Twenty years ago, a vial of perfume was discovered beneath a thick stone wall in the basement of a home near Erfurt, Germany, east of Frankfurt. When the pretty silver bottle was opened, a delicate herbal scent, a bit like patchouli, wafted through. It was barely perceptible. The scientists who later tried to break it down at the L’Oreal Perfume Institute in Paris thought they may have detected notes of rose and jasmine as well, but they couldn’t be sure. After all, the fragrance was almost 700 years old. That vial was part of a rare medieval cosmetic kit, believed to have been buried some time before 1349, which included ear cleaners and tweezers.
The archaeological dig also uncovered magnificent jewel-studded brooches and belts, a tiny love token crafted as a padlock, 3,141 silver coins, fourteen ingots of silver, rare and beautiful clothing, gorgeous secular medieval metalwork, and more than 700 pieces of gold and silver jewelry. The spectacular haul contained a clue to the identity of a woman whose body was found with the precious vial tied around her waist. A gold wedding ring, engraved “Mazel Tov” (“Congratulations” in Hebrew) and decorated with a six-pointed star, revealed that she was Jewish. Historians believe she was a survivor of the plague, which killed one third of Europe’s population in 1347. The 14th century was a time of great suffering for Erfurt Jews, who were driven from the city by pogroms, triggered by rumors that the Jews poisoned the wells and caused the Black Death. Among those who survived were the perfumers, who were virtually immune to the plague. The reason? They were protected by sweet-smelling pomanders and healing aromatic plants, now used as the basis for many prescription drugs.
When I think of medieval times in the West—which I do often—I’m reminded of smells. I imagine moldering monks and mystics, sweaty knights sheathed in armor for months at a time, dank dungeons, chafing women locked into chastity belts impossible to remove. Let’s just say the first thing that comes to mind is not “spick and span”—surprisingly, a popular phrase in the 14th century. Though not as unhygienic as we may think, it was certainly a fetid time. The plague was believed to be airborne, which made bathing dangerous because medieval doctors thought it opened the pores to disease particles carried through the air.
Nobility were advised to keep their windows closed, but it was not so easy for common folk, who most likely didn’t have windows they could close! But the wealthy slammed theirs shut and invested in thick, lovely tapestries that covered their windows for extra protection. Under these conditions, they not only found themselves supporting the burgeoning weaver’s guild but they also could bathe! Warm baths scented with herbs followed with fragrant oil and unguents rubbed into the skin were popular throughout the entire medieval period, with wealthy women and herbalists like Hildegard of Bingen soaking bouquets of sweet william, marjoram, and rosemary in basins for a sponge bath.
Not surprisingly, scent was used to mask bad smells on the body and in the home. It isn’t hard to imagine a lady dipping an embroidered linen cloth into water infused with lavender and discreetly tucking it into her bosom. Solid perfume, made with essences of violet and rose mixed with wax, was carried in a locket. Pomanders, or “scent balls” of ambergris, musk, and chive with clove or cinnamon, and a solid substance, perhaps wax, were placed in jewelry worn around the wrist or encircling the neck.
But that wasn’t all. Plant and flower essences were relied on for mind-body magic and medicine, much as we use aromatherapy now. Believed to dispel demons in medieval times, the essences of flowers and herbs permeated everything—people’s daily ablutions, what they wore, even the cuisine. The heady and mysterious art of joining flowers and herbs, woods and spices, even animal essences, into beautifully complex layers of scent is a way to spin a seductive cloud of magic that is now known to penetrate the limbic system (the emotional center) of the brain in an instant. Then, as now, nothing was as popular as the smell of roses, said to be a favorite of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
A ROSE IS A ROSE
Throughout centuries and across cultures, the intoxicating scent, velvety-soft petals, and brilliant blaze of color from the red rose has delighted the senses and warmed the heart. Alchemists and aromatherapists say the smell of rose oil promotes feelings of love.
The Crusaders and pilgrims were the first to bring rosewater back from the Middle East. And everyone went crazy for it. Essential oil extracted from rose petals also has a powerful healing effect on the skin, and it is precious. It can require thousands of pounds of rose petals to yield just one pound of oil.
Boccaccio rhapsodizes roses in The Decameron: “Without permitting anyone else to lay a hand on him, the lady herself washed Salabaetto all over with soap scented with musk and cloves … The slaves brought two fine and very white sheets, so scented with roses that they seemed like roses; the slaves wrapped Salabaetto in one and the lady in the other and then carried them both on their shoulders to the bed … They then took from the basket silver vases of great beauty, some of which were filled with rosewater, some with orange water, some with jasmine water, and some with lemon water, which they sprinkled upon them.”
Rose was known to soothe anxiety, which may explain why rubbing a woman’s hips with rose oil was supposed to ease the pain of childbirth in medieval times. Rose petals floated in the bath. Bed linens and clothes were boiled in water strewn with bundles of lavender, dried orris root (used to attract love, and smelling like violets), rosemary, woodruff, and rose to make them smell sweet.
Women pulled beauty and drew power from the magic of plants and herbs and transformed them into powders, poultices, elixirs, masks, and makeup. Standards of beauty in the Middle Ages, as in any age, were very clear.
Noblewomen wore modest linen wimples to cover the head, a look that also served to elongate the neck. (Linen was the “it” fabric, and “flaxen” the gold standard for hair.) The ideal woman was slender, with thinly plucked brows and a bulbously high forehead, achieved by shaving or depilating the hairline. (In fact, that’s where the word highbrow comes from!)
Hairlessness and denuded lady parts were achieved with depilation pastes made with vinegar or quicklime. Bellies that protruded slightly, along with rounded sloping shoulders, were the desired body type. To look even more slender, wealthy women would bind their bosoms with bandeaux, even though priests warned that in the next life, those would turn into bands of fire!
Women have always been willing to suffer for beauty, and the 14th century was no exception. Someone who was considered a real babe would have had a ghostly pallor “white as snow on ice,” according to a phrase made popular in The Song of Roland. It could have been achieved with sheep fat and white lead powder (yes, that was poisonous, but still in great demand to cover blemishes or scars from smallpox or plague), procured in back-alley shops with clandestine doors, since makeup was not technically approved by the church.
It was believed to be the work of the devil: Altering the face meant challenging the work of God. But women used it anyway. Aristocrats reddened their lips with a mixture of sheep fat and red roots, or rubbed lemon on their lips to increase the blood flow. “Lip rouge” was believed to literally work magic—which any modern woman knows it can!—and even ward off death. Eye makeup was not popular, but women would drop deadly nightshade in their eyes to dilate their pupils and make their eyes look bigger, which is why the common name for nightshade is bella donna (“beautiful lady”).
Smooth clear skin was desirable not only for its beauty but also because freckles, moles, and birthmarks were believed to be the devil’s mark and could mark you as a witch. The French favored a beautifying concoction of asparagus roots, wild anise, and the bulbs of white lilies steeped in the milk of asses and red goats, aged in warm horse manure and filtered through felt. Skin brighteners were made with bull’s or hare’s blood, or a paste made from vinegar and porridge to fade marks.
If a lady didn’t come by her blonde hair naturally, she could lighten it with an infusion of saffron and stale sheep urine. Combs—like the double-sided ivory comb with 12th century scenes of Thomas Becket being crowned Archbishop of Canterbury, in the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City—were popular styling tools in England and helped with “plaiting” the hair.
“Faces go in and out of fashion,” Diana Vreeland once said, but some things stay the same: the pleasure we derive from beauty and the lengths we’ll go to get it. And that will never change.
**For a whiff of what Eau de Medieval may have smelled like, try Aura Cacia Medieval Mix Essential Oil (auracacia.com), a potent blend of sweet orange, lavender, lemon, red thyme, rosemary, and eucalyptus oils. In medieval times, roses were compressed into beads worn around the neck. Try Jai Mala Rose for an example (celesteonorati.com).