Medieval Beauty

Portrait of a Young Woman 1470 by Petrus Christus
Portrait of a Young Woman 1470 by Petrus Christus

As a re-enactor portraying a wealthy medieval lady, one of the most common questions that you can be asked is “did they wear make-up?” Well, the simple answer is yes, but not in the way that we are familiar with today. It’s well known that the ancient Egyptians, both men and women, wore make up: we are all familiar with the images of them with heavily made up eyes, so why should your fashion conscious well to do lady in the Middle Ages be any different? We have an abundance of sources available to us today in the form of documents, effigies, illustrations in manuscripts, portraits etc. to help us see just what was available.

One theme that seemed to survive from the Middle Ages until the Victorian era and beyond was the idea that a lady’s skin should be pale and unblemished by the likes of freckles and so forth. This was seen as a statement of a person’s social status. A peasant would be working outside and so would be exposed to the weather and we all know the results of sunburn, the wind and so forth. Therefore a pale face was indicative of a lady who did not have to be working outside.

So how did our ladies achieve this? I’m sure everyone now has the image of Queen Elizabeth I and her extremely white painted face in their heads by this point, but there is evidence of whitening being used as far back as the 13th century, although this was not the extreme lengths that Elizabeth went to. Ground lily roots of various types seems to have been a popular alternative to lead based products, and Gilbertus Anglicus recommends in his Compendium Anglicus written in 1240 the use of cyclamen roots. Another alternative was the use of a flour based product. One recipe for such can be found in the 13th century L’ornement des Dames:

‘There is a white make-up that is very easy to make. Put very pure wheat in water for fifteen days, then grind and blend it in the water. Strain through a cloth, and let it crystalise and evaporate. You will obtain a make-up which will be as white as snow. When you want to use it, mix it with rosewater, and spread it on your face which has first been washed with warm water. Then dry your face with a cloth.’

Although a pale face was desirable, it needed to have a touch of colour as well. Gilbertus Anglicus suggests that brazilwood chips soaked in rosewater would give a clear, pink dye which can be rubbed on the cheeks.

Detail from the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries
Detail from the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries

Lips would have had colour as well. Although this is a 16th century recipe, I am sure that similar earlier versions were available. This comes from a 1557 publication – Secrets of Don Alessio Piemontese.

‘Take 12 oz of fresh suet and 6oz of marjoram and pound them together. Form into balls and sprinkle with good wine. Next put into some vessel and seal it tightly so that the odor of the marjoram does not escape. Place in the shade for 24 hours and then put into water. Cook slowly, then strain. This process must be repeated 4 or 5 times always adding another 9oz of suet. Finally a little musk or civet can be added.’

Eye make-up seems to not have been fashionable at any point for the Medieval lady, although throughout the period heavily plucked eyebrows seem to have been favoured.

Effigies of two unknown ladies, 15th century. Prestwold church
Effigies of two unknown ladies, 15th century. Prestwold church

The church unsurprisingly frowned upon the use of cosmetics and saw it as vanity and as such a sin. There were exceptions however. It was okay for woman who had been disfigured, say by illness, to use aids to improve her appearance, so as not to appear ugly to her husband or those around her.

Hair on the other hand was regarded as something that needed to be covered up. It had long been associated with temptation and sinfulness. Women pretty much always wore a head covering of some sort throughout the medieval period. The only exceptions were young unmarried girls. This could have been anything from the veils and headrails of the earlier part of the period to the elegant henins of the 15th century. This later period saw a time when women were to favour very high foreheads. This enabled the hair to be hidden beneath the headdress. To achieve this, the hairline was often plucked along with the eyebrows.

Other beauty tips include:

• To remove spots. Lick an amethyst and wipe it over the affected area.
• To remove freckles. Boil oatmeal and vinegar and make it into a paste and smooth on.
• To remove redness. Smooth on the juice of strawberries.

I would not however recommend trying any of these at home ladies!


Detail from the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries
Effirgy of Alice de la Pole in Ewelme Church
Portrait of a Young Woman 1470 by Petrus Christus
Effigies of two unknown ladies, 15th century. Prestwold church
(Courtesy of Google images)

Margery Jourdemayne

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and his wife Eleanor. (Google images)
Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and his wife Eleanor. (Google images)

We would probably never have heard the name of Margery Jourdemayne if she had not been associated with members of the Royal Court – namely Humphrey Duke of Gloucester and his Duchess Eleanor Cobham, Roger Bolingbroke, Thomas Southwell and John Home (Hum or Hume).

Margery, dubbed ‘the Witch of the Eye next Westminster’, was the wife of a Yeoman, born before 1415. Her maiden name is unknown. She had developed a reputation as a local ‘wise woman’ and purveyor of magical ‘lotions and potions’. It was this reputation that led to her services being sought by people of all social standings.

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was the youngest son of Henry IV and Mary de Bohun. His first wife was Jacqueline of Hainault. Serving in her household was Eleanor Cobham. Eleanor is said by some to have availed of the serves of Margery to seduce the Duke. Whether this was true or not, Eleanor became Humphrey’s mistress and is reported by some to have had two illegitimate children with him. Following the annulment of his marriage in 1428, Humphrey married Eleanor, raising her from a mere knight’s daughter to Duchess. Following the death of his elder brother John, who was also regent to the young King Henry, Humphrey became the heir apparent to the throne.

There was at this point in time a very fine line between what was and what was not acceptable when it came to what we today would consider to be ‘the Occult’. Astrology, for example was considered a science and many of the rich and famous employed the services of an Astrologer. In 1440, Roger Bolingbroke, the personal clerk to Eleanor, in the Duke’s household, and Thomas Southwell, possibly Eleanor’s personal physician, produced a horoscope for Eleanor. The horoscope predicted that the young king would suffer an illness in the summer of 1441 from which he would not recover. If this were to happen, then Humphrey would be king. The King’s guardians employed their own astrologers who could find no such prediction. Southwell and Bolingbroke, together with Eleanor’s personal confessor, John Home were interrogated. Southwell and Bolingbroke were charged with treasonable necromancy. Bolingbroke pointed the finger at Eleanor, naming her as the instigator. She was arrested and questioned, during which time she denied all of the charges, but did admit to having obtained potions from Margery Jourdemayne in order to help her to conceive. All were found guilty. Southwell died whilst incarcerated in the Tower of London. Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered, and Eleanor was to be imprisoned for the rest of her life. She also had to divorce the Duke and to do public penance. Home was found to only have had knowledge of the events and had not actually taken part. He was eventually pardoned.

Some years earlier, Margery had been accused of witchcraft and had been imprisoned in Windsor Castle. She had been released after giving her word that she would not practice her skills any more. In truth it seems likely that she just picked up where she had left off, but became more discreet about her activities. Medieval thinking such that a blind eye would on occasion be turned to such activities when a need was being met within a community, just so long as it was deemed not to be harmful to anyone. Despite her earlier incarceration, Margery is said to have continued to have had notable patronage since the early 1430’s. She is said to have foretold that Edmund Beaufort, 1st (or 2nd depending on the calculations) Duke of Somerset, would die ‘at a castle’. He was mortally wounded at the 1st Battle of St Albans, and died at the Castle Inn. As a repeat offender there was no way that Margery was going to escape a second time. She was found guilty of practising long time witchcraft and heresy. She was sentenced to death by burning and was taken to Smithfield for the sentence to be carried out.


The Marriage of John of Gaunt & Blanche of Lancaster

The Marriage of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster in Reading Abbey on 19 May 1359 by Horace Wright (1914), The Museum of Reading
The Marriage of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster in Reading Abbey on 19 May 1359 by Horace Wright (1914), The Museum of Reading
The tomb of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster in St. Paul's Cathedral, as represented in an etching of 1658 by Wenceslaus Hollar.
The tomb of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster in St. Paul’s Cathedral, as represented in an etching of 1658 by Wenceslaus Hollar.

Until the devastation imposed on it by Henry VIII at the dissolution of the monasteries, Reading Abbey in Berkshire witnessed a good many historical events as diverse as being the place where the earliest recorded musical manuscript of the 13th Century musical ‘round’ – Sumer Is Icumen In – was found, to the place Edward IV chose to make public his clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. One of the most significant events however took place on the 19th May 1359. John of Gaunt married his third cousin Blanche of Lancaster, both being Great great grandchildren of Henry III.

John was the fourth son of Edward the III, and Blanche was the younger of two daughters of Henry of Grosmont the Duke of Lancaster, one of the most powerful magnates in England. Many notable people of the day attended the ceremony including Edward III himself and three of his other sons – Edward, the Black prince, Lionel and Edmund. The ceremony was performed by the Lord Bishop of Salisbury, Robert Wyville.

Following what would have probably have been a lavish ceremony, there were celebrations lasting for three days in the form of a lavish jousting tournament. The tournament is believed to have taken place an area adjoining the abbey precincts, next to the River Thames, now known as King’s Meadow. (The name comes from the days after the dissolution, when the land was in the possession of the King.) After three days of celebration in Reading, the celebrations moved to London, where a staged scenario saw the nobility, including the King and his four sons impersonating the civic leaders of the City of London, against all comers.

Following the marriage, John became heir, by right of his wife, to half of the lands of the Lancaster estate. Henry of Grosmont died in 1361, and then in the following year Blanche’s elder sister died without issue, ensuring that the entire Lancaster estate passed to John, who received the title of Duke of Lancaster from his father in November 1362. Of their seven children, three survived to adulthood. The eldest, Philippa married King John I of Portugal, The somewhat wayward Elizabeth marrying firstly John Hastings, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, secondly John Holland, 1st Duke of Exeter and finally Sir John Cornwall. Their son, Henry of Bolingbroke becoming King Henry IV. After 10 years of marriage, Blanche died following an outbreak of the plague. Blanche was buried at the Old St Paul’s Cathedral, where John was later to be interred also.

For more on John of Gaunt, please see this post:


Francis Bacon

12109175_173989132943177_5326984050411747774_nBorn in January 1561, Bacon was the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon and his second wife Anne.

During his time at Cambridge, Bacon began to question the accepted methods of scientific research, believing them to be flawed. His ideas led to the modern approach to scientific research. It is suggested that it was his experimentation of the effects of freezing on decomposition and preservation that led to him catching a chill and developing pneumonia, leading to his death.
Bacon embarked on a career in Law and Politics, following his father’s sudden death which left him in financial difficulties. Despite the difficulties Bacon was served as a Member of Parliament from 1584 to 1617. In 1603 Bacon was knighted on James I ascension to the throne. As his career continued, Bacon reached the pinnacle of being made Lord Chancellor. In 1621, Bacon was given the title of Viscount St Albans.

His career ended in disgrace when later in 1621, Bacon was accused of corruption and taking bribes. There is a belief in some quarters that Bacon was a scapegoat, set up by his political enemies in order to deflect hostility towards the Duke of Buckingham. Following his confession and trial, Bacon was fined £40,000 and sentenced to the Tower. He only served 4 days and the fine was lifted, but Bacon’s reputation was in tatters.

Following his downfall, Bacon retired to St Albans where he spent the last years of his life following his scientific interests. The 9th April 1626 saw the passing of Francis Bacon.


Defying Death

12074742_164506483891442_5109843165303082925_n“And Methuselah lived after he begat Lamech seven hundred eighty and two years, and begat sons and daughters: / And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years: and he died.”

Methuselah was reputedly the oldest named person recorded in the bible. He was the grandfather of Noah, and supposedly died at the age of 969 years of age. His death occurred in the same year as the Flood.

Throughout history there has always been a fascination with the idea of immortality and of defying the aging process. Today there are an abundance of products available aimed at both men and women that try and stem the onset of the aging process. There are some that take the idea further, in what some would consider at best eccentric measures, like those that believe that cryonics are the answer to eternal life. There is a long-standing rumour that Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen following his death from cancer in 1966, but this was later exposed as being an idea circulated by former colleagues as a prank. He was in fact cremated and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in California.

The first human cryonic freezing following death, took place in January 1967. The ‘recipient’ was James Bedford, a University of California professor of psychology. Bedford was born in 1893, and had had an interest in the concept of being suspended ‘on ice’ at the moment of death with a view to being reanimated at a later date, when medical advances etc had be made that would allow for a cure for diseases such as the cancer that he was suffering from had been made. He was well aware that his life expectancy was limited – he was suffering from Kidney cancer that had spread to his lungs.

The Life Extension Society had been researching the possibilities and had reached the stage at which they needed to put the theory into practice. In 1965 they offered the opportunity to one person to be the first to be frozen. Bedford was the one chosen for the experiment. Bedford even left the organisation $100,000 for further research in his will. His immediate family were aware of his wishes and upheld his decision, but faced a court battle with other relatives over the decision. The last days of Bedford’s life were spent at a nursing home so that the process could begin immediately death occurred. He was successfully frozen and was stored in a specially designed tank. Bedford’s body has been stored at a number of facilities over the years and is now housed at Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona. In 1991, the body was removed from it’s storage tank and inspected. It was found to have few issues and was generally in good condition, and placed in a replacement tank where it remains today.

The quest for immortality was a priority for the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang. He was the Ist Emperor of the unified China, ruling from 246 BC to 210 BC and only 13 when he came to the throne. The construction of the Great Wall of China was begun during his reign as part of defensive measures. Although he was responsible for construction projects like this he was also known to be savage in his treatment of any who defied him, burying in excess of 400 people alive because they disagreed with his ideas. Qin Shi Huang developed an obsession with becoming immortal as he grew older. He had doctors and alchemists around him create potions in his search for a way of defying death, many of which contained ingredients such as mercury. We can speculate that his quest for immortality was in fact responsible for hastening his end. He was however unconvinced that he would live forever and had a massive personal tomb created, guarded by an army of now famous terracotta warriors.

Throughout time however there have been many things that have been considered helpful in the quest for immortality. Various fruits have been associated with it. Norse traditions and Celtic mythology both link apples with the gods and immortality. The wood of the cherry tree was seen as having protective powers over evil spirits and the fruit of the tree as having powers of immortality, to name a few. Wherever you go in the world you will find a myth or legend which links to the human need to believe that life can go on forever.

As medicine progresses and diets are improving, the population of Earth is achieving longer lifespans. There is one region of Japan, where longevity is quite common-place, and many of the residents have achieved over a hundred years of life regularly. Traditionally, they consider adulthood reached at the age of 55. In the last few years, we have seen remarkable ages achieved, with the people involved ascribing their advanced age to a wide variety of things, such as daily porridge, long walks and in one case, a gentleman of 110 years put his long life down to hard drinking, bad habits and loose women. It seems as though if you intend pushing the boundaries of mortality, it’s best not to plan on a pristine wrapper when it ends.

Today scientists are continuing the search for cures to the many killer diseases that are a part of our lives, genetic modification, organ transplants and cloning being examples of their research, continuing in many ways the idea that we can live forever. Perhaps one day the secret of eternal youth and immortality will be found.