Strictly speaking, the Middle Ages extend from the 5th to the 15th century, but here, I’ll be focussing on the late Middle Ages. Best to clear that up and avoid any mishaps. I mean, imagine what a fool you’d look if you turned up to a 12th-century-themed party in 6th-century makeup. How your friends would laugh!
The late Middle Ages liked its maidens with high foreheads, long necks, sallow complexions and lacklustre eyebrows. Added to that, the babeliest of Medieval babes rocked low sloping shoulders and protruding stomachs. This might seem a touch... um... surprising, but in the name of fairness (both kinds) let’s give these ladies the benefit of the doubt and try to unravel their beauty commandments.
Hide your hair.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that hair is sexy. So, naturally, it was seen as sinful by the Medieval Church, and decent women hid theirs with veils, nets, hoods and hats. In warmer European countries, women might get away with braiding since hot weather rendered head-covering a bit of a nightmare. Elsewhere, the only women who left their hair unconcealed were peasants, prostitutes and very young unmarried girls.
Hand in hand with the desire to hide hair was the belief that the higher the hairline the better. Many women resorted to potions of vinegar or quicklime to erode their natural hairline (often taking skin with it), whilst to keep foreheads as unsullied as possible, eyebrows were tweezed within an inch of their lives.
Unsurprisingly, all this hiding only made hair a more potent symbol of temptation, and most tempting of all was blonde hair. We know that women tinted their hair blonde with saffron, stale sheep's urine, onion skins, or by spending time in the sun (often wearing a hat to maintain modesty, but with a sneaky hole cut in the top). Chaucer’s Virginia (from "The Physician’s Tale"), a "maid in excellent beauty," has "tresses resembling the rays of [Phebus’] burnished sunbeams." Whilst the Old Woman from the "Roman de la Rose," a 13th-century French poem, advises: If (a lady) sees that her beautiful blonde hair is falling out (a most mournful sight)… she should have the hair of some dead woman brought to her, or pads of light coloured silk, and stuff it all into false hairpieces."
Remove all distinguishing marks from your skin.
Pallour was preferred (as so frequently and boringly through much of history) and smooth skin was highly prized. In a darker turn of events, freckles, moles and birthmarks were often cited as the devil’s mark on those accused of witchcraft--blemishes left by a woman’s erotic entanglements with Satan.
Techniques used for reducing skin to a blank canvas include:
• To remove spots, lick an amethyst and rub the slobbery stone over offending areas.
• To remove freckles, boil oatmeal and vinegar together and smear it on. Alternatively, if you were out of porridge, you could use bull’s or hare’s blood.
• To eradicate redness, apply cucumber or strawberry juice.
• To soothe sunburn, use the squeezed juice of the waterlily.
The potency of all such unguents could be increased by the application of a plaster/band-aid made from sheep’s leather.
Use enough makeup to keep your husband, but not enough to tempt the husbands of others.
Just as women were encouraged to hide their hair so as not to lead men astray, excessive makeup was frowned upon. However, the views of Thomas of Aquinas show what a minefield makeup was.
On the one hand, Tom thought, yes, a woman should be allowed makeup in order to look her best for her husband, thus discouraging him from the sin of adultery. On the other hand, he cautioned: she should not make herself too pretty, thereby luring other women’s menfolk into an adulterous trap.
In terms of what was available to those willing to tread this very fine line, women could apply foundation, often lead-based, sometimes flour-based. Here’s a recipe from the 13th-century L'ornement des Dames:
Put very pure wheat in water for fifteen days, then grind and blend it in water. Strain through a cloth, and let it crystalise and evaporate. You will obtain 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.
Eye makeup, despite being available since forever, simply wasn’t very fashionable. Most paintings and sculptures show women with pale, undefined eyes and thin eyebrows. However, we do know that women used to drop deadly nightshade into their eyes to dilate the pupils and make them appear bigger, which is possibly where the plant’s common name Belladonna, "beautiful lady," comes from.
We know that a fair few women used rouge. Indeed, the 12th-century monge de Montaudon (monk of Montaudon) sang about statues in churches who complain that there is not enough makeup to decorate them "because of all the ladies who use rouge." It was mostly made from ground plants (angelica or safflower), but the physician Gilbertus Anglicus mentions the effectiveness of brazilwood chips soaked in rosewater.
In terms of lip colour, similar rouge could be used, and also crushed berries to make stains. The 21st-century Lipstick Queen, Poppy King, named her famous Medieval lipstick in honour of the medieval trend for rubbing lemons on your lips to get a deeper colour.
I actually tried this myself and was actually amazed with the results. Sorry that these photos were so obviously taken in my kitchen, but that’s where the lemons live. I just cut one in half and squished it into my mouth, which was both yummy and effective; my lips look significantly more blood-filled, which is suitably medieval.
Lip balm also existed, by the way. The book Secrets of Don Alessio Piemontese gives a recipe for "sweet smelling grease that will keep the lips and hands from chapping and make them moist and soft." It’s made from suet, marjoram and wine.
I like the sound of wine-flavoured lip balm. I like the lemon trick, too. But I’ll keep my freckles and my hair, thanks.
It’s so interesting to me that, in the age of Cara Delevingne eyebrows, St. Tropez tans and Big Sexy Hair, there’s a space in our beauty past like the Middle Ages. Just goes to show how subjective beauty can be.