Monday, September 28, 2009


But Have You Seen Their Mirrors?

An Essay By Sue-Ellen Welfonder

Author of


**Warning: The opinions below are my own. They were formed by a lifelong passion for medieval Scottish history, all things Celtic, and the lands of the North.

Why the caution?

Well… I want to blog about a topic that reaps mixed reactions: medieval ambiance. I could say medieval hygiene, but as I mean a much broader scope than personal care, I prefer the word ambiance.

You’ll find lots of little glimpses into medieval life in my latest Scottish medieval romance, A Highlander’s Temptation (GCP, Oct. 2009). For example, when the heroine, Arabella MacKenzie, sets forth on a journey on a merchant cog, you learn that she brought along a few curls of cinnamon bark and some sprigs of dried heather to freshen the air in her sleeping quarters.

Later on, you’ll meet Mad Moraig, hen wife to the hero, Darroc MacConacher’s clan. You’ll discover some of the items in Mad Moraig’s healing basket, along with their uses. You’ll also see that she makes a mean wine caudle. This was an egg-thickened concoction believed to strengthen those weakened by illness or injury.

You’ll also visit the bustling village of Kyleakin, a very real place and one of my favorite spots on the Isle of Skye.

And, while still at Kyleakin, you’ll get to see this ruin of Castle Moil as it must’ve appeared in Arabella’s day. Then, as now, it would’ve stood proud, guarding the harbor. Although in the time of A Highlander’s Temptation, the tower bore the name Dunakin.

The pages of A Highlander’s Temptation are filled with special places like Kyleakin. I always use settings that I know personally and have visited often, so hopefully you’ll find them real-seeming. One of my greatest goals when I write is to transport readers into the story world so that you feel as if you’re right there, alongside the characters.

But what about those characters?

They, too, should be vivid and full of life. As well, they should be true to the medieval world they called their own. But while I can easily hop a plane to Glasgow, rent a car, and zip up to the Highlands to explore my settings, I can’t travel back in time to the fourteenth century.

How I wish I could!

As it is, none of us will ever see firsthand what medieval people were really like.

Fortunately, there are lots of tantalizing clues.

The whole of Great Britain can be called a living history museum. The past is alive and kicking there. Tangible remnants of the long-ago abound, too many for most people to explore in a single lifetime. But even those unable to visit the UK can research and learn so much, especially in the Age of the Internet.

That’s why there’s a caveat at the top of this blog.

Every now and then, a witty essay on medieval living conditions appears on the Internet. And while I won’t argue the existence of hovels and dirt and even black teeth, I refuse to believe that things were as dire as some of these lists-of-horrors claim.

I could detail the severities of peasant life, but romance novels generally don’t feature a hero who toiled as the local cesspit cleaner. Nor will you find many heroines portrayed as poultry wives or laundresses. Romances tend to take place in the more elevated realms of medieval society.

So let’s do a bit of cyber time-traveling and take a peek at some of the day-to-day things that shaped Arabella and Darroc’s world.

For starters, have you seen their mirrors? A lady of Arabella’s status would certainly have had one. And I’d challenge anyone today to find a modern mirror even halfway as beautiful.

They were usually circular, handheld, and often had exquisitely-carved cases. The first glass mirrors appeared in the late 1200s, but most were made of highly-polished metal. Even as far back as the Iron Age, the Celts had mirrors that were true works of art. The backs, for example, were elaborately designed, some even with decorative enameling.

I find it hard to believe that anyone who could craft – or possess - an object of such beauty, would run around for months without bathing or combing their hair.

And speaking of baths….

They did exist. Public bathing houses were well known. As were wooden tubs, barrel-like and held together with metal staves. There were sponges, soap, and perfumed oils, favorites being ambergris, musk, rosewater, lavender, and sandalwood to name a few.

The ancient Celts were especially fastidious if one considers the number of razors, tweezers, and tiny shears found in archaeological excavations.

Vikings relished bathing in hot springs. Even the most remote places offer glimpses of past attempts at cleanliness. Burnt mound is the name for stone-lined pits which were filled with water heated by fired stones. I saw one of these on the isle of Mousa in Shetland and used it in Until The Knight Comes (GCP, July 2006). The purpose of a burnt mound could have ranged from bathing to a medieval sauna to a form of hydrotherapy to cooking.

Water pipes and plumping systems were not unknown. Monasteries and castles often had sophisticated sanitary arrangements that took advantage of nearby streams or rivers, but also included roof-top cisterns which provided running water throughout the castle.

All things considered, I believe a medieval Highland lady like Arabella would have wished to look and feel her best. There are ancient Gaelic medical texts documenting the Gaels’ advanced knowledge of cures and hygiene and that emphasize the importance they placed on staying fit and well.

The above-mentioned Celtic mirrors, along with spectacular jewelry finds such as torcs and brooches, and the intricate delicacy of even the most ordinary household goods such as a bucket handle, all point to a people who cared greatly about ambiance.

I’m betting they also cared about what they saw when they looked into those mirrors.

Here are some of the things that might have been a part of Arabella’s daily beauty ritual:

**Teeth could be cleaned by rubbing them with mallow root or apple skins. Rinsing one’s mouth with cold water was also advised, as was chewing the root of the common moor plant, bitter vetch, said to sweeten breath.

**Oatmeal wasn’t just for eating. Savvy ladies knew that keeping a small linen bag of oats in a jug of water not only softened the water, but their skin as well. Oatmeal could also be mixed with buttermilk to make a very effective medieval face pack.

**Skin care was important and if the many medieval texts offering advice are any proof, women looked after their complexions. Elderflower made an excellent skin tonic. And when you boiled the flowers and pollen in almond oil and lard, you were assured a very effective face cream.

Fir club moss also has a long history of being made into skin tonics and lotions. It could also be dried and ground to be used as dusting powder.

Violets were incredibly popular as a cosmetic. So much so that there was even a Gaelic saying that ‘any young woman who used violets and goats’ milk on her face would be irresistible to even the most highborn nobleman.’

Ladies who wished to rid themselves of freckles could use a rinse of honeysuckle.

**For a big night in the mead hall, eyebrows, lips, and even fingernails could be tinted with bramble or raspberry juice.

**As a final touch, a lady wishing to make a grand entrance and good impression, would ensure that her clothes are kept tidy with a linen smoother. That was a flat, palm-sized round of dark green glass, frequently found in Viking excavations and used much as a modern-day iron.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this mini-glimpse into Arabella’s world. My blog question is … if you could go back in time for real, what would you miss most from the modern world?

For the curious, my answer isn’t a cosmetic. As a card-carrying potato zealot, it’s spuds that I’d find myself craving.

What would you miss?

Learn more about A Highlander’s Temptation and Arabella and Darroc’s world, by visiting my website You can also join my mailing list for book news and – at times – to get more insights on neat things like linen smoothers, the benefits of oatmeal, and anecdotes from my travels in Scotland. If that doesn’t sway you, I also do wonderful mailing list-only giveaways.







Carol L. said...

Hi Sue-Ellen,
This was a most interesting post. I never knew about the items found to show how much the Celts indulged in cleanliness. Very interesting, Thank you. It's always so nice to know that the Highlanders I love, smelled clean too. :) I'm enjoying the blog tour. Have a great day !
Carol L.