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Friday, September 17, 2010

Guest Elizabeth Chadwick: The Body Beautiful

Linda Banche here. Today I welcome acclaimed author Elizabeth Chadwick, whose latest book is the historical novel, For the King's Favor, set in the time of Henry II. Here Elizabeth gives us a fascinating peek into the world of a medieval makeup.

Leave a comment for a chance to win one of the two copies of For the King's Favor which Sourcebooks has generously provided. Elizabeth will select the winners. Check the comments to see who won, and how to contact me to claim your book. If I cannot contact the winners within a week of their selection, I will award the books to alternates. Note, Sourcebooks can mail to USA and Canada addresses only.

The winners Elizabeth selected are StephB and catslady. OK, you two, I know who you are (*g*) and I have your addresses. Congratulations.

Welcome, Elizabeth!

Many thanks to Historical Hussies for inviting me to talk on their blog.

“Under Hodierna’s supervision, Ida crushed the ingredients for a hair fragrance in a mortar. There were dried rose petals and watercress, scrapings of nutmeg and powdered root of galangal. A wonderful aroma arose from the blended elements, fresh and clean, but with an underlying sultry, spicy warmth. “Now add the rosewater,” Hodierna instructed “but carefully, no more than a spoonful at a time.”

This excerpt from For the King’s Favor comes from a scene where Ida de Tosney, the heroine, is pondering her future while another woman skilled in cosmetic lore is showing her how to make a perfumed lotion to comb through her hair.

It is an actual medieval recipe and is taken from a translation of The Trotula, a compendium of women’s medicine (including beauty tips) written in the late 11th or early 12th century and widely disseminated from its origins in Salerno. Want to brighten your mousey hair to gold? Then ‘cook down dregs of white wine with honey to the consistency of a cerotum (wax based ointment) and anoint the hair.’ And ‘If you wish to have hair soft and smooth and fine, wash it often with hot water in which there is powder of natron and vetch.’ Natron is sodium carbonate and was used to soften water and remove oil and grease.

The Trotula also says ‘Noblewomen should wear musk in their hair, or clove, or both, but take care that it is not seen by anyone. Also the veil with which the hair is tied should be put on with cloves and musk, nutmeg and other sweet smelling substances.’

We often tend to think of dirt and disgusting smells when we think about the middle ages, and while it is true they did not bathe themselves to death, a life of stench and grime is not the entire story. Just like today, there were different views on the matter of the body beautiful. Cleanliness and smelling sweet were indications of godliness. Cosmetics were often seen as vanity by the church, but that did not stop women who had the resources from using them. Numerous recipes for beautifying agents, perfumes and mouthwashes, existed in the Middle Ages, including a minty one!

Not all of the recipes are as delightful as Ida’s hair tonic it has to be said.

‘For whitening the face and clarifying it. Take the juice of pignut (a root from a tall growing plant) and mix steer or cow marrow with it, and let them be ground. And in these ground things add powder of aloe, cuttlefish bone, white natrol, and dove dung. Let all these be ground and let there be made an ointment. With this ointment, the woman should anoint her face.’ That’s one concoction I would rather not try! But then again, the range of chemicals that go into our own beauty products are probably a tad worrisome if you actually study the ingredients list.

A male historian called Gilbertus Anglicanus wrote the Compendium Medicinae in around 1240. He says that chips of brazilwood soaked in rosewater will redden the cheeks. Brazilwood came from a tree grown in Asia in the Middle Ages, (not South America which had yet to be discovered).

Gilbert also suggests the use of cyclamen root to whiten the face. There is another recipe from a text called L’ornement Des Dames, that suggested putting wheat in water for a fortnight, then grinding it up and blending with water, straining it through a cloth and letting it evaporate to produce a white powder that could then be mixed with rosewater and applied- to the face.

Many of these recipes and concoctions were for aristocratic and well-to-do women only, but even village women and those of more modest, although not impoverished means, could obtain products to beautify the body. Women in villages remote from the ports and cities where the more exotic ingredients could be obtained, were nevertheless able to purchase sundry products from travelling pedlars. There is a 13th century French song that refers to the contents of a pedlar’s pack and it includes ‘razors, tweezers, looking glasses, toothbrushes, toothpicks, bandeaus and curling irons, ribbons, combs, rosewater… cotton with which they rouge, and whitening with which they whiten themselves.’ For a pedlar to have such items in his pack, he must have had willing buyers, and many of the ingredients for beauty products could be picked and prepared from the hedgerow (although I am not sure I would want to use hand cream made from wild garlic and eggs myself!).

The more I study the medieval period and all its intricate little corners, the more I realise that one size certainly does not fit all, and that while very different from us in many ways, our medieval ancestors are similar too.

There were contradictory schools of thought on many subjects and opposite opinions, just as there are now. I have a close friend who believes that wearing any form of makeup is a pointless fluff, and another who thinks that applying one’s face for the day is essential. I have no doubt that such differences of opinion abounded in the 12th century. I also have no doubt that given the survival of the human race, the same opinions will be around 500 years from now and we’ll still be using cosmetics extensively.

The Trotula – An English translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine by Monica H. Green
The Artifice of Beauty: A History and Practical Guide to Perfumes and Cosmetics by Sally Pointer.
The Senses in Late Medieval England by C.M. Woolgar.

A bittersweet tale of love, loss, and the power of royalty…

A captivating story of a mother’s love stretched to breaking and a knight determined to rebuild his life with the royal mistress, For the King’s Favor is Elizabeth Chadwick at her best. Based on a true story never before told and impeccably researched, this is a testament to the power of sacrifice and the strength of love. When Roger Bigod, heir to the powerful earldom of Norfolk, arrives at court to settle an inheritance, he meets Ida de Tosney, young mistress to King Henry II. In Roger, Ida sees a chance for lasting love, but their decision to marry carries an agonizing price. It’s a breathtaking novel of making choices, not giving up, and coping with the terrible shifting whims of the king.


Elizabeth Chadwick lives near Nottingham with her husband and two sons. She is the author of 18 historical novels, including The Greatest Knight, The Scarlet Lion, A Place Beyond Courage, Lords of the White Castle, Shadows and Strongholds, the Winter Mantle, and the Falcons of Montabard, four of which have been shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Awards. Much of her research is carried out as a member of Regia Anglorum, an early medieval re-enactment society with the emphasis on accurately re-creating the past. She won a Betty Trask Award for The Wild Hunt, her first novel. For more information, please visit


Elizabeth said...

Great post - it's so interesting to think about how cosmetics have changed down through the ages, yet our vanity has stayed remarkably the same! Thanks for sharing these interesting pieces of information with us.

Linda Banche said...

Fascinating. Nice to read about some of the everyday facts of peoples' lives.

Stephanie Burkhart said...

What an interesting post. For me, it's always fascinating to see how herbs and naturalistic elements played a role in lives long ago. Elizabeth, how was the research for this? Was it time consuming and dull or was it fun and interesting?


Nightingale said...

Elizabeth, For the King's Favor sounds like a wonderful read. Thanks for the information on medieval cosmetics.

Toni V.S. said...

Another great blog! Not only are these interesting to read, they pack a lot of information many of us have probably wondered about.

Elizabeth Morgan said...

I think this books sounds awesome! I love to read Historical.

Maeve Greyson said...

What an intriguing post! Kind of gives you an entirely different perspective on the middle ages. I truly enjoyed it. :-)

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

Fascinating! I'm just reading The History of a Temptation, Spice, by Jack Turner. He talks about similar recipes!

catslady said...

I love medievals. Maybe because it's the furtest away from our times but I am truly amazed at how similar you make them seem. I never even thought of them having cosmetics. Seems like us women haven't changed that much afterall lol. But I do need to be convinced that men are as heroic!

Congrats on 18 books (and I'm embarrased to say you are a new to me author - that's why I love these blogs!)

Lindsay Townsend said...

Wonderful post, Elizabeth and Linda!

Kelley Heckart said...

The Egyptians were using cosmetics thousands of years ago so it makes sense that in medieval times there was access to herbs and other mixtures to beautify a lady. There were herbs that grew wild that could be used to add to bath water or make lotions and oils. My favorites are rosemary and lavender. Berries could be crushed and used to stain lips and color cheeks.

And I agree with you on the bathing. Even today there are some people who don't bathe very often and others that do. I did read something about early Christians and how some of them didn't like to bathe. Could this be why we think of medieval people as stinking?

Amy DeTrempe said...

This was absolutely fascinating. It makes me want to delve into researching. I've recently started reading more historical novels and this one sounds like something I would pick up in the store.

Keena Kincaid said...

Great post, Elizabeth. The Trotula has become one of my favorite reference books in the past few years, right up there with the Domesday book.

Knicole said...

Love loved all the info! I am a history buff so it was very interesting to read this!

Lisa Lickel said...

I think of Cleopatra drinking vinegar, or whatever, but I forget about the middle ages, thanks for having Elizabeth here.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Oops, sorry not to have answered sooner. I became caught up in the life outside the day job and the internet and hadn't realised the post had gone live!
I'm glad everyone enjoyed the contribution.
StephB, I found the research about cosmetics very interesting. I didn't read it up all at once it has to be said. The books I cited have all been part of my browser reading at one point or another, and it was just a case of pulling it all together.
The Woolgar book I cited is excellent in showing how people related to cosmetics, bathing and not bathing in the Middle Ages. I had been confused by the conflicting data, but Woolgar sets out the arguments very well.
I am definitely going to give the nutmeg and rosewater hair perfume a try when I get a moment! :-)

Anonymous said...

This was very interesting. I knew about the face whitening from reading about Elizabeth I, but didn't know there so much else available at the time.
I bet the natural smells, such as cloves & rosewater, was a lot better than some modern perfumes that smell like bug spray instead.

catslady said...

Thank you so much Linda and Elizabeth!! And congrats Steph.

Stephanie Burkhart said...

I know I'm late but thanks so much Linda and Elizabeth. I look forward to reading my copy. Smiles & Congrats to you to Catslady