Medieval Beauty Tips

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 10 excerpts from the Trotula that offer medieval beauty tips!


Beautiful hair

“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.”

Simonetta Vespucci portrait by Piero di Cosimo
Simonetta Vespucci portrait by Piero di Cosimo

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.”


Blonde hair

“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.”

Curly hair

“For making the hair curly. Grind root of danewort with oil and anoint the head, and tie it on the head with leaves.”

Woman with Mirror - 1515 by Titian
Woman with Mirror – 1515 by Titian

Beautiful face

“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.”


“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.”

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.”


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:

The Development of the Trotula

Exhuming Trotula, Sapiens Matrona of Salerno

From a Master to a Laywoman: A Feminine Manual of Self-Help

The beautiful woman in medieval Iberia: rhetoric, cosmetics, and evolution

Medieval Mean Girls: On Sexual Rivalry and the Uses of Cosmetics in La Celestina