1: the art of discovering temperament and character from outward appearance
2: the facial features held to show qualities of mind or character by their configuration or expression
Physiognomy (wiki) has its roots in antiquity. As early as 500 B.C., Pythagoras was accepting or rejecting students based on how gifted they looked. Aristotle wrote that large-headed people were mean, those with small faces were steadfast, broad faces reflected stupidity, and round faces signaled courage.
Physiognomy—from the ancient Greek, gnomos (character) and physis (nature), hence “the character of one’s nature”—really became popular again in 16th-century Europe, as physicians, philosophers, and scientists searched for tangible, external clues to internal temperaments.
|John Varley: Sketch for ‘Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy’ 1828|
Via the Folger: from a treatise circa 1570 devoted to physiognomy and to specific characteristics comes this analysis of eyebrow shape:
It is generally a good thing to hang around with people with straight eyebrows.
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.
“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.
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)
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.”
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
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.
And the final eyebrow description: “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 hangedor elce slayne other eles he shall dye someshamfull dethe for hathe of all planattes a signeas saynte Austen sayethe, and godwyne the abbotefor the men that be borne in suche a tyme thathe shall have hys desceuynge but that clerkessayethe that over all thynges all mysdedes andgood prayers destroyethe wyked desceuynges.
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. It remained popular at least into Victorian times. This is from The Physiognomist's Own Book: an introduction to physiognomy drawn from the writings of Lavater, from 1841:
In such a face we may search in vain, for a single expression of frankness; for the slightly projecting chin, when accompanied with small penetrating eyes, denotes the absence of sincerity. There is no display of benevolence in the oblique mouth ; and avarice reveals itself in the close-locked lips. Combine all these features, and they result in a cunning, deceitful, avaricious, and not merely firm, but stubborn old fellow. Such a man moves quick, and speaks slowly and circumspectly; for suspicion is the mainspring of his character."
Ask the Past has a passage from a similar work, dated 1562:
"The eyebrowes that be very heary declare folyshnes of maners and mischiefe... The eyebrowes whyche descende downe warde on the syde of the nose, and raysed vpward on the syde of the temples, and hangyng downeward on bothe sydes declare the man to be wythout shame enuious, folyshe insatiable, and lyke vnto hogges. The eyebrowes which descend crooked on the side of the nose declare the man to be witty in naughty thinges, and whan they be crooked on the out side of the eye, they signifie the man to be recreatife & merry... When the eyebrowes comme togyther, they shewe the man to be verye pensyfe and not very wyse."
John Bulwer, Anthropometamorphosis
~Richard Roussat, Arcandam
More at The Folger, at Getty.edu, and here's the full text of Physiognomy : how to read character in the face and to determine the capacity for love, business, or crime.