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!

Taegan

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)