Horticulture of the Head: The Vegetable Life of Hair in Early Modern English Thought

Edward J. Geisweidt
University of Alabama

Edward J. Geisweidt. “Horticulture of the Head: The Vegetable Life of Hair in Early Modern English Thought.” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 19 (2009) 6.1-24 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-19/geishair.html>.

  1. Readers of Book 2, Canto 3 of The Faerie Qveene encounter a blazon of the huntress Belphoebe, whose hair is detailed in the following stanza:
    Her yellow lockes crisped, like golden wyre,
    About her shoulders weren loosely shed,
    And when the winde emongst them did inspire,
    They waued like a pennon wyde dispred
    And low behind her backe were scattered:
    And whether art it were, or heedless hap,
    As through the flouring forrest rash she fled,
    In her rude heares sweet flowers themselues did lap,
    And flourishing fresh leaues and blossomes did enwrap. (Spenser 2.3.30)
    Although the color, the curl, and the careless abandon of her locks are conventional aspects of Belphoebe’s erotic appeal, the foliage that adorns her hair points to a peculiar relationship between Belphoebe and the natural world. Spenser’s narrator is unsure how to read the greenery. If the leaves and flowers are artfully entwined in her locks, the narrator finds it unnecessary to dilate on the human arts of cosmetology. More fascinating is the suggestion of a natural attraction between the flora and Belphoebe’s hair. The last two lines of the stanza entertain the possibility that the leaves and flowers actively (not accidentally) attach themselves to her hair. Kathleen Williams has remarked that Belphoebe is too “sincerely engaged” in the hunt to “suggest any doubleness of intention” when it comes to, for instance, her appearance (49).1 The unselfconsciousness and natural sensuality of Belphoebe’s presentation is in keeping with James W. Braddus’s characterization of her as “a physical Venus with a Diana psychology” (98).2 The flora, Braddus adds, are “emblems of life and sexuality” (98). Also noting the huntress’s hair, Judith Anderson comments that Belphoebe’s “figure suggests a seasonal revival” (85). While lending a sexual allure to the unswervingly chaste huntress, the natural commixture of hair and flowers contributes to Belphoebe’s representation of life and life cycles. Spenser’s depiction of Belphoebe’s vibrant vitality is indicative of an early modern understanding of the affinity between human bodies and plants. This paper explores that affinity as it appears in early modern English thought.

  2. For the early modern English, the fundamental similarity between humans and plants was the possession of life. The English understood life to derive from the vegetative soul, one third of the Aristotelian tripartite soul that, along with the animalistic sensitive and the distinctly human rational souls, comprised the human essence. The vegetative soul and natural spirits promoted and sustained life through their threefold function: generation, nutrition, and growth.3

  3. Indeed, the body’s vegetable nature distributed life over all the body’s parts. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare draws on plants’ association with vitality, and the capacity for each body part to partake in the life of the body. Commenting on Perdita’s costume at the sheep-shearing festival, Florizel tells his beloved, “These your unusual weeds to each part of you / Does give a life; no shepherdess, but Flora / Peering in April’s front” (4.4.1-3).4 Underlying Florizel’s conceit is the Aristotelian psychology of the life-giving vegetable soul. Florizel speaks not of one life but of multiple lives, one for each part of Perdita covered by her festive weeds. But it is not the clothes themselves that invest each of Perdita’s parts with life. The clothes give lives only via the fecundity of the goddess whom, when placed on Perdita’s body, they play a part in representing. As the goddess of flowers, Flora naturally represents life in abundance: life is a collective of individual blooms under Flora’s care. It follows, then, that each of Perdita’s parts, when covered in Flora’s garb, takes on a peculiar, floral life of its own. Her body parts may be thought to have a vegetable quality to them, each possessing a certain claim to autonomous life. As we will see, what can be said metaphorically of Perdita’s body parts was thought literally about hair in the period.

  4. In the early modern period, the Aristotelian tripartite soul is conceptually aligned to another, partially-Aristotelian scheme of gradation and hierarchy. The natural and moral philosophical traditions inherited by the early modern English locate forms of life on a broad continuum, often conceptualized as the hierarchically gradated Great Chain of Being.5 Human proximity to animals in the Renaissance cosmic order was a cause for anxiety, for the possibility of descending into an animal nature threatened human life constantly.6 Baldassare Castiglione warns of such slippage in The Courtier (1561), as does Lodowick Bryskett in A Discourse of Ciuill Life (1606).7 The threat of slippage was palpable in the array of similarities between people and animals, manifested, for instance, in their homologous body parts and functions, and in their capacities for sensation, mobility, and even language. Aristotle’s Parts of Animals contains a passage describing a theoretical devolution of humans.8 Notable here is the potential slippage into not only bestial, but vegetative forms of life:
    Even among human beings, children, when compared with adults, and dwarf adults when compared with others, may have some characteristics in which they are superior, but in intelligence, at any rate, they are inferior. And the reason, as aforesaid, is that in very many of them the principle of the soul is sluggish and corporeal. And if the heat which raises the organism up wanes still further while the earthy matter waxes, then the animals’ bodies wane, and they will be many-footed; and finally they lose their feet altogether and lie full length on the ground. Proceeding a little further in this way, they actually have their principal part down below, and finally the part which answers to a head comes to have neither motion nor sensation; at this stage the creature becomes a plant, and has its upper parts below and its nether parts aloft; for in plants the roots have the character and value of mouth and head, whereas the seed counts as the opposite, and is produced in the upper part of the plant on the ends of the twigs. (369-71)
    The descent Aristotle describes here equates the height to which an organism raises its noblest part—its head—toward the heavens with the ability to exercise the rational soul,9 a function perfected in the divine. The scheme is vertical, supposing a God at the top, with an adult below, supported by dwarfs and children. As its intellectual capacity diminishes, Aristotle’s hypothetical creature becomes shorter, eventually making the leap from biped human to multiped animal, its head ever closer to the earth. As it moves further from rationality, so does the organism hold its head further from heaven. It loses the little height its legs can offer, and as it makes the next leap from slithering animal to plant, it actually buries its head, the part equated not only with rationality but also the intake of nutrients. Height correlates with the presence of the rational soul and is measured by the proximity of the noblest part to the heavens. Thus the stoutest redwood could never be as tall as even an unremarkably fledged human. As the creature’s noblest part makes its descent from its celestially-reaching height to its niche underground, so too does the defining function of that part descend from intellectual activity to nutrition, a function of the vegetable soul.

  5. A better-known example of philosophical human-to-plant transformation comes from Italian humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s On the Dignity of Man. Pico claims that man’s distinguishing characteristic is his lack of a fixed nature, affording him the free will to fashion himself after any form of life or being: “At man’s birth the Father placed in him every sort of seed and sprouts of every kind of life. The seeds that each man cultivates will grow and bear their fruit in him. If he cultivates vegetable seeds, he will become a plant. If the seeds of sensation, he will grow into brute. If rational, he will come out a heavenly animal. If intellectual, he will be an angel, and a son of God” (6). Pico’s categories adhere to the Chain of Being, and the divisions of life forms also reflect the three parts of the Aristotelian organic soul and their associated virtues.10 While Pico is asserting man’s capacity to distinguish himself from lower forms of life, his claim is nonetheless wrapped in a horticultural metaphor. Indeed, the comparison of the soul to a garden is commonplace, but here it subtly reinforces man’s vegetable affinities even as it resists them.

  6. The distinctions Pico is trying to draw are moral ones. He does not hold with the ancient philosophers who claim that wicked men literally change into plants and animals. Pico writes that “it is not the rind which makes the plant, but a dull and non-sentient nature; not the hide which makes a beast of burden, but a brutal and sensual soul” (6). In effect, Pico says that body parts provide no indication of the nature of the whole, meaning the soul. A person may display a debased nature through outward actions: “For example, if you see a man given over to his belly and crawling on the ground, it is a bush not a man that you see”. Such a man has given himself over to the operations of his vegetative soul. He is ruled by his appetite, like a plant in constant need of food, the lowly source of which brings him from the dignity of an erect posture, head aloft, to the depravity of proximity to the ground. Pico’s version of descent down the Chain is the moral equivalent of Aristotle’s anatomical description. Pico’s focus is on the will, and for him, becoming plantlike has little to do with anatomy—“not the rind … not the hide” (5). On the Dignity of Man is a model text of Renaissance humanism, but with regard to humans’ natural affinities with plants, early modern English thought was more aligned with an Aristotelian tradition in which body parts did, in fact, matter.

  7. By focusing on hair, I plan to examine what one specific anatomical part tells us about the early modern relationship between humans and plants. Recent scholarship on the period has begun to trace the interactions between body and environment. According to Rebecca Bushnell, “more than any other type of early modern writing, literary texts compared people to plants in their common experience of growing, flourishing, and fading” (136). But the medical and natural philosophical texts of the period also demonstrate the intertwinement of plants and humans in their similar experiences of vitality. Because literature is the most conversant genre on human-plant likeness does not mean the connections between the two forms of being are only figurative. Hair offers the early moderns a material referent for their shared experience of life cycles with plants, and the non-literary texts examined here clearly elucidate the connections. More than any other body part, hair functioned as the index of vitality. In Mary Floyd-Wilson and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr.’s work in charting “a variety of body-environment relations conceived in the period,” they consider various ways in which interaction between the two can be made legible (3). Two of their specific models trace similitudes between body and environment, and exchanges between them. In this vein, emotions have received particular attention, operating in what Gail Kern Paster, Mary Floyd-Wilson, and Katherine Rowe call an “ecology” and a “transaction” between the body and environment (18). I will argue that as a figure of similitude between humans and plants, not only does hair provide a material referent of the inter-relation between human life and plant life, but hair also helps us understand the exchanges and distribution of vitality—and, in Shakespeare’s “green” plays, affect— between people and the natural world.

    Hirsute Vegetables

  8. Hardly known popularly for their hirsuteness, plants are nonetheless hairy forms of life. Indeed plant hairs, which modern botanists call trichomes, are a prevalent and much-studied feature of plant anatomy.11 Botanist H. Dietmar Behnke dates the study of trichomes back to latter half of the seventeenth century: “Plant trichomes were among the first anatomical features recognized and depicted by the early microscopists of the 17th century: Hooke (1665), Grew (1682), and Malpighi (1686)” (2). The name trichome may defamiliarize this plant part for us (as it would, no doubt for England’s early modern horticulturalists), but the contemporaries of Hooke as well as Shakespeare certainly understood hairiness to be a characteristic that humans shared with at least some plants. In his sprawling attempt to create a universal language, An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language (1668), John Wilkins notes a variety of the English vernacular’s hairy plants. Some are so named for that very property, as the aquatic herb known as Hairy River Weed, described by Wilkins as “either that which consists of small round leaves, floting on the top or immersed in the water, having little strings shooting down from them: Or that which consists of long small slimy filaments, resembling green raw silk,” and Hairy Grass, “having hairy leaves, with long woolly strings on the sides of them” (K4). Among the Herbs of Round Leaves are the Sun Dew, “with red hairs upon the leaves retaining the Dew” (L2v); the Ladies Mantle, “whose leaves are somewhat hairy, being of an elegant structure” (L3); and the Ground Ivy “with a hairy leaf” (L3v). Gramineious Frumentaceous Herbs, including wheat, rye, barley, and panic, are described as bearded (K4v). The Hairy River Weed appears to have received its name through analogy, its slimy filaments resembling human or animal hair. Wilkins’s description of other herbs as hairy or bearded suggests that hirsuteness was not a property plants claimed only by analogy. Hair was considered common anatomy shared by plants with the otherwise differentiated bodies of humans and animals.

  9. Nehemiah Grew was one of the first English botanists to observe plant hair under the microscope. In his Anatomy of plants with an idea of a philosophical history of plants (1682), in which a small appendix is devoted to thorns, hairs, and globulets, Grew explains the function of plant hairs as twofold:
    The Uses of Hairs are for Distinction and Protection. That of Distinction is but secondary, the Leaves being grown to a considerable size. That of Protection is the prime, for which they were originally form’d together with the Leaves themselves, and whose service they enjoy in their Infant-estate: For the Hairs being then in form of a Down, always very thick set, thus give that Protection to the Leaves, which their exceeding tenderness then requires; so that they seem to be vested with a Coat of Frize, or to be kept warm, like young and dainty Chickens, in Wool. (L1v)
    This notion of plant hair’s dual-purpose accords with the medical and natural philosophical works of the period that regard human hair as both protective and ornamental. Poised as he is on the threshold of modern botanical science, Grew retains a sense of hair’s similar function across forms of life, plant and avian. These examples demonstrate that hair was a bodily feature humans shared with plants, both homologously and directly. One plant, however, was considered to be hair itself. The 1634 English edition of Pliny’s History of the World identifies the medical uses of the herb Equisetum, that is, Horse-tail. Equisetum is so named because “it is esteemed the very haire, proceeding out of the earth, like for all the world to the haire of an Horse-taile” (Z6).12 The comparison between the herb and the horse tail is one of resemblance that works in some sense to vitalize the earth. Whether from human, animal, or plant, hair is a common anatomical feature of all life.

    The Body Topographic

  10. Just as early modern naturalists identified a certain feature of plant anatomy by using a human and animal referent, so too did the period’s medical and natural philosophical discourses understand hair as an incorporation of vegetative anatomy, figuring the body as a kind of landscape. Galen, the second century physician from whom the early English inherited much of their medical knowledge, makes intricate connections between human hair growth and plant cultivation in the eleventh book of On the Usefulness of the Parts. In explaining why the hairs of the eyelashes and eyebrows do not grow but remain at a certain length, and why the eyelashes are able to stand on end, Galen treats the human body as a landscape with hair as an equivalent of vegetative growth. God shapes the landscape and selects the best materials out of which to fashion the body’s parts. To make the eyelashes stand erect, “he implanted them firmly in a cartilaginous body,” because hair growing “in a soft, fleshy substance” would have as much trouble standing tall as would a “wall or palisade in a swamp” (534). God also draws on botanical knowledge in planting eyebrows in rather dry flesh. Lack of moisture keeps eyebrow hairs from growing long, whereas hair in the body’s moister regions enjoys unchecked increase:
    For just as grass and plants coming up from damp, rich soil grow very tall, whereas those that come from dry, rocky soil remain without increase, small and hard, so in the same way, I suppose, the hair coming from soft, moist parts has a very good growth, like the hair of the head, armpits, and pudenda, whereas that from the hard, dry parts does not grow and remains short. Thus, like herbs and plants, hair has a twofold generation, stemming in part from the providence of the Creator and in part from the nature of the place. (534)
    God has the luxury of selecting the qualities of the human soil in which he intends to plant certain types of hair. The landscape shares with the body the property of radical moisture, which, along with heat, provides a necessary elemental basis of life in Galenic medicine. Hair growth thus provides a material referent for understanding the homology between land and body.

  11. Galen extends the comparison between hairy bodies and lush landscapes by imagining God as not only the designer of the landscape but also the farmer who selectively cultivates its flora once planted. Galen makes a distinction between the vegetation growing on a farmer’s carefully cultivated land, and that growing on untended land: “One can often see a field in which wheat or barley is growing up as yet like tender, short grass, and another spot similarly thick with vegetation and full of real grass. The rich growth in the latter has been produced by natural moisture, but the farmer’s providence has produced it in the field” (534). Evidence of God the farmer’s care is seen in the “evenness” of the crops’ germination and the straightness of the field’s edges. On the other hand,
    [w]ith the growth that has sprung up by itself the contrary is true in both respects; the germination is uneven and is not marked out in straight lines. This is the nature of the hair in the armpit and on the other members; for it is not bounded by definite lines like the hair of the eyebrows, eyelids, and head, but has irregular boundaries and is scattered indiscriminately, without order. (534-35).
    By placing the head’s hair in the farmer-Creator’s care, Galen here contradicts his own medical knowledge in order to reinforce Aristotle’s height-based hierarchy, which devalues plants for the literal lowliness of their sources of nutrition and deems noble the human head for its elevation toward the heavens. Galenic medicine understands the brain as moist, and so the head would provide the moist landscape that allows for unhindered growth. In arguing that God takes special interest in the hair of certain body parts, Galen shows a concern for maintaining the head’s privileged position. By virtue of growing on the head, the hair nourished by the brain’s moisture is ennobled beyond that growing on other moist body parts.

  12. The idea that plants and landscapes share a relationship homologous to that between hair and body parts demonstrates a salient connection between human bodies and the plant kingdom, one that early modern literary authors picked up on. In a particularly bawdy instance of corporeal topography in Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare draws on the homologies of plants (or plant parts) and hair. Venus proffers her hair to shelter Adonis from the weather (as in lines 190-91) and to afford him (sexual) sustenance:
    Within this limit is relief enough,
    Sweet bottom-grass, and high delightful plain,
    Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,
    To shelter thee from tempest and from rain. (ll. 235-38).
    Venus’s body parts shape the topography of her “limit” or bounded territory (OED 3.a), with her breasts serving as the “rising hillocks,” and her belly “the high delightful plain.” As for the plant life of her terrestrialized body, her hair appears to be all that populates her body with life. The Norton editors gloss the “[s]weet bottom grass” as pubic hair, and the “brakes obscure and rough” refer also to Venus’s pilosity. Noting the darker aspects of life in the poem’s setting, Anthony Mortimer writes that “Venus is offering Adonis a safer landscape than the one in which he wants to hunt” (73). Mortimer suggests that Venus’s own body presents a danger to the sexually reticent hunter. To Adonis, “[b]oth the real landscape and the real body are dangerous: only the landscaped body is safe” (73).

  13. Medical writers of the period echoed Galen’s explanation of hair growth. Levinus Lemnius’s Touchstone of Complexions (1576) describes bodies with moist complexions in terms of landscapes:
    Albiet manye tymes it happeneth to this body, as it doth to plashie wet grounde, wherein by reason of ouermuch moystnes and wette, no yong trees, no shrubbes, nor grasse growth. … For where too much wette is, there the hayres grow thinne, because heate wanteth power and lacketh strengthe, to bring out the pores and worke the humour vnder the skinne into hayre. (K8)
    Helkiah Crooke treats the body as a landscape in Mikrokosmographia: “for as neither in Marrish and Fenny ground, nor in one that is ouer dry and worne out of heart can any thing bee brought forth: so in an ouer moyst or ouer dry skin no haire can grow” (1615: G4).13 Crooke also anatomizes in botanical terms the hair planted in the body’s fleshy soil: “Now that part of the haire that is impacted in the pores of the skinne, may fittely bee resembled to the roote of an hearbe sticking in the ground, and that which beareth out of the skin, to the hearbe it self” (1615: G4). Crooke picks up Galen’s distinction between cultivated and uncultivated hairs, but he reverses Galen’s judgments concerning the brows, eyelashes, and head. He writes that some hairs are “congeniti, bred with vs, as the haire of the head, of the eye-browes, of the eye-lids. These are bred in the child while it is yet in the wombe, and are resembled not vnto hearbes that grow by sowing, but vnto such plants as nature bringeth forth of her owne accord; and such do not necessarily follow the temperature of the body” (1615: G4). While offering no explanation for his claims, Crooke also eschews the entire apparatus of God’s divine horticulture. By not framing the discussion in Galen’s terms of providence, Crooke draws attention to the natural similarities between plants and hair. In this brief passage, hairs are like plants not through a shared design but through a natural development. The womb is not the conscientious farmer but a space free of intercession, where hair grows according to its own natural inclinations.

  14. Later in the seventeenth century, Dutch anatomist Ysbrand van Diemerbroeck discussed the vegetable qualities of hair as they manifest not in the unborn child but the dead body. In the 1689 translation of Diemerbroeck’s Anatomy of human bodies, an English reader would find a lengthy inquiry into hair’s status as a body part and its participation in the life of the whole body. Diemerbroeck argues that hair has life, but life separate from that of other body parts. Countering the theory that hair is produced out of the same seminal matter from which other parts are formed, Diemerbroeck argues,
    Hair is form’d and stirr’d up, being endu’d with a particular Soul and Life distinct from the rest of the Parts, because they are not stirr’d up, and endu’d with Life with the rest of the Parts out of the same Seed; but apart, out of other Matter afterwards generated. Now that they live by virtue of another peculiar Vegetable Soul, that has no Communion with the other animated Parts of the Body, is apparent from hence; for that they do live only while a man is alive, but after his Decease, are nourish’d and encreas’d, after the same manner as Polypody-Moss, &c. grow upon old Trees, both before and after the Tree dies; because they have each a proper Soul, distinct from the Form and Soul of the Tree, out of which, and wherein they grow. (3B2v)
    In the 1682 edition of The Anatomy of humane bodies epitomized, the English physician Thomas Gibson follows Diemerbroeck’s position on hair vitality (having probably read the earlier 1672 Latin edition): “They are no parts of the Body, and therefore have no Animal life; yet they have a Vegetative life, and that peculiar to themselves, and not owing to the life of the Body, seeing they continue to grow after a Man is dead, as has been observed in embalmed Bodies” (V8-V8v). These speculations on the vegetable life of hair raise the question of the distribution of life in the body by the vegetative soul. The attribution to hair of a type of vegetable life relies on the Aristotelian concept of the tripartite soul. Insofar as hair was thought to be constituted by a vegetable soul, it could be easily imagined to possess a form of life that is autonomous from the body in which it is rooted.

  15. Indeed, Diemerbroeck acknowledges (without attempting to resolve) the question of hair’s status as a human body part. Comparing it to the moss growing on a dead tree suggests hair has “but a peculiar vegetable life” separate from the life of the body that nourishes it (3C1v). Hair is denied status as a part when, as in this example, “part” is defined as “cohering with the whole, and conjoined by common participation of Life.” An alternate definition, however, designates hair as a body part proper when a part is “any Corporeal Substance, making it complete and entire with others.” Though it may not participate in the common life with the rest of the body (hair lives on after the vital organs), yet
    Hair may be said to be a Part of the Body; for that really and indeed together with other Parts, compleats and perfects the Body of Man; as Leaves make a Tree, and Feathers a Bird. For as a Tree without Leaves, and a Bird without Feathers, can neither be said to be perfect, so a man without Hair, cannot be said to have all his Accomplishments, though he may live without it. (3C1)
    Diemerbroeck’s claim is based on the assumption, prevalent in the period, that hair continues to grow after the body’s death. But this assumption of continued growth suggests a vegetative function, guided by a rudimentary soul in each hair. Diemerbroeck also draws an Aristotelian analogy between leaves, feathers, and hair, one that suggests anatomical continuity between forms of life. No matter the definition of part, hair shares a kinship with plant life—be it moss or leaves—that provides a material, as opposed to moral, understanding of the human body, embedded in a natural world teeming with homologous forms of life.

    The Bald and the Bushy

  16. The homology between hair and tree leaves was particularly evident in the processes of balding and leaf-shedding. In Batman vppon Bartholome (1582), Stephen Batman traces the connection back to Aristotle: “For as Aristotle sayth, The falling of haire, is lyke to the fallyng of leaues of trees, and the cause hereof is, withdrawing of hot humours and fat” (I1). Daniel Sennert, professor of medicine at the University of Wittenberg, whose Art of chirurgery appeared in English in 1663, also attributes the comparison of balding to leaf shedding to Aristotle, who extends this theme of natural loss to the animal kingdom. Referencing Arisotle’s Generation of Animals, Sennert writes:
    Men (saith he) of all living creatures are mostly subject unto baldness, and they evidently become so sooner then any other creature whatsoever. Which kind of Affect is in a manner general. For so Plants likewise, some of them have alwaies green Leaves, others of them lose their Leaves. The like Affect is baldness in those men unto whom it happeneth that they should be Bald. For whenas by little and little (some now, some then) both the Leaves, and the Feathers, and the Hairs fall off, when this same Affect shall happen universally, then it receiveth these words, Baldness, falling of the Leaf, and shedding of the Feathers. (2G3)
    Sennert describes a shared physiological experience among three forms of life. Feathers provide a third term of anatomical homology here, but they do not play a mediating role between leaves and hair. The theme of shedding links human to plant, and both to animal, making such loss part of the “universal” pathos of life. In an epigram addressed “To one Bald” (here translated from its Latin original by Thomas Harvey) London poet and litteratus John Owen pointedly reminds his readers of a significant difference between humans’ and plants’ analogous life cycles: “Leaves to the Trees, and Grass returns to Ground: / But not one hair on thy bald pate is found” (A8v). Vegetable life experiences annual renewal of its anatomical ornaments, but human balding is—early modern hair restoration recipes not withstanding—a permanent reminder of mortality. Owen makes the point tauntingly, but this distinction within the similarity lends a note of pathos to the natural affinity between plant and human life cycles.

  17. Certain texts printed in early modern England jumped to the defense of bald men’s dignity, and did so by also calling attention to vegetable life cycles. In a tract by fourth-century Greek bishop Synesius, A paradoxe, prouing by reason and example, that baldnesse is much better than bushie haire (1579), translated by Abraham Fleming, the author treats the lack of hair as an index of intellectual maturity, comparing balding to leaf shedding:
    And as before the fall of the leafe, the fruite is not come to full perfection: no more is vnderstanding setled in the head, vntill suche time as all superfluities are fanned awaie. When therefore you see a baldpate, suppose streight way that the fruite there hath attained perfect ripenesse, and made the head a garner to preserue it: yea, you maie boldlie gesse, that such a head is the Temple of God. (B7v)
    Whereas the head as landscape provides the ground on which to grow vegetable-like hairs, Synesius’s capital metaphors are architectural, the head serving first as a granary for the fruit of wit, harvested at the hairs’ falling, then as a temple for the worship of God. The teleological end of life being wit, and hair being a hindrance to wit, only the bald man can attain human perfection and come closer to the divine.

  18. At the opposite end from bald men on the coiffurial spectrum, the gallants who affected a fashion for bushy hair found themselves under attack for their hair style. Vegetable analogies to hair did serve a satiric purpose for writers who, however light-heartedly, promoted disciplinary norms regarding hair length. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, men’s heads were contested ground, subject to the scrutiny of other men. John Twyning explains the political and spiritual philosophy behind those who shaved their heads close and criticized long-haired gallants and aristocrats:
    The bearer of a shaved head attempted to keep the world out and himself in. For many early modern London citizens, hair was reined in along with any outward display of emotion or exaggeration. More than a mere social gesture, close shaving incorporated its political philosophy within the very forms of its expression. (117)
    Prefacing Thomas Hall’s Comarum akosmia: the Loathsomenesse of Long Haire (1654) is a poem by one “R. B.” entitled “to the Long-hair’d Gallants of these Times,” which references a particularly famous bush:
    Go Gallants to the Barbers, go,
    Bid them your hairy Bushes mow.
    God in a Bush did once appeare,
    But there is nothing of him here. (A3)
    Pate and landscape are subject to similar disciplinary practices by respective artisans of norms, barbers and mowers. Here the barber and mower are conflated.
    14 The poem’s reference to the burning bush invokes the particular landscape and vegetation of the Sinai Peninsula, bringing the issue of grooming into a moral ambit. Denying the holy presence to a gallant’s head of hair, the poet signals the ungodliness of long hair itself, a point that Hall makes continually and upon much authority throughout his tract.

  19. Thomas Dekker also criticizes the gallants’ hair styles with satiric humor in The guls horne-booke (1609), drawing the familiar comparison between hair and bushes. Dekker encourages gallants not to visit the barber but to cultivate their bushy hair:
    [L]et thy haire grow thick and bushy like a forrest, or some wildernesse, lest those sixe-footed creatures that breed in it, and are Tenants to that crowne-land of thine, bee hunted to death by euery base barbarous Barber; and so that delicate and tickling pleasure of scratching, be vtterly taken from thee. (C3v)
    As Twyning points out, by taking an ironic stance and encouraging gallants to grow their hair out further, Dekker also takes a stab at the moralists of his day, particularly John Stubbes and Stephen Gosson (118-19). Dekker figures the gallant’s head as an ecosystem unto itself. Lice, assumed to be endemic to long hair, are forest denizens who, in the punning “crowne-land” of the head, are both the game and victims of the barber-hunter, whose barbarousness makes him an unsuitable sportsman for the regal game in a gallant’s hair. As a hunter, the barber would be an indiscriminate marksman, killing the six-footed creatures by deforestation, destroying a whole habitat rather than marking specific game. Dekker draws an explicit comparison between barbering and deforestation:
    If then thou desirest to reserue that Fee-simple of wit, (thy head) for thee and the lawfull heirs of thy body, play neither the scurvy part of the Frenchman, that pluckes vp all by th[e] rootes, nor that of the spending Englishman, who to maintaine a paltry warren of vnprofitable Conies, disimparkes the stately swift-footed wild Deere: But let thine receiue his full growth that thou maiest safely and wisely brag tis thine owne Bush-Naturall. (C4)
    Dekker’s advice to the gallant takes on mock-urgency, for he stands to lose his head, his “Fee-simple” of corporeal land over which he ought to have unassailable ownership for himself and his (no doubt punning) heirs. Threats to the gallant’s head/land come in the forms of disease and deforestation. Dekker alludes to one telltale symptom of syphilis—hair loss—equating balding or barbering to trees’ removal through another shared feature of plants’ and hairs’ anatomy, roots. He also comments on the early modern English deforestation, lamenting the destruction of deer habitat for the open land and underground tunnels of man-made rabbit warrens.15

    The Hairiness of Life in Shakespeare

  20. In certain moments of Shakespearean drama, hair provides a material index of the similitude and affective exchange between the natural world and the human condition. Such is the case in Henry V, in which France’s hedges, lamented by Burgundy for being “Like prisoners wildly overgrown with hair” (5.2.43), suffer the disordering absence of peace in wartime. In As You Like It, Oliver recounts a scene in which human and plant subjects inter-actively fashion each other, resulting in complementary and unsettling states of pilosity and baldness. Having fled into the forest, Oliver encounters Celia and Rosalind, and he relates to them the abject condition in which his brother finds him: “Under an old oak, whose boughs were mossed with age / And high top bald with dry antiquity, / A wretched, ragged man, o’ergrown with hair / Lay sleeping on his back” (4.3.103-06). Shakespeare contrasts the hairiness of the man on the ground with the baldness of the tree above him. Oliver lays “o’ergrown with hair,” like a pile of the tree’s lost lushness. Juxtaposed in this way, man and tree share an ontological reciprocity, as the former’s excessive hirsuteness signifies his vegetable nature, while the tree’s baldness distinguishes it from other trees in the green forest and casts it in a human ageing process of drying and balding at the top—in other words, the location of the human head, where natural balding is most noted in ageing humans. Neither man nor tree is in a favorable condition. The hairy Oliver shows the signs of wildness or ruffian unruliness associated with lack of grooming. The bald tree betrays its approaching death, after which its dry trunk will support the life only of its epidermal moss, just as a human corpse continues to grow hair, according to popular thought. The juxtaposition of hairy man and bald tree highlights an affective likeness between the two. We are meant to see a likeness between Oliver and the tree. As Robert Watson points out, As You Like It is a play “permeated with the idea of likeness, which is to say, imperfect identity” (77). Of the “old oak,” Watson writes that it “is both a family tree and a human likeness, both of which Orlando encounters in the rusticated Oliver.” He continues, “Shakespeare’s tree offers the knowledge of self and other” (95). Strikingly, this spectacle shows not just a shared ontology but a mutual loss of vitality, while the drying tree, covered in moss, approaches death, the rugged Oliver is entwined by a snake “nimble in threats” (4.3.108). While their coiffure contrasts, a precarious hold on life seems to be what brings them together. Here vegetable and human are sympathetically inter-fashioned.

  21. In a final reading, I want to explore the ecological implications in which the shared experience of an anatomically-based vegetable life occurs. In describing the effects of her and Oberon’s discord in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania presents a vision of what modern audiences would consider an environmental catastrophe:
    Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
    As in revenge have sucked up from the sea
    Contagious fogs which, falling in the land,
    Hath every pelting river made so proud
    That they have overborne their continents.
    The ox hath therefore stretched his yoke in vain,
    The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
    Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard.
    The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
    And crows are fatted with the murrain flock. (2.1.88-97)
    As Jan H. Blits has pointed out, Titania’s speech contains several discrepancies, among them is the disconnect between the state of natural crisis Titania describes, and the generally stable, often benevolent, natural world that other characters (and even Titania) present in the rest of the play (60-62). A. B. Taylor takes Titania at her word and points to this speech as an indication of Shakespeare’s fairies’ unusual level of involvement in world affairs:

    Traditionally fairies tended to be local and had only a peripheral effect on human life; they could occasionally put a curse on the livestock of some farmer who had offended them or be held responsible for ‘changelings’ but generally they lived apart from humans, keeping themselves to themselves. Shakespeare transformed a fairly thin literary tradition in this country by blending elements of folklore with classical literature in an unprecedented way, in the process giving the fairy world new powerful dimensions and relevance. (57-58)
    Perhaps Helena, too, has a sense of the dire situation when she tells Hermia that “[s]ickness is catching” (1.1.186). The drama of the fairies’ strife, with the embedded narrative of crisis, offers an urgent sense of the material relation between emotion and behavior, and the ecosystem. Wittingly or not, Oberon and Titania through their own agency threaten the lives of humans and plants alike.

  22. For it is life itself that is in danger in Titania’s report. Fogs bring contagion, crop failures imply impending starvation, and mutton is murrain. The reference to wheat evokes a particular pathos by equating a blighted plant to a child’s life cut short. The account of the wheat’s death employs personification to mix urgency with pathos: “the green corn / Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard” (2.1.94-95). Titania imagines wheat in a (male) human narrative of growth and aging. While, as we saw above, “beard” was a common term for a part of grain anatomy, coupling the term with youth emphasizes a human affinity with the vegetable. The grain has a “youth” that lamentably ends before it attains the beard that marks a boy’s emergence into manhood; the unrealized expectation of a beard makes the wheat a subject whose demise elicits sentiment. As the crop has not yet acquired its beard, its humanizing works through a kind of prolepsis. Indeed, in its youth, the “green” corn is quite vegetative. Growing a beard effects the corn’s transition from “green” vegetative life into a human-like maturity, the early life of which is revised from the appropriately botanical “green[ness]” to more colloquially human “youth.” If hair is associated with vitality, the failure to attain age-related hairiness indicates a loss of vitality. For the Athens of Titania’s vision, this loss would have ecosystem-wide consequences.

  23. In addition to widespread inundation, the region experiences unsettling seasonal alterations, described with vivid images involving vegetable hair:
    And thorough this distemperature we see
    The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
    Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
    And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
    An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
    Is, as in mock’ry, set. (2.1.106-11)
    The deleterious effects of climate change are indicated in part by the incongruity of coiffure in this passage. In confounding the aged, white-haired frosts with the fresh red rose, Shakespeare depicts the threat of an early death that unseasonable weather brings. To add insult to injury, the substance of Hiem’s capital adornment changes, from ice to flowers. The description of his hair as “thin” is an emendation of the Quarto and Folio reading, “chinne.” Editors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries found absurd the notion of a garland of flowers being set on the chin: a chaplet can be set only upon the head, the reasoning goes, and so it makes better sense to emend “chinne” to a word that does, in fact, often describe the hair on the crowns of old men (Furness 67-68n113). If we consider, however, that hair not only serves as anatomical adornment (easily covered over by a chaplet) but also has anatomical affinity with vegetable life, we can see how Shakespeare might imagine flowers not resting on Hiem’s head, but growing from it. As a man’s beard was, in Shakespeare’s time, a particularly sensitive anatomical target of insults, the “mockery” to Hiem is all the worse if flowers replace the icy whiskers of his beard. In the texts of the play’s first printed versions, Hiem loses, if you will, his “winter heere,” a phrase I take from those same texts and which editors emend to “winter cheer” at line 101 (“The human mortals want their winter cheer”). Either reading—“thin” or “chinne”—indicates that there is a time and place for the affiliation of flowers and hair. The moment of Athenian ecological crisis described by Titania provides neither.

  24. Early modern medicine and natural philosophy considered the physical similarities between hair and vegetable life. Shakespeare’s works reveal the affective resonances of the bond that one small, simple anatomical commonality creates between plants and humans. We must not be too hasty in writing off moments such as those in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It as mere anthropomorphizing. Plant life participates in a moral and affective economy because it shares material conditions with humans, in terms of anatomy, life cycles, and even life itself. Linear schemas of the early modern cosmos, such as the Chain of Being, discourage us from understanding the human body as the early moderns did. With animals in between, the Chain posits a categorical separation between humans and plants. No border crossings between the two are imaginable under such a paradigm. What early modern thought reveals, however, is that hair materializes the mutual vitality between people and plants, and that the early modern English were more aware of their vegetable affinities than we have realized. Given this relation, we might take from Shakespeare, and early modern culture, the suggestion that we put as much care into our horticulture as we do our hair.


    For their nourishing advice at various stages of this article’s germination, I want to thank the participants of the Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) 2008 Seminar “Flora’s Court,” the participants of the 2007-2008 Folger Institute “Researching the Archives” seminar, the editors and anonymous readers at EMLS, and Sharon O’Dair.  I am grateful to The Folger Institute, The SAA, The University of Alabama, and The Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies for grants that funded research or allowed me to present early versions of this article.

    1 For a discussion of art and nature in this stanza, see Berger (139-40).

    2 On the association of Belphoebe with Venus’s disguise as a follower of Diana in Book I of Virgil’s Aeneid, see Anderson 85-87.

    3 See Park and Siraisi. On the relation between life and soul from a perspective of early modern Aristotelianism, see Des Chene. For recent work on the vegetative soul’s influence on characters in Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, see Crosbie.

    4 All references to Shakespeare’s works are taken from The Norton Shakespeare unless otherwise indicated. Further citations appear parenthetically in the text.

    5 The classic study of this concept remains Lovejoy. Lovejoy presents a history of the various ideas informing the Chain, including gradation, continuity, and plenitude, from the ancients to the eighteenth-century. Recently, Gabriel Egan (2006) has revived Shakespeareans’ interest in the Chain, asserting its value to ecocritical studies of the drama.

    6 Recent critics have explored the human/animal divides and junctures. Notable studies include Boehrer, Fudge, and Paster. For a more extensive bibliography on the topic, see Raber.

    7 See, for instance, M. Peter Bembo’s praise for rational, instead of sensual love in Castiglione (T1v-T3v). Bryskett likewise recognizes that, given his position in the cosmic order, man has the potential “to decline (if he list) to the nature of those bruite beasts” (Y2v). Levinus Lemnius admonishes beastly people in Touchstone of Complexions: “In many men there is a greate resemblance & affynitie in nature with other Beastes, and the further that these digress from the puritie of temperament, the lesse sway in them beareth Reason, Judgment, Understanding, willingnes to doe good, Wysedome, and discretion: to be short, they are partakers of all those things that are common to Beastes.” He continues, “And thus, there bee many which eyther for lack of good education, or through this deprauation of Nature, degenerate into Beastes, and in all their actions in one point or other, resemble them in conditions” (M8v). What is striking here is the way that moral degradation appears to almost precipitate physical transformation.

    8 For assessments of Aristotle’s libris animalis’ status in the canon of early modern natural philosophy, see Mikkeli; Park and Kessler; Schmitt; and Wallace.

    9 Aristotle privileges humans’ erect posture by relating it to their intellectual capacity: “Man is the only animal that stands upright, and this is because his nature and essence is divine. Now the business of that which is most divine is to think and to be intelligent; and this would not be easy if there were a great deal of the body at the top weighing it down, for weight hampers the motion of the intellect and of the general sense” (367).

    10 On the “organic soul,” see Park.

    11 According to Behnke, “Plant trichomes comprise such structural and functional extremes as hairs, glands (i.e. glandular hairs, capitate hairs, colleters), scales (or peltate hairs) and sometimes, emergences and papillae” (2). The functions of trichomes are various. According to the editors of Biology and Chemistry of Plant Trichomes, the hairs protect plants from phytophagous insects, temperature drops, and water loss (v).

    12 Thomas Elyot also identifies the herb with cattes tayle (R4v). John Gerard identifies several types of Horse-tail (5A3-5A4v).

    13 The 1651 edition replaces “Marrish and Fenny ground” with “Ground where water always standeth” (F2v).

    14 A related connection is that made by Bushnell, who writes that many of early modern England’s most well-known herbalists “started as apothecaries or barber-surgeons” before establishing their reputations as gardeners (26).

    15 On the disafforestation and royal efforts to preserve deer parks, see Thomas 200-03.

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© 2009-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).