Composite Color, or 12th Century Cheek and Lip Color

A while back I shared my redaction of a face makeup from the 12th century.  You can find the exact recipe by typing in “milk and roses” in this blog’s search engine.  Here is a recipe for the other part of the perfect Renaissance face; cheek and lip color.  It comes from the same source as the face makeup, the Trotula

Composite color is to be made thus.  Take the marine herb with which the Saracens dye leather hides green.  Let this boil in a new clay vessel with egg white until it is reduced to a third.  To the substance strained (from this) add brazilwood finely chopped and let it boil again.  And again leave it to cool.  And when it is lukewarm, let there be added powder of alum, and then let it be placed in a golden or glass jug.  Reserve for (later) use.  The women of the Saracens dye their faces in this manner; their faces having been anointed and dried, they put on any of the above mentioned substances for whitening the face…and a most beautiful color appears, combining both red and white.–#296, Trotula, 12th century

This recipe was a bit deceptive at first.  First of all, you really need to study the footnotes.  I use the Monica Green translation, which is generally considered to be the standard translation.  She writes in the footnotes that the part about “dye leather green” is a translation error which is perhaps hundreds of years old.  She argues that the translation should be something in reference to the pigment needed to get purple.  She points out that if you are trying to mix colors to get a reddish hue, green will do you no good.  She offered up the suggestion that you might want to use iron oxide.  This pigment is still used in modern cosmetics, especially those in the red or reddish brown color range.  Also, the mention of brazilwood is problematic.  Brazilwood is a New World dyestuff, so it’s highly unlikely you would use it in the 12th century.  However, my herbals mention an herb called “brezilwood”, or sappenwood.  This is a dyestuff which dates back to the Romans.  Sappenwood produces a red dye just like brazilwood, so I felt pretty confident in replacing substituting it. 

To make this cosmetic I took 1/4 teaspoon of hematite iron oxide pigment and mixed it with an egg white in a small ceramic bowl.  I microwaved this mixture for about 15 seconds.  You should end up with a deep purple goo.  I used a fork to smooth out the lumps, because the microwave ended up cooking the egg white a bit.  I imagine that this happened during the 12th century too; you are cooking an egg after all.  Once this was done it was time to add the sappenwood.  I used 1 teaspoon and added a bit of rosewater to the mix to help bring out the red pigment in the sappenwood.  The mixture spent another 30 seconds in the microwave and was allowed to cool before I added 1 teaspoon of alum (potassium alum).  I chose to strain my mixture through cheesecloth, but you could also use a sieve.  What you get at the end of this process is a bright red liquid.  To test how effective this stuff might be, IImage decided to do exactly what the recipe says.  I put on my face whitener/ face makeup.  Then I applied the composite color to my lips and cheeks with a natural sea sponge.  I have included a picture of myself so you can see the results.  I was very surprised and relieved to see that you end up with an almost natural looking, healthy pink color for the lips and cheeks.  It feels really comfortable on too.  At this writing I have been wearing it for about three hours and hardly noticed that its there.  Hopefully this will inspire those of you interested in reenacting to make a batch and wear it to your next event.


The Trotula: an English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine.  Monica H. Green, trans.  Universtiy of Pennsylvania Press; Philladelphia, 2001.  ISBN 978-0-8122-1808-4.


Fennel Water: 15th Century Slimfast?

For those of you who tune in regularly, you know that January was declared Diet Month.  So far we took a look at the concept from the Renaissance point of view by reading a diet book, Discourse on the Sober Life, and examining two medical entries concerning weight from period sources.  However, I really wanted to try and share a diet drink with you, so that is the topic for today’s entry.  It turned out to be quite the hunt.  I have a pretty extensive library of medical texts at my disposal, and I only managed to find one.  Here is an  entry from a source I have used before, A Leechbook of Collection of Medical Recipes of the Fifteenth Century 1934.  I love this book and am very glad I decided to purchase it after all.  I almost didn’t because Amazon was selling it for about $5 and I figured it had to be pretty useless to be sold that cheaply.  However, I ended up putting it in my cart because I needed just a bit more to get free shipping.  Now that I own it, i consider it one of the most useful books in my collection.  To my surprise, it’s hardcover and has side by side page translation so you can see the entries in both Old and Modern English.  Anyway, here is the entry I found for my diet drink experiment:

#982 Water of fennel is good to make a great body small.–A Leechbook or Collection of Mecdical Recipes of the Fifteenth Century 1934


The challenge here is in the redacting.  As you can see, we have one sentence.  This is what my hours of research turned up when I set out to look for diet drinks.  From earlier recipes in the manuscript, I was able to determine that “waters” like these, are generally made by putting the herb(s) in clean water and boiling them.  Once boiled and cooled, you strain out the herbs and conserve the liquid for use.  That is exactly how I made this recipe.  I took a fresh bulb of fennel, chopped it into bits (more on the whys later) and boiled it in 120 ounces of water for 2o minutes.  120 ounces of water was used because my modern herbals often recommend 1 part, 6 part ratio for ingested waters like this.  Once my water had cooled a bit, I strained off my fennel and poured the lovely smelling concoction into a pitcher.  As you can see from the original source, I have no dosage instructions, so I decided to do some research into the benefits of fennel before I tested it.


Modern research has found that fennel contains phytoestrogens.  These compounds are very beneficial for a variety of things, among them appetite suppression, increased urine flow, flatulence,  gout and indigestion.  It can also be used to increase milk production.  Armed with this bit of knowledge the decision to chop the fennel up and add it to the water was made in order to release those compounds more readily.

Once I had done some reading on the topic, i decided to drink an eight ounce glass twice a day to see what happens.  Twice a day seemed pretty safe because it is a diuretic among other things so you don’t want to go overboard or you’ll experience some rather unpleasant cramping.  Taste wise, this stuff was very good.  I drank mine chilled and found the almost licorice flavor refreshing.  I took note of my weight at the beginning of the week and drank my fennel water twice a day for one week.  I generally eat a pretty balanced, wheat-free diet and did not change it because there is no indication from the leechbook entry that you should.  At the end of the week, I checked my weight again and found that I had decreased by five pounds.  However, I feel it wise to note that fennel is a diuretic, so this weight loss can easily be explained as water weight.


In the end I found that it may not make you instantly slender, but it does help with hunger pangs and does seem to give you a feeling of cleansing and well being.  I would personally categorize it as a detox drink instead of a weight loss drink, due to my feelings of increased digestive efficiency.  Renaissance folks who drank this might have found it very useful in times of heavy eating, bloating and feasting because it seems to give the digestion a boost.  My week long experiment left my feeling less sluggish and lighter feeling, which was a welcome thing given all the heavy winter eating that seems to be going on in my house lately.  Although it does not say so, this drink may have been prescribed as a way to help balance the humors and restore health.  By increasing the urine flow, you are expelling excess humors, or so the ancient medical theory goes.


If you want to try this at home you can follow my recipe or you can also try fennel seed tea.  This is the more modern concentrated way of ingesting fennel.  Fennel seed tea can be purchased or you can make it yourself from raw fennel seeds.  The internet abounds with simple recipes.


A Leechbook or Collection of Medical Recipes of the Fifteenth Century 1934, Warren R. Dawson, trans.  MacMillan and Co., Limited; London, 1934.  ISBN 9781432614874