Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Language, Literature and Humanities - Alexander von Humboldt Professorship

From ugly words to beautiful bodies: cosmetics in ancient and medieval medical texts

Laurence Totelin – Cardiff University

When studying the pharmacological treatises of antiquity and the Middle Ages, one cannot help but wonder whether all the remedies there preserved were actually used. One is faced with the difficult question of practice. In this paper, I will consider this question by focusing on cosmetic recipes. Medical cosmetology meant ‘big business’ in the ancient world, with remedies fetching high prices, princesses endorsing their favourite concoctions, and imperial physicians such as Crito writings books on the topic. Many cosmetic recipes have survived in the medical writings of Scribonius Largus, Galen, the Byzantine medical encyclopaedists, the curious ‘Metrodora’ text, the Trotula compendium, and some papyri – to list only a few examples. Yet some medical authors such as Galen had a very ambivalent attitude towards such recipes: they included them yet criticized those who used them. These cosmetic recipes are also striking for their inclusion of rather repelling ingredients such as deer horn, horse teeth or burnt mice. Did these ingredients really enter the composition of actual remedies? Here comparison with some rare – but extremely interesting – archaeological remains is possible. In sum, I wish to approach the question of the link between medical texts and medical practice by focusing on a relatively under-studied corpus of material: cosmetic recipes.