Humors, Herbals and Health: Cosmetic Beauty

The Elizabethan ‘look’ is iconic. An English Rose. The look of a noble and strong Queen. A white complexion, a blush of pink cheeks and red lips. It was considered the ideal concept of beauty of the Early Modern period and spread globally. How did this phase of beauty come about, and what does it signify?

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Coronation Portrait of Elizabeth I – 1559

For my module last term “Medicine and Spiritual Healing” I became really interested with female recipes for beauty and I found my evenings filled with digitized manuscripts and receipt books (thankyou Wellcome Collection)

Recipes demonstrate that beauty was synonymous with health, and was attached to the prominent medical theory of the time – the humoral theory. The four ‘central’ parts of the body; white phlegm, black bile, yellow bile and blood had colour associations as well as temperaments. (2 cold, 2 hot as well as having own characteristics)

The perfect ‘harmony’ of these humors throughout the body resulted in what was considered, perfect health. An imbalance of one, a lack of or excess, resulted in poor health and required the ‘curing’ properties of other ingredients. A popular remedy for humoral imbalance for Mercury – it purges the excess of heat and restores the balance of the two ‘hot’ humors – blood and yellow bile.

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Richard Haydocke: Frontispiece, in A tracte containing the artes of curious paintinge (1598)

This internal balance inspired the visual depiction of ‘perfect’ health, resulting in various experiments such as alchemical recipes and domestic creations. This was partly responsible for the introduction of white led and vermillion (containing the most corrosive aspect of Mercury) onto the face. Richard Haydocke discussed the arts of colours within these chemicals and how they relate to the humoral theory.

In some cases early modern cosmetics were used to hide blemishes and scars– yet the chemicals within the same cosmetics were often the cause.

Herbal recipes were also popular due to accessibility to communal gardens and domestic confinement of women.  My favourite recipe so far is in fact a herbal based recipe created by Caterina Sforza – an elite Italian woman who documented a range of recipes from domestic recipe to alchemy.

to make the face white, beautiful and colourful: mix sugar with egg whites and red byrony (Bryonia diocia) water. With this mixture, you should wash your face.”[1]

It’s a meringue recipe!

This recipe demonstrates female intellect; the ability to know the manipulating properties of plants such as Red Bryony. The plant is recorded as drawing out two humors, yellow bile and white phlegm. Sforza was then able to manipulate the colour of the face – creating a version of ‘ideal beauty.’

In summary, Early Modern Beauty was really Early Modern Health, with the aspect of colour prominent in reflecting the ‘perfect’ complexion.

[1] Gigi Coulson, Caterina Sforza’s Gli Experimenti: A Translation (Printed by Amazon, 2016) 13.

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