Faces of the Past: Vanity in Medieval Catalonia

At the magnificent 12th century Cistercian monastery of Santes Creus outside of the city of Tarragona, where centuries of Catalan monarchs are buried, researchers have announced some interesting finds following the exhumation of several of the bodies interred there.  It turns out that not only did women wear makeup in the Middle Ages, as was already known, but apparently men and women of the ruling classes were not shy about using hair dye to keep the grays from taking over.  It is further proof, if needed, that the pursuit of vanity is as old as human civilization itself.

Among the remains which were examined, scientists looked at those of  two of Medieval Catalonia’s most important historical figures: King Pere (“Peter”) II, known as “The Great”, and Queen Blanca (“Blanche”) de Anjou.  Pere II (1239-1285) was one of the greatest of the Catalan monarchs who, among other things, conquered Sicily in 1282 and added it to his family’s possessions.  Blanca (1280-1310) was his daughter-in-law, married to Pere’s son King Jaume (“James”) II (1267-1327), known as “The Just”, who added Sardinia and Corsica to the Catalan empire in 1297 upon his marriage to Blanca.

Contemporary descriptions of Pere depicted him as an unusually tall, handsome man, with blonde hair that shone like spun gold.  In examining his body researchers concluded that he was five feet ten inches tall, which in the Middle Ages was about a head taller than the average male height.  Whether Pere was handsome can be judged from his facial reconstruction, though of course one should keep in mind that this is the image of a man in the year of his death.  At that time Pere was in his mid-40s, suffering from tuberculosis and other maladies, and had been fighting wars all over Europe for years.  He was no doubt exhausted from his battles, and his face shows it.

To their surprise, in the strands of hair remaining where his beard had been, scientists found that Pere was using a natural blonde hair dye obtained from the broom plant.  The dye was known to be used by women during the Middle Ages to lighten their hair, but to find it in the hair of a king was surprising.  Perhaps Pere, who had to show he was still the tough, military man that could not only control his kingdom but add to it, felt the need to look younger as his hair started to go gray, in order to keep up with the men who might be eying his throne for themselves.

This same type of hair dye found in Pere’s beard was also found in the hair remaining on his daughter-in-law Blanca, who died at the age of 27 while giving birth to her 10th child.  Scientists found traces of makeup on Blanca’s face, including rouge on her cheeks.  The facial reconstruction from her skull shows us a young woman who looks strikingly modern, to my mind a bit like Kate Moss.  The forensic artist portrayed the young Queen both with and without makeup, speculating from the chemical evidence on her skin as to how she might have used the products available to her.

Because of the power of things such as official portraiture, in the centuries before the invention of photography, the way we think of important people in pre-modern times is often characterized by a perception of stiffness or remoteness.  In reality, these people were flawed human beings just as we are, and just as prone to concern themselves with vanity.  The difference is that they have done some rather terribly interesting things in their lives.

Psychologically, there is not much difference between the 40-something male executive using “Just For Men” to get rid of the gray so that he can compete with the young bucks in his office, and a king who is trying to keep the gray from taking over his face.  Similarly, young women have always enjoyed using powders, dyes and lotions to try to keep their face up to date with fashion and trends in clothing, whether the “look” is heavy makeup, no makeup, or something inbetween.  Thus, studies like these connect us to our ancestors in some fundamental and very human respects, and show us that they were not so very different from ourselves.


Forensic facial reconstructions of King Pere II (L), Queen Blanca de Anjou without makeup (C), and the Queen with makeup (R)

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