The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Early modern eyebrow interpretation, or what it means to have a unibrow

While showing the Researching the Archive seminar some examples of manuscript receipt books a couple of weeks ago (randomly selected after doing a quick “form/genre” in Hamnet on the genre terms “Medical formularies” and “Cookbooks”), I was tickled to come across a section of Folger MS V.a.438 devoted to physiognomical characteristics; that is, an analysis of physical features of the face and head as they relate to a person’s character. The handwriting and orthography are pretty difficult in this ca. 1570 miscellany, so I’ve provided some transcriptions as well as modernized versions, in case you think you might need to get plucking.

Straight brows

It is generally a good thing to hang around with people with straight eyebrows.
It is generally a good thing to hang around with people with straight eyebrows. (Click this, and the other images in the post, to enlarge.)

The first entry describes someone with “strayghte browes”: “he ys good and wyse trewe in harte worde and deed kepe thow in his companye,” or with modern spelling, “he is good and wise, true in heart, word, and deed. Keep thou in his company.” 

Beetle brows

Beetle brows = goggle-eyed, shrew-like, deceivable, lime-fingered = not good.
Beetle brows = goggle-eyed, shrew-like, deceivable, lime-fingered = not good.

“Byttell browes,” or beetle brows, are another story: “that man that ys byttell browed be ware of hyme for he ys lyke vnto the gogell yed man he ys a shrowe in in all manner of companye he ys deseuable and lyme handed be ware of hym.”

Modernized, this reads: “That man that is beetle-browed, beware of him, for he is like unto the goggle-eyed man. He is a shrew in all manner of company. He is deceivable and lime-handed. Beware of him.” Beetle-browed refers to very prominent and shaggy eyebrows; goggle-eyed refers to prominent eyes; and lime-handed refers to someone prone to pilfering.

Unibrows

Unibrowed people are unsteadfast and want to eat all of your meat and drink.
Unibrowed people are unsteadfast and want to eat all of your meat and drink.

Next we have a description of “the here betwine the browes and the nose,” or what we would think of as the unibrow. The unibrowed person has “the sygne of the graye yes he ys vnstedfaste and hontethe far and [comtethe?] good meates and drinkes nor he will not depart yf he maye.” 1

Thomas Hill’s The contemplation of mankinde, contayning a singuler discourse after the art of phisiognomie (London, 1571) [STC 13482] includes a helpful image of a unibrow (Folger STC 13482, copy 1):

The man on the left has a unibrow in Thomas Hill's Contemplation of Mankind (London, 1571).
Hill describes men with unibrows (like the man on the left) as sometimes thieves, ravishers of maidens, murderers, but always deceivers.

The passage connected to this illustration explains:

The Phisiognomer Cocles reporteth, that when the ouerbrowes appeare thicke of heares, and so plentifull or aboundaunt, that these (as the Philosopher writeth) doe discende to the beginning of the nose, and appear through the same whole formed togither: doe then signifie great adustion: and such hauing like ouerbrowes, are melancholicke, and of an euill nature: yea wicked persons, and sometimes theeues, rauishers of maydens, Murderers, but deceyuers allwayes: and to bee briefe, all vices, and wickednesse, are comprehended and knowne in those persons.

Red brows, hanging brows, and more

Red brows and
The whole leaf, including entries for red brows, brown hair (with straight brows), and a straight forehead.

Further down this same leaf, red brows indicate someone who is lime-handed and deceivable. Brown hair and straight brows, “not hangen but mesurable”—that is, not drooping but of moderate thickness—indicate someone of good of manners and true of heart, word, and deed. The reader is advised to remain in the fellowship of such men.

Hanging brows, yellow eyes, black hair on the eyebrows, white hair on the head = big trouble
Hanging brows, yellow eyes, black hair on the eyebrows, white hair on the head = big trouble

And the final eyebrow description, on fol. 201v: “hangen browes with yellow yes blacke here on his browes with white here;” that is, “hanging brows with yellow eyes, black hair on his brows, with white hair”:

That man is a stronge theff and shall be hanged
or elce slayne other eles he shall dye some
shamfull dethe for hathe of all planattes a signe
as saynte Austen sayethe, and godwyne the abbote
for the men that be borne in suche a tyme that
he shall have hys desceuynge but that clerkes
sayethe that over all thynges all mysdedes and
good prayers destroyethe wyked desceuynges.

Other entries refer to forehead types, head size, ear and nose features, hair color and length, and lack of hair altogether (“balled” men). The section ends on fol. 206v.

It might be easy to laugh at the idea that eyebrows and other facial features could be indicative of one’s character, but physiognomy, in combination with astrology and humoral theory, was a popular pseudo-science in the early modern period, leading people to evaluate past actions and predict future behavior based on one’s visage.

  1. I’d appreciate further thoughts on what this passage means!

9 Comments


  • nothing to offer by way of interpretation, but a small transcription edit: the unibrow passage says “signs of the graye yes”, not “nes” — note the hook of the y cutting down into the giant reverse terminal e of “comtethe” in the line below.

    and now to get cracking on my eyebrows…

    • Good yes, I mean, good eyes! We’ll correct that one in the post. Bill Ingram had the same reading of that word, which appears elsewhere in the section as well.

    • I’ve just corrected it in the text! (Usual practice is to indicate changes with a strikethrough, but I didn’t want the strikethrough to appear as a word that was struck through in the manuscript, so I just silently swapped out the “nes” for “yes.”) Thanks!

    • I had initially thought “courtethe” as well, but the other “r” forms on the page are either the bucket-like twin-stemmed “r” or the squiggly “r.” If this is an “r” then it is a real outlier. I also wondered if he might have had some minim trouble and accidently made three minims instead of four, so that it could be “countethe”?

      • No, it’s “comtethe” all right, ie. ‘counts’: cf. “accompt” for ‘account’. The OED gives the following senses of count, v.:

        3. To esteem, account, reckon, consider, regard, hold (a thing) to be (so and so).

        4. To reckon, estimate, esteem (at such a price or value); †to esteem, value, hold of account (obs.).

        ..so Mr Unibrow likes his meat and drink!

  • In a footnote, you invite thoughts about what the passage in question might mean. I take “nor he will not depart yf he maye” to suggest that he doesn’t have the sense to know when to leave.


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