Part One: Face & Hair
Darling readers, by now, if you’ve been reading my articles and following my advice, you’ll have already thrown the most lavish banquets and celebrations in your village and are now the talk of your town. But what about your personal habits? Those small touches to your appearance that make all the difference? You only get one chance to make a first impression.
People are always asking me “Lady Matilda, how do you keep your face so white and lips so red? How do you always look so fresh and glowing?” Today, my dears, I’ll be sharing some of my very own beauty tips with you, in the hopes they may save you effort and grant you more time during your day to rebuke the servants and admonish the bishop for last week’s over-long sermon.
Why do we even bother with all this plucking and pulling and coaxing and combing? It’s good to keep in mind the words of that paragon of wisdom, Thomas of Aquinas. That darling Dominican stated that a woman must keep herself as attractive as possible to her husband, so he won’t stray into the sin of adultery.
Remember, however, that there IS such a thing as too much. The fabulous friar also reminds us not to be SO beautiful as to attract the attention of another woman’s husband. Quite the fine line to navigate! Fear not, my dears, for my tips and tricks will surely help you tread that line with ease and grace.
Let’s start with the first thing people see: your face. Pale is in! The whiter the better. You wouldn’t want anyone to confuse you with the servants who work in the fields, with their ruddy, sun-burned complexions. Being pale signals your status to everyone. And remember, angels are fair of face and what husband wouldn’t want an angelic-looking wife?
There are many concoctions for whitening your face (and don’t forget the hands). I’ve selected a couple of my favourites.
- Mix crystals, varnish, eglantine, borax gum, and camphor with a little bit of white lead. When mixed, add pulverised almonds and hen’s grease. Spread on the face and hands, leave until you feel the tingle, then wipe away. Easy peasy!
- For a simple white soap (suitable for home use and perfect for travel), allow fern ash mixed with unslaked lime to stand for two days. Then mix with oil and tallow (beef or mutton fat will work equally well) and bean flour, and mould into cakes. Let stand for a day.
- For a quick hand touch up, cook ransoms (wild garlic) in water until all the water has boiled away. Add tartar and two eggs, mix well, and rub on your hands. Voila! The fingers of an angel are revealed.
Some common facial issues and treatments:
Everyone gets them, everyone worries about them. And nose pimples are the worst. But there IS help. A remedy I use on my sweet son Geoffrey is:
- Meadow saffron roots mixed with a little oil. A quick wash and he’s ready to go. I caught my love Sir Godfrey using the mixture when he thought no one was looking.
- Another easy treatment: pound together mint juice, sulphur, and vinegar and apply with a feather. Any feather will do, although I prefer using one from a swan, it just adds that little touch of class.
Sometimes the folly of our youth confronts us in our later years. Too much time spent in the sun and what happens? Brown spots appear all over the nose and cheeks. I’ll share a secret with you: your own Lady Matilda suffers from the devil’s dots. Surprised? Here’s what I use:
- Reduce root of bistort to a power, add cuttlefish bones and frankincense. Mix with water, apply to the affected area, and rub in some rosewater and breadcrumbs. Simplicity itself!
They happen to us all, eventually. I, myself, do not need to use anything for wrinkles, as my line-free, porcelain forehead will attest. But I’ve asked around and found a remedy recommended by Lady Ethel in the next village over.
- Extract the juice from stinking iris and anoint the face in the evening. In the morning the skin will be raised and will erupt. Treat these eruptions with one ounce of lily root mixed with two ounces of white lead, a half dram of mastic and frankincense, a dram of camphor, one ounce of animal fat, and rose water as needed. The skin will shortly begin to peel, revealing smoother, more beautiful skin beneath. Just like the virgin herself!
There are so many issues affecting our hair: is it too thin? Too washed out? Not dark enough or golden enough? With so many beauty trends out there today, it’s difficult to know where to start. And with more trends coming in from our European cousins, what’s a lady to do? For a start, keep reading!
If you believe the Italian chap Boccaccio, women wash their hair every Saturday “to rinse away all the dust and grime that have accumulated through the course of the past week’s labours.”
I don’t know if that’s true, but I DO know I, myself, follow this very sage practise.
- A mix of cinnamon, liquorice, and cumin rinsed through the hair before combing leaves one’s tresses clean and delightful-smelling.
Once again, not something I suffer from myself, but I DO know of a few women (and men!) in the village who could use this advice:
- Take sowbread leaves and put in the nostrils.
I’ve heard this remedy is an ancient one and haven’t been able to discover how long one must keep the leaves in one’s nose, but I would advise against anyone having leaves in their nose for an overly long length of time.
- A more pleasant treatment is to drink cress juice. A glass in the morning, and one at night, and your hair will be growing like the length of the bishop’s sermons!
- Another delightful cure, good for both men AND women: pound the leaves of the maidenhair plant together with peppercorns and coriander. Mix in with a good wine and enjoy your luxurious locks.
The ideal colour for hair is gold, this is an acknowledged truth. Angels all have golden hair, so it must be the best. Thankfully, my European contacts have delivered a most effective treatise, originally from the Saracens, on lightening your crowning glory.
- Reduce vine shoots to ashes and mix with equal quantities of ash cinders, along with a good handful of oak gall. Cook for half a day in vinegar. Wash the hair with a fine quality soap, then cover hair with the preparation. Wrap the head in a wimple for the entire night. No cheating and taking it off early! In the morning, your hair will be as light as any angel could hope for.
For those of us not blessed with golden tresses, or for those wishing to startle the bishop during a sermon, black is where it’s at. Indeed, black hair is all the rage with the younger crowd. Only last week my own sweet girl Edith bemoaned her fair hair. Thankfully, there’s a remedy for that.
- Simply take a green lizard, remove its head, and cook in common oil. Anoint the hair. Easy! Unless your children have grown attached to the lizard and are upset by its contribution to your beauty regime, in which case a good fumigation of the child with a bit of birthwort may be in order.
- A little more complicated but just as effective: boil iron rust, chestnut stain, and alum in vinegar. Strain the mixture. Wash the hair with water, then once again with the mixture. Wrap the head in a wimple for two days and two nights. The dark, mysterious woman emerges!
No one wants to suffer from Satan’s snowflakes, particularly if one wants to keep making a good impression on one’s guests. And appearing in front of the archbishop with dandruff is a BIG faux pas. Here are two cures my own love Sir Godfrey used:
- Soak nettle seeds in vinegar for two to three days. Wash the hair with a good soap, then with this nettle seed mixture.
- Another effective treatment: mix together watercress seeds and goose grease and smear on the head to draw the dandruff off the head.
My darlings, that’s all the space we have this time. I trust you’ll try these remedies for, in the past, when my advice was rejected by a certain notorious duchess, the results were disastrous. I’ll not name names but will just leave this here for you to decide for yourself.
In part two of my exploration of beauty, we’ll discuss the eyebrows, cheeks and nose, and lips and teeth, as well as looking at the pros and cons of buying vs making. Until then, dear readers, I wish you a happy, healthful, beautiful day!
The above remedies were taken from:
- The Compendium Anglicus by Gilbertus Anglicus
- The Trotula
- The Old English Herbarium
- L’Ornement des Dames (Ornatus Mulierum)