For The Medieval Woman
SKINCARE - OINTMENTS - HERBAL REMEDIES FOR CLEAR
SKIN - ODD REMEDIES
do not try these at home.
These are recipes from historical sources and may harm you.
the 12th century, cosmetics appeared to be in regular use in medieval
Europe. Because of the nature of their ingredients, cosmetics
and many skin care preparations were dispensed by apocatharies
A late 13th century treatise from France, L'Ornament des Dames
includes information on hair colouring as well as long-favoured
Aldobrandino of Siena produced a work Regime du Corps which
also included advice on skin care.
Many creams and ointments were used to soften and preserve the
skin, mostly fat-based.
An archaeological find in Southwark, England of a round, tin box
still had soft ointment in it which was presumed to be a face
cream. The ingredients were animal fat, tin oxide and starch-
all basic ingredient still used today!
Smooth white skin was highly regarded in the medieval period as
the most beautiful of all kinds. Paleness indicated a woman of
superior breeding and the tanned look that many associate with
health today was associated with outdoor work and therefore a
Women were often called fair regardless of their actual skin colouring
because of their smooth, unblemished skin: thus a woman with olive,
Italian heritage and a woman of pale English heritage could both
accurately be described as fair although their skin tones were
not similar in the least.
Clear skin was particularly held in high esteem because frequent
smallpox epidemics left many of the population with unattractive
pockmarks. Shown above is a detail dated 1350s from Memmi's Madonna
Of The Recommended which shows the desired ideas of beauty.
Shown at left is a cosmetic
mirror from the late 13th century. It is made of brass and was
found in England. Mirrors like this had silvered glass inside
were hinged to fold close.
As well as herbal remedies,
gemstones were used to make potions and unguents for promoting
fair skin and removing pimples. Amethyst was the gem of choice
in this matter. A person so afflicted must dampen an amethyst
with saliva and rub it over the spots.
Also, heat water over a fire and hold the stone until it sweats.
Use the sweat mixed with water and wash the face. How effective
the gemstone remedies were is anyone guess, although it is unlikely
that they were of any real medicinal value.
The Old Woman from the manuscript
the Roman de la Rose also offers advice on skincare:
If her complexion loses
colour and her heart is tormented as a result, she should arrange
always to have aqueous ointments hidden in boxes in her chamber,
for the purpose of painting her face. But she must take care
that none of her guests can smell or see them: otherwise she
could be in great trouble... If her hands are not fair and unblemished
but marred by spots and pimples, she ought not to leave these
alone but use a needle to remove them; or else she should hide
her hand in her gloves so that the spots and scabs are not visible.
Herbal remedies for clear skin
One herbal remedy recommended by Hildegard von Bingham in the
12th century is this:
Pulverize ginger with
twice as much galingale and a half portion of zedoary. Place
in a tied cloth in vinegar and then in wine so it doesn't
become too dark. Smear the skin where eruptions are, and he
will be cured.
The following are herbal
remedies for clear skin gathered from historic texts.
DO NOT try these at home
as they may be injurious or harmful.
Mixers- things mixed with
rosmarinus officinalis, shown at right, mixed with white
wine made the face beautiful. Dragons artemisia dracunculus
(known now as tarragon, dragon's-wort, French tarragon, Russian
tarragon, silky wormwood or wild tarragon) mixed with vinegar
and applied externally, cleareth mightily freckles and sun-burning.
A meal of Oats boiled with vinegar takes away freckles and spots
on the face and other parts of the body. Used with vinegar, onion
allium cepa takes away all blemishes and spots. Southernwood
or Old Man Tree artemesia abrotanum boiled with barley-meal
takes away pimples that arise on the face.
Wheat flour mixed with vinegar and boiled together heals all freckles,
spots and pimples on the face. Plantain plantago major
added to the juice of the house leek is profitable for eruptions
of the skin. Least Water Parsnep with bran or malt is good for
eruptions of the skin.
Lesser Field Scabious juice made up with a powder of borax and
samphire cleanses the skin of the face from freckles and pimples,
morphew and scurvy.
juices all widely believed to clear skin blemishes include: Aloe
vera, Small Century, Horse-Radish Scurvy Grass cochlearis armoracia,
Sheep's Rampion and Greenland Scurvy-Grass clears the skin from
pimples when the juice is expressed or made into a concoction
by boiling. Cucumber juice cleanses the skin and helps the skin
to not be red and aid the complexion with freckles and morphew.
Strawberry juice or water takes away the redness in the face or
spots or deformities of the skin and make it clear and smooth.
Sun Dew juice mixed with milk removes freckles or sunburn or other
discolourations of the skin. Garlic allium sativum, shown
at right, takes away blemishes of the skin.
The distilled water or juice of the Water Pimpernel is esteemed
by French ladies to cleanse the skin of roughness or deformity.
The distilled water of the leaves and roots together of Elecampane
to cleanse the skin from morphew, spots and blemishes. Water
Betony leaves betonia officinalis distilled in water to
bathe the face and hands sun-blemished or spotted.
Dwarf Elder sambucus nigra water distilled banishes freckles.
The entire plant, roots and all, of Figwort takes away all redness
of the face, spots, freckles and skurf. Feverfew tanecetum
parthenium, shown at left, takes away freckles.
Marsh Sow-Thistle Tree clears the skin and gives it a lustre.
Solomon's Seal, the whole plant, used on the face cleanses it
from morphew, freckles, spots leaving in place a fresh, fair and
lovely skin- much used by Italian dames.
Tansy cleanses the skin of all discolouration and also pimples
and freckles. The bruised leaves or juice of Water Cress applied
to the face helps with freckles, pimples or spots. Water Lily
flowers takes away freckles, spots, sunburn and morphew of the
face. The water found standing in the hollow of the leaves of
Wild Teasel is said to render the face fair. Elderflower water
was used as a popular skin tonic.
The powder of the root of Butter-Burtakes away blemishes of the
skin and spots. The fresh roots of Century or Ordinary Small Century,
Cuckow-Point or Alron or Janus or Starch-wort or Clave's foot
bruised and added to distilled milk make a cleanser to remove
from the skin, skurf, freckles, spots or blemishes.
Madder roots and leaves beaten and applied to any part discoloured
with freckles or morphew or white skurf, it cleanseth thoroughly.
The juice of the roots of Avens geum urbanum takes away
spots or marks in the face. The root of Briony spread on a sheeps
leather in form of a plaster takes away all manner of scars and
deformities of the skin.
Seeds, leaves and flowers
The seeds of Devil's Bit disolved in a little vitriol assists
with pimples, freckles and morphew. Ivy Leaved Scurvy Grass leaves
bruised and laid to the face take off freckles and spots or sunburn.
Beware if you have a delicate complexions that you may be injured.
Lovage levisticum officinale, shown at right, takes away
spots and freckles of the face. Wild Rocket Mixed seed with honey,
cleanses the skin, and used with vinegar takes away freckles and
redness of the face. An infusion of the tops of the stalks and
flowers of Broom-Rape cleanses the skin and removes marks and
The ointment of the flowers of Cowslips added to hog's grease
or distilled water adds beauty or restores it when it is lost.
An ointment made of Cowslip flowers takes away spots and wrinkles
and adds beauty exceedingly.
Pennyroyal mentha pulegium made into a paste helps with
blotches of the face. Rue ruta graveolens when bruised
and added to myrtle leaves and being made up with wax, helps with
The treatise Liber de Diversis Medicinis from 14th century
England gives several herbal remedies to banish unsightly freckles.
Many of these seem odd today:
- Anoint the face with
the blood of the bull or hare.
- The juice of Greater Celandine mixed with the powder of
brimstone takes away the discolourations of the skin.
- Flax-Weed applied alone or with some powder of lupine helps
with all form of deformity, pimples, spots, or leprosy.
- Willow Tree Water that is gathered from the willow tree
when the bark being slit when it flowers, being drank, clears
the face and skin from spots and discolouration. You may boil
it in wine and drink as much as you want.
© Rosalie Gilbert
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Rosalie Gilbert unless stated.
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