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What form of women’s body shape was preferred in medieval Europe?
One point that has repeatedly come up in this site’s criticism is that beauty standards fluctuate greatly, an alleged example being that overweight women were preferred in medieval Europe. Just about everyone points out Peter Paul Rubens’ paintings featuring obese women. What did medieval Europeans prefer in women’s looks?
There are no controlled laboratory studies from medieval Europe to help answer the question. So people look at art. However, when Christianity took control of Europe, artistic creativity and output went down the drain. The little art that could flourish had to depict Biblical themes. So the available art mostly is from the Renaissance onward. Haven’t those who keep bringing up Rubens heard of other artists? Here is a famous painting by Sandro Botticelli.
The birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (Florence; painted 1482–1486).
Botticelli’s Venus isn’t overweight or obese. Next, look at some of the artwork of Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Clockwise from top left: Adam and Eve in paradise, Venus, and two versions of The Judgment of Paris by Lucas Cranach the Elder (Saxony; lived 1472–1553).
What does Cranach’s artwork tell us about his preferences or those of his times? Note the overweight Eve, the girlish torso of Venus, and Hera, Athena and Aphrodite all shown as slender women. How do we know whether his painted women represented his preferences or those of his people/times? Next, consider some paintings by Peter Paul Rubens.
Venus at the mirror and two versions of The Judgment of Paris by Peter Paul Rubens (Flanders; lived 1577–1640).
Overweight and obese women for sure, but Rubens also came up with a depiction of the presumably non-overweight Marchesa Brigida Spinola-Doria. Why are Rubens’ women cited as examples of the body weight preferences of medieval Europeans? Boticelli, Cranach and Rubens belonged to closely related Germanic populations, and they were not separated by a large amount of time. If their women represented public preferences, what would cause such variation in closely related cultures over a few generations? Next, look at another famous painting, by Francisco de Goya.
La maja desnuda (The nude maja) by Francisco de Goya (Spain; painted 1797–1800).
Goya was summoned by the Spanish Inquisition to explain who commissioned the “obscene” art. I don’t know what Goya told them but he lost his job as the Spanish court painter, and this was as late as the early 19th century, though in southern Europe. Goya’s nude maja comes close to modern erotic pinup art/photography and is the type of art that is most likely to represent the artist’s preferences or those of his contemporaries, but it doesn’t depict an overweight woman. What were the chances of a painter coming up with something similar when the Church ruled?
Certainly, one should be careful about inferring public preferences from medieval paintings, but speaking of the influence of Christianity, guess what Christianity has to say about gluttony? It is a sin. So why would a largely Christian population have a favorable view of the most obvious sign of gluttony, namely excess body weight? A careful examination reveals that excess body fat was stigmatized in medieval Europe. From Stunkard et al.:(1, pdf)
It has been proposed that today’s harsh judgements of obese persons in the West are a modern development and that, in an earlier, more enlightened era, corpulence was highly regarded. The paintings of fleshy women by artists such as Rubens and Renoir are often cited in support of this view. But the products of these artists may tell us more about the interests of their patrons than about popular attitudes. When we turn to these attitudes, a different and less flattering picture emerges, with gluttony as a key feature. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul excoriated, ‘the enemies of the cross of Christ whose end is destruction, whose god is in their belly’. This message that served as a basis for the classic definition of gluttony which has achieved signal importance in Christian thought. Tertullian in the third century, ascribed Adam’s eating of the apple to gluttony, which he accorded as important a role, in the Fall, as the currently more familiar sin of pride. Both Augustine in the fifth century and Gregory I in the seventh century, incorporated gluttony into their developing definition of the Seven Deadly Sins. Reflecting the rarity of obesity, gluttony was not associated with it during this period, but the stage was set for such linkage when enough food became available.
By the 15th century, sufficient food was available for Hieronymous Bosch to link gluttony and obesity in his portrait of The Seven Deadly Sins, a graphic parallel to the Japanese Scroll of Illness. The picture is in the form of a large circle with seven panels radiating out from a small circle representing the eye of God, from which no sin is hidden. Each panel is devoted to one of the Seven Deadly Sins, concretely depicted in scenes of daily life. Representation of the sins in the same work of art reflects the view that they were transgressions that easily led from one to another, a Western view of the downward trajectory of moral failure embodied in the story of the Japanese fat woman.
The secular literature of the time continued the theological concern with gluttony and in both Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale and Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, it continued to be viewed as the basis of Adam’s sin. But it was Shakespeare who most clearly linked gluttony, obesity and stigma.
‘Falstaff: You make fat rascals, Mistress Doll.
Doll: I make them! Gluttony and disease make them’.
Shakespeare was more than articulate on the subject of stigma, with Falstaff vilified as a ‘. . . fat-kidneyed rascal. . . fat guts. . . horseback breaker. . . huge hill of fat. . . swollen parcel of dropsies. . . stuffed cloakbag of guts. . . roasted ox with the pudding in its belly. . .’
The painting of the Seven Deadly Sins is shown below.
The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things by Hieronymous Bosch (Netherlands; 1485). The four last things, clockwise from top left: death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. The seven deadly sins, clockwise from bottom: wrath, envy, greed, gluttony, sloth, extravagance (lust) and pride.
Those who have been trumpeting Rubens’ women should ask themselves why would a largely observant Christian population hold in high regard a condition that results from a deadly sin and makes the sinner Hellbound? And try to think about medieval attitudes. Current Christian attitudes are different. America is awash in gluttony, but the clergy don’t condemn it; the number of obese Christians attending Church is a sight to be seen; and sometimes the clergy are obese, yet the Church goers have no problems being led by one who has reserved a spot in Hell.
The preferences regarding women’s face/body shape held by medieval Europeans were most likely similar to those of modern Europeans as revealed by controlled laboratory studies, not observations such as the looks of high-fashion models.
Then we also have the following from Singh et al.:(2, pdf)
‘Good gene’ mate selection theory proposes that all individuals share evolved mental mechanisms that identify specific parts of a woman’s body as indicators of fertility and health. Depiction of feminine beauty, across time and culture, should therefore emphasize the physical traits indicative of health and fertility. Abdominal obesity, as measured by waist size, is reliably linked to decreased oestrogen, reduced fecundity and increased risk for major diseases. Systematic searches of British literature across the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries reveal that a narrow waist is consistently described as beautiful. Works in ancient Indian and Chinese literature similarly associate feminine attractiveness with a narrow waist. Even without the benefit of modern medical knowledge, both British and Asian writers knew intuitively the biological link between health and beauty.
The authors found few references that referred to plump women in a romantic context, but none of these mentioned enlarged waists. So we have some evidence that overweight women were not generally preferred between the 16th and 18th centuries in Britain, but the shortcoming of the article by Singh et al. is illustrated by the following excerpts:(2)
If universal mental mechanisms equating fertility and health with feminine beauty have indeed evolved, then artists and writers in past and present societies should describe narrow waists as beautiful.
The finding that the writers describe a small waist as beautiful suggests instead that this body part—a known marker of health and fertility—is a core feature of feminine beauty that transcends ethnicmorphological differences and cultures. Our study suggests that in spite of variation in the description of beauty, the marker of health and fertility—a small waist—has always been an invariant symbol of feminine beauty.
There are cultures, none addressed by Singh et al.,where plump women are considered attractive, as in some African(3, pdf) and Pacific(4, link) populations. When plumpness of women is desirable, the preferred shape presumably more often comprises of hips wider than the waists in front view instead of an apple-shaped body, but in any case the waist would not be describable as small given the preferred women’s bulk.
So I believe the medieval Europe issue is taken care of. Those who try to bring in cross-cultural issues involving non-European societies to critique this site should read the basic outline of cross-cultural issues here. And I am not done with historical and cross-cultural issues; more later.
- Stunkard, A. J., LaFleur, W. R., and Wadden, T. A., Stigmatization of obesity in medieval times: Asia and Europe, Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord, 22, 1141 (1998).
- Singh, D., Renn, P., and Singh, A., Did the perils of abdominal obesity affect depiction of feminine beauty in the sixteenth to eighteenth century British literature? Exploring the health and beauty link, Proc Biol Sci, 274, 891 (2007).
- Rguibi, M., and Belahsen, R., Fattening practices among Moroccan Saharawi women, East Mediterr Health J, 12, 619 (2006).
- Pollock, N. J., Cultural elaborations of obesity - fattening practices in Pacific societies, Asia Pacific J Clin Nutr, 4, 357 (1995).