Monday, March 18, 2013

A hairy situation: A few depilatory recipes

Just this morning on a forum, a question arose about hair removal in the Middle ages - pertaining roughly to the 10th - 12th centuries in dateline.  I mentioned that I knew the Trotula had some information and that I'd write it up.  It's by no means the last word, but does show what was being done in some parts of the known world.

The Trotula - a compendium of women's medicine and cosmetic tips dating to the 11th/12th centuries and originating in Salerno, south of Naples.  Salerno was the leading centre for medical learning in Europe.  It's not a single treatise, but a collection of writings from the time.  It indicates the practices of Southern Italy at this point in history and reflects strong Arabic influences. It would disseminate throughout Europe and become an important and influentical medical treatise.  Here is what it has to say:

In order that a woman might become very soft and smooth, and without hairs from her head down, first of all let her go to the baths, and if she is not accustomed to do so, let there be made for her a steambath in this manner: Take burning hot tiles and stones and with those placed in the steambath, let the woman sit in it.  Or else take hot tiles or hot black stones and place them in the steambath or a pit made in the earth.  Then let hort water be poured in so that steam is produced, and let the woman sit upon it well covered with cloths so that she sweats.And when she has well sweated, let her enter hot water and wash herself very well, and then let her exit from the bath and wipe herself off well with a linen cloth.

Afterwards let her annoint herself all over with this depilatory which is made from well sifted quicklime.  Place 3 ounces of it in a potter's vase and cook it in the manner of a porridge.  Then take one ounce of orpiment (trisulfide of arsenic) and cook it again, and test it with a feather to see if it is sufficiently cooked.  Take care, however, that it is not cooked too much and that it not stay too long on the skin, because it causes intense heat.  But if it happens that the skin is burned from this depilatory, take populeon with rose or violet oil or with juice of houseleek, and mix them until the heat is sedated.  Then anoint the burned area with unguentum album until the heat is sedated.

Another depilatory.  Take quicklime and orpiment.  Place these in a small linen sack and put them to boil until they are cooked. And if the depilatory should be too thick, put in fresh water to thin it.  And note that the dried powder of this is good for abrading bad flesh and also for making hair grow again on the heads of people with tinea. But first the affected place ought to be anointed with oil or honey.  Then the powder is sprinkled on.

An ointment for noblewomen which removes hairs, refines the skin and takes away blemishes:  Take juice of the leaves of squirting cucumber and almond milk.  Then add pounded galbanum mixed with a small amount of wine for a day and a night and cook with this.  Once this has been well cooked, you should remove the substance of the galbanum and put in a little oil or wine.  Having made the decoction, you should remove it from the fire and add a powder of the following herbs.  Take an equal amount each of mastic, frankincense, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.  This ointment smells sweetly and it is gentle for softening the skin. Salernitan noblewomen are accustomed to use this depilatory.
When the woman has anointed herself with this depilatory, let her sit in a very hot steambath, but she should not rub herself because her limbs will be excoriated.  But when she has stayed there a little while, try to pull out the hairs from the pubic area.  If they do not fall out easily, let her have hot water be poured over her and let her wash herself all over, drawing her palm over her skin gently.  For if she should rub herself vigorously where the skin is tender, she will quickly be excoriated by this depilatory.  Having done this, let her enter lukewarm water and let her be washed well. Then let her exit and the  let her take bran mixed with hot water, and afterward, let her strain and pour it over herself. This cleanses the flesh and smooths it.  Then let her wash herself in warm water and let her stand a little while so that the skin can dry a little bit.  Then take henna with whites of eggs and let her annoint all her limbs.  This smooths the flesh, and if any burn should happen from the depilatory, this removes it and renders the skin clear and smooth.  And let her remain thus anointed a little while. Then let her rinse herself with warm water and finally with a very white linen cloth wrapped around her, let her go to bed.

One for the face:
Take Greek pitch and wax, and dissolve them in a clay vessel...add a small drop of galbanum.  Let them cook for a long time, stirring with a spatula.  Likewise take mastic, frankincense and gum arabic and let them be mixed with the rest.  Remove from the fire and when it is lukewarm let her smear her face but let her take care not to touch the eyebrows.  Let her leave it on for an hour until it becomes cold.  Then let her remove it.  This refines the skin and makes the face beautiful, and it removes hairs and renders every blemish well coloured and clear.

Take quicklime, leaving it in the sun for a month in water.  Let it be strained and dried in the manner for white lead, and let it be mixed with dialtea (compound mixture including marsh mallow root)  and butter.  And let her be anointed with this at night, but let her take care not to get it in the eyes.  And in the morning let her wash with warm water.


Carol McGrath said...

What one does to achieve beauty. Ouch.

Unknown said...

Arsenic as a hair remover! Yikes!