It’s fair to say that society places a great deal of emphasis on self-care and beauty nowadays. But it turns out that we’re not unique in that respect, as there were plenty of beauty regimens going around in medieval times, too. The only difference was that those practices could be downright disgusting. Would you, for instance, coat yourself in pig’s fat to look your best? How about mouse fur? Because that’s what it took to become striking in the Middle Ages… or so they thought. Read on for more, fellow plebeians.
20. Plucking the forehead
Writing in For Appearance’s Sake: The Historical Encyclopedia of Good Looks, Victoria Sherrow explained that ladies in the medieval period were encouraged to have “plain” and “empty” faces. And they had their methods for achieving such a look. Basically, they’d pin their hair back as far as it could go.
Sometimes, though, it just wasn’t enough to pull back one’s hair from the face. And if a woman didn’t have a naturally large forehead, then some more drastic measures might be taken. Namely, she’d attack her own forehead with some tweezers to pluck out any hairs that sprouted out of line. Ouch!
19. Mousey eyebrows
A plucked forehead might make the face seem bigger, but why stop there? For a face that unequivocally looked “empty,” you’d have to get rid of the eyebrows, too. In the 15th century, in fact, women were known to do this, believing that such a look gave off an air of purity.
But if a woman regretted her decision to remove her eyebrows, she needn’t worry. Rather than having to wait for them to grow back, she could simply apply a pair of false brows. All she needed to do was get hold of some mouse or rat fur and stick it to her face. Simple.
18. Hair care potions
Nowadays the internet is crammed with websites dedicated to beauty regimens of every kind imaginable. But in the Middle Ages, advice was decidedly more limited. There was, however, a collection known as the Trotula that could give ladies some tips for achieving things like nice-smelling breath and luscious locks of hair.
One section of the Trotula advocates for women to create a particular concoction for nice hair. You’d need to burn up some vines, before combining the resulting ash with barley chaff, licorice and sowbread. By boiling some of the ingredients in water you’d end up with a sort of cleanser, which would then be used to wash hair. The result, the text claimed, would be hair that was “golden and shimmering.”
17. Nutty hairdos
Like today, some people in the Middle Ages would have wanted to maintain a dark head of hair. But unfortunately for them, they didn’t have the luxury of being able to run down to the local hair salon. Still, there were things that they could do at home for themselves.
It was possible to create homemade concoctions that, when applied, could keep a person’s hair on the darker side. All you had to do was combine some nuts and roots and make them into a paste. Chestnuts and walnuts are said to have been particularly common choices of ingredients for this sort of treatment.
16. Blue arms
It’s unlikely that you would’ve ever come across somebody wearing fake tan back in the Middle Ages. Having pale, clear skin, after all, was apparently considered to be the height of beauty at the time. But some people were nonetheless known to have taken that particular trend to an extreme.
The skin, of course, can only get so pale before it just looks downright see-through. And, well, that seems to have been precisely the look that certain medieval ladies strived for. So much so, in fact, that they’d actually powder their arms white before sketching out “veins” in blue ink. Astonishing, but true.
15. Blonde bombshells
Given that angels were often portrayed with blonde locks in art, it was a pretty sought-after hair color in medieval times. So ladies of the period were known to try out all kinds of things to keep their hair golden. One method, for instance, involved applying a mixture of alum, black sulfur and honey to the head before resting in the sunlight.
Yet some methods for retaining a lighter hair color were more based in reality than others. One particular example of magical thinking saw ladies of the era deciding to adorn necklaces made with opal. The power of the gemstone, it was thought, would ensure a lovely head of light, blonde hair.
14. No more flakes
It seems that people were just as concerned with dandruff in medieval times as they are today. A range of treatments were used to ease flaky scalps, like one that utilized a type of plant known as cleavers. Another option was to juice some beets and mix the resulting liquid with vinegar and water.
Archaeologists have also found signs that a tea made with fern leaves was consumed to treat dandruff. This brew – which was also taken to ease kidney stones and alopecia – had been mentioned in centuries-old documents, but physical proof had been lacking until recently. Because in 2018 a human skeleton bearing signs of the medicine was found on Spain’s Balearic Islands.
13. Oniony hair
Nowadays, hair products tend to be scented in a pretty pleasing way. Strawberry, coconut, mint – the options are endless. But one smell we don’t usually go for is onion. Back in the Middle Ages, though, onion juice was used to keep hair healthy. People would add it to their heads and then go sit in the sunlight.
Onion could even be used to keep people’s hair looking fair. Those looking for blonde locks would take the skin of the vegetable and combine it with saffron and, well, sheep pee. One imagines that this wasn’t the most pleasant of concoctions to apply to the hair, but if it got results who are we to judge?
12. Curdled milk, the bane of acne
When we look back on portraits from centuries gone past, the subjects often appear to have clear, pale skin. Does this mean that acne didn’t exist back then? Is it a contemporary scourge? Well, in short, no. People most certainly suffered with acne in the past.
And these people had their very own methods for treating the skin condition. Curdled milk, for one, was used to treat acne in the Middle Ages. This treatment was also used in ancient Egypt. And it’s not as crazy as it sounds, either. The lactic acid that results from milk curdling is actually said to be effective in treating acne.
11. Soaping up
When we think back to the Middle Ages, we might presume that it wasn’t the most hygienic of times. But people back then did have their methods of staying clean. They even had soap to apply to their bodies – though it probably wasn’t as sweet-smelling and colorful as the stuff we’re used to today. How so?
Medieval soap might have been made of, for instance, ashes and the fat of a cow or a sheep. So you’d have to suspect that such a cleanser wasn’t all that nice to smell. In Spain, however, soap was produced with olive oil, rather than the lard of farm animals. Today you might know it as castile soap.
10. Shapely male legs
It seems that men in medieval times were admired for having well-formed legs. And if their calves weren’t sufficiently rounded, some affluent fellows would wear padded stockings to make it seem like they were. We can even see evidence of this trend in a description of a particularly famous English monarch.
A diplomat from Venice named Pasqualigo once wrote of Henry VIII’s appearance, mentioning, among other things, the king’s calves. The text read, “His Majesty is the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on; above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair and bright, with auburn hair combed straight and short, in the French fashion.”
9. Egg on your face
According to the medieval Trotula medical texts, a pale complexion could be achieved with the help of some eggs. It advised ladies to soak an egg in some potent vinegar until the shell had significantly softened. Then they were to add white mustard and ginger, before grinding it all down and applying it to the face.
And for even better results, a woman could grind up some lily root and add it to the vinegary eggs. She could then apply it to her face and take a bath. When she was finished, she’d wash her face clean and hopefully emerge from the bath with clear, white skin. Or not…
8. Berry lipstick
There was once a time when the wearing of makeup could lead to a woman being punished by the law. Apparently, it was thought to be an act of deception – and the consequences could be dire. Given this violent and perhaps misogynistic context, many women would have avoided adorning their faces in cosmetics.
Having said that, there were some ladies that nonetheless decided to add some color to their faces. You see, certain lighter shades were associated with the notion of purity, and were therefore deemed acceptable within society. So some ladies might apply a lipstick made out of a variety of roots and berries.
7. Reduce fine lines and wrinkles
It seems that people in the Middle Ages were as worried about wrinkles as we are today. But thankfully for those folk in the past, the Trotula offered a solution. All you had to do was get a “stinking iris” plant and cover your face in its juices. Simple.
The results, the Trotula claimed, would be excellent. The text read, “And in the morning the skin will be raised and it will erupt, which rupture we treat with the above-mentioned ointment in which root of lily is employed. And first pulling off the skin, which after the rupture has been washed, it will appear very delicate.”
6. Hiding those freckles
For some reason blemishes to the skin such as moles, birthmarks and freckles were sometimes associated with the devil in the past. And if a woman bore these features, then she ran the risk of being called a witch. Given this horrible situation, it was within a lady’s interest to cover up any marks – and cucumber juice could help.
Cucumber juice was said to be able to get rid of freckles, but this wasn’t the only option. A mixture of boiled oats and vinegar was said to do the same thing. Or if you were prepared to get more gruesome, you could use the blood of a hare or a bull. Nice!
5. Smell ya later
More affluent women in the Middle Ages were apparently encouraged to keep their hair hidden with the help of a veil. Still, it was expected that hair should nonetheless smell good. Thus a range of scents could be applied for this purpose, such as nutmeg or cloves.
And though hygiene standards probably weren’t up to scratch in the Middle Ages compared to today, it was still good to keep your breath smelling good. One way of doing this involved grinding the end of myrtle berries into wine and guzzling it down. This, it was said, would be good for the belly and therefore the breath.
4. Keep your hair on!
Hair loss appeared to be a big concern in the medieval era. That is, if the range of treatments dedicated to overcoming it is anything to go by. So many different tonics were concocted to help keep people’s hair on their heads. And quite a few of them seemed to involve wine. Sweet!
You could, for instance, combine wine with aloe vera, white maidenhair fern or walnuts to make up a tonic for your hair. And if you weren’t the squeamish type, you could use pig fat mixed with the leaves of a plant called hound’s-tongue. The kernels of a peach tree and the burnt ashes of the southernwood were also used.
3. If looks could kill
Looking your best in the Middle Ages could be a risky task. That’s because many of the components in the makeup department of the era were toxic. Dangerous things like lead, mercury and different acids could be mixed up in cosmetics, with some users even becoming ill or deformed from applying them.
For the unsuspecting ladies who used these poisonous substances, the impact could be devastating. But there were some who knew how dangerous makeup could be – and used it to their advantage. Take Aqua Toffana – that was on the market in the mid-17th century. Some ladies who wanted to get rid of their husbands supposedly purchased this and applied it to their faces. Then, when their spouses kissed their faces, they would be poisoned.
2. Grease is the word
Have you ever grilled some pork and found that a huge amount of grease ended up dripping out of it? Imagine taking that smelly grease and applying it to your face as part of an ointment. Because that’s exactly what some people in the Middle Ages used to do.
If it makes things more palatable, you might be relieved to learn that they used to at least mix this hog grease with other things. By combining it with some flowers and water, it was at least diluted slightly. But still, it probably didn’t smell terribly good on your skin.
1. Feeling lousy
Anybody who’s ever been infested with lice knows what a hellish experience it can be. So it’s hardly surprising that people in the Middle Ages had their own methods for getting rid of the pesky creatures. First things first, just like today, they’d try to remove them with a comb with very narrow gaps between its teeth.
There were, however, some herbal remedies that people could try. And one of them, yet again, made use of hog grease. By combining this with juice extracted from a broomrape plant, you could supposedly fight lice. Or you could try adding parsley and a range of different seeds to your hair. So either killing off lice – or growing a garden on your head – might’ve been the end result.