Justin E. H. Smith
I've already mentioned that this coming Superbowl Sunday is going to be one of the best I've ever spent: I'll be busy talking about hair with a bunch of effete Brooklynites.
Quite independently of my preparation for this debut as a hair counsellor, I have just happened upon a number of references to an important chapter in our capillary history that has previously quite escapted my attention. I am speaking here of the plica polonica, which was long thought to be an illness, most commonly diagnosed in Poland, whose primary symptom was matted, clumpy, dreadlock-like hair.
I first came across a reference to the Polish plait in François Bernier's 1669 letter to Jean Chapelain, written from Shiraz in Persia, describing the appearance and practices of the yogis he had seen during his sojourn in India: "There are some [yogis] who have hair that falls to half-way down their thigh, and that is matted into branches like the massive hairs of our water-dogs, or rather like the hair of those who suffer from the illness from Poland that we call the 'Polish plait'. I saw in many places ones who held an arm, and sometimes both arms, elevated and stretched continually above their heads."
I was quickly able to turn up a number of medical treatises, mostly from the 19th century, that identify the Polish plait variously as 'a sort of trichoma', a 'strange illness' or a 'hair disorder'. The 1834 Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine informs us that its frequencey in Poland results from a long tradition, going back to the 11th century, of wearing the hair "after the manner of the Tartar and some Indian tribes," namely, in "a single tuft of hair being left to grow from the top of the scalp." The poorer inhabitants of Poland, "being wretchedly lodged and clothed, and exposed to the combined injurious influence of a marshy soil and a damp variable climate, the general cutaneous exhalation is at all times below the healthy standard, and ... hence arises the greatly increased gowrth of this portion of the hair, and the unnatural quantity of viscid secretion which is at the same time thrown out."
Now by now you are surely thinking: how could there be an illness of the hair? If it clumps, or split ends emerge, or any other such salonfähig problem arises, it can simply be cut off. This is a concern for beauticians, not physicians. Or is it? The author of the Cyclopaedia entry tells of a patient, a boy of about fifteen years of age, who "lay in a most filthy state, and his black hair, knotted long and matted together, gave out an intolerable stench." It is related that the Polish phyisician in attendance strongly opposed the possibility of "cutting off the hair, on the ground that the humour exuded on the hair might turn in on the brain and cause apoplexy."
Lest we presume that this is just a problem of the benighted past, it should be noted that there is an article in a medical journal from March, 2000, bearing the title "Plica polonica in the 21st Century." The abstract, translated haltingly from the German, reads as follows:
We describe a young man presenting with dreadlocks. There are remarkable similarities with the so called plica polonica, that historically had been treated with long courses of mercury. Apparently very important in the 18th century, the interest for this hair-disorder appears to be lost in specialized medical literature. In contrast dreadlocks, a recent hairstyle are frequently encountered. Lack of other sources various websites provide dermatologists with answers to questions regarding complications. Fortunately a simply haircut is today treatment enough.
Now I had put this curiosity behind me until by chance this evening I stumbled across the intriguely titled 1653 book of Thomas Hall, the Comarum akosmiai: The Loathsomnesse of Long Haire: or, A Treatise Wherein you have the Question stated, many Arguments against it produc'd, and the most materiall Arguments for it refell'd and answer'd, with the concurrent judgement of Divines both old and new against it. With an Appendix against Painting, Spots, Naked Breasts, &c.
I hope to be able to get back to that last part of the title soon, but what jumped out at me given my recent encounters with this strange diagnosis was the dedicatory poem, "To the Long-hair'd Gallants of these Times." It begins with some delightful couplets:
Go Gallants to the Barbers, go
Bid them your hairy Bushes mow.
God in a Bush did once appeare,
But there is nothing of him here.
And so on. But then already by the fifteenth line or so we are told of the horrible wrath a vengeful God has let loose on Poland:
Have you not been inform' o'th' hand
Of God on Poland lately laid;
Enough to make all Lands afraid,
And your long dangles stand an end?
Feare him that did that Plica send,
And those sad Crawlers: and hath more
Unheard of Judgements still in store.
It's interesting in this connection, and I won't dwell at length here, to reflect on the semiotics of dreadlocks in the Euro-American sphere. They are supposed to come from Jamaica, and to be a transposition of a hairstyle 'naturally' suited to African heads onto heads that can only cultivate them with great effort. But we see here that the dreadlock in the European imagination originally came from Poland, or, rather, from a country on the Eastern frontier of Europe that had allowed itself to be influenced by the barbarian practices of the Tartars of deepest Eurasia: the nomads who ate raw meat and drank blood. I suspect that the association of matted hair with the Afro-Caribbean and African-American cultural sphere is itself the transposition of prejudices that are much more deeply rooted than most will ever know.