Cosmetic Adornment: In Pursuit of Beauty

It is no surprise that a people who loved colour and design in clothing and jewellery should also take 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.)

Girl with Curly Hair

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.

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 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 can not 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.

I wrote this essay for Jan, who requested it. What would you like me to write about? Tell me!

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • James Fulford June 16, 2022, 3:15 pm

    Hi there,

    I stumbled on this article having read this:

    The guardian article refers to “discoveries [which] include personal grooming items, such as ear wax removers, toothpicks, tweezers, combs and a tube that may have contained a cosmetic such as eyeliner.”

    Mention of ‘a tube’ caught my attention. I think of a tube as being made either of plastic or soft metal using manufacturing techniques that certainly weren’t available… I wonder whether you know what they might mean, what form this tube might have taken.

    Many thanks for any answer!


    • Octavia Randolph June 16, 2022, 4:07 pm

      This is such a good question. Such tubes were generally made of lead, which as you know is quite malleable in its sheet form. Casks of salt were oftentimes lined in thin lead sheets, as waterproofing, to keep the salt from undue caking. Not the most health-some material to be holding in our hands, but many early cosmetic preparations, right up to the 17th century, contained lead and/or arsenic, to brighten the complexion. (And mercury was used against cholera and typhoid, right up into the late 1800’s. It is a miracle anyone lived past illness, with such remedies.) Thin sheets of tin can also be used for tubes, but as there were such abundant lead mines in early England, it is more likely Anglo-Saxon tubes were lead.

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