How did women in the Middle Ages make their hair, faces and skin look beautiful? The Trotula, a medieval text for women written in 12th century Salerno includes recipes and instructions that help ladies clear up their skin, colour their hair and even get rid of the stench from their mouth! Here are 15 excerpts from the Trotula that offer medieval beauty tips!
“After leaving the bath, let he adorn her hair, and first of all let her wash it with a cleanser such as this. Take the ashes of burnt vine, the chaff of barley nodes, and licorice wood (so that it may the more brightly shine), and sowbread; boil the chaff and the sowbread in water.
With the chaff and the ash and the sowbread, let a pot having at its base two or three small openings be filled. Let the water in which the sowbread and the chaff were previously cooked be poured into the pot, so that it is strained by the small openings. With this cleanser let the woman wash her head. After the washing, let her leave it to dry by itself, and her hair will be golden and shimmering.”
“While combing her hair…”
“But when she combs her hair, let her have this powder. Take some dried roses, clove, nutmeg, watercress, and galangal. Let all these, powdered, be mixed with rose water. With this water let her sprinkle her hair and comb it with a comb dipped in this same water, so that her hair will smell better. And let her make furrows in her hair and sprinkle on the above-mentioned powder, and it will smell marvellously.”
“Better smelling hair”
“Also, noblewomen should wear musk in their hair, or clove, or both, but take care that it not be seen by anyone. Also the veil, with which the head is tied should be put on with cloves and musk, nutmeg, and other sweet-smelling substances.”
“A proven Saracen preparation. Take the rind of an extremely sweet pomegranate and grind it, and let it boil in vinegar or water, and strain it, and to this strained substance let there be added powder of oak apples and alum in a large quantity, so that it might be thick as a poultice. Wrap the hair with this, as though it were a kind of dough.
Afterward, let bran be mixed with oil and let it be placed in any kind of vessel upon the fire until the bran is completely ignited. Let her sprinkle this on the head down to the roots. Then she should wet it thoroughly and again let her wrap her head in the same above-mentioned strained liquid, and let her leave it throughout the night so that she might be the better anointed. Afterwards, let her hair be washed and it will be completely black.”
“In order that the hair might be made blonde, cook greater celandine and root of agrimony and shaving of boxwood, and tie on oat straw. Then take ashes of oat or vine and make a cleanser, and wash the head.”
“For making the hair curly. Grind root of danewort with oil and anoint the head, and tie it on the head with leaves.”
“After beautifying the hair, the face ought to be adorned, because if its adornment is done beautifully, it embellishes even ugly women. The woman will adorn herself in this manner. First of all, let her wash her face very well with French soap and with warm water, and with a straining of bran let her wash herself in the bath. Afterward take oil of tartar and, having first dried her face, let her anoint it …
After the anointing with the depilatory, let her go to the baths again and, having dried it well with a cloth, let her smear her face with this depilatory, which is made as follows: Take Greek pitch and wax, and dissolve them in a clay vessel. And these things having been dissolved, let a small drop of galbanum be added, and let them cook for a long time, stirring with a spatula. Likewise, take mastic, frankincense, and gum arabic, and let them be mixed with the rest. Having done this, let it be removed from the fire, and when it is lukewarm let her smear her face; but let her take care not to touch the eyebrows. Let her leave it on for an hour until it becomes cold. Then let her remove it. This refines the skin and makes the face beautiful, and it removes hairs and renders every blemish well colored and clear.”
“Whitening the face”
“For whitening the face, let whole eggs be placed in very strong vinegar and let them remain there until the exterior shell is like the interior skin of the egg, and then let white mustard be mixed in and four ounces of ginger, and let them be ground together. Then let the face often be anointed. Or, what is even better, let lily root be ground vigorously, but first let it be washed and cleaned and ground until it is white. Then, when the woman goes to the baths, let her mix one or two of the eggs with the ground-up root and leave it. Then let her anoint the face, and when she wishes to leave the bath, let her wash herself well.”
“Take root of domesticated lily, cleaned and cooked in water, pound it vigorously. Then take one ounce each of mastic powder and frankincense, two scruples each of camphor and white lead, pork grease with which it should be prepared, and let it be prepared likewise with rose water, and keep it for later use. It is prepared thus.
We clean the lily root and we cook it with water. Having cooked it, we pound it vigorously, and we pour on far liquefied on the fire and cleaned of salt and mixed. Then we place the above-mentioned powder in rose water. And it ought to be noted that this is good against sunburn and fissures of the lips and any kind of pustules in the face, and for excoriations and for preventing them.
In the evening the woman ought to anoint herself in front of the fire, so that in the morning she is freed from the above-mentioned afflictions. This elevates the skin and embellishes it beautifully, nor need it be removed in the morning with either washings or by any other means, for it does not detract from the color. With this ointment women only anoint the faces for floods of tears made in mourning for the dead. It covers up well the pustules of lepers.”
“Women adorn their faces thus, and thus the lips can be adorned. They have skimmed honey, to which they add a little white bryony, red bryony, squirting cucumber, and a little bit of rose water. They boil all these things until it is reduced by half. With this ointment, women anoint their lips. They wash them with hot water at night and in the mourning; it solidifies the skin of the lips, refines it, and renders it extremely soft, and prevents it from every ulceration, and if ulcerations should arise there, it heals them.”
“The same thing cleans the teeth and renders them very white. The woman should wash her mouth after dinner with very good wine. Then she ought to dry her teeth well and wipe them with a new white cloth. Finally, let her chew each day fennel or lovage or parsley, which is better to chew because it gives off a good smell and cleans good gums and makes the teeth very white.”
“For removing wrinkles”
“For wrinkled old women, take stinking iris, that is gladden, and extract its juice, and with this juice anoint the face in the evening. 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.”
“On freckles of the face”
“For freckles of the face which occur by accident, take root of bistort and reduce it to a powder, and cuttlefish bones and frankincense, and from all these things make a powder. And mix with a little water and then smear it, rubbing, on the hands in the morning, rubbing them with rose water or water of bran or with breadcrumbs until you have removed the freckles.”
“On stench of the mouth”
“For stench of the mouth caused by disorder of the stomach, let the tips of myrtleberry be ground and cooked in wine until reduced by half and, with the stomach having been purged, let the wine be given to drink.”
“On removing redness of the face”
“For removing redness from the face, we put on leeches of various colors, which are in reeds, but first we wash with wine the place to which they ought to adhere; they are usually placed around the nose and ears on both sides. Or we place cupping glasses between the shoulder blades.”
You can read more of these beauty tips and recipes from The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine, edited and translated by Monica H. Green (University of Pennsylvanian Press, 2001. See also: