Polish plait

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A Polish plait in the Museum of the Faculty of Medicine, Medical College, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland

Polish plait (Plica polonica in Latin), plica, or trichoma is a formation of hair. This term refers to hairstyle, or a medical condition. It also relates to the system of beliefs in European folklore, and healing practices in traditional medicine in Poland.

As a medical condition[edit]

Plica Polonica, syn. plica neuropathica, (common name Polish plait) is an uncommon condition in which hair shaft becomes entangled irreversibly, forming a mass which is matted and sometimes can be sticky and moist.

In this condition the protective layer of the hair (cuticle) is damaged, and the cortex of the hair is exposed. Cortex is a more moist and sticky part of the hair than the outer layer, and the affected hairs adhere to each other and unaffected hairs. Several factors may contribute to this condition: chemical exposure, hair with natural kinks, hair extensions, quality of water and shampoo, or poor hair grooming and hair care techniques. It may also be caused by or accompanied with lice infestation (pediculosis) and lead to inflammation of the scalp, or the mass can become malodorous.

As a hair style[edit]

Larry Wolff in his book Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of Enlightenment mentions that in Poland for about a thousand years some people wore the hair style of the Scythians. Zygmunt Gloger in his Encyklopedia staropolska mentions that Polish plait was worn as a hair style by some people of both genders in the Pinsk region and the Masovia region at the beginning of the 19th century. He used the term "koltun zapuszczony" which denotes artificial formation of Polish plait, forms of dreadlocks. According to the folklore studies of today, the forming of dreadlocks was done using liquids or wax. Among liquids a mixture of wine and sugar was used, or washing hair every day with water in which herbs were boiled. The most commonly used herb was Vinca, (Vinca major) followed by Lycopodium clavatum and moss, which caused matting of hair and formation of dreadlocks. A similar effect can be had by rubbing hair with wax, or inserting piece of a candle at the hair ends. Newer Polish dictionaries mention plica as a disease, but the old ones still mention artificially created plicas also.


The Polish plait was quite common in Europe during past centuries when hair care was largely neglected. It affected mostly the peasantry, but was not unusual among higher social classes.

Due to superstitious beliefs, the Polish plait used to be particularly common in Poland, hence its English and Latin name. Similarly, in German it is called Weichselzopf, or Vistula plait, after a river in Poland. Initially, the plait was treated as an amulet, supposed to keep the illness away from the body, as it was believed that the disease resolved and left the body and lived in the hair creating less suffering. For this reason people not only allowed it to develop, but even encouraged it. According to M. Marczewska who researched the subject from the perspective of folklore studies, the pagan beliefs relating to illness which survived for long, and animistic beliefs viewed illness as caused by invading spirit of evil, which by convalescence left the body and caused less problems when lived in the hair formation, which was than shed naturally or cut and ritualistically disposed by persons who were specializing in folk medicine or practitioners of folk magic. As people believed that the formation of plica was sign of resolving of disease, plica was also formed artificially by washing with mixtures of herbs, sweetened wine, waxing, etc. as in the case of the plica as hairstyle.

In the early 17th century people began to believe plaits were an external symptom of an internal illness. A growing plait was supposed to take the illness "out" of the body, and therefore it was rarely cut off; in addition, the belief that a cut-off plait could avenge itself and bring an even greater illness discouraged some from attacking it. It was also believed that casting a magic spell on someone could cause that person to develop a Polish plait, hence also the name "elflock" was used in English, also "Hexenzopf" (witches' plait) in German.

These convictions were so widespread and strong that some people lived their whole lives with a Polish plait. A plait could sometimes grow very long – even up to 80 cm (31.5"). Polish plaits could take various forms, from a ball of hair to a long tail. Plaits were even categorized in a quite sophisticated way; there were plaits "male" and "female", "inner" and "outer", "noble" and "fake", "proper" and "parasitical".

A British diarist and Samuel Johnson's friend, Hester Thrale, in her book Observations and reflections made in the course of a journey through France, Italy, and Germany, describes a Polish plait she saw in 1786 in the collection of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden: "the size and weight of it was enormous, its length four yards and a half [about 4.1 m]; the person who was killed by its growth was a Polish lady of quality well known in King Augustus's court."

During the Enlightenment era when the ideas of racial and ethnic superiority of the Western civilization began to circulate, it became common to use the terms "Plica Polonica" (Polish plait), or "Plica Judiaica" (Jewish plait), also the term Polish ringworm in English. In addition to Antisemitism there was also prejudice against Eastern Europe.According to Larry Wolff,(book Invention of Eastern Europe)Poles were considered descendants of Tatars, and barbarians as "semi-Asians." Maurice Fishberg in his book The Jews: A Study of Race and Environment mentions both terms.It was a common belief that plica was a contagious disease which originated in Poland after Mongol invasion and from there also spread to other countries. Diderot wrote in his encyclopedia entry due to his misunderstanding of the text in Polish chronicler Martin Cromer that the Tartar invasion of Poland was the source of plica. One example of this belief in the possible spread of plica as contagious disease whose hosts are people belonging to other ethnicity than one's own: during the Victorian times when in Britain occurred cases of plica, the belief was that the plica spread as disease through Polish traders in artificial hair, not by neglect by the British individuals. George Lefevre, in his book An Apology for the Nerves mentions the terms plica Polonica and plica Judiaca, also gives the information about the belief that wearing Polish national costume can cause plica in the wearer. He describes the case of a woman in Berlin who did not wear Polish national costume, yet was affected with plica.He concluded, that:"Neither, therefore, are stranger free from it, nor is produced by dress alone."

Zygmunt Gloger in Encyklopedia Staropolska argued that according to the research done by Grimm Brothers and Rosenbaum that plica polonica and the idea that it spread from Poland was an error, as it was also found among Germanic population of Bavaria and Rhine river area. He said that the word "Weichselzopf" (Vistula plait) was a later alteration of the name Wichtelzopf, "plaid of a Wichtel," Wichtel" is Wight in German.

In the second half of the 19th century some medical professionals waged a war against superstition and lack of hygiene among the peasantry, and traditional folk medicine. Many plaits, often to the horror of their owners, were cut off. In Western Galicia, it was Professor Józef Dietl who made a particular effort to examine and treat Polish plaits. He was also a politician, and his methods of dealing with persons with plicas are controversial today: he organized an official census of people suffering from the disease, they were not allowed to receive help by charitable organizations, were forbidden entrance to some buildings such as schools and offices, he also proposed fines, which spawned rumors that plaits would be taxed. Those practices were said to have helped eradicate the Polish plait in the region. A huge, 1.5-meter long, preserved plica can be seen in the Museum of the Faculty of Medicine (Medical College, Jagiellonian University) in Kraków. In the areas of Poland which were occupied by Russian Empire, young men who had plica were exempt for service in tsarist army. It is difficult to know how many of plicas were tangled in a natural way, or how often there were made artificially as dreadlocks. The Polish word for the Polish plait, kołtun, is now used figuratively in Poland to denote an uneducated person with an old-fashioned mindset.

In folklore[edit]

Plica was believed to be caused by supernatural entities. The names often describe the believed cause of tangled hair. In Britain this condition was believed to be caused by elves, hence the name "elflock", mentioned by Shakespeare poetry and folk tales. Folk belief in Germany associated it with witches or wights, (Hexen or Wichtel, giving plica the names Hexenxzopf or Wichetlzopf), in Poland the cause was an unclean spirit. One of the names of plica in polish was wieszcyca, "wieszczi" means bard, specifically a folk poet with skills of prophesying the future, but also vampire-like living person. In German folklore plica appears there also in less dramatic version: in one of Brother Grimms fairy tales a girl didn't comb her hair for one year and found golden coins in her plica.

Also many illnesses were associated with plica, and there were synonymous with the folk name for this condition. According to Marczewska about thirty diseases were associated with plica in Polish folklore, in German and Bohemian spells there are even as much as seventy diseases. Poles were afraid to upset the unclean spirit, and in order to make it docile inserted offerings into plica, for example coins. Koltun, or gosciec (polish folk name for plica) was not necessary the description of the hair formation only, also described the illness which was present in the body, without the presence of tangled hair. Pain, specially in joints, rheumatism, etc. was synonymous with it. Also plica (koltun, gosciec) if the hair formation was present was associated with creating whims and cravings, which needed to be satisfied promptly, and people around a person with plica needed to make effort to help the craving individual to conform to those cravings. Marczewska points out that in one of the old Polish dictionaries defining plica it was stated that koltun created strong cravings, and that was especially fond of wine. (Wine was an imported and expensive drink.)

See also[edit]


  • Gross, Samuel. (1857). Elements of pathological anatomy. Philadelphia. p. 335. on Google books. Reference to "Polish plait" and description.
  • Marczewska, Marzena. (2011), Jan Kochanowski University in Kielce, paper in folkore and lingusitic studies, in Polish
  • College of Physiciansof Philadelphia and the Mutter Museum short movie
  • Fisheberg, Maurice. The Jews: A Study of Race and Enrvironment, p. 317 google book
  • Lefevre, Georg, Apology for the Nerves (1844), p. 355-356 google book
  • Wolff, Larry. Inventing of Eastern Europe:Map of Civilization on the Mind of Enlightenment,(1994)book link
  • Hicks J, Metry DW, Barrish J, Levy M (2001). "Uncombable hair (cheveux incoiffables, pili trianguli et canaliculi) syndrome: brief review and role of scanning electron microscopy in diagnosis". Ultrastructural Pathology 25 (2): 99–103. doi:10.1080/01913120117514. PMID 11407534. 
  • Stevens, B. Plica Polonica (syn. Plica Neuropathica), Trichological Society, College of Trichology, London, (2004)scientific definition of medical condition
  • Gurazda, Magdalena, Zycie Pabianic, (2011) article quoting Dietl's methods, in Polish
  • Forth, Christopher e. and Crozier, Ivan. Body Parts: Cultural Explorations in Corporeality, p. 111 and p.116 book description

Further reading[edit]

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