I asked my readers for suggestions for this month’s post, and I’m torn between telling you about Esther Abrahams and medieval cosmetics. Of the suggestions, those were the two that have the most interesting stories.
I chose cosmetics. Not because I can give you chapter and verse on them (which I won’t today), but because in research terms, they’re fascinating. We don’t know much and we can’t know much and yet what we know opens so many doors for us and shows us how women lived. Next month I’ll talk about sources for cosmetics and for other aspects of medieval life: that’s when I’ll point to where to find out more. Today is all about us, and how we see history. Cosmetics are my excuse for talking about my favourite subject.
First, the stereotypes.
I often feel that I can’t talk about the Middle Ages without breaking down a thousand walls of false assumptions. We all own the Middle Ages. It’s one of the most popular periods in Western history. Owning it doesn’t mean we understand it. Owning it doesn’t mean we know it.
How does this relate to cosmetics?
We filter our interpretation of evidence about medieval cosmetics through several vectors. One is what we think historians have to say about them.
Why do I say “What we think”? This question is because I’m full of rhetorical questions today. Obviously I got out of the rhetorical side of bed this morning: the rhetorical side of bed is the side that doesn’t face the wall, it’s the one that forces you to go in that direction. And my brain is a butterfly brain, and it would be helpful if I stayed on topic.
"What we think" refers to the fact that we all carry mental images of the work historians do. There is overlap between these mental images and the actual work historians do, but sometimes that overlap is less than we realise. Kelly Gardiner discusses this in her analysis of the debate from the Historical Novel Society’s Australasian conference recently. She quotes me as saying quite straightforward things because it was a debate and we were all full of soundbites, but the reality is more complicated and can't be summarised in soundbites. The baseline however, is that only a very few people can keep up fully with current debates on what history actually is to us and what cultural functions it serves. These people can often be found between the pages of journals such as History and Theory and Rethinking History, their ideas pressed flat to meet the pages halfway. Most people think history is something simpler and grander. Those who like stability in how they see history (for the theory is constantly changing) are likely to fall into following a particular path of historical thinking. One of those paths is a rather nineteenth century variety. I encounter this latter one a lot, which is why I used it as an example at the debate.
The reason I encounter it a lot is because it’s much easier to relate to historical fiction than the new histories are. It produces narratives and story without too much angst. It’s straightforward and it has emotional appeal.
It assumes a static past, where facts can be proven and where we know where we stand. We can argue “Richard III was innocent” or “He was guilty” much more easily using this model, for instance. It’s a popular one because of this. The values system implied by simply demanding that innocence or guilt be proven is part of this way of thinking about history. It’s much easier to interpret history when we can use our own judgement.
The trouble is that history is more complicated than this.
Surely cosmetics aren’t complicated? (I want a live audience so that I can ask someone to ask me this. Then it will be obvious when I’m asking rhetorical questions.) The trouble is that everything’s complicated. We’re reconstructing the past to make sense of it for ourselves. We’re using available evidence. And evidence can include value judgements and our interpretation of evidence can include value judgements.
The ‘fact’ I’ve seen quoted in various places that all medieval women used lead-based paint to make their cheeks white and beautiful, for instance, seems to come from just one source and that source is the same one that hates women for using urea and fish scales (which we still use in makeup: urea softens things and fish scales make them glitter). The descriptions of cosmetics in his writing is part of a statement about what women ought to be doing and just how mucky things are. The (male) writer is trying to present negatives, and so of course he uses the less enticing methods of beautification. His view of the world colours how he described female beauty, and so does the underlying position he took in this particular piece of writing. Polemic shades the way we all see cosmetics when we read his work unless we recognise it and say “I know what he’s doing” and make allowances or find other sources, or both.
The same applies to statues and paintings. We’re seeing the artist’s interpretation of what they want to carve or paint. In the Middle Ages this was mostly ideal beauty, so we know more about the ideal than about the everyday. The ideal female beauty in portraits and carvings matches very closely to the way a fairy is described in twelfth century French literature, so this is how I teach it. We have Hollywood and advertising. They had Arthurian romances and knights discovering their dream woman: beautiful and rich and powerful and somewhat magic.
Then, elsewhere (in recipes and formulae for medicines) we get an inkling of some of the makeup people actually used. We have toothpaste recipes and we have eyeliner and… we don’t know who used these recipes, or how often or under what circumstances.
Elsewhere, we hear that prostitutes use too much rouge and too much powder and paint their eyes. The implication is that bad women are identifiable and that cosmetics are an important tool for such identification. I’ve wondered for a while whether the warning is to identify prostitutes because they’re providers of services, or because they should be avoided, or because they’re quite possibly a really solid source of local gossip. I think it depends on the viewer. I also think that there are more options than these three. Which one we choose as our own depends on how we read the source, or how we read the information taken from the source and places elsewhere (in a modern text). There are many medieval readings of medieval texts, and there are at least as many modern readings.
Consensus can be forced. If we agree that only prostitutes wear makeup from that evidence then some late medieval paintings of noble women are of prostitutes. One source isn’t enough to understand a society.
The reality of understanding any object or practice in any period isn’t through one source. It’s not the fairy’s beauty or the “Thou shalt not decorate” of the conservative. It’s all of these and a whole heap more. Historians discuss continually. Interpretations are a moveable feast. It isn’t one interpretation. It’s a series of linked interpretations over time, some feeding into each other and supporting a strong common view and some standing bravely alone.
Fifty years ago we knew almost nothing about medieval cosmetics. Now we are gradually reaching the stage (though we’re not there yet) where we know enough to trace changes over time and place and maybe begin to form some kind of consensus. This is what those changes in the way we view history have given us. We can include archaeological work into our voyage of discovery, and understand how important medieval values are to interpreting evidence, and how important the values of earlier historians are to the way evidence has been interpreted and we can draw our own conclusions from bringing it all together.
This is where I bring things together myself and admit that I chose cosmetics because it’s a good excuse to talk about how wonderful historical study is and how complicated and how important it is to question our own stance at every point. We can’t interpret history unless we have a narrative for it and we can’t have a narrative for it until we understand the narratives we give ourselves. Unless we question the very ground we stand on, our narratives are always linked to consensus narratives.