Light in the Dark Ages
After the Roman Empire fell, Europe was plunged into what is generally considered to be a period of darkness. During these so-called Dark Ages, little was recorded and little of what was recorded has survived. Nevertheless, most historians now believe that the Dark Ages may not have been so dark after all. During this time, European culture was in a state of flux. Although the Romans had retreated, they left behind many of their traditions. As an increasing number of Christian monasteries sprung up, they became places of learning as well as religion, and provided many monks, nuns and noble people with an education based in Classical scholarship. While the dominant Christian thought of the Middle Ages discouraged vanity, good hygiene was still encouraged and modest forms of cosmetics and skin care products continued to be used throughout this period.
Hollywood would have us believe that the people of medieval Europe did not bathe, but this is simply not true. While they may not have participated in the daily baths enjoyed by the Romans, they were still very conscious of their hygiene. In fact, many of the bath houses left behind by the retreating Roman army continued to be used by the locals. Villages which did not have baths, or which had allowed the baths to fall into disrepair, often built their own public baths out of wood and stone. They may not have had the grandeur of the original Roman structures, but they were valuable community facilities that were used by peasants as well as nobility. Some towns even had sweat bath facilities, although all types of baths usually charged a fee for admittance. Because of this, taking a full bath was often a weekly occurrence, rather than a daily one. Nevertheless, it was common practice to scrub the hands and face before meals and before sleeping at night. (You can read more about bathing in the Middle Ages here: http://www.localhistories.org/cosmetics.html )
A Medieval Fashion Statement
Compared to many of the societies that preceded them, fashion during the early Middle Ages was quite modest. This was largely due to religious beliefs that chastised women for being vain or salacious. Clothing was expected to hide the shape of the body. While most Medieval women did not veil themselves, their faces were usually unadorned. This modesty, however, did not mean that women did not care about their appearance. In fact, smooth, clear skin became more important than ever, because it was not covered up by powders or pastes. Pale skin was still associated with a high birth, due to the fact that the lower classes spent their days tending crops and livestock in the sun. Without the aid of lead or chalk, however, women had to resort to more natural methods of keeping their skin pale. Staying out of the sun was important, as were a number of herbal remedies and potions thought to lighten the skin.
In fact, it was not only lightness of tone that was important, but what was referred to as “fairness” or skin. This meant that the skin was smooth and clear and was not darkened by the sun. A woman with a naturally darker complexion was still considered to have fair skin, so long as it was not tanned. Because most of their bodies were covered by loose robes, the fairness of the face took on a great importance, and many women plucked their hairline to increase the amount of forehead that was exposed. (You can read more about the concept of “fairness” here: http://rosaliegilbert.com/skincare.html )
Using the Tools at Hand
Medieval women had a number of tools at their disposal that were used for cosmetic purposes. Mirrors made from silvered glass were common, as were tweezers, which were used to shape the eyebrows as well as the hair line. A number of skin care products were also made from herbs, plants and organic compounds that grew locally. Originally, many of these treatments were made at home out of wine and vinegar, infused with herbs. As the centuries passed, however, the concoctions became more elaborate, and the ingredients more rare. By the time of the High Middle Ages, most skin care treatments and their ingredients were dispensed by apothecaries. As Europe entered a new millennium, cosmetics would become more complex and developed than ever.