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Skincare For The Medieval Woman

Please do not try these at home.
These are recipes from historical sources and may harm you.

By 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 and doctors.

A late 13th century treatise from France, L'Ornament des Dames includes information on hair colouring as well as long-favoured facial enhancements.

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 low birth.

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.

Please DO NOT try these at home
as they may be injurious or harmful.


Mixers- things mixed with other things
Rosemary 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.

Herb 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 freckles

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 pimples.

Odd remedies
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.

Copyright © Rosalie Gilbert
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