Hair from Bayeux

Since the Bayeux Tapestry (which, being stitched rather than woven, is an embroidery rather than a tapestry) is in the news I thought I’d share some important information about the insight this article gives us into 11th century hairstyles.

As you know the Bayeux Tapestry Embroidery concerns the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings between the Saxons (who originated in what is now a part of Germany) led by Harold Godwinson (who had relatives from Denmark and Sweden) and the Normans (who lived at the time in what is now France, but who came originally from Scandinavia).

Most chronicles of this episode leave out the important matter of the hair of the protagonists, and I feel that it is important to correct this imbalance here.

Throughout the Bayeux Untapestry, the Saxons are shown with splendid handlebar moustaches, exemplified by Harold Godwinson himself:

This style of facial hair was obviously de rigueur among Saxons. The Normans on the other hand appeared to be clean-shaven, not only on their front of their heads but also on the back:

This style of coiffure looks like it must have been somewhat difficult to maintain, but during the Battle of Hastings would mostly have been hidden under helmets.

With a decisive advantage in facial hair one wonders how the Saxons managed to lose the battle, but I can’t help thinking the outcome would have been different had they had proper beards.

5 Responses to “Hair from Bayeux”

  1. Nicholas Cross Says:

    If the Danes under Harald Hadrada had beards, it would suggest that upkeep of facial hair distracted the wearer from practicing their combat.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think they had the same lack of facial hair as the Normans. Near-contemporary images of Harold Hadrada show him clean-shaven.

  2. “Normans (who lived at the time in what is now France, but who came originally from Scandinavia)”

    Indeed, “Norman” being derived from “Northman”. What is interesting is that the Normans in 1066 spoke French, just a short time after the Vikings arrived speaking a Scandinavian language. So either they assimilated—and adopted the language of the conquered—very quickly, or most people speaking Norman French didn’t have Scandinavian ancestors at all. My guess is the latter. Even in England, where the language of the Angles (and Saxons and Jutes) became English, genetic studies suggest that most of the population in the few hundred years after the conquest did not have ancestors from the Continent.

    In my own experience, this is supported by the fact that when on a ferry to England I can always spot who is English and who is not before a mouth is opened (which would give them away on two counts: the language and the teeth). This is especially true of children; English children usually look very English.

    The Dutch also have an easily recognizable physiognomy, but my guess here is that it is due to environment, diet etc; consider the fact that Willem Alexander looks very Dutch, but for several generations now in each generation one ancestor came from Germany.

    • This is correct. In genetic studies of burials in the “most” Scandinavian Normandy villages, the proportion of Scandinavian has been found to be rather small .

      • telescoper Says:

        The number of Normans who actually came to England after the conquest was also small, but their military strength allowed them to subjugate the much larger local population of Saxons.

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