Medieval Mean Girls: On Sexual Rivalry and the Uses of Cosmetics in La Celestina
By Cristina Guardiola-Griffiths
eHumanista, Volume 19 (2011)
Excerpt: The use of cosmetics in the late middle ages, or any age, may be understood given its symbolic application. It is a means to effect upon or enhance one’s identity. Because of these properties, it is unsurprising that they appear in medical discourse. Ancient writers bequeathed a certain knowledge about practical aesthetics, which seems to have been forgotten in the early middle ages. Contributions from the vast tradition of Arabic medicine within the Iberian Peninsula cannot be ignored. In the twelfth century, there is a burgeoning of beauty treatments found within medical treatises, appearing under the rubric “ornatus” or “decoratus.” These terms were used in learned contexts to refer to the ways one could change the body’s appearance naturally or through objects or clothes. A growth in the number of manuscripts dealing with cosmetics occurs in the thirteenth century, despite the fact that both medical and moral texts hesitate to approve of its application. The first Latin witnesses of these treatises appear in Salerno within the Catholica magistri Salerni, as well as the De ornatu mulierum, which became associated with the Trotula texts. Later witnesses were found in the Arabic translations of Rhazes and Avicenna, among others. Kamarneh published in 1965 his report on the first cosmetic treatise in Spain, a tenth-century Arabic treatise written by Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn ‘Abbas al-Zahrawi (Abulcasis, d. ca. 1013). Abu al-Qasim’s Kitab al Tasrif was translated in the twelfth century by Gerard of Cremona, and used extensively by Guy de Chauliac. Less well known is the purportedly lost Kitab al-Zina, argued by Kuhne Brabant to be contained within the Kitab al iqtisad by Abu Marwan ibn Zuhr (Abenzoar, ca. 1090-1162). Although more extensive than other treatises, its presence within the Western European medical tradition is not well known. Regardless of their provenance, one sees a plethora of works on beauty care appear during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A preliminary bibliography produced by Jean Luis Flandrin listed over seventeen different authors and twenty cosmetic works. Although the works he cites are particular to France, one might presume the Iberian Peninsula to have shared equally in the search for earthly aesthetics. Within the surgeries and other medical compendia included in María Teresa Herrera’s Textos y concordancias electrónicos del corpus médico español, no one text solely may be assigned a cosmetic value, yet many of the rubrics and recipes listed within these works treat cosmetic matters. In discussing the nature of cosmetological treatises, most distinguish them from other scientific treatises because of their fundamentally empirical nature. Recipes available for skin, hair, nails, and axilla list extensive pharmacological ingredients. Most are plant-based, although mineral and animal-based products also were common. These ingredients then comprise a myriad of prescriptions, and take the form of ointments, depilatories, wax-based creams, scented and tinted waters, and dyes.
The prevalent use of cosmetics among women fast became a topic for moralist discourse, both inside and out of the Peninsula. Francesc Eiximenis (c.1340-1409) was quick to note the differences between God-given and cosmetically-acquired beauty. Eiximenis’s Valencian contemporary, Vicens Ferrer (1350-1419), scathingly notes:
Is there here any lady among us who does not wear cosmetics or cream on her face, or uses depilatories, or cara de diable? How they sorrowfully take off that cream, and put on snake and lizard water. Oh, they sin greatly those who act so vainly, in order to please men.