Milliken — Ambiguous Locks (Geldof)

ambiguous-locks-an-iconology-of-hair-in-medieval-art-and-literatureRoberta Milliken

Ambiguous Locks: An Iconology of Hair in Medieval Art and Literature

Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2012. 300 pp. $65.00. ISBN 9780786448708

[Ed. note: this book was offered to DRM despite its non-military topic, but see the discussion of Joan of Arc in the closing paragraphs.]

Gender studies, with its methodological roots in the social sciences, suffers from a reputation for superficiality when applied to questions of the distant past, at least in the eyes of some general readers of history. But considering the historicity of sexual difference, and all the social and cultural relationships that have been built on those differences, it is hard to make that charge of superficiality stick. The history of sexuality and gender is a vast and complicated concept, particularly in its interconnections with art, literature, law, and the construction of social order. Its study often demands equally complex methodologies and research strategies,[1] and this scholarly furniture can intimidate the most determined readers of academic history. Roberta Milliken’s topic could lend itself to dense, theory-laden, treatments in the mode of social history, but this book is rigorous in its scholarly standards and is still accessible and readable while being an excellent discussion of a complex concept.

Ambiguous Locks is aimed at a broadly academic audience, but it keeps a balance between theory, analysis, and historical context. This is a compelling study of a facet of medieval history and ideas of social identity that maintain a continuity with the Classical past and the post-medieval future. Milliken demonstrates, with the help of an overwhelming weight of period sources, that the moral and spiritual values attached to women and their hair have a long and continuous history in the West.

Much historical writing boils down to questions about continuity and change. How were things different in the past? How are things the same? Milliken’s initial interest in the visual and literary depiction of women’s hair began with a study of Mary Magdalene and the persistent continuity in the use of specific literary and iconographic symbols in her depiction. Milliken believes that, “this imagery… spoke not only to the character of the figure represented but also to the understandings of what it meant to be a woman” in the medieval and early modern periods (1). Women’s hair became one of the most important and obvious means of evaluating moral and social virtue and value. That embodiment of value in hair and physical attractiveness continues to hold great contemporary relevance [think about how pundits responded to rock stars whose hair transgressed gender norms, such as Sinead O’Connor, Annie Lennox, or Grace Jones –ed.]. “Unfortunately,” Milliken writes, “appearance continues to play an enormous role when it comes to establishing a woman’s basic worth in our society. We worship at the altar of beauty,” and we do so with the same ambivalent mix of contradictions that are the foundation of Classical and medieval ideas about gender and social order (258). It is that continuity in the social and spiritual measures of value attached to hair that is the focus of Milliken’s study.

Chronologically, Milliken is focused on the long medieval period, but she includes a considerable amount of content from pre-Christian sources. She does not follow the topic into the Reformation, and although readers may be curious about change and continuity within that period, the scale of the study, even within these temporal boundaries, is complex enough. Milliken has divided the book into three parts, each with detailed sub-chapters that explore the period sources, commentaries, and contemporary studies about gender, women, and hair.

Milliken begins part 1 with historical and methodological contexts and background. Her introduction to the gendered approach to history is a model of balanced theory and argument. Gender studies has a vast literature, despite its relative youth as a methodological approach to history. Milliken walks the reader through the historiography and theory with great care, keeping her focus historical and centred on key sources that will re-appear, frequently, throughout the book. Central to these early chapters are “medieval and early modern responses to the question ‘What is women?’” which are traced to “ancient thinkers [and how they] conceived femininity.” (13) Those ancient foundations are the androcentric misogyny of Plato, Aristotle and Galen, given authority through their philosophical writing. These Greek sources, filtered through Latin commentaries, were mixed with the works of the Old Testament during the Patristic period, particularly the writing of St. Paul. The Church fathers maintained continuity through St. Augustine and, in particular Tertullian, who built a body of literature that added weight to ancient philosophical and divine authorities that defined the mature Christian definitions of women. “Christianity… deemed highly revolutionary in its beginnings… assimilated many of the principles regarding gender” from ancient sources (2).

In these early chapters Milliken provides many examples of this philosophical system in action. Women are presented, and judged, on their appearances, and sometimes the only feature of importance worthy of mention, is hair. So great was the symbolic value of hair, some notable women, such as Helga, in Gunnlaug’s Saga who’s great beauty is described only through her hair (41). Defining a woman’s moral value through her hair became a literary and artistic short-hand, indicating moral qualities that was pervasive and consistent across longs periods of time. Long, loose, and uncovered hair was the mark of the virginal maid. Covered hair was the necessary indicator of the chaste and loyal wife or the pious nun. But there was a great deal of ambiguity in this system of measuring and indicating a woman’s social value. Loose hair was also the mark of the unrestrained and sinful woman, a woman who was a direct and mortal threat to male piety.

Part 2, which deals with language of hair and the bad woman, makes that ambivalence abundantly clear. The sins of lust and vanity were popular topics for religious writers. Women and their hair were easy targets for moral polemics. Milliken includes a fascinating discussion of the adaptation of the Greek sirens into the moralistic Christian literature, creatures that never carried any of the sinful baggage, imputed by later writers. Milliken also explains, in great detail, how the Church developed its position on Eve, turning her into a prototypical bad woman. These chapters make for challenging reading, not because they are too dense, or complicated, or academic; Milliken’s writing is straightforward and competent. Rather, these chapters are a challenge because of the many examples of highly influential and completely unsubtle misogyny and sexism within the period sources. As distasteful to the modern reader as this material is, Milliken is admirably restrained in her handling of period writers, never judging or commenting on the moral or ethical nature of the material from outside. Instead, readers are left to make those ahistorical judgements themselves. What Milliken does do is point out the internal contradictions of the period texts and how these definitions caused their own, problematic, internal conflicts. This is particularly apparent in part 3.

When the early Church writers incorporated the classical sources into their ideas about women, they painted themselves into a bit of a cognitive corner. Women, as understood by the interpreters of scripture, were almost inherently bad. Women were defined as secondary and inferior to men and were largely deprived of any notion of individual agency or even personality. Even passive women, by their very flawed nature, were a threat to male virtue. Confronted with the example of Mary, the mother of Christ, these early writers, and those they influenced, went to great lengths to work around the negative baseline that defined women such that Mary’s own special moral place could still fit the Christian world-view. One example Milliken explores is how writers and artists handle the necessity that Mary be beautiful. Physical beauty was a necessary indicator of moral value, but that invited the inherent threat of lust, also inseparable from beauty. Some writers build up a structure of moral support that defused the risk of lust, while others such as Jacobus de Voragine, simple argued that Mary’s profound moral potency converted lustful thoughts into chased adoration (183). Similar processes of regulating and compensating for inherent sinfulness in women, features in hagiography and examples of other women considered morally good.

In one of the last chapters Milliken studies one woman’s conduct and historical legacy, which is an exceptional example of complex collections of the moral and social values attached to hair; that of Jeanne d’Arc. Joan of Arc is perhaps just as well known for her transvestism as for her military and political leadership. Milliken points out that the judges, who were well informed of the various activities and external traits that identified the bad women, were concerned with her wearing of men’s clothing and her masculine hair, not because Joan attempted to impersonate a man; that had been forgiven in the case of female saints who perused religious life through the imitation of monks. The problem was that Joan’s choice of fashion subverted boththe male and female orders of the world. Joan dressed as a man and engaged in masculine activities, but clearly identified herself, and proclaimed herself, as a maid and a woman. This was a hybrid identity that, to the judges, was even more offensive than any other possible transgression of gender rules. This strange kind of subversion is obviously problematic, even for Joan’s supporters. When one looks at how Joan was depicted in art, by birth supporters and critics, her image conforms to the established language of moral symbolism, particularly regarding hair. Joan is depicted in the correct symbolic pattern of the good or bad woman, but never as the real woman, dressed as a man, but self-identified as a maid.

This book does suffer from repetition, which can fatigue the reader. Its division into thematic parts often requires extensive review of previous discussion and sources, to place them in a new context. This has the effect of making some writers, particularly Jerome, Augustine, Tertullian and Paul, appear with such frequency, that their influence feels overstated. It is difficult to know the scale of the influence of these writers within their periods. But this permits only some slight uncertainty about the scale of influence, not reality or truthfulness of Milliken’s arguments.

This book is a compelling and richly detailed study of a difficult topic. Readers interested in the material history of the medieval and early modern periods, of gender studies, and readers interested in the social and cultural aspects of Christian philosophy should find this book a valuable source.


[1] The classic article arguing for the historical value of gender studies is Joan W. Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” American Historical Review 91, no. 5 (1986): 1053–1075. For a summary of the reception of gender studies in history see Joanne Meyerowitz, “A History of ‘Gender’.” American Historical Review 113, no. 5 (2008): 1346–1356.

Mark R. Geldof

Merton College, Oxford <>

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