The beautiful woman in medieval Iberia: Rhetoric, cosmetics, and evolution

From a 2005 Ph.D. thesis by an Italian:
Literary portraits of the beautiful woman in medieval Iberia tend to emphasize several physical features, such as long, blond hair, or light-colored and hairless skin. This study examines the specific features of the beautiful woman in several major works and genres from medieval Iberia. It also traces the rhetorical sources of these portraits to the Classical and medieval Latin traditions, whose influence is evident in other early vernacular literatures of Europe. It then analyzes several medieval cosmetic treatises in Latin and in vernacular languages that attest to medieval women's beautifying practices, such as the use of hair-dyes, depilatories, and skin-whitening creams.

The comparison of the literary and cosmetic evidence shows a canonical view of feminine beauty that encompasses different cultural areas in medieval Iberia. This view is also consistent with ancient as well as with twenty-first century conceptions of beauty. The findings suggest that the ideal of feminine beauty in medieval Iberia is not unique, but rather a manifestation of near-universal male preferences shaped by sexual selection in the course of human evolution. [. . .]

Most cosmetic treatises devote considerable space to the maintenance of well-groomed, long, and healthy hair. They also include many recipes for hair-dyes (blond and black). In Spanish literature, blond hair appears to be more typical of learned poetry and appears to be associated with nobility: "rruvios, largos cabellos / segund doncellas d’estado" (Marqués de Santillana 11-12). In the cantigas it is not mentioned, and in the Andalusian and Arabic tradition hair is black, not without exceptions (see Chapter Three).

[Claudio Da Soller. The beautiful woman in medieval Iberia: Rhetoric, cosmetics, and evolution. University of Missouri - Columbia, 2005.]


Anonymous said...

In Hermann Muckermann's 1935 Grundriss der Rassenkunde, he apparently claimed that, among female Mediterraneans, a light mustache was seen as part of an ideal beauty, and might have been artificially cultivated, particularly in Spain. I don't have access to an original copy, so I have no idea what the source for those claims is. Struck me as rather funny and dubious when I read it in Christopher Hutton's Race and the Third Reich.

Walter said...

All of the upper class throughout European history has been fairer skinned. All princesses have been described as fair, and women who were fairer we seen as more healthy / upper class.

The very notion of "blue blood" implies fair skin -- skin fair enough to show the blue veins.

On the contrary, people who were tan / swarthy were seen as more lower class.

Among non-Africans, appreciation of fair skin is coded in sexual selection as a sign health.

Anonymous said...

The very notion of "blue blood" implies fair skin -- skin fair enough to show the blue veins.

Yes Walther, the medieval, noble and aristocratic Spaniards even were the very first to coin the term "blue bloods" (in Español sangre azul) - showing how conscious they were of their Nordish blood and heritage - and do the best they could to preserve it.

Anonymous said...

Well, the women of Spain are definitely slimmer than the German women. I was shocked to see so many fat chicks in Bavaria (it's not just the Turkish immigrants who put on the weight). Now Prague was impressive: the chicks there are not only slimmer but are much blonder than the Bavarians.

If I was a Nordicist I'd definitely be disillusioned after going to Prague. It seems contradictory to put a chubby brunette over a svelte Slavic blonde just because there is a tweak in her genetic makeup and her face might be slightly rounder. Though strangely the Czechs seem to want to emphasize their Germanic roots a little more than you'd expect. I doubt such feelings are reciprocated.

Anyway, I found the Germans hospitable and friendly but no one will ever, ever convince me that Bavarians are Nordic. It was fun living in Germany for a couple of months! I stopped being a Medicist thanks to the Bavarian beer. :P

Anonymous said...

Anyway, I found the Germans hospitable and friendly but no one will ever, ever convince me that Bavarians are Nordic.

Who ever said they were?

Bavaria is a region of Europe with one of the highest concentrations of the Alpine sub-race, who are largely mixed with Nordic elements. The most Nordic, or Nordid, sub-racial elements of Germany is found in the northwest of the country.

Still, in spite of the (slightly disrespectful) tone of your post about the Southern Germans, Bavaria (and Frankfurt-am-Mein, North Rhine-Westphalia) is still the overall economic powerhouse of the German nation (remember that BMW stands for Bavarian Motor Works).

Imagine saying the same about the Southern Italians and their economy..?

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