The first person to write on the science of beauty was an eleventh century Italian woman called Trotula di Ruggiero (often called just Trotula of Salerno – a bit easier to spell and remember). She worked in Salerno in one of the earliest medical schools. She is most famous as the first person to write about women’s medical problems in De Passionibus Mulierum Curandarum. But her De Ornatu Mulierum (about women’s cosmetics) is just as interesting.
Salerno at the time must have been a fascinating place to operate in. The medical school consciously drew on the traditions of the Arabs, the Jews and the Greeks as well as the local knowledge of herbal beauty treatments. It was also a place where women seem to have played a major role in developing knowledge. The local produce and the sophisticated Mediterranean trade routes also provided a rich variety of raw materials.
The earliest known medical herb garden was situated in what is now the Garden of Minerva on the hill that dominates old Salerno. This was the “Hortus sanitatis” of the Schola Medica Salernitana. And all this would have been completely natural and organic: everything was back then.
So how does Trotula’s treatise look to the modern eye?
Some of her remedies look uncannily modern. Trotula recommends camphor for sunburn. Derivatives of camphor are still used in modern sunscreens. Frankincense is recommended for skin care. Although L’Oreal are trying to project a modern image by calling it Boswellox, this is still available on supermarket shelves.
Some resemblances are uncanny. I was told by the woman on the Benefit counter in my local department store that their current biggest seller is their reddening product, Posietint. A similar treatment was recommended in the eleventh century, namely rosewater used to restore the red colour in the face and lips of women who had become pale.
Other suggestions are harder to understand. A treatment to lengthen the hair and to darken its colour involved boiling the head and tail of a green lizard in ointment. Not only would this contravene current EU cosmetic legislation and offend animal lovers , it is hard to see how it could have worked. I don’t dismiss it out of hand though. Trotula was considered a great authority in her time. She even gets a mention in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. She may well have known something I don’t.
But in any case it is nice to think of today’s dedicated beauty bloggers with their laptops and samples continuing a long tradition. It can be traced back to Trotula enjoying the Mediterranean sunshine in the herb garden in Medieval Salerno and writing a treatise that is still being read 1,000 years later.
(My special thanks for the authors of the paper that I used as the main reference for this blog. Even translated into modern English the treatise is heavy going so it was great to have a detailed summary to work from.)
P. Cavallo, M. C. Proto, C. Patruno, A. Del Sorbo, M. Bifulco (2008) The first cosmetic treatise of history. A female point of view International Journal of Cosmetic Science 30 (2),p79-86