Female Grooming in the Middle Ages included shaving and plucking, but only on foreheads, temples and eyebrows.
This grooming was in pursuit of the hot Medieval huge, freckle-free forehead.
That look remained popular during the Renaissance and the reign of Elizabeth I.
The Queen tweezed her eyebrows (or applied a walnut oil, vinegar, and ammonia concoction) to elongate the forehead, but left everything below the neck au naturale.
This look was so fashionable that mothers would rub walnut oil on their children’s foreheads to prevent hair growth.
Grooming in the Middle Ages – Hair Power
During the middle ages, hairstyle often signified socioeconomic class, marital and religious status.
Members of the lower class had shorter, plainer hairstyles while upper-class men and women wore their hair longer and often styled in soft curls.
Young girls wore their hair loose or in 2 long plaits.
A child’s first hair was a ceremonial occasion in the 8th century, cementing a special relationship between the child and the hair-cutter.
Married women were expected to cover their hair with a hat, hood, veil or shawl to discourage unwanted attention.
That’s the power and eroticism hair was endowed with.
Grooming in the Middle Ages – Blessing of the beard
Sometimes beards were seen as symbols of piety — other times as diabolic.
In the faith’s early days, the beard took on the holy meaning.
A man who decided to devote himself to a monastic life would often undergo an initiatory first shave that was observed by the other monks in the monastery.
Before the shave, a prayer called the benedictio ad barbam, or “blessing of the beard” would be said.
After the shaving, the hair and whiskers were consecrated on an altar.
Initiated monks were put on a strict shaving schedule.
In a convocation held in 817 AD, French monks settled on shaving once a fortnight, but would fast from razor and shaving during certain times of the year.
Grooming in the Middle Ages – Cat dung and vinegar
A hair-removal recipe that constantly recurs is one based on creating a highly alkaline solution that melts the hair from the surface of the skin (a Medieval Veet).
A 1532 book of secrets (household recipe book)gives this version of the recipe:
First, prep your skin by washing with a mixture of cat dung and vinegar.
Boil together a solution of one pint of arsenic and eighth of a pint of quicklime. Go to a baths or a hot room and smear medicine over the area to be depilated.
And one more small thing: “When the skin feels hot, wash quickly with hot water so the flesh doesn’t come off.”
Caterina Sforza in her Experimenti (book of secrets compiled around the 16th century), gives basically the same instruction.
Along with the advice to leave the mixture on the skin for “the time it takes to say two Our Fathers”.
Grooming in the Middle Ages – Hairy, disagreeable and argumentative
Hairiness in women could be a visual representation of humoral imbalance.
According to the Medieval humoral system, women were cold and wet in nature as opposed to their hot dry male counterparts, and it was heat and dryness that was the source of body hair.
The sixteenth-century Spanish physician Juan Huarte wrote that
Having a lot of body hair and a bit of beard is a clear indication of low levels of coldness and moisture… and if the hair is dark then even higher levels of heat and dryness are present. The opposite temperature creates a woman who is smooth, without beard or body hair. The woman of average levels of coldness and moisture has a little bit of hair on her body but it is light and blonde. Of course, the woman who has much body and facial hair (being of a more hot and dry nature) is also intelligent but disagreeable and argumentative, muscular, ugly, has a deep voice and frequent infertility problems.
Not a hot marriage prospect, then.
Grooming in the Middle Ages – Vine dew
At the same time, Medieval monks and alchemists concocted recipes for restoring hair.
Sometimes they were applied with special prayers or incantations.
Some recipes were complicated and contained unusual ingredients such as “Ashes of a land hedgehog” .
Faster treatments could be carried out with “burned barley bread, horse fat and boiled river eel”.
A 17th-century chemist offered his “vine dew” to French Royalty at high prices.
After the product was shown to be mostly water, he was banished a left for Italy.
Not one to mess with a winning formula, he started selling another cure for hair loss called “calf water”.
Grooming in the Middle Ages – The rude, hairy crusader
There is quite a famous account, written by Usama ibn Munqidh, during the mid 12th-century that discusses pubic hair.
It was the fashion within the Middle East for both men and women to shave their body hair at the time.
In Usama’s account, one of the Crusaders comes to a bathhouse, and seeing other men with shaved pubes, demands that this be done to him.
Seeing how good it felt, he then demanded that his wife is brought to the bathhouse immediately, stripped and shaved then and there.
Usama’s account is satirical and full of finger-pointing at the uncouth crusader.
But shaving was the norm for Muslim culture at the time (as part of their religious-cultural concerns with cleanness and hygiene).
It has been suspected that Crusaders brought shaving back to Europe where it has perennially taken hold ever since.
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.