Saturday, January 25, 2014

In Pursuit of Beauty: Early Cosmetics

The Pursuit of Beauty

IT is no surprise that a people who loved colour and design in clothing and jewellry should also take some pains with their personal grooming. Pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon and Viking grave finds commonly include a host of toilet accessories buried with both men and women - combs ornately carved of bone, antler, wood, or ivory; tweezers for plucking out splinters and unwanted hairs; minute metal ear scoops like tiny spoons meant for cleaning the ear; and personal wash-basins were all frequent accompaniments to the after-life. (Alas, since Christianity forbade burial with grave goods, later toiletry finds are rare.)

In life, tree twigs were used to clean the teeth - and the Anglo-Saxons may have even used the abundant chalk of southern England to polish their teeth, as did the Romans. An interesting paper by anthropologist Caroline Arcini of the National Heritage Board of Lund, Sweden and first published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 2005 discusses her study of the skulls of 24 Viking-era men in Sweden and Denmark. Twenty-four of the men (amongst a total of 557 men and women at four burial sites) had horizontal grooves filed into their front teeth for decorative purposes, and possibly as a sign of admittance into a special social or trade group. These grooves, which would have been most noticeable when the men were smiling or laughing, may have been filled with mineral based colours in black or red for even more decorative effect.

Whole body bathing was certainly not a frequent occurrence amongst our Anglo-Saxon forbears, but hands, feet, and face were washed daily, and hands washed prior to eating. The prosperous enjoyed rubbing scented oils into their skin and hair, but even the poorest cottar girl could pluck aromatic flowers and herbs and release their cleansing scent by crushing them in her hands.

Long hair was an important beauty accessory for women, and we can surmise from King Ælfred's Law Code that men too found longer length hair and beards to accentuate male beauty, for a costly fine was imposed for robbing a man of same. Men typically wore their hair past the ear or shoulder- length; a close-cropped head was the sign of a slave (or a Norman). Anglo-Saxon men must have greatly valued their long hair, for the following law occurs in the Law Code of King Ælfred (b. 849-d. 899 CE):
If someone restrains a free man...(and) as a humiliation...he shaves (his head) like a priest's, without binding him, let him pay compensation of thirty shillings. If he shaves off his beard, let him pay compensation of twenty shillings. If he ties him up and then shaves his head like a priest's, let him pay compensation of sixty shillings. (extracted from Law 35, translated by Bill Griffiths)
If you consider that the penalty for cutting off a man's leg (Law 72) or arm (Law 66) was eighty shillings, you will understand that the steep sixty shilling fine for a forced haircut (hair being a resource which after all will grow back) was exacted as it struck at the notion of a man's dignity.

Soothing and comforting emollients, oftentimes compounded with herbal matter, were created in every household and used on man and beast to relieve chapping and chaffing, and undoubtedly to help soften and beautify the skin. Wool-wax, butter, or vegetable and nut oils served as a base.

But what about true cosmetics? Firm narrative or archaeological evidence for their use amongst the Anglo-Saxons is lacking, but the ease of preparation of such enhancers, coupled with the cultural desire that all surfaces be made as beautiful and vivid as possible, might allow some prudent conjecture.

Colourants for the skin and hair have always formed the largest category of cosmetics. Their herbal sources - walnuts and chestnuts for dark dyes, soft-bodied fruits such as berries and the skins of plums for reds and pinks, chamomile blossom heads for yellow, the flowers of baptisia and leaves of common woad (isatis tinctoria) for blues - were readily abundant throughout England. (And such colourants can not only make one beautiful, but fearsome, too: The Britons who fought against the Roman legions during the wars of Claudius are said to have stained their bodies blue with the herb woad. Naked, blue-bodied, and with their hair fixed with yellow clay in spiky quills and standing straight out from their heads, they horrified the Roman regulars.)

Certainly any dyestuff that would colour linen or wool would also impart its hue to human skin - at least temporarily; the dusky-stained hands of the village dyer showed that. A mouth reddened by the eating of berries is a charming sight, and we cannot hope to guess how many girls and women may have purposely tinted lips and cheeks with juice pressed from raspberries and cherries.

We do know that at least some Vikings knew the sting of vanity, for we have the reliable account of the Arab traveler Ibrahim Al-Tartushi, who visited the Viking trading hub of Hedeby (in modern northern Germany) about 950, and recorded many facets of everyday life there, noting that both men and women used cosmetics:
There is also an artificial make-up for the eyes: when they use it beauty never fades; on the contrary, it increases in men and women as well.
Ibrahim was likely observing the ancient blackening agent kohl, made from antimony (the mineral stibnite) or soot. Kohl can be rubbed directly onto the eye lashes as well as lined under and over both lids to deepen and intensify the eye.

The final form of cosmetic enhancement available to beauty-seekers in the ninth century is one I have employed in The Circle of Ceridwen; that is, tattooing. The Danes Sidroc and Yrling both sport elaborate blue and red tattoos on their bodies. Tattoos, of course, have been used around the world since remotest antiquity as indicators of social standing, tribal affiliation, and magical significance, as well as for their purely decorative value. Tattoos such as those worn by Sidroc and Yrling were likely accomplished by means of piercing the skin with a sharpened goose quill filled with powdered vegetable dyestuff. The process was neither quick nor painless, but the result quite impressive.


The Circle of Cerdwen : Book One
Octavia Randolph is the author of The Circle of Ceridwen Saga.  Young women with courage. Swords with names. Vikings with tattoos. Warfare. Passion. Survival. Sheep. And Other Good Things...


  1. What a fascinating and fabulous post. I really loved this one. Thank you for sharing all this. And I do have your novel to read very soon. Looking forward to it.

  2. Love this post! I have always been more interested in the everyday life of those who came before us than in the wars and politics that they engaged in. The clothing, the cosmetics, the foods they ate, their courtship rituals.....this is what I really want to read about. I am anxiously awaiting further posts.

  3. Very nice. Thanks for the post. Good info.

  4. Great post, I will bookmark it. Of course, there's also Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, who thought the Vikings he met in Russia good looking but disgustingly filthy, apart from their hair and beards(as you say) and even then complained that a whole bunch would use the same bowl of water and spit into it.

  5. Enchanting - although shuddering at the idea of grooves carved in teeth...


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