Thus human beings judge of one another, superficially, casually, throwing contempt on one another, with but little reason, and no charity.


The nineteenth-century anthropologist John Munro, who published his The Story of the British Race in 1899, makes much of a supposed difference in hair color between the Vikings and the Saxons. “The Danes were distinguished by their red hair and fiery temper,” he writes, “from the more phlegmatic Anglo-Saxons with light brown or flaxen hair and blue eyes.” This idea of some atavistic race-memory accounting for the suspicion in which red hair was held crops up very frequently in the nineteenth century (and down in Hampshire, was clearly still going strong in my grandmother’s day), but given the mixing and mingling that had gone on between the tribes of northern Europe for all those centuries before, it seems unlikely that the average Saxon and the average Dane would have varied in appearance by much at all. The Vikings were no less flaxen or any the more redheaded than those they terrorized (and never mind Hagar the Horrible and his bristling red beard). It was the new and sudden nature of these seafarers’ raids that made them so feared.

The first Viking raids upon the Christian West came in the summer of AD 793, on the monastery community of Lindisfarne, an island off the coast of the north of England, and in one form or another Viking raiders alternately terrorized or settled (or both) coastal and river communities throughout Europe for at least the next three hundred years. The Vikings settled in Iceland, hence its appearance on the Redhead Map of Europe. In Greenland, the first community was founded by Erik the Red, whose name almost certainly commemorates the color of his hair, while the story of the slow extinction of one such Viking settlement there, Herjolfsnes, provides a fascinating if appalling example of what happens to an isolated community as its inner stores of Vitamin D are steadily depleted.

By the eleventh century, the Vikings had reached Newfoundland, which they regarded as the last land before one’s Viking longboat tipped into the abyss, in an expedition led by Erik the Red’s son, Leif Ericson. They certainly sent emissaries to Byzantium, and there is archaeological evidence that Viking traders reached Baghdad (did they add their redhead genes to those already in the local population?). There are also intriguing legends among the Paiute people of Nevada of their tribe’s encounter, long ago, with a redheaded enemy around the Lovelock Caves, which have led some, rather rashly, to assume that Vikings must have penetrated far into the North American continent as well. The Vikings of Sweden raided and traded down the Volga, no doubt meeting many a remnant Scythian or emergent Udmurt population as they did so, and perhaps giving what we know as Russia its name, from a Slavic version of theirs: “Rus,” or “the men who row.” Norwegian Vikings took captives from the coastal settlements of Ireland and the west of Scotland, adding these Celtic genes to their own, and no doubt left descendants in these places, too. They were only finally defeated in Ireland by the great Brian Boru, at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. But to present some race-memory of Viking raiders as the reason for the dislike and distrust of red hair is to ignore far more active and pertinent prejudices that still exist today, just as they did in John Munro’s time, and which in medieval Europe were even more virulent and deeply rooted.

Moreover in England at least, Viking raiders from Denmark reached an accommodation with the indigenous population, establishing a kingdom for themselves in the northeast that stretched from York almost down to London—a third of the country, contained by the Danelaw, and subject to the treaty signed with Alfred the Great in about 880. They seeded their own language, place names, and culture, along no doubt with a few supplementary redheads, throughout northern Britain (my own sandy-haired, blue-eyed grandfather was a Cougill, from Lancashire), a region where William the Conqueror would encounter seething resistance for years after his conquest of England in 1066, and which he would viciously repress. And, of course, in the tenth century they would colonize Normandy. William’s own great-great-great-grandfather was Rollo, or Hrólfr (c. 846–c.931), who was either Danish or Norwegian, depending upon which source you believe.

The Bayeux Tapestry, marking William’s victory over the English at the Battle of Hastings, and which could be contemporary evidence for the color of his hair, is not much help here, identifying various figures as WILLEM or WILLELMO DUCI, who are both sandy and brown-haired. But William’s third son and the heir to the English throne, the blessedly short-lived William Rufus, seems to have owed his name either to his hair or to the florid complexion long regarded as accompanying a boorish temper.27 The associations created in the Classical world between red hair and a suspect character were clearly still going strong, as were those linking red hair, especially where it came with a ruddy, weather-beaten skin, with low birth or as a signifier of vulgarity—if not still slave, then certainly serf. The historian Ruth Mellinkoff cites an example from the ninth-century Life of Charlemagne in the cautionary tale of an ill-mannered peasant who refuses to uncover his head in church. When his cap is finally dragged from his ears and his head is exposed, the priest thunders from the pulpit in a final inculpatory denunciation, “Lo and behold, all ye people, the boor is redheaded.” The same association would be exploited by Chaucer for the character of Robin, the drunken loudmouth miller in the Canterbury Tales (1380s–90s), with his spade-shaped beard as red as “anye sowe or fox,” and the wart on his nose, sprouting bristles as red as those of a sow’s ears. Even in Scandinavia, golden-blond Odin, Mellinkoff suggests, was the god of the nobility; redheaded Thor with his hammer was the god of the laboring man. You could rule a kingdom, in fact, and your red hair would still be used to denigrate you.

Roger I, who had taken Sicily from the Muslims by 1091, was but one of many generations of Norman mercenaries fighting in Italy, and his descendants would rule Sicily for the next century (hence the blue-eyed, red-haired, gloriously freckled Sicilian brother and sister I encountered in a language school in Cambridge). Frederick II, Roger I’s great-grandson, extended that rule across Italy and Germany and even as far as Jerusalem. Frederick spoke six languages, launched two crusades, and was elected Holy Roman Emperor, a role in which he clashed with the papacy so frequently that he was excommunicated four times over and once denounced as the Anti-christ. He kept a menagerie and, according to his enemies, a harem. He was an empiricist in matters of science, investigating the process of human digestion by practicing what was basically vivisection on his dinner guests; and a skeptic in matters of religion; and was proclaimed by his contemporaries as the wonder of the world—“stupor mundi,” which somehow sounds even more impressive. Then you read the Syrian chronicler Sibt-ibn al-Jawzi’s description of him: “The Emperor was covered with red hair and was bald and myopic. Had he been a slave he would not have fetched 200 dirhams at market,” which seems a little harsh, however true. Frederick spoke Arabic and was one of the few European rulers of the time to approach the Muslim kingdoms of the Middle East with interest and respect. He also stood up for Sicily’s community of Jews.


There had been Jewish communities living around the Mediterranean as part of the Roman Empire, and the first Jewish communities in France and Germany may date back to the same early period—indeed, possibly even predate it. There is circumstantial evidence that Jewish settlers in Spain were trading with the Phoenicians, which would have been centuries before the creation of that small, insignificant Roman settlement on a gravelly ford of the Tiber in 753 BC. By the seventh century AD there were Jewish settlements spread as far afield as China, very likely of travelers and traders who had followed the Silk Road. In the eighth century the kingdom of the Khazars represented for a century or so a Jewish power base between the Caspian and Black Seas and was a major crossroads between Russia, Byzantium, and traders from the Middle East. The first documented communities of Jews in England are perhaps the only people in all its flotsam-and-jetsam population who might genuinely claim to have come over with the Conqueror, or at least to have been brought over, from Rouen, under William’s watchful eye, in 1070. William had a new kingdom to subdue, and a mighty program of castle-, or rather fortress-, building to fund. The man who could come up with the concept of the Domesday Book could put a price on anything, but William needed tribute rendered in and an economy based upon coin, not Saxon barter. Bring on the first money men of Europe, the Jews enlisted by William I, to kick-start the transformation.

In 1079 another group, five French Norman Jews (and plucky souls they must have been, too), crossed the Irish Sea to set foot on what was then the extreme western edge of the known world, in a trade delegation to the king of Munster, Toirdhealbhach Ua Briain, or so the Annals of Inisfallentell us. Toirdhealbhach was seventy by this date, and had spent the previous thirty years fighting, exiling, or murdering his rivals. By 1079 he was effective ruler of half Ireland. His Jewish visitors clearly knew who the Big Fellow was, but Toirdhealbhach seems to have been less certain of them. They came with gifts, but the annals record only that these visitors “were sent back again over the sea.” The event does, however, open up the pleasing possibility of this grandson of Brian Boru, this aging Celtic khan, redheaded as we may surely imagine him, greeting visitors who might have been as red-haired and red-bearded as he. Were there Jewish redheads? There both were and are.

Red hair, as has been said, survives best out of the great ebb and flow of a changing population. Those circumstances are also found in communities that are endogamous—that is, that marry within their own specific ethnic group, something the Jewish population has done for centuries. There are many, many redheaded Jews, and as these communities moved into western Europe, it was a mighty cultural mischance that they brought with them a characteristic already aligned in European culture with bad character at best and barbarity at worst. One that was already perceived as apart from the norm, was already picked out and commented upon; that was, in other words, already “racialized.” Or as Eleanor Anderson describes it in her thesis on discrimination against redheads today, and in the language of contemporary psychology, with the Jews of medieval Europe we see all the hallmarks of a situation where “an individual who might have been received easily in ordinary social intercourse possesses a trait that can obtrude itself upon attention and turn those who he meets away from him, breaking the claim that his other attributes have on us.”28

We in our communities today know that stereotyping or stigmatizing individuals on the grounds of their difference is as destructive of those who think that way as it is of those victimized by their thinking. We may not all always understand this, but we all know it, and in the First World, at least, many if not most modes of living and of belief that would have reduced our ancestors to a blood-flecked mob do so no longer. But in medieval Europe, Jews were Christ-killers and the abductors of Christian children. They were known as usurers, moneylenders, and the financiers of the state (which very often turned on them as well). And some of them had red hair. And since Judas was a Jew, in a noticeable number of examples in European art, particularly in Germany, he is also depicted as a redhead. Even the redhead’s freckles were not spared. In medieval Germany, one term for freckles was “Judasdreck.”29 As the scholar Paul Franklin Baum put it in 1922, “There can be little doubt that this tradition is simply the application of the old belief—much older than Judas Iscariot—that red-haired men are treacherous and dangerous, to the arch-traitor, some time during the early Middle Ages.”30

You read with sinking heart the first edicts forcing Jews to identify themselves by wearing specific badges; those moving them into ghettoes; the first instances of persecution, the first massacres, the first expulsions. Jewish communities were expelled from France in 1182; recalled in 1198 (the royal coffers were running low); expelled again in 1306 and their property confiscated for exactly the same motive. There were no Jewish communities in England after 1290; and in 1492, in Sicily, which was under the control of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, those same Jewish communities that had been defended from the zeal of the Crusaders by Frederick II were driven out of the island altogether. In that year the redheaded Genoese sea captain Christopher Columbus followed Leif Ericson across the Atlantic in an expedition funded by Ferdinand and Isabella, and the world changed once again. Those monarchs, newly in control of a kingdom from which any religion other than Catholicism was to be extirpated, also, notoriously, put into motion the diktats of the Spanish Inquisition.

Historians have argued back and forth over the number and nature of the victims of the Inquisition in Spain and its territories in the New World, but however many and whoever died because of it, their suffering was inflicted by a bureaucracy of terror that used symbols of “other” as a means of identifying its victims. Trials were secret; punishment was public and vindictive enough to extend even to the burning of corpses. The Inquisition was not directed solely against those of faiths other than Catholicism, either; it went after homosexuals, those in possession of prohibited texts, and those suspected of witchcraft. In the nineteenth century it was hunting down those “suspected” of freemasonry, as well, which rather starts to sound as if there was no one else left. Right from the start it was suspected that those persecuted were being chosen because they were wealthy, and the state could confiscate their property. The processes of the Inquisition were as absurd as they were appalling, as such systems always are. But if red hair meant you were Jewish (it might equally have meant you were Protestant, or merely un-Spanish in some way), red hair might also mean you were a backsliding converso, especially given all those other qualities ascribed to redheads concerning their treacherous and untrustworthy nature. You end up going around in a circle here, where the prejudice justifies the racism and the racism strengthens the prejudice. Attitudes toward red hair in Spain only reflected the fears and prejudices of Catholic Europe as a whole. If you want to look for reasons for the continuing and increasing antipathy toward redheads, in particular redheaded men, in medieval Europe, look no further than its anti-Semitism. And if you want to place the point at which attitudes toward red hair in men and women begin so radically to diverge, likewise.


To understand what a people thought or believed, start by looking at what they were looking at. In this case, two panel paintings, one German, one French, created less than ten years apart, demonstrate the polar opposites of attitudes toward red hair in the medieval world. The German work shows Christ on the Mount of Olives, or The Agony in the Garden, as the scene is perhaps better known. It dates from about 1444–45 and is now in the Bayerisches National-museum in Munich (Fig. 7). For many years—centuries, in fact—it was unattributed to any particular artist; another of those anonymous works that in their lost history speak with quiet eloquence of the unknown, uncountable faithful who knelt in front of them. Its creator was identified only as late as the 1980s as Gabriel Angler the Elder, a Munich artist whose dates are thought to have been c. 1405–62.31Previously his works were simply grouped together under the title of the most famous of them, and he was known as the “Master of the Tegernsee Altar.”

In his painting, we are in a garden of sorts, although parts of it seem very rocky and untended. It’s bounded by a wicker fence, which might bring to mind images of that first garden, Eden, or of unicorns and virgins, or indeed of any place private, secluded, and reserved for contemplation or for prayer. And it’s night. There are four figures in the garden, three of them huddled in sleep, and although one should be aware that the background was repainted in the late seventeenth century, the re-painter, in his creation of a sky literally dark with foreboding, did a good and sympathetic job. This seems to be one of those nights where heaven has come very near to earth—the sky is framed by delicate Gothic tracery, and in this realm of the divine, top left, there hovers an angel bearing a scroll. You can almost hear the stillness—the nighttime insects, the lazy flapping of the scroll as it unfurls from the angel’s hand, the whispering of the one man awake, kneeling at the rocky outcrop as at a prie-dieu.

Enter, stage right, as from some other world beyond the painting and through the flimsiest-looking portal, a half dozen soldiers in full fifteenth-century armor; helmeted, with swords at hip, and spear and halberd glinting above them—a pre-Reformation SWAT team. They are being led through the fragile doorway into the garden by a man in a long, Biblical, yellowish robe, as if he has summoned them from the artist’s time into his. One of his hands is raised, a finger pointing in admonition—shush!—but of course also, ironically, up to the divine; while with the other he supports the weight of the heavy purse hung around his neck. This is Judas. And his hair, and his beard, and even the skin of his cheeks, are red.

Redheaded men in medieval Europe were at just as much of a disadvantage as they would have been in classical Greece or Rome (and it should be remembered, throughout this period, men’s hair was much more publicly visible than women’s). Those who wished to justify their prejudice might point to the Old Testament example of boorish Esau, born “ruddy, all over like a hairy mantle,” and dim-witted enough to lose his birthright to his younger, more intellectual brother, Jacob. Cross such men (trick them out of their rights as firstborn over a bowl of lentil soup, for example, as Jacob did), and the dark flush of their ruddy visages betokened violence, loss of temper, retribution that would be both swift and unthinking.32 Even the Biblical King David might be so judged: “And when Samuel saw that David was ruddy he was smitten with fear, thinking he might also be a murderer.” And if King David’s temper might be suspected on the basis of his coloring, how much more likely, and easier, was it to project one’s fears onto one’s foreign, heretical, idolatrous, synagogue-going neighbor, with his strange dietary observances and his red hair?

It’s ridiculous to assume that in reality red hair was any more common then than it is today. It was and is still a minority characteristic, among Jews just as it is among the Irish and the Scots, and as it no doubt was with the Thracians, too. But once again it comes to stand for an entire ethnicity of other: once viewed, apparently blinding those who saw it to any other characteristic.33 In medieval art red hair in men, in particular in combination with a ruddy skin, is like the black hat on the baddie in a Western. It’s visual shorthand for a brutal character of a particular unthinking sort—animalistic, unintellectual, unreachable by reason, and all the more frightening for that. It’s a means of signifying not simply villein, or serf, but villain, too.34 It’s the color of the hair of Christ’s (Jewish) tormentors, with their whips and goads and what in so many medieval paintings is the artist’s invention of ridiculously, sadistically, overelaborated means of pressing the crown of thorns down on Christ’s forehead (why not simply have his torturers wear gloves?). It’s noticeable that it’s in this combination with ruddy, rough, or weather-beaten skin that red hair appears in some of the most nastily caricatured depictions of Judas. And nakedly exposed, time and again, as Mellinkoff points out, it is the coloring of the impenitent thief at Christ’s crucifixion (Fig. 8). Distorted, damned and writhing in agony, possessed by devils, abandoned by God and man (and the Catholic church), this is the uncouth barbarian again. The coloring of the impenitent thief, by contrast to the pale, serene, penitent thief, heading for Paradise, is used both to evoke his freakishness and his inhumanity, the fact that his fate doesn’t matter, and to demonstrate, with the artist as our proxy, as it were, society’s and our Christian revenge.

And oh, how that prejudice linking Judas and Jewishness and red hair persisted. In As You Like It, written in 1599, a century and a half after the completion of Angler’s painting, Shakespeare has Celia describe Orlando’s hair, defensively, as “something browner than Judas’s.” In the 1690s, in the midst of a bitter falling-out with his publisher Jacob Tonson (a businessman canny enough to have put the first copyright on Shakespeare’s plays), the poet John Dryden anathematized Tonson as having “two left legs and Judas-colored hair.” The association between red hair and Jewishness was so strong that Shylock was still being played in a red wig until Edmund Kean performed the part at Drury Lane in 1814.35 Even Charles Dickens, who could make as impassioned a case for the dispossessed and the minoritized as any writer before or since, in his 1838 novel Oliver Twistgave the world the character of Fagin, “a very old, shriveled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair.” Fagin’s character very likely contributed at least as much to the negative associations of red hair as the prejudices that gave us red-haired Judas in the first place.36

And how it still persists. The notorious “Ginger Kids” episode of South Park, broadcast in 2005, with Cartman proclaiming that “Gingers have no souls,” and can’t go out in sunlight (much to the fury of Kyle, possessor of a little-seen but magnificent red “Jewfro”), was only mining a much older tradition that Judas became a vampire and roamed the world as one of the undead. It’s pretty much a perfect example of how such folklore accretes, one layer around another, with our own age merely adding the most recent. In 1887 the French geographer Élisée Reclus recorded a Romanian belief that “if the deceased has red hair … he would come back in the form of dog, frog, flea or bedbug, and … enter into houses at night to suck the blood of beautiful young girls.” Vampires, so the thinking goes, are bloody; red is the color of blood, therefore redness must predispose one to vampirism.37 Indeed, until John Polidori, Lord Byron’s physician (and uncle, incidentally, of the pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti), published his genre-defining short story “The Vampyre” in 1819, rather than being the pale-skinned, dead-eyed aristo embodied by the mysterious Lord Ruthven, vampires were given away by the ruddiness of their countenance, and the way in which it suggested that they were gorged with blood.

In fact the association between red hair and vampires noted by Reclus might hark back to even older folklore, as far back as Byron’s Dacians, in fact, who were another Indo-European tribe in the region west of the Black Sea, and who may have been Thracian, originally, but with a greater influence from Scythia and the Celts. Or they may not. It’s as well to take all this with a pinch of salt, especially as one of the earliest writers to interest himself in this area was one Montague Summers (1880–1948). Summers’s personal shtick was to present himself as an academic witch-hunter, as opposed to the insane necromancer role inhabited by his notorious contemporary Aleister Crowley. (The two were acquainted, naturally enough—Summers was very possibly a Satanist himself, and very likely a pedophile as well.) Summers traces a Greek belief that those who commit crimes in life return as vampires to Slavic mythology, and he states that people with red hair and gray eyes are regarded as vampires in Serbia.38 There are other associations as well that help explain this particular bit of mythology. Judas’s putative wanderings as a vampire, rejected by both heaven and hell, mimic those of the Wandering Jew, while the vampire’s invulnerability might suggest the Old Testament narrative of the Mark of Cain. The silver bullet that supposedly downs witches, werewolves, and everything else that goes bump in the night could suggest the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas for betraying Christ. It all goes to show that you need neither the internet nor a butterfly to create a woozle.

The South Park “Ginger Kids” episode was the catalyst at a school in Yorkshire (more Northern redheads) for a seriously unpleasant “Kick a Ginger Day.” So if this story has a moral, it’s this: don’t show sophisticated satire on the stupidity of racism to the stupid. Or as Ruth Mellinkoff puts it, “Red hair is a minority feature, and this fact is sufficient to explain why it is used in the visual arts as a negative attribute and why it is still widely treated with suspicion. Antipathy to red hair, a red beard, and ruddy skin, is as simple, and as complicated as that.”



The French panel-painting is different from the German work in every way. It shows The Coronation of the Virgin and was commissioned for the Carthusian monastery of Chartreuse du Val de Bénédiction, Villeneuve-lés-Avignon, where it remains to this day, and where we can assume it has been since September 29, 1454, the delivery date specified in the contract for the work, drawn up between the clergyman who paid for it, one Jean de Montagny, and the painter, Enguerrand Quarton (Fig. 9).

The survival of Enguerrand Quarton’s contract for his Coronation, and the astonishing detail this document goes into about the commissioning of the work, is one reason why the painting is so well known today—among students and scholars of medieval art, that is. (The other and much better reason is of course the painting’s peerless, nigh-on flawless, beauty.) It is unusual for any document of this period to survive. Scholars of medieval art spend years scouring archives and parish records for a single mention of the artist they are researching, and the discovery of even the most abbreviated reference will generate years’ more speculation and analysis. In this context, the commissioning document for Quarton’s Coronation has the same kind of importance as the discovery of the El Sidrón family of Neanderthals. Among other details that the commission specifies are these: the overarching composition of the painting (there should be, it says, with unconscious poetry, “the form of Paradise”), the specific identities of the major saints to be included in that Paradise, that the Mass of St. Gregory was to be shown in the cutaway church lower left, and that in the representation of the Holy Trinity “there should not be any difference between the Father and the Son.” It specifies the payment stages and how long the artist would have to complete the work. It even records where the document was drawn up and signed: in the spice shop of one Jean de Bria. It describes what the Virgin Mary should be shown wearing (“white damask”), and that the Holy Trinity should be surrounded by cherubim and seraphim, as indeed in the finished work they are. Yet in all these specifications it leaves the details of the appearance of the Virgin, the central figure of the painting, to the artist, “as it will seem best to Master Enguerrand.”

In fact no fewer than six separate contracts for Enguerrand Quarton have been found, although only two of the works they describe have survived. We know or can extrapolate from the documents that he must have been born around 1420, that he was in Aixen-Provence in 1444, Arles in 1446, and rented a house in Avignon in 1447. He seems (unusually, for an artist of this or perhaps any period) to have delivered the works commissioned from him without default. As far as we can judge, he moves seamlessly from locale to locale and patron to patron, from one work to a larger work, and from one fee to a greater fee. His first commission in Avignon was for a Madonna of Mercy for the Celestine convent there (the painting is now in the Musée Condé in Chantilly); the Coronation followed five or six years later.39

Everything about this painting is special. There is its glorious condition, to begin with. There is Quarton’s palette—the fiery reds and deep cool blues for heaven, the pastels for our world beneath. There are the saints and priests and bishops, the holy martyrs, each one in this cast of hundreds differentiated from the next, each face as real and fully realized as any you might encounter in Avignon today. There are God the Son and God the Father, an almost identical pair of bearded brothers, clothed in red silk lined with green. And between them there is the Virgin, shown as seemed best to the artist. And how did she seem best to him? Not in white damask, for sure. Despite the stipulation in the contract her robe is cloth-of-gold, shot with a bold pattern of stylized blooms. And her hair is red.

There she kneels, on a kind of ermine of fluffy cloud and blue cherubs with her aristocratic, long-fingered hands crossed over her breast. Her head is tilted beneath the fluttering wings of the Holy Spirit and the weight of the crown being placed on her head by God the Father to one side and her son to the other. Her eyes are half lowered and her bright red hair is falling over her shoulders. In fact such a redhead is she that the color of her hair and the ivory of her skin can hold their own against even the background of burning seraphim. Nor as a redhead is she alone in Quarton’s works. The Virgin of his Madonna of Mercy also has red hair visible under the cloak with which she shelters the faithful. She also has the same oval face, point to her chin, long, straight nose, fine eyebrows, and narrow, slightly Asian-looking eyes. Was she simply Quarton’s ideal? Looking at the face of the Virgin in the Coronation, some might think they can see personality, challenge even, in the gaze with which she meets the viewer from under those half-lowered lids, a vivid comprehension of her role. Might that hair have been encountered for real in the streets of Avignon, six centuries ago?

Artists are among the most fervent admirers of red hair, and of the pale skin that so often goes with it. Hans Memling’s triptych of The Last Judgement of c. 1467–73 has two, if not more, proudly nude female redheads, having been greeted by St. Peter, in the crowd dignifiedly walking up the crystal stairs of the painting’s left wing to Paradise (Fig. 10).40 They have their backs to us, and their rippling red hair reaches to their hips. The Archangel Michael in the same work, dividing the saved from the damned, has red hair, too. Red hair on women, on angels, is a thing of beauty, so these medieval artists seem to be telling us, except of course (they add) when it’s not. So in these medieval paintings we have on the one hand the Queen of Heaven, in all her beauty and divinity, depicted as a redhead, and on the other hand we have Judas Iscariot, also portrayed as a redhead. Clearly in the one case red is good, and in the other it is about as bad as bad can be, and the question begging to be answered is why? Why is red hair so gendered? Why is it so different for girls?


Here is another painting: this time in the Musée Unterlinden in Colmar, and that enjambment of French and German in the museum’s name should hint at a good deal of Colmar’s history. Founded in the ninth century, the city nudges up against the Franco-German border, which has swung back and forth over Colmar like a jump rope. It was a part of the Holy Roman Empire until 1673, when it was conquered by Louis XIV. It came back under German rule in 1871, as a result of the Franco-Prussian War, returned to France in 1919, was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1940, and returned to France again in 1945. With so much war being waged around it for so long, you might think very little of old Colmar would survive, but you’d be wrong. The city is as pretty as a film set, its elaborate timber-framed architecture, with witch’s hat roofs and bold carved sandstone doorways, suggesting quite how much money might be made out of being a border trading post in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.41 The wines are delicious, the cuisine heart-stoppingly good, the people pragmatically bilingual. In 1834 it was the birthplace of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, designer of the Statue of Liberty, and in 1450 or thereabouts, the birthplace of Martin Schongauer, whom one may speak of as the foremost German artist of his generation, and whose workshop (every successful artist of the period created a workshop of assistants and apprentices) in c. 1480 created the panel painting shown in Fig. 11. It too blurs boundaries.

Once again, we are in a garden, but a very different one from that of Gabriel Angler’s Betrayal. The wattle fence is solid, the gate is of knotty two-by-four, painted with such solid realism you could build a copy of it today. Like the lych-gate to a church, it has a little roof. The sky is neither dark with night nor overpaint, but gold—this is a holy space—and the ground is green with grass as lush as fur. It might be a latter-day Garden of Eden. There is a rose bush, blooming, what may be a tree peony. There are birds in the branches of the trees. One looks like a wagtail and the other a chaffinch, in which case, because no detail in paintings of this period is accidental, the wagtail may symbolize earthly love and beauty (the bird was linked in Classical mythology to Aphrodite), while the chaffinch was a symbol of celibacy. They create a counterpoint to the figures in the foreground, the Adam and Eve of this place: a woman kneeling on the grass, her hair in thick coppery ringlets, and a man, looking back at her even as he walks away. The man is Christ, carrying the banner of the Church and dressed in a triumphant scarlet toga, arranged to display the sacrificial wound in his side (the same wound, incidentally, as the Dying Galatian—how these things repeat themselves); the woman is Mary Magdalene. This is the Noli me tangere, the moment after the Magdalene’s recognition of the risen Christ outside the tomb. For my money it is one of the most psychologically complex moments in all Western art, and the figure of the redheaded Magdalene, as Western art and literature has created her, one of the most multilayered and compelling—and, I would argue, the single most important reason why Western attitudes toward redheaded men and redheaded women diverge so thoroughly. Accidents of history have given redheaded men the stereotypes of barbarian warriors, clowns, milksops, arch-traitors, or violent God-damned brutes. It has given redheaded women Mary Magdalene.

The Magdalene as she has come down to us today is a conflation of at least four figures from the Biblical story. There was Mary Magdalene herself, present at both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, and the first to whom the risen Christ revealed himself. There was Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, who according to the Gospel of St. John had anointed Christ’s feet with perfume and wiped them with her hair. And there is the unnamed woman who in Luke’s gospel approaches Christ in the house of the Pharisee and does the same, and who is described only as “a sinner.” There was another Mary, whom Christ cured of demonic possession in the Gospel of St. Mark. Finally, Mary Magdalene’s medieval biography, in its best-known telling, by the thirteenth-century churchman Jacobus de Voragine, seems to owe something to the story of Mary of Egypt, another prostitute-saint, who wandered the desert clothed only in her hair.

The problem with the Bible, certainly for the early fathers of the Christian church, who saw truth as having to be one narrative or as being nothing at all, is that so often the sources they were teaching and preaching from were various and contradictory. Nor was this a problem confined to Christianity. The Talmudic Alphabet of Ben Sira, of the eighth to tenth century, conjures into being a first wife for Adam, pre-Eve, to explain the fact that in the Book of Genesis a “wife” is mentioned twice: first at Genesis 1:27:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

and then at 2:22:

and the rib, which the LORD God had taken from the man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.

Out of this minor inconsistency, and a good deal of padding from earlier Jewish and even Babylonian mythology, was created the legend of Lilith, the woman who, seeing herself as her husband’s equal (unlike docile Eve, borne of his rib), refuses to “lie beneath,” quarrels with Adam, and strikes out into the Babylonian wilderness on her own. Disputatious and disobedient therefore, and yes, to this day, very often depicted with red hair.

Such painstaking elaboration to explain what was basically even less than a typo might strike us as hardly worthy of the effort, but to the first Catholic popes of the post-Classical world, pressed by the Goths on one side and the power of Byzantium on the other, yes, it was. In 591 Pope Gregory the Great (he of the Gregorian chant) decreed in his Homily 33 that the unnamed sinner of the Gospel of St. Luke, Mary of Bethany, the woman cured of seven devils in the Gospel of St. Mark, and the Mary Magdalene of Christ’s earliest followers were one and the same.

She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark …

… It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.

And what a winning combination this sinful woman, this “peccable female,” was to prove to be.

According to Jacobus de Voragine in the Golden Legend, his best-selling compilation of the lives of the saints, Mary Magdalene was the daughter of wealthy parents, and “shone in beauty,” as de Voragine puts it (or rather as William Caxton translated him, in 1483). Her sins were her pleasure in her looks and her riches, and her giving up of her body to “delight,” rather than to straightforward prostitution. Female beauty, female wealth, and, above all, female delight were deeply suspect to the medieval Christian church (there are times when it feels they are hardly less so today), and sure enough, they are Mary Magdalene’s downfall. Inspired by the Holy Ghost, she is filled with remorse for her sins, renounces her wealth, buys a pot of the costliest ointment (it’s the object looking like a miniature fire hydrant by her knee in the Colmar panel) and, penitent and weeping, approaches Christ in the house of the Pharisee. There follows the well-known story of the tears, the feet, the ointment, the hair. After the Resurrection, in a crackdown by the authorities, Mary Magdalene and companions, including St. Maximin of Aix, are cast into a rudderless boat and set adrift, washing ashore at Marseille, where she begins to preach. There is the conversion of the local prince, there are miracles and visions, and once the prince has destroyed his heathen temples, Mary Magdalene retires to “a right sharp desert,” as Caxton feelingly describes it, where she spends the next thirty years in solitary contemplation, sustained only by her faith and by a daily angelic “assumption,” where choirs of angels sing to her and feed her. She dies after receiving a last communion from St. Maximin, is herself anointed “with divers precious ointments,” and buried. By the tenth century her relics were to be found many hundreds of miles inland, at Vézelay in Burgundy.

But holy relics were big business in the Middle Ages, and in 1279 Charles II, Prince of Salerno, announced that he had been told in a dream that the true relics of Mary Magdalene still lay within the chapel of St. Maximin, near Aix-en-Provence. Charles was involved for most of his life in the tripartite power plays between the kingdoms of Aragon, Naples, and Sicily for control of the latter (a centuries-long dispute that can be traced back to the death of Frederick II), but he was also Count of Anjou, whose territories included Aix, and the details of his dream, were they to be proved true, would give him a valuable degree of both divine and papal endorsement. So a tomb in the crypt of St. Maximin was opened, the relics were indeed discovered (unperished and exquisitely perfumed), and their approval by the pope, Boniface VIII, was sought and granted. Charles founded a massive pilgrim’s basilica on the site, the saint’s remains were enclosed in a gold reliquary, complete with rippling beaten gold hair, and the cult of the saint began to spread, first via Naples into Italy and then throughout Europe.

So much for the history. Let’s talk about the woman.


How does one begin to unpack the symbolism around Mary Magdalene, to analyze what it was that made her so significant, so ubiquitous and so beloved a figure in the medieval mind? Where do you start? There is her narrative to begin with—the wealth, the privilege, come to naught, rejected for something greater.42 This is a storytelling arc to which something very deep and very human in us still responds today—that combination of schadenfreude evolving into empathy and then even into admiration drives most reality TV, for example. There is her role, even her posture, as the tearful penitent, the seeker of reconciliation, the rebellious female brought to heel, contrite and come to make up, as if to a lover—on her knees at Christ’s feet, wiping them with her hair, or in its counterpart, kneeling in the garden, reaching up toward him—and the fact that this scene takes place in a garden makes her also, of course, the antidote to the first peccable female, Eve. Christ touches her on her forehead, which might be taken as an antidote to the Mark of Cain, as well. Then there is her own bittersweet agony of “Noli me tangere,” the role reversal of look-but-don’t-touch, the way in which, although it is the Magdalene kneeling, thus apparently in the subservient posture, her reaching out toward Christ might be seen as placing him in the role normally reserved in the medieval world for the unattainable female object of adoration or desire (you see what I mean about the Magdalene’s compelling nature?). And then there are her tears. The Magdalene weeps, she feels, she has human emotions and artists depict her as giving them vent—gathering her tresses around her in Titian’s Penitent Magdalene of 1533, now in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, brimming eyes turned up to heaven. Or, a hundred years earlier, in Jan van Eyck’s Crucifixion (Fig. 12, c. 1428, Metropolitan Museum of Art). Here the Virgin slumps bottom left, face hidden, literally shrouded in grief. Mary Magdalene is beside her with her back to the viewer (and yes, again, the fall of rippling red hair) raising her arms as if opening her body to the full agony of the scene, knitting her hands together, imploring heaven to intercede.

And then there’s her sensuality and human passion.


Red hair in your female mate might be a relative guarantee of successful childbirth and healthy heirs, but there is surely more at play here than that. Red is the color of blood. One of the most ancient slurs thrown at redheads is that they are the product of sex during menstruation, in itself one of the oldest of sexual taboos. And if red is the color of blood, it is thus also the color of passion—whether of rage or of erotic arousal. And it is the color of fire. “Do not,” thunders St. Jerome, in AD 403 in a letter to one Laeta, concerning her daughter Paula, “do not dye her hair red, and thereby presage for her the fires of hell,” thus neatly linking all three. There seems to be no specific historic connection between red hair and prostitution, but there is a connection with the color and the profession, going back to the Old Testament, the Book of Joshua, and Rahab, the whore with a heart of gold, another peccable female who redeemed herself by hiding Joshua’s spies in the roof thatch of her house in Jericho (more hair symbolism, one wonders?), and when Joshua’s troops sacked the city, they hung a red cord out of her window to identify her house, and thus she and her family were spared. It’s suggested that Rahab’s cord may be the derivation of the red-light district, as if the color and its other associations were not already sufficient explanation. Red stands out. If as a streetwalker you wish to be noticed, it’s a choice, and for many centuries it was also one of the hair colors easily achievable through natural dyestuffs, in this case henna. And it is the Magdalene’s color. Rogier van der Weyden, painting Mary Magdalene in the guise of a nun in c. 1445, in the left-hand panel of his Crucifixion, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, clothes her in black and hides her hair under a wimple, but nonetheless gives her a flash of red underskirt. You might speculate that artists also used the association to contrast the Magdalene with the blue robes of the Virgin. Equally it’s been argued that the color red in the Middle Ages symbolized caritas, or the love of God (this at the same time, mark you, as it was symbolizing the complete opposite for the figure of Judas). Then there are very definite associations between long or loosened hair and sex—medieval virgins wore their hair loose, wives (whether Gentile or Jewish) wore it bundled away—indeed, one means of shaming a suspected adulteress in Jewish society was by exposing and unloosing her hair. We all know the cliché of the dowdy secretary, relieved of her glasses and with her hair out of its chignon, before whom her (male) boss stands amazed, exclaiming “My God, Miss Peabody, you’re beautiful!” Is this where it began?43 It is as if by unloosing the hair, one was setting free the sexual nature, too, and prostitutes in this period did indeed wear their hair loose on the street, as no respectable, sexually mature woman would have done. (And there were a lot of them—in the sixteenth century the diarist Marin Sanudo estimated that in Venice there were 11,000 prostitutes working in a city with a total population of some 100,000 souls.) Prostitutes were tolerated in cities such as Venice as representing a lesser vice than that of sodomy, in an age when economic circumstance forced men to marry late, and sex outside marriage all too often resulted in children born outside marriage, too. This was also the period when syphilis first appeared in Europe, very probably brought back from the New World by Christopher Columbus’s crewmen, and it has also been suggested that the enormous popularity of Mary Magdalene as a saint mirrors the rise in the disease and in the number of prostitutes working the streets and at risk from it.

Yet connect the streetwalker’s attribute of long loosened hair with Mary Magdalene, make it red, and its meaning is turned upside down. Instantly it becomes not only how we recognize her but socially acceptable and even desirable. Piero di Cosimo’s Magdalene of c. 1500 would simply be a portrait of a woman reading at her window (here’s another attribute of Mary Magdalene that I like, the presentation of her as a thinking creature, a woman with a contemplative, hungry mind), were it not for the jar of ointment on the windowsill with her book, and her beautifully arranged and lushly painted long red hair, twined here with pearls. If the Magdalene is the subject, even her nudity is acceptable; and far from this being frowned on by society, is welcomed, is celebrated, putting it too strongly? Titian’s Magdalene is supposedly oblivious to her naked breasts and the nipples so teasingly presented through her protective gathering up of her hair, yet we, as the viewer, can hardly be imagined so to be. We are being encouraged by the artist to gaze to our satisfaction and enjoy. This is the Magdalene as Venus Pudica, drawing our attention to the very thing she pretends to hide.44 And so an age-old connection—one that we will return to again—between red hair in women and sexual desirability is pushed a little further.

And just to show how far it could be pushed, here is one final example of a painting of the Magdalene. In this she’s lost her jewels, her pot of precious nard, every stitch of clothing, all habitation, every connection to the world, but if she has her red hair, we recognize her, and her original audience (almost unbelievably) found her acceptable still. In 1876 Jules Joseph Lefebvre paints her alone and naked lying at the entrance to a cave (Fig. 13). Or rather, she is his excuse for painting as erotic a nude as a salon artist in the nineteenth century could expect to get away with, and still be invited to those salons, that is. Let’s be blunt: he paints a naked woman laid out across a rock. One of her legs is drawn up; if her audience (they should be so lucky) could have moved around her even by another step she would be as totally exposed as the model in Gustave Courbet’s infamous L’Origine du Monde (a painting which also has a unique place in the history of the redhead in art). She has a delectable body: slim-legged, round hipped, high-breasted, and her pose is calculated to display it at its most alluring. Her skin is pale, pale, pale; and Lefebvre has so arranged her that she doesn’t even have a face to trouble her audience with. She’s lost even that—one arm is raised to hide almost all her features but her forehead. So she’s not even a whole nude; she’s simply a body, save for two things: the stem of thorns that trails across her calf, and the immense spill, down to her waist, of her shimmering copper-colored hair.45

In the run of history redheaded women may have reason to be more grateful to Mary Magdalene than not, but we’re a long way from the Queen of Heaven, that’s for sure.

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