Tag Archives: beards

How to grow your beard, Roman style

Septimius Severus, one of the bearded Roman emperors (193-211). Source: Wikipedia
Septimius Severus, one of the bearded Roman emperors (193-211). Source: Wikipedia

For those who have missed it: male facial hair is currently in fashion. While almost none of my students sported a beard five years ago, it now looks as if they all do (the real proportion is probably 25%, but this is not the point of this post). Beards go in and out of vogue, and have done so for centuries. Thus, the first Roman Emperors, and those who emulated them, were clean shaven or had short beards, but from the middle of the second-century CE, wearing a beard became all the rage.

Ancient medical texts offer us some useful advice on how to care for precious facial hair. Thus Galen (second century CE) and Aetius (sixth century CE) transmit recipes to ‘blacken’ (that is, dye darker) the beard. These involve metallic ingredients that have been calcinated. But perhaps the most interesting series of recipes for the beard come from a treatise attributed to Galen, but not actually by Galen: The Remedies Easily Procured (De Remediis Parabilibus):

Preparations to grow locks of hair and the beard, if hair is falling out: mix beet with myrtle oil and maidenhair (polytrichion) and anoint the hair. Or crush equal amounts of maidenhair (adianton) and gum-ladanum with grape-seed oil, myrtle oil or mastic oil and anoint. Another: gum-ladanum with Aminaean wine and myrtle oil, crush together until it has the consistency of honey and anoint the head in the bath. It is best to use maidenhair (adianton), which some call ‘polytrichion’ (literally, many-hairs), mix a seventh part with gum-ladanum and anoint. (Pseudo-Galen, Remedies Easily Procured 3, 14.502 and 580 Kühn)

Maidenhair. Source: Wikipedia
Maidenhair. Source: Wikipedia

As the author explains, the plant that works best in promoting beard growth is that called adianton by most people in ancient Greek. Other people, however, called it polytrichion, that is, the ‘many-hair plant’. That plant is a fern known as ‘maidenhair’ in English and Adiantum capillus-veneris L. in botanical Latin. That is, the name in all three languages refers to the alleged effect this plant has on hair growth.

The other interesting ingredient in these pseudo-Galenic recipes is ladanum/ledanum, which is the gum produced by Cistus shrubs. The historian Herodotus (fifth century BCE) is the first to tell us the tale of how this gum was gathered in Arabia, the land of perfumes:

But ledanum, which the Arabians call ‘ladanon’, occurs in manner which is even more amazing [than cinnamon]. For the best smelling thing comes from the most stinky one. For it is found in the beards of he-goats, where it occurs in the same way as gum from a tree. It is used in many perfumes, but the Arabians mostly use it as incense. (Herodotus, Histories 3.112)

Herodotus makes it sound as if ladanum grows in the beards of he-goats. The pharmacological writer Dioscorides, several centuries later, gave a much more plausible account: the gum is so greasy that it sticks to the beards of goats, male or female – Dioscorides is not sexist towards goats! – when they graze on the tree that produces ladanum. Dioscorides also tells us that ladanum prevents hair from falling off, but does not single out beard hair. It is probably the story that ladanum ‘comes from’ the beards of goats that gave rise to the belief that it is somehow good for human beards.

Gents, next time you groom your beard, do give a thought for those Arabian goats growing gum in their goatees!





History Carnival #139

We are very pleased to be hosting History Carnival #139 at the Recipes Project this month! We have a wealth of interesting posts to show you this month.

Education and the teaching of history has been a hot topic recently. Sean Creighton at History Matters reflected on how Black History Month has evolved and what constitutes the study of British Black History today. Our own Recipes Project blog devoted the month of September to the teaching of recipes, which ranged from early modern to Canadian history. In a related vein, Richard Blakemore offers his thoughts and criticisms on The History Manifesto, Cambridge University Press’s first open access book.

West End London Air Raid Shelter. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
WWII; England; “West End London Air Raid Shelter” in Aldwych tube station. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

Bridget Lockyer at the FWSA Blog presented the results of a workshop on teaching women’s history in the UK’s new curriculum that was run with students and teachers at three schools in York.

Women in history also featured in several fascinating posts this month. The writers at All Things Georgian brought to our attention the 1737 book, “The Whole Duty of a Woman”, and its recipes for just about every day of the year. Maritime historian Joan Druett has provided us with a glimpse at Mrs. Alexander’s maiden voyage on the James Craig in 1874, including giving birth!

Kathryn Robinson, also at History Matters, looks at the legacy of the London Tube during the Blitz in the Second World War.

Medical historians have been producing some excellent posts recently. At the Notches blog Katherine Harvey has been looking at medieval views on masturbation and the idea that prolonged celibacy could be a risk to a man’s health! Yikes. Lesley Hulonce has written a fascinating post on the earliest institutions for disabled children in Victorian and Edwardian Britain and the assumptions society placed on its inhabitants in terms of their education and livelihoods.

Leather doctor's bag with contents, English, 1890-1930. Wellcome Images.
Leather doctor’s bag with contents, English, 1890-1930. Wellcome Images.

Åsa Jansson tackled the thorny and ever popular topic of retrospective diagnosis with her reflections on the recent conference, Gloom Goes Global: Towards a Transcultural History of Melancholy since 1850” held at the Univeristät Heidelberg this past October. Ed Darrell has been looking at the use of DDT to fight malaria. Jacqueline Antonovich at Nursing Clio, wrote of her experience in the archives and surprising insights that can be gained from material culture. Suzie Grogan has written a really interesting guest post for The Quack Doctor on home remedies for shell-shock after the First World War.

Alun Withey put the beard and masculinity in its historical context as beards have becoming increasingly popular over the past few years.

Joanne Major at All Things Georgian tackled a grim mystery from the 18th century – that of Oliver Cromwell’s missing head.

October provided a number of posts on one of my favourite topics – historical food! The Sloane Letters blog returned after a brief hiatus with a post determining once and for all that Hans Sloane did not invent milk chocolate (alas).  Liz Adams at the Rubenstein Library tested an 1899 recipe for a dairy free ice-cream made from nut butter. While she concluded it may not be ice cream by modern standards, it was delicious! Over at Not Just Dormice, Lisa Lodwick explored the enduring use of coriander and its immense popularity in ancient Rome.

Rochester Bestiary (England, c. 1230): London, British Library, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 45r. Source: British Library.
Rochester Bestiary (England, c. 1230): London, British Library, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 45r. Source: British Library.

As a medievalist I would be remiss if I didn’t include some more posts from that quarter of the internet. Jonathan Jarrett tells us how to start a saint’s cult. Julian Harrison at the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog, meanwhile, tells us how to be a hedgehog. And Erik Kwakkel gives us the skinny on bad parchment in medieval books.

Finally, what better post to end October’s Carnival on than Donna Seger’s post on the image of the dancing witch!

We hope you have enjoyed the posts in this month’s History Carnival! The next History Carnival will be hosted at the Imperial and Global Forum on December 1st.