“Kołtun means a matted lump of hair, the result of dirt and the refusal to use a comb, usually accompanied by lice. Its name comes from kiełtanie się, i.e. the swinging motion of the tangled hair. Formerly quite universal, in the West, it vanished much earlier than in Poland, although the average European of the Baroque era and the Enlightenment carefully avoided washing his hair. The kołtun thus affected everyone, regardless of their status and origin, but usually occurred among the peasants. The invaluable Jędrzej Kitowicz claimed: ‘Kołtony are to be found in the whole of Poland, are quite frequent in Lithuania, and are encountered most often in the Duchy of Mazovia, especially among the peasantry ( …) to such an extent (…) that two out of three peasant heads feature the kołtun’. The kołtun assumed different shapes: ‘slight, thick, single, resembling a cap, divided into strings, smooth or knotty at the ends’.
Initially, the kołtun was not associated with the lack of personal hygiene, and it was believed that it was a symptom of rheumatism. The cause of this misfortune was sought predominantly among witches, especially Polish ones, as confirmed by the Latin name of this affliction - plica polonica, and its German version– Weichselzopf (since it was encountered most often in Poland, along the banks of the Vistula). The presence of a kołtun supposedly produced ‘inflammation of the bones, aversion to food, bad eyesight’, and sometimes even ‘vomiting’. It was believed that simply cutting off this malodorous bunch of hair was extremely hazardous and could result in blindness, deafness, insanity, bleeding and even death caused by convulsions. Those brave enough to perform this act were thus scarce. The few who decided to take such a step and got better without any horrible consequences donated their ‘nails’ to churches to protect themselves against the revenge of the kołtun. As late as the early nineteenth century Polish physicians believed that pregnant women have a natural predisposition towards the kołtun, while young men suffering from it were excused from serving in the tsarist army.
Fortunately, not all medical doctors regarded the kołtun to be a disease. William Dawson (c. 1593-1669), Scottish physician, chemist, botanist, and court musician of Jan Kazimierz Vasa and his wife, Ludwika Maria Gonzaga, proved to be extremely progressive for his times. He fearlessly cut kołtuns off and advised combing and frequent washing of the hair. A similar attitude was represented in the early eighteenth century by Tobiasz Kohn. ln 1862, Professor Józef Dietl (1804-1878), rector of the Jagiellonian University, finally put an end to the kołtun by proving its origin and the lack of any connections between cutting it off and illnesses.
The theme of the kołtun appeared extremely rarely in graphic art. Interesting examples include an unsigned Italian aquaforte showing a woman afflicted by this condition: a thick and long kołtun, resembling a boa constrictor, slides down her back [see top image]. The engraving, possibly by Felicita Sartori (d. 1760 in Dresden), illustrated Thomas Salmon’s Lo stato presente di tutti paesi, e popoli del mondo, naturale, politico, e morale, published in volume 7 about the Commonwealth of Two Nations (1739), part of the 26 volumes printed in Venice in 1734-1766.” (source)
"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.” (source)
"In the folklore archives of [the Ethnographic Museum in Toruń] we can find testimony from the people of Pomorze [Pomerania] which describe the purpuseful formation of the kołtun in the 1950s and 60s for healing purposes. Małgorzata Trzcińska, a nurse from Tuchola, came across several instances of people believing that a kołtun had the power to heal by absorbing a person’s illness in the villages of Bory Tucholskie. According to them cutting off the kołtun too early could result in ‘pokręcenie całego człowieka’ [the twisting of the whole person]. Some practices went as so far as to recommend wrapping one’s head in cow excrement and a wool shawl to aid in the formation process. Trzcińska referred to a specific case of a young man who was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bones [osseous tuberculosis] whose mother refused to let his kołtun be cut off until a serious medical intervention was done (this took place in 1953). Kornelia Januszewska from Kaszub also writes about the kołtun, ‘Years ago people living in ignorance and superstition were stricken with various strange maladies. They sought help from witches, or sometimes priests. They cultivated kołtuns because they believed their illness would settle itself there and at the apporiate time the kołtun can be cut off and the illness will be banished with it.’" (source)
Italian aquaforte showing a woman afflicted by a thick and long kołtun.
The longest – 1.5-meter long – preserved Polish plait, in the History of Medicine Museum in Kraków (19th century).
An example of a kołtun at the Ethnographic Museum in Toruń.
- Bystroń Jan Stanisław, Dzieje obyczajów w dawnej Polsce. Wiek XVI–XVIII, t. 1, PIW, Warszawa 1976.
- Dobrzycki Henryk, O kołtunie pospolicie „plica polonica” zwanym, Drukarnia Emila Skiwskiego, Warszawa 1877.
- Gloger Zygmunt, Kołtun, [w:] Encyklopedia staropolska, t. 3, Drukarnia P. Laskauera i S-ki, Warszawa 1902, s. 63–64.
- Hercules Saxonia Patavini, De plica quam Poloni Gwoźdźiec, Roxolani Kołtunum vocant, Drukarnia Lorenzo Pasquato, Padwa 1600.
- Krček Franciszek, Kołtun lekiem, „Lud. Organ Towarzystwa Ludoznawczego we Lwowie”, t. 5 (1899), nr 4, s. 377.
- Kuchowicz Zbigniew, Obyczaje staropolskie XVII–XVIII wieku, Wydawnictwo Łódzkie, Łódź 1975.
- Łempicki Stanisław, Działalność Jana Zamoyskiego na polu szkolnictwa 1573–1605, Skład główny w Książnicy Polskiej w Warszawie, Warszawa 1922.
- Marczewska Marzena, Kiedy choroba była gościem – o językowym obrazie kołtuna w przekazach ludowych, [w:] Współczesna polszczyzna w badaniach językoznawczych, t 3, Od języka w działaniu do leksyki, red. Zbróg Piotr, Instytut Filologii Polskiej. Uniwersytet Humanistyczno-Przyrodniczy Jana Kochanowskiego, Kielce 2011, s. 87–108.
- Morewitz Harry A., A Brief History of Plica Polonica, [w:] Nuvo® for Head Lice, 1 marca 2008, [dostęp: 27 lutego 2014], <[“”:http://nuvoforheadlice.com/Plica.htm]>.
- Udziela Marian, Medycyna i przesądy lecznicze ludu polskiego: przyczynek do etnografii polskiej, Skład główny w księgarni M. Arcta, Warszawa 1891.
- Widlicka Hanna, Plica polonica czyli kołtun polski, [w:] Strona internetowa Muzeum Pałacu Króla Jana III w Wilanowie, [dostęp: 27 lutego 2014], <http://www.wilanow-palac.pl/plica_polonica_czyli_koltun_polski.html>.
- Wraxall Nathaniel William, Wspomnienia z Polski 1778, [w:] Polska stanisławowska w oczach cudzoziemców, oprac. Zawadzki Wacław, t. 1, Warszawa 1963.
*I created this post due to a consistent presence of the question of cultural appropriation in relation to hairstyles, particularly dreadlocks. The Polish kołtun is considered a type of dreadlock, but its reflection in today’s hairstyle trends among various groups depends on the interpretation of its history and cultural significance. The above information is meant to give a rather general explanation for why this phenomenon was practiced intentionally vs. its natural occurrence among Poles throughout history. Take from it what you will, but keep in mind that proper respect should be given to each culture at all times, regardless of a personal agenda or the desire to substantiate a particular behavior. If objections exist to a behavior or custom I find it best to listen with consideration to the people who voice them, since often they are rooted in traditions, rituals, and customs with deep meaning and significance to people who practice them.