Ovid’s Toothpaste: Literary Allusion in One Medieval Cosmetic Recipe

Chelsea Rae Silva

Women, declares the sixteenth-century physician Donatus Antonius de Altomare, “think nothing more unseemly… then when they laugh, to show their foule rusty & spotted teeth.” In order to remedy this issue, his text promises to “first shew how we may make [teeth] that are blacke as white as the shining pearles, & then how we may cover with flesh them that are weake & naked in their gums & how we may make them strong” (London, British Library MS Harley 4349, f. 258v). As Seth LeJacq noted on this blog back in 2013, the use of remedies would have been preferable for late medieval readers wishing to avoid painful surgical procedures like the one pictured below.

A dentist with silver forceps and a string of large teeth, extracting the tooth of a seated man (from London, British Library, MS Royal 6 E VI, f. 503v). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Altomare’s pronouncement, and the remedies that follow, attest to the indistinct boundary between cosmetic and medical arts, and between literary and medical discourse. I first encountered Altomare’s manuscript collection in the British Library last summer and have been fascinated by its contents for the better part of a year. Much of that fascination stems from Altomare’s use of literary techniques like allusion, personification, and narrative in his discussion of medical and cosmetic care.

The cosmetic recipes are grouped together and, unlike the other recipes in the manuscript, read as a continuous passage rather than a sequence of distinct texts. Altomare apparently anticipated the possibility of a reader who might crack open this portion of his medical collection to read—linearly, continuously—rather than to learn piecemeal. Perhaps the most interesting of these recipes are two deceptively simple ones for dentifricia, or tooth-paste or -powder:

“Also of the pumis stone the best & most profitable dentifricia weare prepared as Pliny saith. And the teeth rubbed with the poulder of yvory the teeth were made like yvory as Ovid.” (f. 259)

The efficacy of powdered pumice stone is indeed attested to by Pliny’s Historia naturalis, as Altomare’s note promises (on recent explorations of classical skincare, see this Recipes Projects post). But the second sentence, which appears to mirror the first in its citation of an established authority, is in fact doing something very different. Ovid is better-known for his storytelling than his medical expertise, though his Medicamina faciei femineae (also called The Art of Beauty) does include a number of cosmetic recipes. All are for facial cleansers or masks, however, and none make use of ivory or claim to remedy dental issues. Instead, I believe, that two-word reference—“as Ovid,” written in a later hand than Altomare’s own—alludes to the story of Pygmalion.

Ovid’s version of Pygmalion properly begins with the Propoetides, women who became the first sex workers after denying Venus’s divinity. “Losing all sense of shame,” the story goes, “they lost the power to blush, as the blood hardened in their cheeks, and only a small change turned them into hard flints.” A skilled sculptor living in Amanthus, Pygmalion is disgusted by the Propoetides and, by extension, all mortal women. Rather than seek out a partner or a wife, he instead carves a beautifully lifelike statue out of ivory. The statue is so realistic that even Pygmalion himself is half-convinced that it’s a flesh-and-blood woman, and the craftsman falls in love with her. After he prays to Venus, the sculpture is transformed into a living being, and the two are married soonafter.

Pygmalion working on his sculpture (from Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose; MS NLW 5016D f. 130r). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

What I’m most interested in is just how that transformation is effected. Returning home from Venus’s temple, Pygmalion repeatedly kisses and strokes the statue’s body, and the ivory begins to soften like wax under his fingers. He continues to kiss and touch her, “reaffirm[ing] the fulfilment of his wishes, with his hand, again, and again,” until the transformation is complete. In other words, it is the repetitive press and rub of flesh against the statue’s ivory which changes it into flesh itself.

That’s a surprisingly rich allusion to find in a recipe for tooth powder, but as recent discoveries have shown, we can learn a lot from medieval teeth. The touch of Pygmalion’s hand transforms ivory into flesh; so too, the dentifricia recipe suggests, might the application of ivory to teeth transform those teeth into ivory themselves. That two-word note, “as Ovid,” may allude to the events of the Pygmalion story, popular throughout the medieval West because of its presence in texts like Jeun de Meun’s Roman de la Rose. But it may also work as a promise of efficacy, suggesting to the reader that her teeth will be as beautiful as the ivory maiden’s skin. The latter possibility makes this two-word addition an interesting twist on the regimens falsely attributed to various noble ladies, like the dietary of Queen Isabella, in circulation at the time. This tooth-whitening recipe suggest that the power of celebrity to sell things like skin care regimens might have extended to literary and mythological characters as well.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.