There Will Be Blood In addition to the use of pastes and potions, bloodletting and leeches were both employed to induce a fairer complexion, according to popular mythology. In medieval Europe, bloodletting was used to treat a wide range of ailments and illnesses, from gout to the plague (probably without much success for the latter). The popularity of bloodletting in the form of leeches or cupping (simply slashing a vein and catching the flow in a cuplike vessel) may seem bizarre to us now, but it can be explained by the belief in the importance of the humoral system during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Stemming from the Roman physician Galen's principle of humoral theory, this system was made up of the four classical elementsfire, earth, water, and airand it was thought that perfect health would be achieved if all the elements were in balance.
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Physicians believed that all four elements were present in the blood, so loss of blood was meant to help balance the humors and return the patient to general good health. For example, the Trotula recommends that blood be drawn from the vein which runs under the foot as a solution to a lesion on the womb. 6 Although I couldn't find any concrete evidence of bloodletting used for beautification purposes, the idea that the loss of blood could bring about or restore health is not a huge jump away from believing that blood loss could improve appearance and enhance beauty. Stories exist of Renaissance women asking their physicians to place a leech behind each ear to drain their faces of blood as a form of pre-party beauty prep in order to achieve a fashionable pallor.
We must assume, though, that only the rich could afford to have physicians perform these practices solely for beauty purposes, unless they were to undertake the practices themselves.