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Red - A Natural History of the Redhead

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Red - A Natural History of the Redhead

Jacky Colliss Harvey

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The mere mention of red hair or red-headedness conjures vivid associations. Stereotypes range from the fun-loving scatterbrain Lucille Ball, to the largely mythologized Viking savage, and from the fiery-tempered shrew or the penitent prostitute (Mary Magdalene is almost always depicted as a redhead), to comic foils and long-suffering side-kicks: Danny Partridge (The Partridge Family), Ron Weasley (Harry Potter) Jimmy Olsen (Superman), and Sideshow Bob (The Simpsons), to name a few.

Although the first use of the term ‘redde-headed’ can be traced as far back as the sixteenth century, the chromosome responsible for red hair was indentified only as recently at 1995. For its first 50,000-year existence, red hair had always been viewed as an unaccountable mystery and, as is often the case with the inexplicable, has therefore been hailed as a sign of divinity, damned as the consequence of breaking sexual taboos, ostracized and persecuted as a marker of religion or race, and vilified or celebrated as an indicator of character. Red: A Natural History of the Redhead is the first book to explore these prejudices and to trace the entire world history of red hair.

The book begins in pre-history, following the gene for red hair as it made its way out of African with the early human diaspora emerging as an evolutionary advantage under Northern skies. It then explores red hair in the ancient world (from the Tarim mummies in China to the Islamic kingdom of the Khazars and their possible contribution to the Ashkenazi Jewish population); prejudice as manifested against red hair across medieval Europe; red hair during the Renaissance as both an indicator of Jewishness during the Inquisition and, simultaneously, the height of fashion in Protestant England, made famous by the Henry VIII and Elizabeth I; the beginnings of the modern age of science, art, and literature and the first positive symbols of red hair in children’s characters such as Orphan Annie and Anne of Green Gables, as well as the emergence of red-hair as shorthand for a woman of sexual boldness or an other-worldly nature; modern medicine and science and the genetic and chemical decoding of red hair; and finally red hair in contemporary culture from advertising and exploitation to ‘gingerism’ and the new movement against bullying.

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