Thursday 27 June 2013

Eleventh Century Beauty Treatments- My Lady's Cosmetics

Eleventh century women did care about their appearance. Of course they did! Cosmetics were not as horrific as those used in Tudor times, such as lead to whiten the complexion or belladonna to brighten the eyes. These earlier treatments were generally less sinister and not quite so harmful. We know about cosmetics from The Trotula which was a compendium of women's medicine in medieval Europe. The mysterious Trotula was said to be the first female professor of medicine in eleventh century Salerno, south of Naples. Salerno was, indeed, the leading centre of medicine learning in medieval Europe for many centuries.

Herbs and spices, essential ingredients

In this wonderful book there is a section entitled 'On Women's Cosmetics'. The suggestions here range from depilatory treatments to hair treatments and face adornment. There are also recorded treatments for whitening the teeth and for lip care.

Here are a few of my favourites, ideas which I have consulted for my second novel in a trilogy about The Women of Hastings that is scheduled to follow from Edith Swan-Neck's story in The Handfasted Wife.

 Look at the bottom of this post for a free I tunes copy of this novel.

Brunette girl in a medieval suit in a Agia Napa Medieval Monastery background - stock photo
medieval girl outside an Italian Monastery

The Depilatory

Take quicklime and orpiment (a yellow sulphide mineral). Place these in a small linen sack and let them boil until they are cooked. If the depilatory be too thick, put fresh water in it to thin it. Take care it is not cooked too much and does not stay on the skin too long. It causes intense heat. And note that the dried powder of this is good for abrading bad flesh and for making hair grow again on the heads of people with tinea (ringworm infection). But first the affected place must be anointed with oil or honey. Then the powder is sprinkled on.

  A Cure for Blemishes

Take the juice of squirting cucumber and almond milk; with these placed in a vessel, gently mix in quicklime and orpiment. Add powdered galbanum (a fragrant Persian gum resin) mixed with a small amount of wine for a day and a night, and cook with this. Once it is well-cooked you should remove the substance of the galbanum and put in a little oil. Having made the decoction, you should remove it from the fire and add a powder of herbs, mastic, frankincense, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove in equal amounts. This ointment smells sweetly and is gentle for softening the skin. A popular depilatory as well.

The Castle Kitchen 12th/13thC


If you wish to have hair soft and smooth and fine, wash it often with hot water in which there is powder of natron and vetch.

After leaving the bath, let her adorn her hair, and first of all let her wash it with a cleanser such as this:

Take ashes of burnt wine, chaff of barley nodes, and licorice wood ( so it may more brightly shine), and sow-bread; boil the chaff and sowbread in water. With the chaff and the sowbread, let a pot having at its base two or three small openings be filled. Let the water in which the sowbread and chaff were previously cooked be poured into the pot, so that it is strained by the small openings. With this cleanser let the woman wash her head. After washing , let her leave it to dry by itself, and her hair will be golden and shimmering.

If indeed you want to have thick, black hair, take colcynth and, having thrown away the insides, let it be filled with laurel to which have been added henbane seed and a bit of orpiment. And let the hair be anointed with this often.

Adornment of Women's Faces   

First of all, let her wash her face very well with French soap and with warm water and with a straining of bran let her wash herself in the bath. Afterwards oil of tartar take and, having first dried her face, let her anoint it.

Oil of Tartar is made thus:

  • break tartar into little bits
  • wrap in piece of cloth and dip in strong vinegar and make it soaking wet
  • place on fire until it turns to coals
  • place in bowl and mix with oil using fingers
  • expose to air for three nights
  • collect the oil in a jug
  • let the woman anoint herself with this oil for fifteen days at night
  • in the morning wash with warm water and fatty residue of starch to soften it
There is also a recipe for the starch.

Are we ready to try to compose treatments!

To conclude, my Lady Elditha and her daughters would have had access to many of the more exotic ingredients mentioned above. There was extensive travel and trading during the early middle ages and ingredients came from very far flung lands, but that is a post for another time. I think I shall be happy to continue using my own modern day natural products and I am not so sure about any of the above!

The Handfasted Wife, a novel about Edith Swan-Neck, King Harold II's common-law wife is published by Accent Press and available on Amazon USA and UK as paperback and is also available for all e readers.  And to celebrate the end of my first month in print a free apple download. Can whoever takes this code leave a message to say it is taken please.

TE9N4N74HLLE ( to redeem go to The Handfasted Wife on I tunes books and click on codes button there. This came as a promotion to my publisher Accent and they kindly gave me a few for reviews etc. Enjoy!)

Saturday 15 June 2013

Hairstyles in the Eleventh Century

The Handfasted Wife, a novel about Edith Swan-Neck, common-law wife and beloved of Harold Godwinson, opens at Westminster during Christmas 1065. Elditha rides in on her mare Eglantine surrounded by a guard and with her two younger children following in a covered cart. Harold arrives at Thorney Island on a long shaped boat, the Wessex dragon flying at the mast. So, what did this noble 11th C family look like, what, for instance, was their hair fashion or head gear? How did they turn out for King Edward's winter crowning and Christmas feast?

Your age in Anglo-Saxon England, your position in society, your marital status and even if you had been found guilty of criminal behaviour could be detected by your size, bodily afflictions, hairstyle, clothing and jewellery.  Male hairstyles were linked to social status. One of the most heated debates in the early Anglo-Saxon Church revolved around hairstyles, For example, should churchmen be tonsured at the front in Celtic style or as in Roman fashion on the crown?

Harold as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry is always pointing driving us through the story

The Bayeux Tapestry shows King Harold and his followers with long flowing locks and wearing thin moustaches, while William and his men had their hair short, and shaved at the back. Moustaches may have been associated with warrior status. Leofgar, Harold's mass priest in his priesthood kept his moustaches until he became a bishop. It was considered an insult to cut a man's hair and spoil his appearance. In the poem The Carmen, written in 1068 about the Battle of Hastings, the Norman poet is disparaging about the English warriors referring to them in Frank Barlow's translation as 'nancy boys' and in other translations as 'effeminate.' Interestingly, high status English men treasured their combs!

Moustaches, long hair and the Norman short cut!

Women wore headdresses to cover the head and neck. Young girls wore their hair long and loose over their shoulders with a band to keep it from becoming unruly. This was the fillet. In the privacy of their homes all women may have worn their hair this way, loose or plaited, up or down with a fillet to keep it neat. The head cloth concealed head, neck and shoulders. There is some variation in the way the headdress is depicted by Anglo-Saxon artists. Some females wore very loose headdresses with many folds; others have a close fitting version. Sometimes they wore embroidered, possibly jewelled headdresses, or maybe with a simple ornament at the forehead.

A wall decoration showing women wearing veils and fillets

The wimple is a typical headdress, a little like the head covering nuns may still wear today. The cuffia is where the word coif originates. It is a hood and often was of value and was referred to in women's wills. Generally the fillet was worn in conjunction with a headdress of fabric rather than by itself. It might be a decorated band across the forehead with two streamers ending in expensive decorated tags. Sometimes these bands were made of solid metal such as silver or even gold. A woman might wear a cap under her hood. Also she might wear a scarf or a veil arranged in various ways, even turban-style.  A scarf might be arranged around a round or stove-pipe shaped hat too.

One-Piece Walrus Ivory Comb with Ringerike Design 

Women's hair is hidden in depictions in Anglo-Saxon art with only a suggestion at the forehead. There are depictions of the Virgin with a plait or firm mound of hair on which to pin the wimple, hood or veil. Pins appear in glossaries. feax-preon or haer-naedle, hairpin and hair-needle. A frawing-spinel was a pin for curling the hair.

I had a great deal of fun writing about appearance in The Handfasted Wife, working many of these ideas subtly into the story. It all helped me to create the sense of falling into the early medieval past, recreating a faithful older world. If you read this novel I hope you enjoy the little details that are worked into the historical adventure and most of all I hope you enjoy the thrilling journey with my heroine, Elditha, Edith Swan-Neck. 

Find the Handfasted Wife on

It is available also from Accent Press's own online bookshop as a paperback as well as from Amazon. It is for all e readers too. If you read it look for Harold's amber sword decoration as large as a goose egg and his belt, a gift from Edith Swan-Neck. 


Tuesday 4 June 2013

The Greek Mani, A Writer's Hideaway.

This year I am fortunate enough to have found a writing escape tucked away in the Greek Mani not too far from Kardamyli where the travel writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, a scholar gypsy, lived for many years. His home, a unique house overlooking the sea, is to become a writing retreat. He left it in his will to The Benaki Museum, Athens, for this purpose. Last Autumn Sir Paddy's fabulous house was one of the locations for a film to be released over the next couple of weeks starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight. In September, Kardamyli was taken by storm as cameras and film makers descended into the Mani. The local ex pat/ Greek drama group and locals provided film extras.
Paddy Leigh Fermor at home in Kardimyli.

Paddy Leigh Fermor walked across Europe in 1933 when he was eighteen, sleeping in stables, fields, castles, mansions arriving in Constantinople in 1935 where he fell in love with a Romanian princess. At the outbreak of World War II he was living with her in a family mansion in Moldavia. During the war he was a very effective British liaison officer with the Greek Resistance in Crete. He hatched a plan to kidnap the commanding German general of Crete, great derring-do. This audacious kidnap is the subject of the unforgettable Dirk Bogart movie Ill Met by Moonlight. Sir Paddy met his wife Joan after the war in Cairo. She provided the photographs for his masterpiece Mani, 1958 and Roumeli, 1966. Greece was always his great love, so he and Joan settled in the region here, building that beautiful house on a remote bay beside Kardamyli. He is revered in the locality. Some weeks ago I was told by a friend that every time Joan returned to England she always stopped at her grocery store to say goodbye, even on the very last occasion nearly a decade past when Joan returned to England for cancer treatment. She died in London. Paddy Leigh followed her in 2011. When I first came to the region we used to rent a summer cottage close to that lovely house. It is an area so beautiful that, although I would never live here permanently, it is for me, too, very special.

Another writer, who is now, perhaps, not so well known, Bruce Chatwin, spent time in Kardamyli. He died too young, a delicate looking, rather beautiful man, often pictured with his walking boots strung about his neck. That was how I, and my writing visitors of last week, found him- in the lee of a pretty Greek Orthodox Church, a difficult to find, secret place, hidden amongst wild flowers and foliage up a twisting lane and across a field edging a mountain village. This little church, high in the Taygetos Mountains, overlooks Kardymili far below and the deep sapphire blue sea beyond the village. Bruce Chatwin's ashes were placed here by his own request. The classic walking boots photograph of him is held down by stones to mark the precise place the burial urn containing his ashes rests. This special tiny church at Hora is one of the most atmospheric places I have ever experienced, very moving by merit of its pure beauty and simplicity. If you have never read his books, do, because I am told that he transformed travel writing, personalising the genre, making it interesting, exciting, filled with story, about experience and perceptions rather than a map of places to see. Writing decades ago he was innovative, making travel writing identifiable as we see it nowadays.

I visited Kardimyli for the first time in 2000. Smitten by its laidback charm, I have returned nearly every year since, usually in the height of the summer. This year I spent a stormy February here writing and, though cold, I still enjoyed it immensely.  Kardamyli is a charming village with a harbour to the south that is overlooked by an old fortified custom house. A Venetian Castle once stood opposite the harbour on the small island of Meropi. The only sign of any industrial architecture in the area is a tall brick chimney in the centre of the village that marks the ruins of an olive oil soap factory, once owned by Palmolive. This enterprise had grown out of the abundance of olives grown in the region. 

My favourite part of this area is Old Kardamyli, which is historically fascinating and can be found behind the new village, nestled around the Viros Gorge. Its outer buildings are still occupied, but past these there is a compound between the church of Agios Spiridon and the Mourtzinos War Tower where there is much to explore. The church has a Venetian-influenced campanile decorated with carvings in a style typical of the Mani. The whole site gives an evocative impression of what life must have been like in the 18th and 19th centuries when clan leaders ruled the neighbourhood and, just as in the Greek myths, demanded and received tribute from surrounding villages. Writers, photographers and artists all find something inspirational in the atmosphere of this ancient village with its history dating back to the time of Homer and beyond..

Stoupa harbour

Eating out in Kardamyli

Stoupa at twilight.

Finally, if you watch Before Midnight this summer you should see the inside of Paddy Leigh's house, the harbour at Kardamyli, and also a mountain village setting above us here in the Taygetos Mountains. As for me, predictably, I shall be writing the sequel to my debut novel The Handfasted Wife close by, in my stone house, imagining a very cold medieval Yorkshire Castle. Time passes slowly here with a pulse that is not so different to the sense of medieval life that enters my novels. It may not be quite as exquisite as Sir Paddy's place. Yet, it is my perfect writing retreat, a peaceful house, shady and cool, hidden away in the Greek Mani. Also, it is for sale should you be interested in moving!

Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife, a story of Edith Swan-Neck, wife of King Harold II, published May 2013 by Accent Press, available on all e readers and in paperback from Amazon or from Accent's website bookshop.