Definitions

elflock

Polish plait

Polish plait (Plica polonica in Latin) is a formation of hair. It can be viewed as a hairstyle similar to dreadlocks or a hair disease.

As a disease

The Polish plait usually results from deficient hair care. Uncombed hair becomes irreversibly entangled, forming a matted, malodorous and encrusted or sticky moist mass. It may be caused by or accompanied with lice infestation (pediculosis) and lead to inflammation of the scalp. The Polish plait is typically a (sometimes large) head of hair, made of a hard impenetrable mass of keratin fibers permanently cemented together with dried pus, blood, old lice egg-casings and dirt. The disease may be easily prevented by standard hygienic practices, such as washing and combing of the hair. Treatment involves cutting the affected hair.

History

The Polish plait was quite common in past centuries when hair care was largely neglected. It affected mostly the peasantry, but was not unusual among higher social classes. The most notable person in history said to be afflicted with it was King Christian IV of Denmark (1577–1648). His plait had the form of a pigtail hanging from the left side of his head, adorned with a red ribbon. His courtiers were said to have adopted the hairstyle in order to flatter the king.

Due to superstitious beliefs, the Polish plait used to be particularly common in Poland, hence its name. (In German it is called a Weichselzopf, a Vistula plait, which names it after one region of Poland.) Initially, the plait was treated as an amulet, supposed to bring good health. For this reason people not only allowed it to develop, but even encouraged it. Spreading fat on their hair and wearing wooly caps even in summer were common practices.

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.

These convictions were so widespread and strong that many people lived their whole lives with a Polish plait. A plait could sometimes grow very long – even up to 80 cm. 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."

In the second half of the 19th century some intellectuals waged a war against superstition and lack of hygiene among the peasantry. 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 organized an official census of people suffering from the disease, which spawned rumors that plaits would be taxed. Those rumors were said to have helped eradicate the Polish plait in the region. A huge preserved Polish plait can be seen in the History of Medicine Museum in Kraków (photo). The Polish word for the Polish plait, kołtun, is now used figuratively in Poland to denote an uneducated person with an old-fashioned mindset.

References

  • Gross, Samuel. (1857). Elements of pathological anatomy. Philadelphia. p. 335. on Google books Reference to "Polish plait" and description.

Further reading

  • Pushpa Gnanaraj MD, V. Venugopal MD, C. N. Pandurangan MD (2007) Plica polonica in association with pediculosis capitis and scabies - a case report. International Journal of Dermatology 46 (2) , 151–152 doi:10.1111/j.1365-4632.2006.02933.x -- a report of a case of Plica polonica in the 21st century, with references.
  • Freidli A, Peerriard-Wolfensberger J, Harms M. Plica polonica in the 21st century. Hautarzt 2000; 51 (3): 201–202.
  • Agnes S. The hair and scalp . In: A Clinical Study (with a chapter on hirsuites), 4th edn. London: Edward Arnold and Company, 1952: 244.
  • Morewitz H., "A Brief History of Plica Polonica," (2008) http://nuvoforheadlice.com/Plica.htm

See also

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