Viking Myth – Vikings were Dirty and Unkempt – by Rob Shackleford
For more on Vikings, check out the links of previous Viking Blogs below:
|Who Were the Vikings?||What did Vikings Look Like?||Vikings – The Ginger Connection|
Unwashed, rough warriors with froth hanging out of the corners of the mouth was not the real Viking. Popular culture portrays the Viking as filthy as well as endlessly violent.
But that, like too many things in history, is not entirely true.
“Several archaeological finds have revealed tweezers, combs, nail cleaners, ear cleaners and toothpicks from the Viking Age,” says Louise Kæmpe Henriksen, a curator at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.
The finds suggest that cleanliness meant a lot to the Vikings. Written sources from medieval England also back up this view. In his chronicle from 1220 – a couple of centuries after the Vikings had ravaged England – John of Wallingford described the Vikings as well-groomed heartbreakers:
”They had also conquered, or planned to conquer, all the country’s best cities and caused many hardships for the country’s original citizens, for they were – according to their country’s customs – in the habit of combing their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their clothes frequently and to draw attention to themselves by means of many such frivolous whims. In this way, they sieged the married women’s virtue and persuaded the daughters of even noble men to become their mistresses,” wrote Wallingford.
In comparison to many peoples of the time, Vikings were carefully groomed even, perish the thought, dandy. Bathing was especially known to take place in any geothermal area that offered warm water.
There are, however, sources that paint a contrasting picture:
“The Arab ambassador IBN Fadlan, who met a group of Vikings on the Volga, described them as the filthiest of Allah’s creatures,” says Henriksen.
Keep in mind that Arabs were Muslims who came from a culture where people were supposed to bathe before each of their five daily prayers, whereas the Vikings may only have bathed only once a week.
Vikings with neat beards and reverse mullets
It wasn’t enough just to be clean. The hair also had to be styled right.
From picture sources we know that the Vikings had well-groomed beards and hair. The men had long fringes and short hair on the back of the head, though the beard could be short or long. But it was always well-groomed. Further down on the neck, the skin was shaved.
So it seems that to be spectacularly shaved at the back of the head as in the show, “Vikings”, might have been accurate.
Two sources support this view:
One is a three-dimensional carved male head on a wagon in the Oseberg ship burial mound in Norway. The man’s hair is well groomed and he has an elegant long moustache and a chin beard that reaches up to his moustache, but apparently not out to the cheeks.
The second source is an anonymous Old English letter in which a man admonishes his brother to follow the Anglo-Saxon practice and not give in to ‘Danish fashion with a shaved neck and blinded eyes’. Blinded eyes probably meant a long fringe.
The women’s hair was usually long. It was probably tied into a knot on the back of the head, and the knot may have been decorated with coloured tape, which was braided into the hair. The women also wore a bonnet or a scarf around their heads.
But the thought of Viking marauders returning from a hard day’s slaughter for a bath and some nice clothes is different to the popular perception.
Some Links used in the research for this blog can also help you learn more about Viking Hygiene:
About the author:
Hi, I’m Rob Shackleford. I am author of a number of novels, though so far only Traveller Inceptio and Traveller Probo have been officially published. As Traveller Inceptio looks at the fates of modern historical researchers sent to the early 11th Century Saxon world, Vikings do feature.
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