Art thou hot or not? Medieval male beauty in history

Here’s the formula for a female Medieval beauty makeover

Whiten your face, accentuate your bulging forehead, thin your eyebrows, round your shoulders, cover your hair and push your stomach slightly forward.


Medieval Pin-up, by olzmann
Source : Medieval Pin-up, by olzmann

If you’re very lucky, you have a long face and pointy nose. Think Lady Gaga.

There are reams written about Medieval female beauty from medieval make-up to medieval beauty tips.

The Medieval male beauty is much harder to pin down.

We know that the “perfect age of man” was in his 30s or 40s – presumably having strength, wisdom, power, and maturity at that point.

The beauty of a young man in late adolescence was celebrated too, with many of the same pleasing female attributes : long fair hair, pale skin, slenderness, etc.

In contrast to female beauty, male beauty is also determined by the domed chest, by the regularity of the legs and by strength.

Medieval male beauty – Check out those pins

Nothing says Medieval male masculinity like a slender, shapely leg.

A well-formed, gartered leg (on men) was hot from the sixteenth through early nineteenth centuries.

High-status men’s clothing gripped the calves with tight stockings to show off their curves.

Source : By Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger 1497/8 (German) Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Henry VIII who showed off his calves in many portraits had :

“an extremely fine calf to his leg”


Sources : By Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, Antwerp 1599–1641 London) – Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1889 and Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Our subjects put their best foot forward in what is now a classic red carpet pose.

From the 1770s until into the 1820s, less lucky men padded their hose with “artificial calves” strapped to their legs!

Medieval male beauty – Codpieces oh my!

Source : Giovanni Battista Moroni (circa 1525–1578) – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain.

One of the most popular fashion accessories of the Middle Ages was the codpiece.

It’s a flap or pouch that attaches to the crotch of men’s trousers and exaggerate the genitals.

Initially a protector of a man’s modesty (covering the opening between a man’s stockings), it became an advertisement.

In the Elizabethan play Wily Beguiled, a character named Will Cricket boasts that women find him attractive because he possesses

“a sweet face, a fine beard, comely corpse, and a carousing codpiece”.

Henry VIII’s codpiece was padded, puffed and even ornamented with jewelled pins!

Scholars have pointed out the Renaissance codpiece was popular about the same time as the aggressive spread of syphilis in the early 16th century.

The increasing size of the codpiece may have been to provide extra room in the clothing for bandages or dressings.

For a time, even armor flaunted codpieces.

Legend has it that Edward III (1327-1377) had the codpiece of his armor enlarged to astounding proportions because he had heard that strength and military prowess matched a man’s endowment.

He liked it so much that he ordered that the nobility and knights do the same to their armor.

The legend goes on to say that the gullible French were terrified by the advance of the “well-equipped” men.

During the 1570s and 80s, it was briefly fashionable for women to wear codpieces – on their breast.

Pamphlets like Hic Mulier (1620) ranted about the dangers presented by a new race of ‘mankind women’ or female transvestites who usurped male dress and customs.

Medieval male beauty – Women’s reaction

Very little evidence survives of what women thought of men’s sense of fashion.

Luckily, a wonderful blog gives us a 16th-century rather bolshy letter by two women to the Italian city council of Ascoli Piceno :

Hear, Hear, Messeres, in your short clothing, to show off a pair of fine stockings you wear jackets and doublets so short that you show all the buttocks and the whole bum and rear, and not only from the rear but also in front you show off big, long, and thin codpieces that point upwards. This is to be considered horribly dishonest and in truth we can no longer bear to see it.”

False advertising, indeed.

Medieval male beauty – Descriptions


What did Medieval men look like?

The following are contemporary physical descriptions.

Bear in mind that the men described are noble so there’s probably quite a bit of career-enhancing flattery involved.

Golden And Slender

AEthelstan, King of England, illegitimate son of Edward the Elder, grandson of Alfred the Great (895-924)

“[A] boy of handsome appearance and graceful manners… [N]ot beyond what is pleasing in stature and slender in body; his hair, as we ourselves have seen from his relics, flaxen, with gold threads.”
– From the Gesta Regum Anglorum of William of Malmesbury (c.1080-1143), describing having seen AEthelstan’s corpse.

Handsome Feet and Straight Legs

Gryffudd ap Cynan, Prince of Gwynedd, son of Cynan ab Iago and Radnaillt of Dublin, father of Owain Gwynedd (died 1137)

“Gryffudd in his person was of moderate stature, having yellow hair, a round face, and a fair complexion, eyes rather light, light eyebrows, a comely beard, a round neck, white skin, strong limbs, long fingers, straight legs, and handsome feet.
– From Life of Griffith ap Conan

The Medieval Edward ScissorHands?

Edward the Confessor, King of England, son of AEthelred II and Emma of Normandy (1004-1066)

“[He] was a very proper figure of a man–of outstanding height, and distinguished by his milky white hair and beard, full face and rosy cheeks, thin white hands, and long translucent fingers…”
– From the Vita Edwardi Regis of Ailred of Rievaulx

The mind boggles

Guifred Pilosus, Count of Barcelona (died 897)

“…[H]e was hairy in places not normally so in men…”
– From the Gesta comitum barcinonensium

The medieval equivalent of “nice personality”?

Alexander II, King of Scots, son of William I and Ermengarde de Beaumont, father of Alexander III (1198-1249)

“…although small of stature, yet dignified and of amiable appearance.”
From the Annals of St. Edmund

Medieval Male Beauty – Conclusion

The ideal of male beauty wasn’t quite as proscribed in the middle ages as female beauty.

Men had more leeway. A beautiful youth could ripen into a handsome man, whose good features, strength, and nobility of manner could excuse excess weight.

For women, the period of maidenhood was essentially it.

A 13th-century romance, Flamenca, describes the hero :

“Handsome, with curly blond hair, a high and broad white forehead, blach arched eyebrows, laughing dark eyes, a nose as straight as an arrow shaft, well-made ears, a fine and amorous mouth, a slightly cleft chin, straight neck, broad shoulders and chest, powerful muscles, straight knees, arched and graceful feet.”

Now for some modern romance heroes :

“So young — and attractive, very attractive. He’s tall, dressed in a fine gray suit, white shirt, and black tie with unruly dark copper-colored hair and intense, bright gray eyes that regard me shrewdly.”
– Christian Gray in “50 Shades of Gray”

His friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report, which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year.
– Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice”

Still he looked preciously grim, cushioning his massive head against the swelling back of his chair, and receiving the light of the fire on his granite-hewn features, and in his great, dark eyes; for he had great, dark eyes, and very fine eyes too
– Mr. Rochester in “Jane Eyre”

Except for the emphasis on bulging white foreheads and graceful feet, modern romantic heroes seem to be beautiful (if more grumpy) in much the same way as 13th-century dreamboats.

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  1. wincky59 September 6, 2016

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