The Secret History of Women

Sunday Mirror (London, England), January 2, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Secret History of Women


The first Sunday of the new Millennium is as good a time as any to reflect that British women really have never had it so good. We've compiled a few fascinating snippets of our everyday lives over the last 1,000 years. So as you read it over your ready-made meal, in your centrally- heated house, wearing your comfortable clothes, with your dirty linen taking care of itself in the washing machine, spare a thought for our ancestors for whom such simple pleasures were unimaginable. By Terry Deary

beauty

Staying out of the sun isn't just a trend that has developed since we have learnt more about the harm UV rays can do to our skin.

In the 16th Century pale was not only interesting it was also the only way to be seen. The slightest hint of a tan and you were frowned upon for looking like a peasant. So women, including Elizabeth I (1533-1603), would smother their faces in chalky dusts and powders and add egg white for a smooth, satin finish.

Unfortunately, these powders often contained lead and if it got in your mouth then you'd be pale, interesting and dead ...or just bald if you were unlucky enough to use one with mercury in it.

Blemishes and freckles were scrubbed away with foul-smelling sulphur.

And if you wanted to add a touch of colour to your lips you'd apply a concoction of egg white and cochineal (crushed beetles). Yuk!

In those Tudor days, black rotting teeth were a big problem. Toothbrushes weren't invented until the 17th Century, so a piece of cloth was used with a bit of powdered pumice stone. It worked for a while - then it removed the enamel completely. Elizabeth I used a special powder made from honey, crushed bones, sugar and fruit peel. It was customary (if you could afford it) to rinse your mouth with wine to make the breath smell sweeter, but that only made the decay worse.

Wine was what Mary Queen of Scots also chose to bathe in. Milk was recommended for a pale skin. Plain water was considered downright unhealthy and the wife of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) preferred to wash her face in puppy's urine.

A hundred years later and the perfect foundation was still a long way off. In 18th Century Italy more than 600 men died from getting too close to wives wearing arsenic make-up.

In 18th Century Britain, women didn't go in for shaving their legs - they attacked their eyebrows instead, then stuck on new ones cut from the skins of mice. High foreheads were also all the rage, so they shaved back their hair line and, to prevent it growing back, massaged in a mixture of vinegar and cat's droppings.

So you see we women have always been suckers for new beauty gimmicks. Even plastic surgery has been around for decades. In 1882 if you were worried about scrawny eyelashes you could have some false ones sewn on.

girl power

Contrary to popular belief, girl power has been around a lot longer than Margaret Thatcher and the Spice Girls. Long before Emma Bunton, aka Baby Spice, we had the likes of Emma of Normandy. In the 1st Century she married not one, but two English kings, and when her son, Edward The Confessor, confiscated her land and goods she defied Saxon tradition, which expected her to retire quietly to a convent, by staying in politics and commissioning her own biography, entitled simply, Emma.

Her Norman relations famously took over England after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. And can you guess who was holding the fort while William The Conquerer was over here conquering? Yes, it was a woman, called Matilda.

Even once the battle was won, the women were still calling the shots. Several French knights deserted their king and gave up their reward of free land in Britain because their wives demanded they return home.

Here are a few other women who have done their bit for girl power through the ages...

Kate Douglas risked life and limb (literally) to prevent assassins murdering James I of Scotland in 1437. …

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