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Medieval Cosmetics

Many debate the use of cosmetics to enhance the female appearance during medieval times, but there is a considerable amount of evidence for make-up during this period.

The statue at right is dated at 1350 and shows a well-made up woman, her skin fashionably pale with plucked eyebrows, high hairline and round forehead and a rosy glow which could not be due to anything other than a generous amount of rouge. We could suspect that this was just artistic endeavours to make an attractive sculpture, but written records also support the use of cosmetics for the medieval woman.

Opinions varied even between members of the clergy as to the respectability of wearing cosmetics. It was felt that it was generally not a desired state, although it was mentioned that women who had been afflicted with illness and were thereby made unattractive, were excused from the sin of vanity by using cosmetics.

The desire to not repel others or their husbands was deemed an acceptable excuse for enhancement.

Thomas of Aquinas was questioned about the use of cosmetics by woman and also grudgingly conceded that for a woman to make herself as attractive as possible to her husband so that he might not stray into the sin of adultery was itself not a sin, however, it was cautioned that a woman should not make herself so beautiful that she should attract other women's husbands.

Studies have shown that women in England 'painted their faces white' to achieve a paler-looking complexion. Women often painted their faces with blaunchet or wheaten flour or used lead-filled cosmetics. It was assured that the root of the Madonna lily would whiten the face.

Research also suggests ground lily root made a powder for faces, although it does not specify what kind of lily was recommended. The Compendium Anglicus from 1240 written by Gilbertus Anglicus recommends cyclamen root.

One recipe for a flour-based cosmetic to whiten the face comes from the L'ornement des Dames in the 13th century. The method is as follows:

'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.'

Eyeliner and eyeshadow
Many books say that eyecolours and eyeliner were available during the medieval period, and it is commonly known that since early antiquity, Egyptians, Spainish women and later the woman of the Rus at Staraya Ladoga in the 10th century were using eyeliner and eyeshadow.

Paintings and sculptures for the High Middle Ages like the one at left, show women with pale and unadorned eyes and eyebrows heavily plucked.

It would seem, therefore, that although the technology to produce eyeliner and eyeshadow was available, fashion dictated that it wasn't used.

Lip balms, lipsticks and stains
Lip tinctures and balms seem to be the lip treatments most commonly referred to.

One recipe for a medieval lip balm described as a 'sweet smelling grease that will keep the lips and hands from chapping and make them moist and soft' comes from the book Secrets of Don Alessio Piemontese, published in 1557.

'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.'

There appeared also available a lip stain in use, but I have no information about those at this point.

The ground leaves of angelica, Angelica archangelica, were the principal ingredient for the manufacture of 'ladies' red powder'. Dried flowers of the safflower, Carthamum tinctorius, were also used in the making of rouge. In a poem by a monk of Montaudon from 1180-1215AD, the writer stated that the statues of the churches complain to God:

'that there is not enough paint left to adorn them because of all the ladies who use rouge and cream.'

The Compendium Anglicus from 1240 written by Gilbertus Anglicus, mentions brazilwood chips soaked in rosewater would give a clear, pink dye which can be rubbed on the cheeks. Shown at right is the Bust of Saint Juliana Circle of Giovanni di Bartolo dated 1375.

A 13th century French song described in Love Lock'd Out, A Survey of Love, Licence and Restriction in the Middle Ages by James Cleugh refers to a peddlar who carries for sale:

'razors, tweezers, looking glasses, toothbrushes and tooth-picks, bandaus and curling irons, ribbons, combs, mirrors, rosewater... cotton with which they rouge themselves and whitening with which they whiten themselves.'

showing the large range of grooming cosmetics and tools which were in use and available at the time.

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