THE BLOG
04/04/2014 09:22 am ET Updated Jun 04, 2014

8 Bizarre Renaissance Practices

People in the Renaissance didn't just float around in fancy dresses, dance in masques and eat peacocks with their feathers stuck back on after roasting. Here are eight outlandish things they really did do:

Ladies sunned their hair. Sun on your skin were severely frowned upon... a lady had silken pale skin with transparently rosy cheeks, and only a peasant had skin tanned by the sun. (How times have changed!) However, blonde or light brown hair was considered the quintessence of beauty, so if you weren't lucky enough to be born with it, you put on a wide-brimmed sort of headband that shaded your face and neck and exposed your hair alone to the sun for its bleaching effect. (Naturally you wore a dress with long sleeves and a long skirt when you did this--heaven forbid the sun should touch your arms or legs.) Rinses were prized as hair-sunning adjuncts, with dove droppings being considered a particularly effective ingredient.

Ladies (and some women who weren't exactly ladies) wore the highest platforms ever, called chopines. You have to see a picture of these.

They were partly to help women slog through the deep mud and filthy water in the streets, partly to give them height and presence, and partly purely erotic, as are stiletto heels today. A lady wearing these (or even more moderate chopines) had to have attendants she could hold on to for balance. Kind of like Jennifer Lawrence and her friend at the Oscars.

Ladies put ceruse on their faces. "Ceruse" has always sounded glamorous to me, but what it actually was, was white carbonate of lead ground to a powder and made into a paste with vinegar. Over that highly poisonous (and can you imagine how it must have smelled?) base, you painted raw egg white to give your whitened complexion that youthful sheen. Yuck. On the other hand, you have to wonder what people five hundred years from now will be saying about our cosmetics.

Men got nose jobs after losing their noses to war, duels, or syphilis. No, really. There were two main variations. One was the "Indian" style, in which a flap of skin was partially cut from the forehead (it needed to remain attached to preserve blood flow), pulled down, twisted and sewn into place in a vaguely nose-shaped fashion. Yikes. The other was developed by a fellow named Gaspare Tagliacozzi, who would cut a flap of skin from the upper arm, shape it into a nose, and then graft it to the patient's face. Since the new "nose" was still attached to the patient's arm, a complicated arrangement of bandages was used to immobilize the arm and hold the new "nose" in place until it healed and could be cut free. There's actually a woodcut showing this.

Everyone measured time by reciting prayers. Obviously there were no phones or watches. Clocks were expensive curiosities, and not very accurate. You could look at the sun and get a general idea of the time of day, of course, and the ringing of church bells at the canonical hours would help, too. But what if you wanted to time something more exactly--boil an egg, say, or use a depilatory? Well, Caterina Sforza, in her Gli Esperimenti (a book of mind-boggling Renaissance beauty tips and household hints) wrote:

Take two ounces of quicklime, one ounce of arsenic, and as much rock alum as fits in a chestnut, and grind it all together in a powder... paste it where you want the hairs to fall out. Leave it for the time it takes to say two Our Fathers and then wash it off.

Ouch. Quicklime? I'd be praying pretty fast.

Sick people cured themselves of the plague with chickens, their own urine and whippings. The Black Death came and went throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. No one really understood what caused it (those pesky fleas) and so, of course, "cures" abounded. One foolproof recipe was to snuggle up to a live hen, which would draw the pestilence out of your body, and at the same time drink a glass of your own urine twice a day to hasten your recovery. An alternative version of this called for the patient to shave or pluck the poor chicken and then place its bare hind end on the plague spots. (Do not try this at home.)

Some people thought the plague was a judgment from God for the sufferer's sins, and that a good penitential whipping would appease God's wrath and allow the patient to recover.

Everybody had wild, crazy Renaissance sex. You knew I'd get around to sex eventually, didn't you? Sex in the Renaissance was frowned upon by the church unless it was practiced a) in the marriage bed, and b) for the purpose of procreation, not pleasure. Needless to say, human beings found ways to have sex for the pure pleasure of it. It was a dangerous pleasure for women: Childbirth inside marriage was risky enough; childbirth outside marriage was a sure ticket to a forced marriage or worse, and contraception was, to say the least, unreliable. Women used all sorts of things, from hollowed-out lemon halves inserted into the vagina to the testicles of a weasel worn around the neck as an amulet. Men made crude condoms from animal bladders and intestines, sewn or tied with thread. Pretty scary.

The few lucky people who could read, read about wild, crazy Renaissance sex. Although fortunately, one of the hottest erotic books of the sixteenth century, called I Modi or The Ways, also had pictures! Well, engravings. The first edition, published around 1524, was thunderously banned by Pope Clement VII and supposedly completely destroyed. The book was published again in 1527 with lascivious sonnets added to the erotic engravings, and again it was suppressed. A few fragments of the illustrations have survived, and someone must have hung on to at least one of the original books, because subsequently further editions were published.

Want to see the images and read the sonnets that outraged a Renaissance pope? Just google "I Modi," or find a copy of Lynn Lawler's excellent book called I Modi: The Sixteen Pleasures: An Erotic Album of the Italian Renaissance, which includes reproductions, translations and historical notes.

So the next time you watch an episode of Reign or Da Vinci's Demons (much underrated, in my opinion) just think about what must have been going on behind the scenes with all those pretty, pretty people.

Elizabeth Loupas is the author of three books of historical fiction set in the sixteenth century, including The Red Lily Crown: A Novel of Medici Florence, which came out on April 1st.