The People of the Arthurian Age, Episode II, Part 2: Anglo-Saxon Appearance

Hi Folks, and welcome back to another tardy post. As promised, this one is about the culture of the Germanic tribes, in particular the Anglo-Saxons that settled in Britain in the Fifth Century.

As noted in the prior article, the people referred to as Saxons by the Fifth Century Britons were made up of a number of different Germanic tribes. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to them all as Saxons, as well.

What did a Saxon look like? Typical of the time, there is little information from Britain, but we have some information about the Saxons from Continental sources, which are believed to be very similar to those of Britain.

The 5th C. Gallo-Roman politician and bishop, Sidonius Apollinaris, recounts a Saxon at court as “the blue-eyed Saxon, lord of the seas, but a timid landsman here.”  This particular Saxon, probably in keeping with his cultural styles, shaved the hair on his head far back from his brow, “till the head looks smaller and the visage longer…” Short hair seems to have been the norm, sometimes cropped close at the back and pushed forward, as in the case of the Franks, while others adopt an “oily top knot”, or simple, shoulder-length trimmed hair. Women wore their hair long, sometimes tied back or plaited. Archaeological finds of combs, shears, tweezers and the like suggest that grooming was very important.

Facial hair for men almost always included a long mustache, but only occasionally a beard.

For most, the clothing was utilitarian, though some could afford complex weaves, elaborate fringes and expensive, colorful dyes.

Women’s clothing seems to have been more varied than men’s based on tribes. A tubular dress was most common, pinned at the shoulders with brooches, often leaving the arms bare and showing some cleavage, unless an under-dress was worn in cooler weather. A belt, covered by the draping of the dress, would girdle the waist or hips, and various tools, small knives and charms would hang from it. Cloaks or shawls were common, but head coverings were not habitual in the pagan era.

For men, a short cloak of skin (usually sheepskin), fur or wool, was almost universal, even mentioned by Caesar and Tacitus. They were usually closed by ties or toggles, rather than brooches. Headgear was very uncommon, except, occasionally, for hooded cloaks. Ankle length trousers and long-sleeved, knee-length tunics were typical, with belts girdling the tunic, and wrappings securing the trousers to the legs.

Both sexes seemed to wear similar shoes, usually low, flat-soled and round-toed, and stitched or laced together with leather thongs. Sandals were also common.

Jewelry was important to Saxon appearance, though our knowledge of it comes mostly from high-status burials.  They used gold, silver and copper alloy, often with enamels, gems, glass and amber in intricate designs.

Jewelry was much more a fixture of female dress than males’, with a variety of necklaces, brooches, rings and earrings (worn, it seems, not on the ears but hung on necklaces.

Men typically adorned their weapons and armor and wore large, ornate belt buckles. Neck and finger-rings are mentioned, but the arm-rings popularly depicted seem not to have been a part of Saxon jewelry until the influence of the Norse in the 9th century.

Ok, that should do it for today. I’ll try to follow up sooner. Thanks for stopping by, and please comment if you’d like to discuss!

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