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In a fantasy setting, largely based on the European medieval period, red hair is perceived as the sign of the devil. This is much like how red haired woman were prosecuted for being a witch in history. In this world, a poor commoner with red hair, wishes to change hair color to escape the prejudice. What would be realistic options to change hair color to any other natural hair color?

Assumptions:

  • Materials need to be reasonable attainable for a poor commoner.
  • Materials need to be found in a Northern-European climate (UK).
  • Poor commoner is a knowledge-god; not bound by knowledge of the time.
  • Last resort options are materials that are introduced to Europe after the medieval period (change of setting required).

Things I considered:

  • Coffee and tea. Both could serve to darken hair, but neither is available in the region.
  • Carrots, beets and henna. These add a red hue, unlike what the commoner wants.
  • Walnuts. Would turn hair brown. Most realistic option for now. But wasn't introduced to Europe until the 17th century.

What are some options I missed that would work in the current setting? And what if I also allow materials introduced later?

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    $\begingroup$ You are answering your question and just asking for more. According to our help center this is not a good fit for our community $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Apr 14 at 9:54
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    $\begingroup$ Ancient scandinavians washed their hair with ashes, over many washings it can turn blonde hair into white hair, red hair into yellow (not blonde but lemon yellow), brown hair into orange hair and black hair into red hair. $\endgroup$
    – user84912
    Apr 14 at 10:34
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    $\begingroup$ Clear, fair and light colored hairs can be dyed the same way ancient clothing was dyed. Black or brown hair requires to be bleached with ash first. $\endgroup$
    – user84912
    Apr 14 at 10:36
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch-ReinstateMonica I added my considerations because I read I should share my own research when asking a question. Should I remove them? I'd be happy to oblige. $\endgroup$
    – Deathspike
    Apr 14 at 10:42
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    $\begingroup$ Shaved head is a nice, neutral colour. (hey, its in the UK, so use their spelling) $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Apr 14 at 14:41
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Minor frame challenge: you don’t need to dye it darker, you just need to change the colour. Blond is also common in a lot of Europe.

Ammonia (commonly made from fermented urine in medieval times, and often even for the purposes of dying) will bleach hair.

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  • $\begingroup$ This. Cow piss is used for that by some tribes, just straigth from the pipe, lol.idk,but have seen that on youtube $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Apr 14 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ In (at least Western) Europe is was usually piss from sheep which was also used for processing skin to leather. $\endgroup$
    – Mixxiphoid
    Apr 15 at 8:34
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    $\begingroup$ Urine was in many ways the default chemical solution whenever anything chemical was done. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 15 at 14:49
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There are many references to medieval hair dying.

Ancient Remedies - Medieval Hair Dye describes how the hair was preconditioned with either pomegranate skin, vinegar, oak apples, alum or ash prior to dying hair.

Medieval Hair Colours states,

that Agrimonia sp and Buxus sp (boxwood) could be used to colour hair blond, while Black Henbane or Sage was used for colouring hair black. This or a more golden colour might also be achieved by using burnt grapevine ash, crocuses, dragontree, dwarf elderberry, greater celandine, madder, myrtle berry, oat and saffron. Extracts from these plants were often mixed up with liquorice and used as shampoo. Other plants were used as remedies to lengthen hair or making it soft and curly (olive oil). Many of these recipes were handed down through the centuries in later cosmetic handbooks, of which we know of several from the 15th century. It appears there were lots of medieval hair colors around

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  • $\begingroup$ The thing is just having the time to actually do it as a medieval serv. But then: they had an average 6 hour workday, so it would be possible $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 15 at 10:26
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    $\begingroup$ A search for Oak Gall Hair Dye (iron and oak galls were used to make ink for centuries) turned up this paper demonstrating the effectiveness. If literate she would have access to the ink; trying it could be initially out of desperation but turn out to work well. It would probably also stain skin, which might be trickier. $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Apr 15 at 10:55
  • $\begingroup$ It would be interesting to know which of the plants used needed to be fresh and which could be used in some preserved form. A dye that is only available for a few months each year would be less useful for the question. $\endgroup$
    – mlk
    Apr 15 at 15:51
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The Spanish ruler Abd al-Rahman III, Emir of Cordoba 912-929, and Caliph of Cordoba 929 to 961, had a problem.

His mother was a Christian slave from northern Spain. His paternal grandmother was a Christian princess from northern Spain. So he didn't look much like a stereotypical Arab leader.

He is described as having "white skin, blue eyes and attractive face; good looking, although somewhat sturdy and stout. His legs were short, to the point that the stirrups of his saddle were mounted just one palm under it. When mounted, he looked tall, but on his feet he was quite short. He dyed his beard black."[17]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abd_al-Rahman_III#Early_years[1]

So he dyed his beard black to look more like an Arab.

Of course he was a lot richer than a typical European monarch, to say nothing of a typical European commoner, and materials which were cheap in Spain might be expensive in Britain.

People did dye their hair in medieval Europe.

I find it hard to believe that people with red hair would be certain to be lynched as witches in medieval Europe. If every European with red hair would be lynched for a period of several centuries in medieval Europe, the genes for red hair would have become almost extinct and almost no Europeans would have red hair today.

Red hair (or ginger hair) occurs naturally in one to two percent of the human population, appearing with greater frequency (two to six percent) among people of Northern or Northwestern European ancestry and lesser frequency in other populations. It is most common in individuals homozygous for a recessive allele on chromosome 16 that produces an altered version of the MC1R protein.1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_hair[2]

Red hair is most commonly found at the northern and western fringes of Europe;3 it is centred around populations in the British Isles and is particularly associated with the Celtic nations.3

Ireland has the highest number of red-haired people per capita in the world with the percentage of those with red hair at around 10%.5

Great Britain also has a high percentage of people with red hair. In Scotland around 6% of the population has red hair; with the highest concentration of red head carriers in the world found in Edinburgh, making it the red head capital of the world.[6][7] In 1907, the largest ever study of hair colour in Scotland, which analysed over 500,000 people, found the percentage of Scots with red hair to be 5.3%.[8] A 1956 study of hair colour among British Army recruits also found high levels of red hair in Wales and in the Scottish border counties of England.[fn 1][9]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_hair#Northern_and_Western_Europe[4]

So your character is lucky to live in a fantasy society which resembles the world world region where red hair is most common and most taken for granted.

Throughout the Middle Ages, marital status was shown by whether a woman's hair was covered. Unmarried women and young girls wore their hair loose and uncovered. Sometimes they would wear braids or plaits. Married women and widows, however, were held to a greater degree of modesty and required to keep all hair covered in public. Their social status and financial status was shown by their headdresses and accents, such as silk or gold thread or ribbon. Loose hair on a married woman would lead to accusations of low morals or even witchcraft.

https://hair.lovetoknow.com/alternative-hairstyles/womens-medieval-hairstyles[3]

. For a woman to have walked the streets of a medieval town with her hair uncovered would have invited suspicion as to her sexual morality—that was the behaviour of a prostitute. (In fact, if an “honest” woman from the French town of Arles saw a prostitute wearing a veil, she had the legal right to rip it off.)

https://yvonneseale.org/blog/2016/10/09/the-veil-in-the-middle-ages/[5]

So your female character may be protected by living in a region where red hair is more common and more accepted than anywhere else in the world, and by covering up her hair in public if she is a married women or a widow. And although it was rare to marry very young in the Middle Ages, there were probably enough examples of young wives and young widows that a girl with her hair covered would not seem too strange.

But maybe your fantasy world differs from the real middle ages and red hair is very rare - and thus suspicious - where your character lives and women usually go barehead. And maybe her superior knowledge you mention might make people suspect that she is a witch.

So she should dye her hair blonde or dark to avoid looking red haired, and also find a reason to cover up her hair despite that not being customary, so that patches of hair she missed dying wouldn't be noticed. She could become a nun and keep her hair covered if that is a thing.

If the cheapest dye materials she can find are for unnatural hair colors, she might try to start a fashion to dye hair bright green, or blue, or purple, or an unnatural fire engine bright red which everyone will know is obviously a dye job, and no one will suspect her hair is actually naturally reddish.

And possibly she could wear a hat, scarf, or helmet covering her whole head, with a face mask or a veil covering all except her eyes, and tell people that is to hide the horrifying scars from her terrible accident or disease.

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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps red hair was tolerated until a bunch of fanatics took over, and now she's on the run; that would make the need compatible with the real genetics. She could be a Scot (or descended from a Scottish sailor) and living in Iberia, meaning she's rare $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Apr 15 at 10:51
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Soot. Readily available, makes your hair look rather gross and unwashed, but who cares or notices in medieval settings? Or ash, for a bit of older/grey look.

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    $\begingroup$ In medieval times you could be outcasted or even killed for looking dirty or smelling bad..... Because it was believed that smelly and dirty people brought diseases, illness and plagues. $\endgroup$
    – user84912
    Apr 14 at 10:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Thera, in medieval time it was considered unhealthy to bathe or change clothes too often. Michelangelo abode so well to that custom that when he was taken off from his boots, a thick layer of dead skin came away with them. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Apr 14 at 11:19
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch-ReinstateMonica I suppose and hope it was only a niche minority culture or maybe an exaggeration. A skin infection as well as a scalp, eye or teeth infection can easily be lethal. $\endgroup$
    – user84912
    Apr 14 at 11:33
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch-ReinstateMonica: Citation needed. Yes, it is a common trope in bad movies. No, it was not real. In the Middle Ages they did their best to keep as clean as they could, and they even spent considerable sums in building communal bathing infrastructure. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 14 at 11:50
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    $\begingroup$ The very low life expectancies in those times are frequently misinterpreted. It's an average over everyone who is born, and there were a lot of crib and childhood deaths in those days. If you made it to adulthood you had a fair chance of making it to 60. Source: academic.oup.com/ije/article/34/6/1435/707557 $\endgroup$
    – AI0867
    Apr 15 at 7:52
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You're looking for indigo. Extracted from the woad, which is basically.a weed it gives a deep blue color. Paired with something red or orange you end up with a shade of black or brown. Soot mixed with a binder might work temporarily.

If she is really a knowledge goddess she might build an electrostatic generator out of leather straps and a ball of sulfur, run carbon filiments through it to create graphene. Graphene hair dye has been shown to work well, maybe even better then current dyes.

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  • $\begingroup$ I seem to recall that indigo was super-expensive until a synthetic process was developed in the Industrial Age. If I'm correct, it would be out of reach for even the most knowledgeable commoner of the age. $\endgroup$ Apr 15 at 14:08
  • $\begingroup$ @CodeswithHammer the w page for that plant ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isatis_tinctoria ) says that "Woad was one of the three staples of the European dyeing industry". It has the same chemical as the "true indigo" plant, but in lower concentration, and not as colorfast. $\endgroup$
    – user71425
    Apr 15 at 22:04
  • $\begingroup$ @user71425: I did not know about woad; I have learned my new fact for the day. $\endgroup$ Apr 16 at 14:15

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