pomegranate peel. I did this in the food processor.

IMG_1632Step 2:

Boil the ground pomegranate peel in vinegar or water. I chose vinegar. The Trotula didn’t bother with things like amounts, so I just poured a bunch in. The vinegar turned a pretty pink color.

Step 3:

IMG_1633Strain vinegar and mix with a large amount of alum and ground oak apples until it is thick like a poultice. I used only a small amount of the vinegar solution because I was only dying a lock of hair. It took a huge amount of alum and oak apples to make the solution thick. I used equal proportions of each, though the recipe did not specify ratios.

Step 4:

IMG_1634Wrap the hair in the concoction like it is a dough. This was difficult. It didn’t stay on very well. Perhaps I made it too thick. I imagine if you were doing this to your entire head, you would have to be lying down while someone else plastered it on for you.

Step 5:

Burnt bran. Gross!

Mix the bran with oil and heat it until the bran is completely ignited. This smelled really bad, kind of like burnt popcorn. It didn’t specify what type of bran to use, so I chose oat bran because it was what was available at my local health food store.

Step 6:

The pile on the right is the “dough” that fell off. The left is the hair covered in the oil/bran

Sprinkle the bran/oil solution on the head down to the roots. Then wet thoroughly. This part was a bit confusing for me. The hair was already wrapped in the “dough” concoction, and I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to remove it first. The “dough” ended up falling off when I picked up the lock of hair, so that made things simpler.


Step 7:

Hair wrapped in “dough.” Looks a little bit like a corndog, doesn’t it?

Wrap the hair once again in the dough concoction and leave it on over night. Make sure to cover your head with a cloth.

It was much easier this time, now that the hair was wet. The dough wasn’t nearly as crumbly.

Step 8:

Wash the hair the following morning. According to Trotula it will be black.

The Results:

The hair on the left is the dyed hair. The hair on the right is the original color.

Darker, but nowhere near black. The color wasn’t uniform, which I actually thought was pretty. It gave the color depth and made it look natural.


There are a hundred different reasons why the dye didn’t turn my hair black. It may be the dye was meant for someone with darker hair. It might be I had the wrong kind of bran or vinegar. Maybe I didn’t boil the pomegranate long enough. Maybe the Trotula doesn’t know what it’s talking about. Who knows?

What I can say for certain is that it did darken my hair, and I liked the color. I think this would be a very messy endeavor for anyone trying to do this to their whole head. But for someone looking for a hair dye without a bunch of chemicals, it might be worth the mess.



15 thoughts on “Medieval Hair Dye

  1. You have a very interesting blog with an equally interesting name. I enjoyed your post on the hair color. I often wonder if the wigs worn by both men and women of those times were actually invented because they didn’t have hair-color.

  2. Your determination and effort to really try these things out is really admirable. I really like your very original straightforward approach of questionning the good old, bad old days as is, its everyday language and also makes me laugh and history should be funny sometimes:)

    1. That’s interesting. I hadn’t even considered that. If I ever try it again, maybe I could put it under the oven light to simulate. Thanks!

  3. This was a fun read! Very entertaining. There is a medieval kid of recipe they use in Turkey, India and Middle East: Henna blackened with kohl. My mom dyed my hair with henna when I was a teenager, I have natural blonde hair and this henna made it a nice, dark, brownish red. You mix the henna powder with olive oil and a raw egg, cover your hair in dough, wrap it with a layer of newspaper, then wrap the whole thing with saran wrap and let it stay overnight (newspapers and saran wrap can be a couple of layers to make sure it doesn’t leak on your pillow) then you wash your hair in the morning. Some of the dough dries and falls off but it’s a real mess and a royal PITA to wash off.

    My aunt who lives a rural village used some tree bark (forgot what tree) and walnut shell to darken the henna, she said it made her hair dark brown (she had platinum blonde hair)

    1. That is really interesting and sounds just about as messy 🙂 I think the Trotula also had some recipes with tree bark. It sounds like the henna is a lot more effective than this recipe, though.

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