Save our Skin: A History of Treatments

Remedies to improve the complexion and remove warts, spots and boils have been in use since antiquity. Donkey milk, turpentine and crocodile faeces were all applied to the skin. Bathing in wine, known as vinotherapy, was adopted among the elite in the 1500s and 1600s. Another common home remedy was to rub the skin with a ‘flesh brush’ to improve health and circulation. Self-treatment was common and the sick only visited a medical practitioner when their ailment became increasingly painful, appeared to be dangerous or threatened to leave a permanent mark.

Breaking Boundaries: Working Class Skin

Working-class skin was a source of fear and a source of knowledge. In the 1800s an increased understanding of contagionist theory lead to an increased fear of the proximity of poor bodies. The repulsion felt towards beggars and the destitute could now be justified not just on moral grounds, but on medical ones too. While middle-class bodies were increasingly viewed as controlled and sanitary,
working-class bodies were the opposite – chaotic and unwashed.

Only Skin Deep: A History of Skin Markings

Skin markings can be natural, artificial or cultural. They can be marks of transformation, of illness or of self-expression.

Scars in the 1500s and 1600s were seen as external manifestations of internal moral decay. Indications, possibly, that the afflicted person was contagious, prone to violence, or sexually promiscuous. Scarring was also a legacy of domination and punishment – via the whip, the branding iron and the knife.

Skin: A Natural Border

The skin held little interest for medical practitioners during antiquity and the Renaissance. When it was cut open during an autopsy, it was quickly laid aside to study the organs beneath. Anatomical works often included the skin as a visual tool – drawing it back, hanging it, flaying it – but did not study it.

Skin was the border between the inside and the outside of the body. The frontispieces of books which showed flayed skin used it as a curtain, to be pulled aside to uncover the mysteries of the organs of the body within the text.

Plagued with Pox: Cutaneous Disease in Early Modern England

Exposed skin was a site of suspicion for any cutaneous change. Alongside other disfiguring maladies, the plague manifested on the skin and was a significant anxiety for many. Therefore, citizens were highly suspicious of their own and others’ skin. The prevalence of lesions, carbuncles, rashes and buboes presented multiple recognisable symptoms. The face was particularly scrutinised for change. Believed to be caused by imbalanced humours, early modern men and women ‘read’ the colour, location and size of swellings and boils on their skin.