History of Skincare Part 11: The High Middle Ages, 1000-1399
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Feudal Skin Care: Subtly Refined
The High Middle Ages was a period marked by the development of a feudal system throughout most parts of Europe. Countries were ruled by kings and queens and their land was split into smaller segments run by feudal lords. The peasants who worked the land were known as serfs, and it was considered their job to serve the lord whose land they occupied. Although modesty continued to be encouraged by religious doctrine, skin care became increasingly refined throughout this period. In fact, the Great Crusades done in the name of Christianity introduced Europeans to an array of medicinal herbs and spices that had not been seen since the days of Roman occupation. Women went to greater lengths to obtain the perfect complexion and science was combined with superstition in the development of new lotions and skin care treatments.
While fashions underwent subtle changes throughout the Middle Ages, clothing remained remarkably similar. Clothing for both men and women became more fitted and revealing, but it was still important, especially for women, that the whole body remain concealed. This kept the focus on the face and meant that new methods of skin care were constantly being developed and improved upon. Women continued to pluck their hair lines and eyebrows to emphasize the forehead, and fair skin was still an indicator of wealth and beauty. Some women even went so far as to bleed their faces in order to keep their complexion as pale as possible.
The Crusaders Return
The first Crusade started in the year 1095 and was sanctioned by the Pope. Knights from all across Europe traveled to the Middle East with the intent of recapturing Jerusalem in the name of Christianity. While the crusaders did not accomplish their goal, they succeeded in opening a trade route between Western Europe and the Middle East. Europeans suddenly had access to many spices, minerals and other materials that were not previously available. Many of these materials were medicinal and could be used to make skin care products, lotions and oils. In fact, the medieval Europeans discovered many of the same substances that the Romans had when they expanded into Turkey. The astringent alum was once again introduced as a treatment for blemishes and abrasions. Frankincense and myrrh were rediscovered for their moisturizing and skin healing properties. Anise and walnut bark were also incorporated in many new treatments. (You can read more about Middle Eastern spices and herbs here: http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200605/natural.remedies.of.arabia.htm )
Science and Superstition
Throughout the High Middle Ages, many skin care treatments combined medicinal herbs with superstitious practices. Apothecaries continued to be the main dispensers of ingredients and facial applications, although many women also continued to make their own lotions and potions at home. A number of recipes for facial applications from this period have survived. Many of these involve making a poultice, or tea bag-like packet of spices and herbs, and soaking the poultice in wine, vinegar or milk before smearing it on the skin. While most of these applications relied on natural ingredients, many of them were expected to produce almost magical results. One application, for example, was intended to completely do away with freckles. Another claims to erase deformities of the face. Some treatments even incorporated gem stones, such as amethyst, that were believed to have magical properties. (You can read more about herbal and homemade facial applications here: http://rosaliegilbert.com/skincare.html )
One of the biggest cosmetic advancements during this period was the development of a pale pink make up made from vegetable dyes. The extraction was painstaking work, as only a few drops of dye could be squeezed from each plant. This made the make up both incredibly desirable and incredibly expensive. Most women could not afford it, and continued to wear their faces bare. It became fashionable, however, for noble women to add a touch of pink color to their otherwise pale cheeks.
While it is easy to dismiss the Middle Ages as a time of uneducation and superstition, many common skin care practices from this time remain in use today. Ginger and aloe, ingredients which were commonly used in medieval facial applications, are equally common in contemporary skin treatments. While amethyst is no longer rubbed on blemishes, many branches of alternative medicine use minerals and metals in their treatments. In the end, many cosmetic practices that began in the Middle Ages would be used throughout the Renaissance and for centuries to come.
By Jill Knowles