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Medieval cosmetics and beauty routine

When you imagine a medieval man or woman, what do you see? Foul teeth? Greasy hair? Dirty, bumpy skin? Hairy armpits and sweat stench?

Well, for some of them, this might have been true. For some people today, this is still true. But medieval sources prove, that it could be and has been different for large parts of the population. Medieval people know far more than we think today.

In this article I want to talk about aspects of (female) beauty routine and cosmetics, as we find them in medieval sources (mainly the Trotula).

Concerning all the recipes I mention: I slightly changed some of them since many of them do their job in their original mixture but on a long term use will impact your health quite badly. Others are working with 3 usefull ingredients and one absolutely absurd ingredient, which does not contribute to the outcome in any way and of which I can not say, whether it is in the recipe due to faulty copying the original texts, due to superstitious reasons or simply because the author had no clue.

Also I simply left out a whole bunch of recipes which seemed to have no noticable use or impact from a modern point of science.

The daily morning routine as described in some of the texts we documented in this video:

 

The subject areas:

 


Daily wash

The rough basics: Bathing was not a daily habit in late medieval time. But the same goes for most of society up until the 50s. A quick bath with hot water and a sponge or washcloth was sill common in my grandmother’s time. Medieval people visited the bathhouse maybe once or twice a week. We explain a thing or two about Viennese bath houses in our video „In the bathhouse“ and in Nikolaus‘ accompanying article.

For daily hygienic routine, the Trotula suggest to their female readers, to wash the body with cloth or sponges and take a steam bath.

Take burning hot tiles and stones and with these placed in the steambath, let the woman sit in it. […] Then let hot water be poured in so that steam is produced, and let thewoman sit upon it well covered with cloths so that she sweats. And when she has well sweated, let her enter hot water and wash herself very well, and thus let her exit from the bath and wipe herself off well with a linen cloth.“

For washing, oftentimes a washbowl and a jug was in use.

Towels were in use to dry the body. We know this from many finds and original pictures of medieval towels in their very characteristic shawl-like form featuring woven-in blue or black stripes. Especially famous are italian Perugia-Towels and their beautiful blue and white patterns.

The face gets special attention in the Trotula. You are supposed to wash your face with french soap and then do a face scrub with wheat bran. Something you still do today. Wheat bran is a nice alternative to modern peeling lotions containing nasty microplastics.

First of all, let her wash her face very well with French soap and with warm water, and with a straining of bran let her wash herself in the bath.“

By the way, they also mention a face mask made with wheat starch. Also something still done today .

After washing the face, thorough skin care is necessary, so our lady uses a delicate hydrating cream after a recipe from the roman physician Galien. Why a roman recipe? Because Galien’s works are still taught in the Viennese University in mid 14th century.

It is made from bees wax, rose oil and almond oil and feels really nice on the skin.

On her temples, our lady wears a bit of violet-ointment against headaches.


Deodorant:

So now that we are all fresh and clean, we want to keep it that way. And the Trotula also offer a recipe for that purpose:

„There are some women who have sweat that stinks beyond measure. For these we prepare a cloth dipped in wine in which there have been boiled leaves of bilberry“

We don’t know, how exactly this deodorant is supposed to work. We think it might be due to the antibacterial properties of the wine and the adstringent tanning agents in the bilberry leaves that cause the pores to tighten. So it may very well be a solution for a few hours.


Hair care:

To wash the hair (which certainly was not done every day), lye from ash was most likely used. The Trotula mention ash from vie stems to wash the hair.

„After leaving the bath, let her adorn her hair, and first of all let her wash it with a cleanser such as this. Take ashes of burnt vine, […] boil the chaff and the sowbread in water. […] Let a pot having at its base two or three small openings be filled. Let the water […] be poured into the pot, so that it is strained by the small openings. With this cleanser let the woman wash her head. After the washing, let her leave it to dry by itself, and her hair will be golden and shimmering.“

Afterwards, some medieval conditioner can be used, in the original recipe this is made from lizzard grease and some nice smelling substances. But even if you could get the lizzard grease, it would not do any better work than any other kind of oil or grease to make the hair shiny and healthy. We used olive oil, spiced with lemon peel.

To make the hair smell even nicer, you can use this hair powder:

„But when she combs her hair, let her have this powder. Take some dried roses, clove, nutmeg, watercress, and galangal. Let all these, powdered, be mixed with rose water. With this water let her sprinkle her hair and comb it with a comb dipped in this same water so that it will smell better.“

The powder smells really nice and kind of oriental. As a modern human, even I could imagine smelling like that occasionally.

And you can do even more to leave a lovely smell in the air your beloved smells when you walk by:

„Also, noblewomen shouldwear musk in their hair,or clove,or both, but take care that it not be seen by anyone. Also the veil with which the head is tied should be put on with cloves and musk, nutmeg, and other sweet-smelling substances.“

More about hair care and hair styles here.


Hair removal:

Concerning the rest of the body hair, the hairless body was not unknown to medieval people.

A woman would use tweezers to remove unwanted facial hair or even use a medieval variation on modern waxing.

„Take Greek pitch and wax, and dissolve them in a clay vessel. And these things having been dissolved, let a small drop of galbanum be added, [and] let them cook for a long time, stirring with a spatula. Likewise, take mastic, frankincense, and gumarabic, and let them be mixed with the rest. Having done this, let it be removed from the fire, and when it is lukewarmlet her smear her face; but let her take care [not to touch] the eyebrows. Let her leave it on for an hour until it becomes cold. Then let her remove it. This refines the skin and makes the face beautiful, and it removes hairs and renders every blemish well colored and clear.“

So you mix wax with different resins and gums and apply it as hot as possible to your skin. Surprisingly, some modern waxing mixes are still made from wax and resins. We did however not try this recipe for obvious reasons 🙂

But also leg and pubic hair was removed. We can see different methods for that. Of course, you can shave it, as seen in this relief from the 13th century. But you could also tweeze the hair when your pores are open, for example after a steambath.

In order that a woman might become very soft and smooth and without hairs from her head down, first of all let her go to the baths, and if she is not accustomed to do so, let there be made for her a steambath in this manner.“

Afterwards you have to rub your body thoroughly with towels and pinch out the hair.

It might be quite a bit more pleasant to use depilatory cream though. The ancient and medieval version of that is rhusma turcorum. The mixture consists of  (quick)lime and orpiment, has been already known in antiquity and is still in use in regions of India today.

Afterward let her also anoint herself all over with this depilatory, which is made from well-sifted quicklime. Place three ounces of it in a potter’s vase and cook it in the manner of a porridge.Then take one ounce of orpiment and cook it again, and test it with a feather to see if it is sufficiently cooked.“

And your hair is going to fall out for sure due to the very aggressive ingredients. The lime practically disolves some of the hair, orpiment is toxic. So please NEVER attempt this at home, just use modern and safe depilatories! Even medieval people knew that the use was dangerous for the skin and put a recipe for burnt skin from this depliatory right after this recipe.

„Take care, however, that it is not cooked too much and that it not stay too long on the skin, because it causes intense heat.“

More about historical hair removal here.


Dental hygiene:

Teeth are not left to rott in medieval times. They were cleaned with the available ways as well as possible. There are some recipes for tooth powders, most of them contain rock flour, spices and salt, but also grind walnut shells or charcoal are possible ingredients. With a damp cloth, the powder is picked up and used to rub the teeth.

„Likewise in order to make black teeth white, take ten drams of roasted pumice,ten drams of salt,two drams each of cinnamon and cloves,and honey as needed. Mix the pumice and salt with a sufficient amount of honey, and place them on a  plain dish upon coals until they burn, and reduce the other spices to a powder. And when there is need, rub the teeth.“

Tooth powder like this is still in use today, though much finer and less likely to damage your dental enamel.


Nail care:

And of course, nails are regularly clipped with scissors like in this picture from the Lilienfeld chronicles and they are cleaned with the nail cleaner which is part of almost every extant hygiene set.


Earspoons:

I am mentionning it scince the earspoon was a very common item. But we have not tried this tool for the love of our eardrums.


Decorative cosmetics:

Since there are several paragraphs in the Trotula that would extend the scope of this articl, I will simply describe what I reconstructed.

Face white:
There are several recipes for face makeup which basically consist of lead white mixed with an oily or watery liquid, in parts with wax or gum arabic to make a better consistency and make the makeup storable. I particularly liked one where the lead is mixed with rose water and formed into beansized little balls which can be dissolved with rose water to apply. A nice idea that is a form of makeup storage still in use today with rouge and powders. Instead of poisonous lead white, we used modern white pigments though.

Cheekstain/Blush:
The original recipes mix brazil wood or dyers broom with different liquids or greases. We tried it and failed as expected. Brazil wood red pigment can not simply be solved in water or grease, it has to be turned into lac dye (maybe the writer meant just that, brazil wood lac) or mixed with alum. Some of the recipes suggest the latter. But that makes the dye dangerous for cosmetic use of course. We used red ocre and it worked perfectly fine. Application can be done with a bit of cloth, cotton wool as suggested in the recipe or just the fingers.

Lip red:
One of the recipes suggests to mix dyers broom with honey and rose water. This resulted in a thick, sticky consistency that does not even look too bad on the lipps. A brownish-orange toned red lip gloss in effect, strengthening the natural lip colour and giving a glossy look to them. According to the recipes, you are also supposed to wash your lips with hot water twice a day and take care of them in order for them to be smooth and beautiful. A pretty modern take on lip treatments!

For the application of all these cosmetics, we used a mirror that Nikolaus had made for this occasion after a find from Bavaria.

 


Sun screen:

Yes, you read right. A beauty-commited woman can already avoid to have her skin destroyed by sunburns and tan.

An ointment that the Salernitan women make that is very good for sunburn and fissures of any kind […] Take one ounce of lily root, two ounces of white lead, mastic and  frankincense— of each a half dram—, one dram of camphor, one ounce of animal grease, [and] rose water as needed. Let it be prepared thus: let the lily root, having been cleaned, be cooked in water, and once this is extracted we grind it thoroughly. And we pour in the fat, which has been liquefied on the fire and well strained and cleaned of its salt in order to dissolve it. Then we put in the white lead, which has been dissolved in the rose water and somewhat pulverized.“

It probably is interesting to know, that even today, some sun screens use white pigment instead of chemical filters. Yes, the pigment makes your skin white. But it also shields it from the sun. You can get rid of the skin burning and tanning UVB rays for some time. Unfortunately it does not shield you from the cancer causing and skin aging UVA rays, which is why today, chemical filters are the preferred choice.


Jewellery and clothing:

And of course, a large part of morning routine is getting dressed and putting on jewellery and veils. Here we take all that is precious and expensive from our “Minnekästchen” (an intrically worked jewellery box, often part of the dower): A circlet, prayer beads, a pretty fibula, rings, veil pins with pearls on them, a silk belt with silver studs and a knife with an amber handle.


 

 

Further information:

Pinterest collection beauty and hygiene

Hair care and hair dos in the 14th century

Youtube Video and Article on the topic of bath houses in the 14th century

A shaving comb of the 14th century

A medieval mirrorHere is the original

 

Excerpts from the Trotula from: https://www.amazon.de/Trotula-Translation-Medieval-Compendium-Medicine/dp/0812218086

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