“I saw a certain Saracen woman from Sicily,” claimed an anonymous twelfth-century author in Latin, “curing infinite numbers of people [of mouth odour] with this medicine alone.”
Knowledge about beauty circulated extensively in medieval Western Europe, and this know-how was almost always associated with women. Virtually every medieval healthcare handbook in Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic contained sections devoted to questions of beauty. In particular, tracts on women’s cosmetics abounded. Recipe collections included a considerable number of beauty recipes, serving either the laity or a variety of health practitioners.
Latin medical texts, and the vernacular traditions they inspired, did not simply acknowledge women’s interest in cosmetics, but also emphasized their expertise. Texts portrayed women as active agents and producers of collective knowledge on beauty. Cosmetic recipes—often penned by male authors—conveyed women’s common interests and shared knowledge in beautification.
At the same time, Latin medical texts ascribed specific practices to certain individual women or to particular groups of women. As we see in the opening quotation, texts very rarely included women’s given or family names. Instead, other features identified them: their place of birth, where they lived, or, often, their religious identity. As the works of reputed Arabic physicians and surgeons were admired in medieval Western Europe, Christian sources unambiguously distinguished Muslim women’s expertise in the art of beauty treatments. However, Moorish women’s collective authority would eventually become lost in favour of other women.
For example, in the earliest versions of the Salernitan De Ornatu Mulierum, a twelfth-century Latin treatise written by an anonymous male author, a certain “ointment… which removes hairs, refines the skin, and takes away blemishes” was recorded as a recipe for noble Saracen women. However, less than a century later, the new Latin version of the same text attributed the depilatory to Salernitan noblewomen. This was neither an accident nor a simple adaptation of a recipe for new audiences. Rather, it marked the beginning of an on-going erasure of Muslim women’s authority from Western cosmetic literature.
This obliteration of female Muslim expertise happened gradually. Later vernacular texts dealing with cosmetics still acknowledged their collective or individual authority about beauty. For instance, we see six acknowledgements for recipes from an unnamed Saracen woman in the late thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman Ornatus Mulierum.
The fifteenth-century Vergel de Señores (Garden of Gentlemen), an anonymous Spanish recipe book for household use, attributed certain beauty treatments to Moorish women. The text devoted a long section to cosmetics, mentioning the practices of ladies (señoras) and their particular investment in knowing recipes that beautified the face. The expertise of Moorish women was called upon, however, when referring to cosmetic recipes containing lead and mercury. The dangerous effects of these ingredients had worried physicians and surgeons for centuries, particularly in regards to potentially noxious effects on the gums and teeth. The compiler of Vergel advised his readers to use them wisely, detailing safe practices.
The authority acknowledged to Muslim women on cosmetics, however, did not last. Sometime before 1563, Juan Vallés compiled another household manual which was meant to go into print—albeit it never did. The Regalo de la Vida Humana also contained a long section of cosmetic recipes, copied extensively from the Vergel de Señores. Its author, Juan Vallés, still acknowledged women’s authority in beauty treatments, but he narrowed their agency by gracefully tending to portray them as the intended audience of the recipes rather than asserting their expertise. And significantly, he omitted any mention of Moorish women and their knowledge of beautifying recipes. Having been recognized as experts in the medieval traditions, Muslim women did not make it into the new texts. Stripped of identifying traits, female agency was impoverished and transformed into an audience of Christian women.
Ultimately, noticing these shifts reveals the delicate and fragile nature of the acknowledgement of collective and anonymous authority over knowledge –that is, of the particular types of authority granted to women. Recipes, therefore, should be treasured sources for they offer us a unique perspective to detect and trace how specific groups of people, particularly vulnerable people, are empowered or unauthorized over a long time span.
Montserrat Cabré is an Associate Professor of the History of Science at the Universidad de Cantabria, Spain, where she teaches the history of science and women and gender studies. She works on medieval and early modern women’s medicine, particularly on women’s knowledges as well as the construction of sexual difference.