Meretrix whip

Maker: Lady Sexburga
Meretrix bullwhip, c. Roman period
Bleached hair, leather whip handle
Museum no: I.2

The only object in the museum’s collection said to be assembled by the original Keeper, Lady Sexburga, Queen of Kent 699. Sexburga sought to articulate the power dynamics around Roman female sexuality through this piece, which is made from bleached Roman prostitute hair attached to a bullwhip from the same period.

Prostitution in Roman London was a highly-organised industry. Prostitutes paid imperial taxes and were obliged to apply for licenses. Surprisingly, many high-born women requested a permit to become a prostitute. When applying, they would state their name, status, date of birth and the name under which they wished to trade. These free women worked only in the high-class establishments that offered the greatest luxury and entertainment. A registered prostitute was known as a meretrix, and according to Roman law, they were required to dye their hair blonde.

The Romans had more than 100 different recipes for bleaching or dying hair. Some favourite infusions contain such ingredients as saffron berries, vinegar and crushed nut shells, while others used harsh bleaching agents. The dye often caused hair loss, and in some cases, women resorted to wearing wigs made from the hair of blonde slaves.

In this way, blonde hair became a symbol of sexual availability and domination, through the acquisition of blonde slaves and the commodification of their hair. This symbol is still potent a millennium later.

Belonged to the founding Keeper, Lady Sexburga, c.699.

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