By 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.
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 allusion is explained at the top of the following folio, which bears the sentence “what if I command you to wash your mouth in the morning with water, that your teeth looke not blacke.” This is an admittedly poor translation of a question from the Ars amatoria—“Quid, si præcipiam, ne fuscet inertia dentes, / Oraque suscepta mane laventur aqua?”—one that elides the original attention to handwashing in favor of emphasizing dental hygiene.The textual evidence suggests that the scribe himself may have found this confusing, and the presence of the quotation on the top of the next page, without any clear connection to its original author’s name on the bottom of the previous folio, likely contributes to this uncertainty. But in its awkward placement, the reference to Ovid also invites a kind of literary thinking enabled by the text as it appears to read on first glance: the equation of some work by Ovid with the kind of transformation described by Pliny.
Ovid is better-known for his storytelling than his medical expertise (although his Art of Beauty, does include a number of cosmetic recipes, all are for facial cleansers or masks and none make use of ivory or claim to remedy dental issues). But the parallel implied between Ovid and Pliny is not necessarily medical in nature; instead, that two-word reference—“as Ovid”—suggests a literary resonance in the form of the story of Pygmalion. In doing so, it evinces the entanglement of literary and medical textual traditions, and the slippage that might occur between them.
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.
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.
Correction: This post has been updated to attribute the Ovid quote to the Ars amatoria.
 Ovid: The Art of Love and Other Poems, trans. J. H. Mozley and revised by G. P. Goold, Loeb Classical Library 232 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1929), ll. 197-98.