“Did women cover their hair even in the summer?” Arkansas summers get hot enough to prompt this question on tour at the Ozark Medieval Fortress. Unfortunately for women, the answer is yes. As a guy, it always amazes me the amount of suffering that women have endured because of required clothes, shoes, or hair coverings. During the Medieval, the attitude was modesty over comfort and conformity over individual freedom. A married woman was expected to have her hair covered in and out of church. A single, young woman could leave her hair uncovered. However, it was most common to braid it. Bathing, including hair washing, was not frequent like today and hairstyles were made to keep the hair under control even though dirty.
Noble women wore their hair long. Peasant women had to work outside and wore their hair shorter, usually chin to shoulder length. Like many other things, hair was a sign of status and wealth. The braided hairstyles were often very complex for the wealthy ladies and included additions of ribbons, gold balls, or jeweled headpieces. A high forehead was considered beautiful and was respected as a sign of intelligence. Women who didn’t have this feature were known to shave the hair at the hairline to give them a higher looking forehead.
Men of the Medieval wore their hair in different lengths depending on location and social status. In the South (Italy) they wore their hair short like the Romans did and then wore wigs. The men of the North (Franks, Saxons, etc.) wore their hair to the shoulder if noble. Serfs were practical and generally kept their hair short. Charlemagne, King of the Franks, knew that hair was a status symbol and ordered some crimes to be punished by shaving the head.
It is important to remember that in the Middle Ages there was a lot of variation by region and ethnic backgrounds. In the Scandinavian Northland, modesty was met just by braiding the hair. In the South of France or in Italy, a married woman would definitely cover her head for modesty no matter what the season. Women had more to fear than critical gossip. Loose hair could bring the label of immorality or suspicion of witchcraft.