Believe it or not, when I set out to write this post, I didn’t have vaginas on my mind. I had planned on doing a medieval health and beauty post. I had a lot of fun trying out recipes for medieval hair dye and hair scenting powder in the past. I figured I’d do something along those lines.
So I pulled out my handy copy of The Trotula, a 12th century book on women’s health and beauty. It was written in Salerno, Italy, but became very popular throughout medieval Europe. Unfortunately for me (and the poor women who followed its advice) I couldn’t find any recipes that wouldn’t either poison me, burn me, or force me to commit horrendous acts of animal cruelty.
What I did find, however, was an “ointment for noblewomen which removes hairs, refines the skin, and takes away blemishes.” I didn’t think much about it at first. It sounded like a face cream, and one I couldn’t make myself considering one of its main ingredients is quick lime. No thanks. But I kept reading out of curiosity.
After applying the ointment, the woman is supposed to sit in a hot steam bath, being careful not to rub herself or her skin will become “excoriated.” Excoriated! That’s one hell of a side effect. But here’s where it gets really interesting. After a thorough steam, the woman should then try to “pull out the hairs from the pubic area.”
I had to stop and think about that for a minute. Did I really just read that medieval noblewomen plucked out their pubes??? No way. And here I was blaming the porn industry for destroying the bush.
I had to know more…
I started with a quick internet search. I found several websites about the history of hair removal, and they all said the same thing–medieval women didn’t shave. They had hairy legs and hairy pits. No one even thought to mention pubic hair.
After hours of searching, I finally came across a book by Victoria Sherrow called Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. In it she mentions that women in the Middle East removed their body hair, a cultural practice that spread to Europe via the Crusades. Now things were starting to add up for me. Citing an article by John F. Benton, Wikipedia claims that 12th century Salerno (home of the Trotula), was “the most important center for the introduction of Arabic medicine into Western Europe.”
Virginity–not just for virgins anymore
The Trotula had more to say on the vagina than just hair removal techniques. Say you’re a medieval woman who is about to get married, but you and a good-looking knight recently shared some not so courtly love. Not to worry. There are ways to fake virginity, and The Trotula will tell you how.
1st you’ll want to constrict the vagina. This involves mixing various herbs together with egg whites or rain water, dipping a cloth into the substance, and inserting. The Trotula offers no judgment on the noble woman using these measures. However, it does caution against the misinformed methods of “dirty and corrupt” prostitutes wishing to achieve an appearance of virginity. Apparently the mixture they used–a mixture of powdered natron and powdered glass–left them bloody and wounded the man’s penis. Go figure.
For your wedding night, you will want blood, though not the penis destroying type. The Trotula recommends leeches. Let those little buggers go to town on your vajayjay, though don’t let them go in too far. Do this until blood comes out, giving it time to clot. This combined with your newly constricted vagina should be enough to deceive your new husband.
Now sex and child-birth might present further complications for your vagina. During coitus, the vagina might swell. Never fear–The Trotula offers you relief…in the form of marsh mallows and pennyroyal. Childbirth might leave you with a prolapsed vagina. With herbs and the aid of a tampon, these afflictions are easily remedied as well. And by tampon, they mean cotton fabric and a twig. Comfy…
It’s easy to look back at these practices with a sense of modern superiority. They seem barbarous, dangerous, and disgusting. But before you judge, ask yourself what people in the future might think of our grooming practices. Ripping out hair with hot wax sounds crazy when you think about it. And sure the thought of putting leeches on any part of my body, let alone the holiest of holies, is enough to give me nightmares. But then again, I’ve known people who have taken weight loss pills that cause anal leakage, and that’s pretty horrific too. I can only hope that my great great great great granddaughter will find our health and beauty practices as interesting as I have found those of my ancestors, even if she looks back at our generation with a sense of her own modern superiority.