Make-Up and Medicine in the Middle Ages

Make-Up and Medicine in the Middle Ages

By Sandra Alvarez

It’s easy to differentiate between cosmetic and medical procedures in the present day but if we take a look back at the Middle Ages, the distinction wasn’t always so clear. Thanks to several prominent medical writers, we can get a glimpse of how medieval medicine viewed the use of cosmetics, and how some of these products were used.

Galen and Avicenna: Cosmetics vs. Medicine

All medieval medical writers looked to the writing of the famous Greek physician, Galen (129-216 AD). Galen’s medical teachings were the gold standard until the sixteenth century and some treatments he advocated managed to remain popular (like bloodletting) until the nineteenth century. According to Luke Demaitre, in an article on medieval urban cosmetics, Galen’s views on make up to enhance the appearance vs. procedures for health were well defined. He complained bitterly about the mixing of medical treatments and cosmetics in his writings, stating,

The object of the cosmetic part of medicine is to produce an enhancement of beauty, while the object of the decorative part is to preserve everything natural in the body that is naturally accompanied by beauty. The appearance of the head suffering from alopecia is ugly, as it is with the eyes when the eyelashes and the hairs of the eyebrows fall out; and these hairs contribute not only to beauty but much more to health of the parts…But to make the colour of the face whiter by means of drugs, or redder, or the hair of the head curly, or yellow, or black, or to make it much longer, as women do, and the operations like these belong to the depravity of cosmetics and not to the healing art.

What concerned Galen were the differences between services provided for health, decoratio, and services provided solely for the embellishment of looks, ars comptoria/cosmetica. Decoratio did not have the same connotation it does today – to decorate something; to medieval physicians it meant “care of” or “decorum”. Decoratio was the term used for treatment of a condition that ‘went against nature’, diseases like leprosy and alopecia did not just make the individual ugly in appearance; but according to Galen, they also adversely affected a person’s health. To Galen, there was a vast difference between curing someone who suffered in appearance and in their health and someone who sought medical assistance to alter their appearance simply to look more attractive.

However, Galen reluctantly conceded that there were certain situations where a physician could not refuse a cosmetic treatment, like when commanded to treat royalty. Galen included some of these recipes for colouring hair, and preventing baldness used on royal patrons, and cited other physicians who worked for emperors like Criton of Heraclea, the famed physician to the Roman Emperor Trajan (53BC – 117 AD) to justify his addition of these practices, in his works.

Another medical heavyweight was Persian physician, Avicenna (980-1037 AD). Avicenna produced over 450 works on early medicine, and also wrote about alchemy, astronomy, mathematics and philosophy to name but a few topics of his vast knowledge. He became a doctor at the age of 18 and his reputation as a physician made him famous. Like Galen, physicians used his medical expertise until well into the seventeenth century. However, on the topic of cosmetics, unlike Galen, Avicenna wasn’t bothered by their inclusion in standard medicine and made no effort to separate the two in his work The Canon of Medicine. Medieval medical writers mainly followed Avicenna’s lead on blending medicine and cosmetics until the fourteenth century.

Hair and Make-Up for Men

Cosmetic enhancement wasn’t the sole sphere of women; men were definite consumers of cosmetics in the Middle Ages. Cosmetics were frequently used by men to stave off the appearance of old age. They sought treatment for baldness, paid to have their hair washed, and bought colourants to dye away greys. Says Demaitre, “Men who had their hair washed inferentially for aesthetic rather than hygienic reasons, were willing to spend money for other improvements of their appearance.”

Such activities that focused on improving the male appearance were often viewed as emasculating and treated with contempt. An interesting tale of “death by vanity” is recounted in the story of Amadeus VII ‘the Red’, Count of Savoy (1360-1391). In 1391, Amadeus used an ointment to thicken his hair because he was balding and he died shortly afterwards at the age of 31. His physician was accused of poisoning him at the behest of his mother, Bonne de Bourbon (1341-1402). This was perhaps meant as a little warning story against vanity. Nearly all cosmetics documented for men revolve around hair loss and covering greys in order to appear youthful and attract women.

Alms for the Poor? : Make-Up and Leprosy

Another interesting medieval concern regarding the use of make-up was its ability to deceive. Make-up wasn’t only used by men to look younger, or women to attract men, but also used by beggars to fool people into giving them money. By the sixteenth century, some people began to use make-up as a way to mimic the look of leprosy so that they could be granted a begging license. Ambroise Paré (1510-1590), one of the fathers of surgery, related the tale of a beggar caught in in 1520 trying to trick Paré’s brother Jehan into believing he was a leper.

The beggar sat in front of a church, with several coins strewn in a handkerchief at his feet. His face was covered with large pustules, made of a certain strong glue and painted in a livid reddish fashion, approximating the colour of lepers, and he was very hideous to see, thus out of compassion everyone gave him alms. The artful imposter tightened, from beneath his cloak, a rag which he had wrapped around his neck, so as to make the blood mount to his face…After removing the rag, the surgeon washed his face with warm water, which caused all his pustules to become detached and to fall off…the beggar confessed that he knew how to counterfeit several illnesses, and that he had never found greater profit in it than when he counterfeited lepers.

Cosmetics were becoming lucrative in urban centres and situations such as these gave physicians reason to pause and consider Galen’s earlier warning about the inclusion of purely cosmetic procedures with medical ones. Although most medieval medical practitioners didn’t mind mixing cosmetics with medicine, a growing number began to question their part in aiding people to radically alter or fake their appearance.


Luke Demaitre, “Skin and the City: Cosmetic Medicine as an Urban Concern”, Between Text and Patient: The Medical Enterprise in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, pp.97-120 (2011).

Top Image: BNF Français 343 fol.3v

Watch the video: Medieval Medicine. Medieval Science History part 4. (September 2021).