Grooming the Face in the Early Middle Ages
By Steven P. Ashby
Internet Archaeology, Vol. 42 (2016)
Abstract: A study of beards and hair focusing on the medieval period in Europe. There is a brief introduction looking at the modern period and how it contrasts with beards in the past. Examples from the Near East, Rome, Italy, Anglo-Saxon England, Germany and Scandinavia are compared.
Excerpt: In England, Alcuin’s rebuke of the Anglo-Saxon tendency to emulate Scandinavian hairstyles is well known, but he actually refers directly to facial hair: ‘trimming their hair and beard like the pagans’, in his mind, to the eventual ruin of England. ‘See how you have wanted to copy the pagan way of cutting hair and beards. Are not these the people whose terror threatens us, yet you want to copy their hair?’
Of course there is no way of knowing whether Alcuin — who was resident at the court of Charlemagne by this point — ever really saw a Scandinavian beard, or else an Anglo-Saxon attempting to mimic it. It is just as likely that he was using personal appearance as a trope, a sort of visual shorthand for ‘pagan ways’. This is potentially even more interesting: why would a scholar fix upon these particular symbols for paganism?
Top Image:Carved face from the Oseberg wagon, 10th century. Photo by Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo/CC BY-SA 4.0/Ove Holst