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Medieval Women's Body Hair

Body hair of any kind on women is a state which appears to have been shunned during the medieval period. This is widely reflected in artwork of the time.

Pictured at right is a detail from the illuminated Book Of Hours For Bourges Use dated 1500 and made in France. Although the time period is towards the end of the medieval and start of the renaissance periods, the woman still upholds the traits deemed desirable and beautiful- pale, white skin, small upright breasts, generous hips, high forehead and blonde hair.

Even though plucking the eyebrows and hairline at the top of the forehead was commonplace for many women, the church was extremely unhappy about this. In Confessionale, clergymen are encouraged to ask those who came to confession:

If she has plucked hair from her neck, or brows or beard for lavisciousness or to please men... This is a mortal sin unless she does so to remedy severe disfigurement or so as not to be looked down on by her husband.

Many books cite small tweezers made from copper alloy or silver as part of medieval toiletry sets. The tweezers at left are dated from the 15th century and feature brass tweezers, an earscoop and a nail pick, all hinged to fold away when not in use.

Contemporary artworks, when they show the female private parts at all, show it clear from any growth of hair. Since the general practice of tweezing the face and hairline to achieve a fashionable look was popular, it is not hard to imagine that women may have also removed the unwanted hair from the pubic region. Trotula de Ruggiero's 11th century treatice, De Ornatu Mulierum (About Women’s Cosmetics) advises a hair removal remedy for women:

In order permanently to remove hair. Take ants' eggs, red orpiment, and gum of ivy, mix with vinegar, and rub the areas.

A written reference to female pubic hair is in the telling of the tale of Griselda, a popular story many times retold, of a cruel husband and his submissive and enduring wife. In one version, the husband Gualtieri discusses the type of woman who when turned out of her house in only a chemise would warm her wool or rub her pelt against another man to procure fine clothing. It is fairly certain the the wool and pelt referred to is the woman's pubic hair. From this we can ascertain that at least some women retained their hair.

Chaucer, too, in the Miller's Tale talks a woman who is bearded around hir hole.

To counter this view, Erasmus in his work The Praise of Folly speaks of an old woman buying herself a younger lover saying:

Nowadays any old dotard with one foot in the grave can marry a juicy young girl, even if she has no dowry.. But best of all is to see the old women, almost dead and looking like skeletons who have crapt out of their graves, still mumbling "Life is sweet!" As old as they are, they are still in heat still seducing some young Phaon they have hired for large sums of money. Every day they plaster themselves with makeup and tweeze their pubic hairs; they expose their sagging breasts and try to arouse desire with their thin voices.

Even though this text was written in 1509, it shows that at that point, it was normal for a woman to be without pubic hair. Whether this extended to the peasantry is doubtful and whether it extended to all of the European countries can only be guessed at.

Copyright © Rosalie Gilbert
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