Each people has its own barbarians.


London, Christmas 1578, and the translator and editor Ralph Holinshed is learning just how difficult it can be to please all of the people all of the time.

In the best tradition of projects from hell, the one now causing him such concern shouldn’t even have been his. More than twenty-five years before, Holinshed, then a stripling of twenty or so, had been taken on as an assistant by one Reyner Wolfe, a Dutchman who had arrived in London in 1533 and set himself up (with some success) as a bookseller and printer. The publishing world was as hungry for the next big thing then as it is now, and in 1548, a year after the death of Henry VIII, and one year into the reign of his son, the boy-king Edward VI, Wolfe had hit upon a plan for a publication that would leave his rivals in the shade.

What Wolfe had come up with was the concept of a “Universal Cosmographie”—a kind of Tudor Wikipedia. This mighty work would contain in two volumes a complete and newly written account of the history of every nation then known, from the Biblical Flood up to Wolfe’s own present day. With what one can only view as heart-warming Anglophilia, Wolfe had decreed that volume one would be devoted solely to the history of Britain, while volume two would deal with the rest of the planet. Now, two and a half decades later, the project has finally been published. In the intervening years, King Edward VI has died at the age of fifteen and been succeeded by first his cousin Lady Jane Grey, the pitiful “Nine Days Queen,” then by his half sister Princess Mary, or “Bloody Mary,” as she became known. In 1558 Mary in turn had been followed to the throne by her half sister, Elizabeth I. And volume one of the “Cosmographie” had grown. The description and history of England, Scotland, and Ireland were now the entire work. And Wolfe too had died, in 1573, and his backers and his widow had handed the entire project, plus its contributors, over to Holinshed (with, one imagines, a mighty sigh of relief) to bring to completion. And astonishingly, twenty-five years after Reyner Wolfe first came up with the idea, Holinshed’s Chronicle, as it has ever since been known—one of the largest books that has ever been printed in England—is a best-seller.

Just as well, too. Best guess is that the work took its printer a year and a half simply to typeset. We can imagine many a quill-penned cost sheet being argued over, many a candle being burned low into the small hours, but nonetheless demand and interest were enough for its backers to press on. By 1584 it was clear that the original edition would sell out (a highly desirable state of affairs for any publication, then or now), and the Chronicle’s backers would set about creating a new and even more extensive revised version, which Shakespeare would famously use as a source for Macbeth, King Lear, and for his history plays. But all that is in the future. Right now, the Chronicle and all those involved in it are looking at a significant problem. On December 5, 1578, the Queen’s Privy Council bans all further sales of the book, and Richard Stanyhurst, one of Holinshed’s writers on the Chronicle, is summoned to appear before them. Plainly, something among the book’s two-and-a-half-million words has offended someone.

This was not quite such a heart-stopping prospect as it would have been during the reigns of Elizabeth’s father or her sister, Mary, when such a summons was all too often the start of a short walk to imprisonment and the gallows, but it would nonetheless have been enough to give any publisher a sleepless night, with nightmares of bonfires of books on Tyburn Hill, and the publisher himself facing a hefty fine or even worse. The consequences could be ruinous.

And as Holinshed must have been all too aware, the Chronicle could not but, in places, sail close to the wind. It came right up to the (then) present day; thus it not only had to deal with the execution of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, in 1536, it also had to reach some kind of a summation of the reign of her father (not to mention those of her half brother and half sister), when the dust was still settling from the social and religious upheaval of the Reformation, and with Protestant England still defining its position on the edge of a largely Catholic and more or less hostile Europe. With this the temper of the times, it’s unsurprising that the lines around who was your friend and who were your enemies were drawn in thick and black. This is one reason why Holinshed’s Chronicle is so much a part of our story here: its recording of Elizabethan England’s attitudes toward its “other,” in the shape of the Irish and the Scots. But before that there is its place in the iconography of one of the most famous redheads in history: Elizabeth herself.

One of the innovations of the 1577 Chronicle is that it includes illustrations—woodcuts—integrated at relevant points into the text. Thus we have Macbeth meeting the witches in the account of his reign, or in the “Description of Ireland,” an Irish chieftain feasting his boisterous retinue out-of-doors. Many of the illustrations are charmingly anachronistic (Macbeth’s witches wear a sort of Elizabethan masque costume; Macbeth himself is in ribbon breeches and a fashionable beaver hat), a fact that seems not to have troubled Holinshed at all. The images are there, so far as we can judge, simply to help the reader visualize what is described in the text, not to represent it. They also appear to have been pretty crudely made; in many cases the printer simply reused existing blocks. The artist or artists of those newly made for the work hasn’t been identified, although Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (c. 1520–c. 1590) has been suggested as their designer by some. Gheeraerts was noted as an etcher and printmaker and if he really did have a hand in the Chronicle’s woodcuts, there must have been a considerable distance between design and execution, because the illustrations in the Chronicle are definitely at the cheap and cheerful end of Tudor art. But then that is in the nature of woodcuts: reused, recut, and much repeated, they are the artistic equivalent of a game of telephone. Details get exaggerated, others are lost altogether. You can never be quite sure if what you see is what the artist originally intended.

For example, one of the most well-known portraits of Elizabeth, even among those for whom a copy of the Chronicle was out of reach, would have been the frontispiece to the Queen’s Prayer Book of 1569, showing Elizabeth herself at prayer. This was supposedly cut by one Levina Teerlinc. Elizabeth, unlikeher father, had no official artist (you can’t help but suspect this was because she wanted no one in charge of the queen’s image but the queen), but at this date Teerlinc was perhaps the closest thing to it, in which case the clumsiness of this image of the queen is all the more extraordinary Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, facing right, and neatly takingthe place that would otherwise have been reserved for the Virgin Mary in what has been called a Protestant Book of Hours, is shown in profile, with trademark nose, and a forehead as high and bald as an Aztec priest (Fig. 14) was fashionable to pluck the hairline, yes, but this is absurd. Yet whoever cut the image of Boudicca addressing her troops for the Chronicle had seen it, giving Boudicca the same profile (Fig. 15). They give her the loose, flowing hair of Herodotus’s description of the queen of the Iceni, but also that of Elizabeth’s own “Coronation portrait,” where her loosened hair signifies her youth and virginal status, and they place a knopped crown, with open arches and very similar to the one Elizabeth wears in that painting, on Boudicca’s head.46 There is no attempt to represent Boudicca in Celtic robes, any more than the men-at-arms she is addressing are made to look like Celtic warriors. Boudicca wears what looks like a sumptuous embroidered Elizabethan gown, while her soldiers are armored as would have been any crack regiment in Elizabeth’s own army. It’s difficult to imagine any Elizabethan looking at this image and not seeing in it a reference to their queen and their armored men of war, defying not the might of Imperial Rome but that of Hapsburg Spain. England was as terrified of invasion in 1578 as it would be in 1940. And if it wasn’t the Scots, threatening to let the French in down the chimney, it would be the Irish, letting the Spaniards in through the back door.47


Fig. 14 The frontispiece to the Protestant Queen’s Prayer Book of 1569, showing Elizabeth I at prayer, in a woodcut supposedly by Levina Teerlinc. These images took the place in the book of traditional illuminations. Their presence is telling evidence of how the Anglican Church was still feeling its way toward a public image.


Fig. 15 Boudicca addressing her troops from Holinshed’s Chronicles of 1577. Note the very Elizabethan-looking armor on her men-at-arms. The hare is being used as a means of prognostication; the little scene in the tent in the background seems to record the treatment of the queen and her daughters at the hands of the Romans. But to the Irish of this period, the invaders were the English themselves.


By 1578 Elizabeth I, also known as “Gloriana” and “the Virgin Queen,” the archetype of a Protestant monarch, let alone of a Protestant female monarch, was in the twentieth year of her reign and the forty-fifth year of her life. This was way past one’s prime as a woman in the sixteenth century, yet to look at Elizabeth’s portraits, you would never know it. It may have been quietly accepted by her subjects that their queen would never marry, that she was beyond the age when there would be any Tudor heirs, just as it seems to have been apparent to all by this point that Protestant England was heading slowly and steadily into war with Europe’s superpower, Catholic Spain. According to Elizabeth’s image and her image-makers, however, none of this had happened. Time had stood still. The queen was still as young and wrinkle-free, as limber, as on her accession day. Only the magnificence, if one may put it that way, of her presence had increased as the years had passed.

One of the earliest portraits of Elizabeth was a gift, it is thought, from her to her brother, Edward, and shows her as a girl of sixteen or so. Psychologically it is extremely astute: Elizabeth looks both tightly wound and incapable of being fooled by anything.48 It shows her with smooth, gingerish hair, parted in the center (although more or less hidden under her Tudor gable-style headdress), and with her mother’s dark brown eyes—sadly wary in their expression, in her daughter’s case. Anne Boleyn had been a glossy brunette but obviously must have been carrying that redheaded gene; Elizabeth’s red-haired father, Henry VIII, was, as Holinshed describes him, “in his latter days, somewhat gross, or as we terme it, bourly.” Burly, that would be, but with a hint of other meanings to it, too: “boorish” being one, and boar-like another—short-tempered, unpredictable, highly dangerous, and like Chaucer’s miller, with his inner nature announced by his red hair and bristles. Given that he had both beheaded her mother and declared her illegitimate, you might have thought Elizabeth would have been tempted to distance herself visually from her father, but no. Elizabeth’s public image, once she became queen, is a celebration both of redheadedness and of the pale skin that so often goes with it, and it is an elective one. Once the gable headdress was out of fashion, Elizabeth’s hair is as public as the rest of her—curled and tight to the head, almost boyish, when she first became queen, in keeping with the somewhat masculine fashion for tight doublets and high collars in the early Elizabethan period. Then, as Gloriana’s wardrobe became ever more elaborate, those tight, tight curls ascend to heights that are almost Pharaonic (Fig. 16). Ordinary people did not have hair like this, any more than ordinary people wore foot-high collars to set off their head with the spread of gauzy wings. Of course they did not; they were not the queen. Unsurprisingly, most of these later hairstyles, glinting with diamonds and pearls, are wigs. Unless Elizabeth wished to spend half the day under the hands of her hairdresser, wigs were the only way to achieve such a coiffure, and in any case, how would natural hair support the weight of those jewels?49

Bewigged, therefore (she is said to have owned eighty), Elizabeth might have sported hair of any color she wished, yet she chose red—rarely a popular choice, and most likely more popular in England in her day than at any time up until our own. Red hair and pale skin were the Elizabethan brand, if you like, and those courtiers not blessed genetically, and all those many more wishing to copy the fashions of the ruling class, might dye their beards red if men (there is a splendid portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger of Elizabeth’s favorite, the Earl of Essex, with a fashionably square-shaped, fox-red beard), or if women, change the color of their hair in order to emulate the queen with the use of such folksy tinctures as rhubarb juice, or the rather less attractive-sounding oil of vitriol (that would be sulphuric acid to the rest of us). Elizabeth is even, at one time, said to have dyed the tails of her horses orange.50 For the pale skin there was of course white lead, splendid for giving the skin a satiny white finish, and horribly injurious to health in any degree of contact whatsoever. We can hardly assume the Elizabethan court was ignorant of this, as the hair fell out and the skin withered, and the headaches and tremors took possession of the first ladies-in-waiting to succumb to lead poisoning. But for Elizabeth, the use of such cosmetics may have been a necessity. She may not have naturally enjoyed the ethereal, moonlike pallor with which she is depicted, and which so often accompanies red hair. In 1557 the Venetian ambassador Giovanni Michieli described the queen-in-waiting as having “good skin, although swarthy.” Another Italian diplomat, Francesco Gradenigo, describes her in 1596 as “ruddy in complexion.” Possibly Elizabeth was sensitive about her apparent high color; Sherrow’s Encyclopedia of Hair records her as having asked whether her hair was superior to that of her cousin and rival, Mary, Queen of Scots (in 1578, languishing in the eleventh year of captivity in England), and if her skin was fairer. In her happier youth, Mary, Queen of Scots, had been married to Francis II of France, and there is a memorable portrait of her painted by the French artist Francois Clouet in 1560, showing her in all-white mourning following the deaths of her own mother and of her father-in-law, the French king Henry II. It shows her with skin almost as pale as her mourning veil and hair of a very dark red. However on her execution in 1587 at the age of forty-five, it was discovered that Mary too had resorted to wearing a wig, and that her natural hair was by then a close-cropped gray—“as gray as one of threescore and ten years old,” in the words of Robert Wynkfielde, a witness to her death. You wonder how acutely aware these two women, cousins and once sister queens of sister kingdoms, might have been of each other’s looks.

But why would Elizabeth create an image so frankly outlandish and dangerous to maintain? Part of the explanation might lie with Elizabeth’s own complex psychology. She had been declared illegitimate by her father; therefore to parade his red hair so prominently was one way of giving the lie to that. Her mother had been beheaded and Elizabeth herself, during the reign of her sister, Mary, came close to the same fate. In Elizabethan portraiture there is a great deal of attention devoted to the head and the surroundings and the accoutrements of the head—jewels in the hair, earrings, the framing element of the famous Elizabethan ruffs of the 1580s, which put the head almost on a platter, John the Baptist–style; and then the enormous stand-away, look-at-me collars of the 1590s.

Another part of the reason may lie within the lines of the “Hymn to Astraea,” a grandiloquently awful poem written for Elizabeth in 1599 by Sir John Davies, to celebrate the anniversary of her accession.51 Davies was an Elizabethan heavyweight in every sense, and his flattery of the queen is not so much laid on as ladled:

But here are colours, red and white

Each line and each proportion right;

These lines, this red and whitenesse

Have wanting yet a life and light

A Majestie and brightnesse …

And so it goes on. There are twenty-six of these hymns, and the first letters of each line in each of them do indeed form an acrostic of the queen’s name. But the colors Davies singles out as “being” Elizabeth—red and white—are also the colors not only of the Tudor rose, the imprimatur of the Tudor dynasty, but equally of the flag of St. George, the patron saint of England (as he is to this day) and the only saint whose banner remained in use in England after the break with Rome. The poet Edmund Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene, of 1590, would use the same badge of a “bloudie crosse” to distinguish its hero, the Redcrosse Knight, from the various personifications of foreign villainy that pop up throughout the poem. It is, admittedly, hard to read this work today without Monty Python’s “Knights who say Ni!” creeping into your thoughts, but it still does a pretty good job of conjuring up Elizabethan England’s xenophobia. And its queen’s royal branding, in red and white (remembering also that white was the color of virginity, for a Virgin Queen), and the magnificence of her image-making, created an aligning of sovereign, symbol, and state of a different order to anything that had gone before. Ironically, in later portraits of Elizabeth, with a few rare exceptions, the splendid clothes and the jewels may be the only elements painted from life—the ivory face and crown of red hair are an icon, mass-produced, and instantly recognizable even today. The “Elizabeth I” brand is by that measure one of the most long-lived and successful in history.

Only toward the end of her life, when she was poignantly described by Sir Walter Raleigh as “a lady whom time has surprised,” does Elizabeth seem to have varied the formula, with wigs just as high but paler, fairer in color: “her hair,” so the German lawyer Paul Hentzner describes her, at Greenwich in 1598, “an auburn color, but false.” In this case Hentzner seems to have been using the word “auburn” in its original sense of brownish-white. The term that would later become so handy and socially acceptable a catch-all for hair with any reddish tint to it at all first entered the English language around 1430, and comes from the Latin alburnus, or white. Only in the seventeenth century did its sense change, and the notion of it meaning a color more brown than pale become common. Ever since then it has been red hair’s aristocratic first cousin, but the color Hentzner meant is probably that shown in Robert Peake’s Procession Picture of the queen of 1601 (Fig. 17). Perhaps the pallor of seventy-year-old skin prompted the change, when the contrast with a red wig began to look too harsh. Elizabeth understood her coloring. Even today, any redheads wishing to know which colors they should favor in their wardrobe need look no further than her portraits.

The Chronicle, then, was created at a time when there was a sense of Englishness as being more than nationality, of it standing for some nebulous but estimable set of qualities that governed not merely a man’s (or woman’s) tongue but his or her beliefs and attitudes and values. It contains something of everything Elizabethan England knew or believed of itself. It is, if you like, a stethoscope, laid against the Tudor heart. Let the pope excommunicate us all (Elizabeth herself had been excommunicated in 1570); we knew better—not for nothing was the so-called Act of Supremacy so called.52 There was no more Mary Magdalene to bring your woes to, no more pope, no more Church of Rome. Not for nothing, either, had a work that was to have recorded the whole world become one that devoted itself instead to describing one rainy island for the delectation of its subjects. Here too Holinshed caught the temper of the times: the narrative arc of the Chronicle is upward to the (then) present day, the “perfect monarchie,” the happy ending represented by Elizabeth I—if, that is, this halcyon moment, this little earthly paradise, could only be preserved from its enemies, both abroad and those rather nearer home.


Holinshed’s writer for the Scottish chapters of his Chronicle was one William Harrison. Harrison’s life epitomizes the seesawing nature of what it was to be English during this period. Born in 1534, he had been raised a Protestant; converted to Catholicism while a student at Oxford during the reign of Mary I; converted back again slightly before her death, and by 1559 was establishment enough to have been granted his first living as a clergyman. Harrison writes rather daintily, as if he were in conversation with his readers. For him, where Scotland was concerned, it was a question of united we stand:

If the kingdoms of Britain had such grace given them from above as they might once live in unity, or by any means be brought under the subjection of one Prince, they should ere long feel such a favour in this amity that they would not only live frankly on their own without any foreign purchase of things, but also resist all outward invasion, with small travail and less damage…. 53

He sounds like Herodotus bemoaning the state of Thrace, and it shouldn’t be surprising that he does. Scotland and Ireland were as much England’s “other” as Thrace had been to Greece. And there is that fear of invasion again. Sadly for Harrison, there was not much to be expected of England’s closest neighbor; for him, the abiding characteristic of the Scots is that they are drunks. Although he describes them as otherwise “courageous and hardy…. They cannot refrain from the immoderate use of wine,” with the result that “if you knew them when they be children and young men, you shall hardly remember them when they be old and aged … but rather suppose them to be changelings and monsters.” These are the lowland Scots. Highlanders fare rather better, being described as “less delicate and not so much corrupted by strange blood and alliance” (that strange alliance would be the one with the French). They are “more hard of constitution … watch better and abstain long … bold, nimble and more skillful in wars”—all qualities, we may reflect, that would be sorely needed by the Scots and sorely tested in the following centuries of English rule. The one thing Harrison does not do, however, which may seem unexpected, is castigate the Scots on the basis of their hair color.

In fact there is little in the way of description of the appearance of peoples or individuals of any sort in the Chronicle. William Rufus is described as “William the Red,” with some pointed reflections on his character. King Henry II of England, invader of Ireland in 1171, has his “rednesse” recorded for posterity (red hair and ruddy skin; very suitable for such a warmonger of a king), but beyond those two, not much. There might have been more in the description of Boudicca, but the Chronicle, while leaving one in no doubt of the impression a queen might create upon her subjects—“Her mightie tall personage, comely shape, severe countenance and sharp voice … her brave and gorgeous apparel also caused the people to have her in great reverence”—has her as a blonde, with “her long and yellow tresses of hair reaching down to her thighs.” A matter of translation, perhaps, or you might wonder whether this wasn’t simply being politic. With an actual red-haired queen on the throne, it would hardly increase your success as a publisher to describe her hair color as being a characteristic of the treacherous barbarian, or even worse, of a queen who lost her life to an invading force. However, there is a third possibility. The evidence is scanty and very circumstantial, but it is intriguing. It might just be that red hair in the sixteenth century was less common in Scotland than it is today.

John Munro, he of those opinions on the coloring of the Vikings, also writes in 1899 of the Scots as being “of all complexions, from very dark to very fair, with a dash of red hair, about 4–5 percent more or less, in different localities, that is to say rather more than in England.” That is to say, significantly less than the 13 percent of the population estimated to sport red hair in Scotland today. This would rather give the lie to all those tedious reports of redhead extinction. While in 1911 the Irish journalist T. W. Rolleston, in his Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race, would write that “the prevalence of red hair among the Celtic-speaking people is, it seems to me, a most striking characteristic … eleven men out of every hundred whose hair is absolutely red,” suggesting that the present proportion of redheads in Ireland hasn’t reduced by a single percentage point in the past hundred years, either.

Perhaps the number of redheads in Ireland in the sixteenth century was also lower than it is today. Richard Stanyhurst (in December 1578 awaiting that nerve-racking interview with Elizabeth’s Privy Council) describes the Irish thus. First he accuses them of having the Spanish as their “mightiest ancestors,” therefore being pretty much born traitors. Then, he says, they are uncouth, they live like animals, and they corrupt the English language—making a “mingle-mangle” of it, in Stanyhurst’s own memorable phrase—and without constant vigilance do the same to the manners and morals of any of the English sent to dwell among them.54 (The poet Edmund Spenser was even less pleasant, warning against the use of Irish wet nurses, as if barbarism was something that might be sucked in with a mother’s milk.) The description goes on; the Irish are “religious, frank, amorous, irefull … very glorious, many sorcerors, excellent horsemen, delighted with wars … the men clean of skin and hew, of stature tall, the women well-favored” and “proud of their long, crisped bushes of hair.” But there is not a mention of that hair’s color as being red. And Stanyhurst should have known what he was talking about; he, like Edmund Spenser, was Anglo-Irish, one of those many whose ancestors had been shipped in from England or Scotland to occupy lands around Dublin, in a piece of thickheaded imperialism that un-worked in Ireland in the same way as it would on the West Bank four hundred years later. English foreign policy in Ireland was a disaster, had been for centuries. No wonder the Privy Council was so sensitive about it. No wonder they thundered on about “report of matters that … are not meet to be published in such sort” being put out there for discussion in a book that “falsely recorded events.” One suspects rather that Stanyhurst unwittingly recorded events all too well.

Or we might simply need to adjust our vision and read the Chronicle as an Elizabethan would have done. Red hair might not be made much of in its pages, but the Scythians and their “red haire” certainly were. This is the description from the Chronicle of the first inhabitants of Britain:

The people called Picts invaded this land, who are judged to be descended of the nation of the Scythians, near kinsmen to the Goths, both by country and manners, a cruel kind of men and much given to the wars. This people … entering the Ocean sea after the manner of rovers, arrived on the coasts of Ireland, where they required of the Scots new seats to inhabit in: for the Scots which (as some think) were also descended of the Scythians did as then inhabit in Ireland….

And this is what an Elizabethan understood of the Scythians. This is from King Lear, which, with Macbeth, could claim to be the Chronicle’s greatest legacy:

The barbarous Scythian

Or he that makes his generation messes

To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom

Be as well neighbour’d, pitied, and relieved,

As thou my sometime daughter.

And here is Edmund Spenser, again going even further: “I Suppose,” he says, the Irish “to be Scithians.” They are “the most barbarous Nation in Christendom,” Spanish blood (the ancestors of the Irish, remember, along with the Scythians) “is the most mingled, most uncertain, and most bastardly,” and as for Scotland, it and the Irish are “one and the same.”55 It is deeply depressing to read the same piece of nonsense linking the Irish, the Scots, and the Scythians being put forward by John Munro three hundred years later. Tying himself up in knots to account for all those random redheads, Munro decides that immigrants from Scythia first populate Ireland, then leave it, after exactly 216 years, to populate Thrace, then return to Ireland and after that people Scotland, too. Perhaps one shouldn’t put too much trust in his math, either.

Might there have been fewer redheads in Scotland and Ireland then than there are now? Given the workings of genetic drift, it’s certainly possible. But whether red hair, rather than general barbarity, was associated with either nationality at this date, the reviling and denigrating of the Scots and Irish by the English is beyond doubt. Edmund Spenser would have cleared the Irish from Ireland entirely—language, culture, customs, and people. The Chronicle played its part in enshrining their outsider status, and the red hair of the Celts inherited and suffered under these same attitudes as well. One red-haired queen did not redress the balance.

“A conquest,” in Stanyhurst’s view, “ought to draw with it three things, to wit, law, apparel, and language.” Neither conquest nor union with Ireland or Scotland drew with it from England any such things. What Scotland and Ireland, misprized for centuries, drew from their relationship with England goes on to become a part of the history of red hair in the New World as much as in the Old. As for Stanyhurst, he survived his interview with the Privy Council, but on emerging from it he promptly left the country, never to return. Some years later he was working in the alchemical laboratory at the Escorial of Philip II of Spain, the king who was to launch the Armada against England in 1588. One wonders if Stanyhurst shared with the king his theories on Spain’s links to those Irish barbarians. He ended his days as chaplain to the Catholic Archduke Albert of Austria in the Netherlands.

Holinshed, meanwhile, the poor soul, having patiently excised all those pages from his Chronicle that had so provoked the wrath of the Privy Council, retired to the country and died two years later.


Sometime after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, Macbeth was revised by Shakespeare’s near contemporary, the playwright Thomas Middleton, and among his additions was a song, “Black Spirits.” This seems to have been lifted from Middleton’s own play The Witch of 1615. By now there was a Scottish king, James I and VI (son of Mary, Queen of Scots), on England’s throne, who was known for his fascination with witchcraft.56 Black magic was, well, the new black.

The lines Middleton inserted into Shakespeare’s Macbeth include the usual Addams Family list of ingredients: blood of a bat, libbard’s (leopard’s) bane, juice of a toad, oil of an adder, and “three ounces of the red-haired wench.” Scholars have speculated that the red hair is to be read as an allusion to lechery, or as an allusion to Jewishness and the Jews’ anti-Christian rites, or as an allusion to poisonous substances, or as all three.57 But this is Macbeth, the Scottish play. It might simply be a rare touch of local color. It might also be playing with another ancient prejudice directed at red hair—that it is somehow connected to witchcraft and the supernatural.

The figure of red-haired Lilith today has abandoned her Babylonian wastes for a shabby hinterland somewhere between mythology and pornography, but originally conflated with the striges—vampirelike demons of Ancient Greece—she killed children in their cots and seduced men in their sleep. Wet dreams were Lilith’s doing, and she might also leave her victims impotent or even cause their penises to disappear entirely (still an accusation thrown at those suspected of witchcraft in Africa today). Woman as sexual predator has always terrified and aroused in equal measure, and witches have always been bewitching, in art and popular culture at least. The reality was rather different.

The handbook in the early modern age for witchery and witch-finders both was the Malleus Maleficarum, written in 1486 by one Heinrich Kramer, aide to the Archbishop of Salzburg, with another German clergyman, Jacob Sprenger, as a kind of publicist and PR man for the work. The pair of them were charlatans to a degree unrivaled even by Aleister Crowley and Montague Summers in the twentieth century. Unsurprisingly, Summers was the work’s translator into English. Thanks to him, to this day you will find the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches as it is known, cited as an authority for tales of young, nubile, redheaded, green-eyed women being dragged off to horrible deaths at the stake. But if you read his translation, or as much of it as you can bear, what you find is a work of unrelenting misogyny that held all women in equal contempt, whatever their hair color might have been. Witches, it says, are driven by lust, and those most likely to be witches are adulteresses, fornicators, and concubines; and those most likely to be victims of the unwanted attentions of the devil are “women and girls with beautiful hair; either because they devote themselves too much to the care and adornment of their hair, or because they are boastfully vain about it.” It certainly doesn’t have to be red.

In reality it was pretty much certain to be gray or even white. While desirable young women may be depicted in the art of the period as witches, as in the works of Hans Baldung Grien in particular, and even with the Chronique de France of 1492 recording the Frankish kings as burning red-haired women as witches seven hundred years before, in the great witch hunts in Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, those going to the stake or the gallows on a charge of witchcraft were almost bound to be poor, elderly, widowed, and unprotected.58 This was recognized even at the time. Reginald Scot (c. 1538–99) writes in his Discoverie of Witches, a work that bravely set out to prove there was no such thing, that “one sort of such as are said to be witches, are women which are commonly old, lame, bleare-eyed, pale, foul, and full of wrinkles, poor, sullen, superstitious or papists, or such as know no religion, in whose drowsy minds the devil hath gotten a fine seat.”

The beauteous redheaded victims of European witch hunts exist in our imaginations only, and in so imagining them, we are being seduced ourselves by an association between otherness and other-worldliness, between red hair and supernatural forces, and between red hair and erotic circumstance that simply refuses to quit: there was red-haired Malachai in Stephen King’s Children of the Corn in 1984; there is the sorceress Melisandre, the Red Woman of Game of Thrones; and in 2014 the casting director of The Last Witch Hunter was advertising for a redhead with a pale complexion as the movie went into production.59 How very confusing all this can be.

Or as Obadiah Walker put it, “Each man disparageth his fellow-creature, and gratifies his haughty humor in the derision of his brother.” Obadiah Walker was Master of University College, Oxford, from 1676 to 1688, where supposedly his melancholy ghost still walks. He lost his post for refusing to abandon his Catholic faith, so knew more about the workings of discrimination than many another. In his Periamma epidemion, or, Vulgar errours in practice censured of 1659, Obadiah writes of “a common yet causeless calumniation: viz. the vilifying of red-hair’d men, the putting of disesteem upon persons, merely because of the native color of the excrement of the head.” He means the hair, but you do begin to think sometimes that the phrase might as justly be applied to the historic bigotry and prejudice in our thinking. “I could wish,” he says “that men would not hoodwink themselves with their own prejudice.” But they do so still. As far as that as a signifier of barbarity goes, it’s global.

And yet, and yet…. If “other” repels, it also fascinates. There is always that contradictory desire within us to stand out. Even in the eighteenth century, when any hair color other than gray was as unfashionable as could be, when every head wore a wig, and every wig looked like powdered topiary, there was a moment in 1782, recorded by the diarist John Crozier, when despite “much aversion as people in general have to red hair, the appearance thereof was so much admired that it became the fashion, for all the Beaus and Belles wore red powder.”60 Nor is the fashion for red hair restricted to the West. Something very similar to the craze for red hair in London in the 1780s happened in Japan at the end of the twentieth century, and the Japanese had otherwise reviled red hair for centuries.

When the first Westerners set foot in Japan in 1543 (the same year, incidentally, that the nine-month-old Mary Stuart was crowned Queen of Scots) the Japanese were appalled by them. These crude, semi-civilized creatures, who ate with their fingers and had all the self-control of children, were immediately compared by the genteel and sophisticated Japanese to monkeys and monsters, to legends of primitive wildmen, covered in fur, and all such, without any reference to their actual appearance, had been lumped together under the label of “red-haired barbarians.” Body hair and hair on the head in any color other than Japanese black became the dominant symbol of otherness in Japan for centuries.61 Yet in a society where the term ang-mo, or “red-haired ape,” is still bandied around as an insult to foreigners, in the 1990s Japanese teenagers began dying their hair all shades of red and brown.

This fashion for chapatsu, or “tea-color” hair, became a national controversy. Questions were asked in Parliament. Schools created “hair police,” and even now students with naturally brown or curly hair can be asked to prove it should not be naturally black and straight.62 Japan is a conservative and very homogenous society, and some of its teenage fashions consequently can seem over the top (an accompanying fad was for glittery stickers of fake tears pasted to many tea-haired teens’ cheeks). But we are all barbarians to someone. In the 1930s, Japanese hairiness became a major feature of the anti-Japanese propaganda coming out of China. As Professor Alf Hiltebeitel puts it, “Nothing is ordinary about hair. It gets into everything, but whatever it gets into, it never seems to be explained in the same way; rather it always seems to be used differently to explain something else.” And queen or commoner, we all want to shake a brighter tailfeather than the rest.

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