Concerns over crossing care with cosmetics in Medieval Europe
Have you ever thought to ask your doctor about if a new hairstyle is right for you? It sounds silly, but we do go to medical professionals to change our appearance, either through drastic measures like plastic surgery, or less invasive (and preventative) procedures like mole removal. The line of what we think should be clinical and what is strictly cosmetic has been moving for hundreds of years, going as far back as some of the earliest medical textbooks.
In the Middle Ages, a European doctor could be asked to help with treating disease, as well as treating signs of aging. A flexible doctor had to be ready to treat hair loss from disease as well as from natural aging. So while eyebrows might be accentuated to counter the symptoms of leprosy, people might also ask their physician to dye their hair to look more youthful. There was a slight stigma against men getting their hair thickened or dyed, but it happened enough that medical texts often included recipes and instructions for the dyes needed to keep up with demand. There wasn’t much of a boundary between a barber and doctor by today’s standards.
That blurred line was a point of contention in the history of medicine. Galen, one of the preeminent doctors from 129 CE that was still referred to in the sixteenth century, wrote explicitly about how cosmetics and health treatments should be kept distinct from each other. Cosmetics were fine, but Galen felt they needed to be clearly differentiated from decoratio, meaning the “care of” or “decorum” of a person’s health. This opinion didn’t stop Galen from peddling cosmetics though, especially to powerful patrons demanding such services. Later doctors, like the Persian physician Avicenna from 980 CE, weren’t terribly worried about the line between beauty and health services. Aside from philosophical concerns, these allowances probably spoke to commercial demands of the market. And that health insurance companies had not yet been invented.
Source: Make-Up and Medicine in the Middle Ages, Medievalists