Thursday, August 5, 2021

Summer in the Middle Ages

From Medievalists:
Bartholomew Anglicus explained that, because the sun was at its apex during Summer, it shone directly on the people’s heads, causing an excess of yellow bile, the dry and hot humour often associated with bursts of anger. Summer heats the body, dries it through perspiration and weakens it, added Bartholomew, causing fevers and other “hot and dry diseases”. Medical treatises included pharmacological recipes designed to appease and reduce sunburns. A tenth-century Anglo-Saxon medical compilation known as Bald’s Leechbook advised to “boil in butter tender ivy twigs [and] smear therewith.” Emollients were commonly used to cure burns, as they are still today.

Women from the elite sought to keep their skin as fair and as white as possible. Skin colour was a marker of socio-economic standing — tanned skin was associated with the peasantry and signalled one’s humble background. Medical treatises, especially the ones concerned with women’s cosmetics, featured recipes to protect the skin from the sun. The eleventh-century De Ornatu Mulierum, attributed to Trotula of Salerno, included a camphor-based balm protecting the skin from the sun. These are the ancestors of modern sunscreen. We do not recommend doing this at home!

To avoid sunburns, medieval physicians recommended wearing wide-brimmed hats and using parasols, when possible. Illuminations of peasants hard at work in the summer heat show them wearing hats, shirtless or with light pieces of clothing, such as on the August page of the Très riches heures du Duc de Berry. This illumination also features a swimming scene. On the bank of the river, one man is naked, drying himself in the sun. His companions are swimming, fully immersed in the water. These men may have been farmers, cleaning themselves and getting some fun cool down after a long day of work. (Read more.)


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