This blog is part of series linked to our exhibition, More than Pretty, which looks at body decoration of girls throughout history. Check out the exhibition here.
The Middle Ages (also known as the Medieval Period) aren’t associated with baths and makeup like the Ancient world is. It is true there was less focus on cleanliness during this period, but public baths did still exist (some left over from the Ancient world). Mainly used for socializing (and prostitution) rather than to wash, the public baths didn’t have the best reputation so they weren’t used as much as public baths had been in Ancient times. Public baths eventually faded in the late fifteenth century, as people became aware that public bathing could spread illnesses like the plague.
Baths at home were a lot of work and most girls did not have access to the amount of warm water (or labor) needed to fill a tub at home (or even had a tub). People were also worried about the cleanliness of water during the Middle Ages, so full-tub baths were not taken as often as modern times (at least in some places). However, people – including girls – did wash and recognize that cleanliness was important. There was a distinct difference in the Medieval period – a bath meant a full tub of hot water, while washing was a daily activity that involved a bowl or single bucket of heated water. Additionally, many medical texts of the time advised on regular washing and bathing, often as a cure to various ailments or as a preventive measure against ill health. Still, full bathing – and tub access – was usually limited to royalty and the upper classes, who had the funds to purchase, stock, and keep baths as a daily (or at least regular) practice.
One common practice was hair washing. Many recipes for hair masks have survived but they don’t sound like they clean your hair! For example, a mix of burnt barley bread, salt, and bear fat together to put on your hair was supposed to make it grow faster. Or tea with elm bark, willow root or reed root, and goat’s milk or water would make your hair thicker and cleaner. But most would wash their hair with a mixture of water and one of the following: rosemary, mint, nettles, thyme or vinegar. The last option sounds okay since you can get modern shampoos with a base of rosemary or other herbs.
So far the Middle Ages haven’t won me over, but let’s see what look they went for. The most desirable hair colour was blonde. If you weren’t blonde, you could try to make your hair lighter using stale sheep’s urine, onion skins, or saffron to bleach it. You could also use the old trick of sitting in the sun – but you must wear a hat with a hole cut in the top so you don’t get a tan on your face! And the ideal look was a pale complexion with blemish free skin. You could use lead-based powders, root of the Madonna lily, or wheat flour on your skin to whiten it. The 13th century L’ornement des Dames gives us a recipe for a whitening powder for the face:
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.1
The sheep’s urine is a hard pass for me, but the rest isn’t so bad. Moving on, high foreheads are in! Hats and veils were designed to accentuate this. If you wanted to make your forehead bigger you could erode your hairline with a mixture of quicklime and vinegar. Related, it should come as no surprise that eyebrows were not trendy and were plucked off. Adding eye makeup was also not cool as it took focus away from your large forehead. They did drop deadly nightshade into their eyes to dilate their pupils and make them appear larger. DO NOT do this at home!
With all the white powder on your face, a little bit of colour was needed. A touch of red powder was added to the cheeks, made mainly from the ground leaves of wild celery or dried safflowers. Gilbertus Anglicus’ Compendium Anglicus (1240) recommends soaking brazilwood chips in rosewater to create a clear pink dye you could rub on your cheeks as an alternative to the red powder. The last touch is to add some colour to your lips. You could use tinted lip balms made from beeswax and oil but berries were a good alternative to add a stain of colour. Now this I could get on board with – especially as the lip balm sounds similar to our modern ones.
Stay tuned for the next blog in this series, where we will look at Tudor beauty.
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