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36. Beauty in Cyprus during 1337 to 1453

SEP 23, 2021


What do crusades, tweezers and quicklime have in common? Find out when you join Ryan and Pete on a journey to Medieval times on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus to explore the topic of beauty. Whilst the Hundred Years War raged, what were those Cypriot citizens up to?

This episode saw Pete going medieval on Ryan’s ass with a journey to 15th century Cyprus in search of Beauty.

The Republic of Cyprus is an island nation in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, neighbouring Turkey to the North and Syria, Lebanon and Israel to the East.

Cyprus has long and deep connections to Greece, so much so that they share a national anthem, the “Hymn to Liberty”. This song is actually derived from a poem written by Dionysios Solomos in 1823 and set to music by Nikolaos Mantzaros shortly after. It has been the national anthem of Cyprus since 1966, which is just about enough time to play it through once, because Solomos’ poem is actually 158 stanzas, or verses, long. This makes it the longest national anthem in the world by length of text, and consequently Cyprus the country nobody wants to win an Olympic Gold because nobody has that kind of time on their hands.

Today, Cyprus is a nation divided into a Greek South and Turkish Occupied North. In 1974, a coup d'état was staged by Greek Cypriot nationalists aiming at enosis (joining your country to Greece – a concept that amazingly seems to have its own name.

In response to the coup there was a Turkish invasion of Cyprus which led to the capture of the present-day territory of Northern Cyprus. There was also the displacement of over 150,000 Greek Cypriots and 50,000 Turkish Cypriots and a separate Turkish Cypriot state in the north was established by unilateral declaration in 1983.

This is recognised as a state by Turkey – and nobody else – and to cement the strangeness the divisions is maintained with a UN-patrolled buffer zone in the middle.

Despite all this, Cyprus manages to be a major tourist destination, possibly thanks to the lovely climate and abundance of history in the area. This history includes the birth of possibly Cyprus’ most famous daughter – the Goddess Aphrodite. The beauty deity is said to have emerged naked from the water around Cyprus in a location known today as Aphrodite’s rock. It is said that if you swim three times around the rock of Aphrodite, you will find eternal beauty or eternal love. You might also drown though, so make your own decisions.

A potted history of Cyprus

It all starts with early man (doesn’t it always) who arrived in 10,000 BCE. As a result of these guys’ work, you can now find some of the oldest wells in the world on the island.
The next exciting arrival was the settlement by Mycenaean Greeks in two waves in 2,000 BCE. After that, as empires rose and fall, the strategic location of the island meant it was generally swept up in all the excitement. This meant Cyprus was controlled in its turn by the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Persians, Macedonians, Egyptians again, Romans (classical) followed by Romans (Eastern), Arab caliphates, the French Lusignan dynasty, the Venetians, the Ottomans (putting in a highly respectable three-century innings), the British and finally, in an unusual turn of events, the Cypriots.

A focus on Medieval Cyprus

In 1191, the king of England was Richard the Lionheart. He foresaw the strategic importance of Cyprus as a base for supplying the forces taking part in the Third Crusade because it was handily next door to Israel, Syria and Lebanon. So he conquered the island, like you do. Whilst he was there, he married his fiancee Berengaria of Navarre.

From this point on, Cyprus becomes hugely important for Crusading purposes. To that end, Richard sold the island to the Knights Templar, an organisation of knights renowned for their crusades, although apparently not for their successful running of island nations, because it was only a matter of months before they off-loaded it to a new owner.
Enter Guy de Lusignan, a French Poitevin knight, meaning he was from the area of France known as Poitou, whose capital is Poitiers

Thus begins the start of a major period for Cyprus – Lusignan Cyprus

Lusignan Cyprus

Guy starts off as Lord of Cyprus from 1192 until his death… just two years later in 1194. So he didn’t get to enjoy his new land much.

After this, Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor crowned Guy’s older brother Aimery as the first king of Cyprus. He in turn married Isabella, which brought with it the crown of Jerusalem to the Lusignans.

This meant Kings of Cyprus were also often Kings of Jerusalem, really doubling down on the crusading theme for the area.

Aimery was followed by a selection of kings mostly called Henry or Hugh which we won’t bore you with, until we get to…

The ‘Golden Age of Lusignan Cyprus’.

Hugh the IV of Cyprus (we did warn you) reigned from 1324 to 1358 and was crowned as King of Cyprus at Saint Sophia Cathedral, Nicosia. In the same year, on 13 May, he was crowned as King of Jerusalem at Saint Nicholas Cathedral, Famagusta. Because you can’t have too many coronations.

Although Hugh IV was known for eschewing crusading in favour of looking after Cyprus, his son Peter was what we could call ‘crusade minded’ when he took over. Peter founded the chivalric Order of the Sword in 1347, which was dedicated to the recovery of Jerusalem. He was also very conscious that since the Fall of Acre, a town in North of Israel, in 1291 Cyprus is kind of the last Christian outpost in the East.

So he starts to stir up trouble. He attacks Asia Minor (Turkey) to the North of Cyprus.
Unfortunately for him, but perhaps not surprisingly, this caused the Turks to gang up together and launch an attack on Cyprus.

Fortunately Peter got help from the Knights of Saint John from Rhodes (the Knights Hospitaller), from the Pope and from pirates. What a team-up. Peter beats the attackers back, took a selection of cities from Turkey and started collecting tribute from them.

He’s not done though. He continues being all crusadey – attacking Alexandria, (Egypt), Syria and Lebanon before returning home for a break to discover his wife had been unfaithful. In response he made the life of various nobles so miserable, three of his knights kill him in his bed.

Where Peter the first was a knight of crusading zeal, his successor whilst also a Peter was, well, they called him ‘Peter the Fat’ so let’s just leave it at that.

No, let’s not. Peter the Fat lost his father's Cypriot possessions in Asia Minor, failed to stop an invastion from Genoa, aka the Republic of the Magnificents, which was a Maritime republic that captured the major trading port of Famagusta on Cyprus. Oops.

It was pretty much downhill from there, until the end of the 15th Century when Cyprus was taken over and became a colony of Venice.

But what about Beauty

Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. But what did a medieval beholder want to look at?

Well, if you had pale, white skin, small upright breasts, generous hips, high forehead and blonde hair, you were off to a strong start.

Gabriela Hernandez, author of Classic Beauty: The History of Makeup "Women in the 1400s wanted to have high foreheads and an egg-shaped face, with small nose and lips. They saw this as resembling a child, innocent and pure, It was truly a blank face, without much expression.

Likewise, Victoria Sherrow in “For Appearance’s Sake: The Historical Encyclopedia of Good Looks,” suggest that ‘a plain, empty appearance’ was desirable.
Clear skin was particularly held in high esteem because frequent smallpox epidemics left many of the population with unattractive pockmarks.

But there was also a bit of a dichotomy at the time regarding beauty, especially when it came to the clergy.
Beauty is celebrated, but trying to make yourself more attractive in the wrong way, could lead to accusations of scandalousness.
In the Confessionale, priests are supposed to ask “If she has plucked hair from her neck, or brows or beard for lavisciousness or to please men... This is a mortal sin unless she does so to remedy severe disfigurement or so as not to be looked down on by her husband.”

Likewise with makeup and other beauty aids there are two theological objections. First is they are an act of deception, and the second that it implies that God’s work can be improved upon (spoiler – it can).

As you may expect, that didn’t stop people. One 13th century French song refers to a peddlar who carries for sale: 'razors, tweezers, looking glasses, toothbrushes and tooth-picks, bandaus (cloth for binding breasts) and curling irons, ribbons, combs, mirrors, rosewater... cotton with which they rouge themselves and whitening with which they whiten themselves.'

Medieval Make up

First and foremost, if you’re going to be sexy, you are going to have to show that forehead. Depilation to increase forehead size occurred, and in fact some say this is the source of the word highbrow.

Plucking is a fairly straightforward method of beautifying, but when it comes to white skin and pink cheeks and lips, something more elaborate is needed.

Fortunately, there was the Trotula.

This was a medieval manuscript/book that was incredibly influential at this time in the courts across Europe.

In fact this was a compilation of 3 books, “Conditions of Women”, “Treatments for Women”, and “Women’s Cosmetics” covering topics from childbirth to blusher.

The book is an aggregating almanac of tips. Conditions of Women and Women’s Cosmetics circulated anonymously until they were combined with Treatments for Women sometime in the late 12th century. So popular was the book it ran to at least 8 different translations, including Latin and a range of vernacular languages.

Trotula was composed in the southern Italian port town of Salerno in the 12th century. The name derives from a historic female figure, Trota of Salerno, a physician and medical writer who was associated with one of the three texts. Over time, though, "Trotula" came to be understood as a real person in the Middle.

Although written before our period, the book was popular for the next several hundred years, circulating throughout Europe and reaching its greatest popularity in the 14th century.

More than 130 copies exist today of the Latin texts, and over 60 copies of the many medieval vernacular translations.

The book includes a range of recipes, including those for removing hair, making hair grow, lightening hair, darkening hair, whitening skin, polishing teeth and of course, dealing with itch-mites.

Although most of the recipes included either hard-to-find ingredients such a bear fat, or downright toxic substances, Pete was able to find one that they could recreate in the studio.

“But when she combs her hair, let her have this powder. Take some dried roses, clove, nutmeg, watercress, and galangal. Let all these, powdered, be mixed with rose water.With this water let her sprinkle her hair and comb it with a comb dipped in this same water so that [her hair] will smell better. And let her make furrows in her hair and sprinkle on the above-mentioned powder, and it will smell marvelously.”

And that’s why, for the remaining minutes of the episode, Ryan smelled like Christmas.

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