Viking Hygiene, Grooming, and Personal Presentation
To some, Vikings were nothing but hairy barbarians with tangled beards and deplorable manners. They are pictured at feasts throwing animal bones at each other, still covered in the mud and blood of battle, and the only water that touched them was sea spray. But this pop-culture image comes from the misconceptions of 150 years ago, misinformed by Ancient Roman propaganda referring to entirely different people. Archeology and even medieval written records paint a very different picture of Viking hygiene, grooming, and personal presentation. This information, in turn, tells us a lot about the Vikings’ self-image and values.
Those Damn Sexy Clean Vikings
Medieval English chronicler John of Wallingford wrote of the Vikings,
“The Danes made themselves too acceptable to English women by their elegant manners and their care of their person. They combed their hair every day, bathed every Saturday, and even changed their garments often. They set off their persons by many such frivolous devices. In this manner, they laid siege to the virtue of the married women, and persuaded the daughters, even of the nobles to be their concubines.”
It is a hell of a thing for Medieval English chroniclers to admit that one of the reasons they hated Vikings was because their own wives and daughters couldn't resist their cleanliness. But even when Vikings were coming in peace, they could be a threat to the local balance of the sexes because of the attractive way they presented themselves.
Some Vikings took this to a high level. In the sagas, we find honorific names such as Thorfin Skull-splitter and Erik Blood-axe. But we also see names like Sihtric Forkbeard (for his meticulously plaited facial hair) and Olaf Peacock (for his bright clothes and charisma).
Archaeological finds have revealed that Vikings had a preoccupation with grooming. Tweezers, ear cleaning implements, and other personal care items have been recovered in large numbers at Viking sites.
Above all, combs were so common as to be considered “a universal possession” amongst the Vikings (Price, 2020, p. 123). These combs vary considerably in size and specifications, showing a range from the ordinary property of the humble to the valued personal treasures of the wealthy. They could be made of wood, bone, ivory, or – especially – antler. The teeth of some of these combs are fine enough not only to groom hair or beards but also to pick out nits or other problems people do not like to talk about. Many of these combs were decorated, and some bear runic inscriptions. The combs were often carried in small wooden cases to protect their fine teeth while the Vikings were on the move. Vikings were even buried with their combs. The production and trade of combs and other personal care items were hallmark industries for Vikings across the Northern Arc and to the West.
In the Viking honor culture, personal worth was essential. This personal worth was reinforced by words and actions, the clothes you wore, the rings on your arm, and the jewelry you and your family displayed. It was also reinforced through cleanliness and personal grooming. In the Grágás book (the Medieval compilations of old Icelandic law codes), we find harsh penalties for throwing dirt on someone or doing anything that would cause him or her to become soiled or unpresentable. Why? Because this was considered an assault on the dignity of that individual.
We find this association of cleanliness with dignity in Eddic poetry. For example, in Havamal (Sayings of the High One), we see that cleanliness and confidence make the man, not money:
“Washed and fed a man should ride to the Assembly
Though he may not be very well-dressed,
of his shoes and breeches he should not be ashamed,
nor of his horse, though he doesn’t have a good one”
(v. 61, Larrington translation).
Similarly, in Rigsthula (Rig’s List), being dirty or unkempt is equated with being subservient. By contrast, free people (even those of modest means) styled their hair, trimmed their beards, and took pride in their clothing.
When, Where, and How did Vikings Bathe?According to numerous sources, Vikings washed, performed dental hygiene, and combed their hair every morning. This was not only a habit of the fastidious but was an acknowledgment of the power of Fate fundamental to the Viking world view. As the Eddic poem Reginismal states,
“Combed and washed every thoughtful man should be
And fed in the morning
For one cannot see where one will be in the evening
It is bad to rush headlong before one's Fate." (v. 25)
This form of bathing would have been a simple "sponge bath" from a basin, most likely. The serious washing of the week took place on Saturdays. Even now, the name for “Saturday” in Scandinavian languages roughly translates to “washing day.”
The Saturday bath was a communal experience, often undertaken on a riverbank or hot spring. In the famous love story of the Laxdæla saga (probably the third favorite saga of the Vikings, based on the number of surviving manuscripts), the hero Kjartan is sure to time his visits to the hot spring to coincide with Guðrún and her ladies. However, according to multicultural accounts, this communal bathing was a Platonic affair where the sexes self-segregated.
Wash day also encompassed laundry, most likely. As the Arab geographer, Ibn Rusta noted, the Vikings’ clothes were “always clean” (Lunde & Stone, 2012, p. 163). Viking Age buildings that provided privacy for bathers or a space to wash clothes have been found near hot springs and other suitable locations throughout Iceland and Scandinavia.
Mornings and Saturdays were not the only times Vikings bathed. According to the sagas, Vikings bathed before battle or any serious undertaking. Offering water for bathing and a clean change of clothes was part of the essential duties of hospitality that formed a cornerstone of Norse culture (see Havamal v. 2-4).
Washing of the dead was an essential part of burial (according to Arab geographer Ibn Fadlan). However, in the stories, some ghosts came back from the otherworld unwashed and with their battle wounds still bleeding (as in Helgavitha Huldingsbana II).
The Vikings were probably acquainted with saunas from their neighbors, the Finns, the Sami, and the Balts. Saunas have been used in the Scandinavian region for thousands of years and were invaluable in the dark, cold winters. While no Viking saunas are widely known, various other manmade pools and huts for hot bathing have been discovered from that era. The Russian Primary Chronicle mentions the Viking queen of the Rus, Olga luring some of her husband's killers into her bathhouse or sauna and there steaming them to death.
Toothbrushes and Toilet Paper? Other Aspects of Personal Cleanliness
The Vikings' oral hygiene was pretty good. Many Viking skeletons have surprisingly good teeth, even by modern standards. This may be due in part to their low-sugar diet (aside from honey and fruit). Vikings also used toothpicks and cleaned their mouths (as Ibn Fadlan mentioned). Like other European peoples of the time, they may have used fibrous hazel twigs or the like to make simple toothbrushes. Some skeletal remains have been found with tartar build-up and gum disease, of course, though the same could be said for people today. Missing or chipped teeth from trauma would have been a significant problem with the Viking lifestyle, too.
Vikings used moss collected from the dense forests that surrounded their settlements to use as toilet paper. Some of this moss has been recovered from latrine sites in Viking settlements, allowing very dedicated archeologists to study the dietary habits of the people who lived 1000 years ago.
Why Were Other European Peoples Less Cleanly than Vikings?
Ancient peoples in the Roman Empire prided themselves on cleanliness. They spent long hours (and large amounts of revenue) in grand public bathhouses. The ruins of these bathhouses can still be found, even as far away from the Mediterranean as Britain. So why did Medieval Europeans not keep up the customs of their ancestors? The answer is somewhat complicated.
First, we must consider that our modern tendency to shower at least once a day becomes far more difficult without running water. When the water must be drawn bucket by bucket (and then either used cold or warmed over an equally labor-intensive fire), what takes us 5-10 minutes can take an hour or more. Even in our time, whenever people are camping, “in the field” on deployment, or suffering a power outage, cleanliness standards typically bow to practicality.
As the Roman Empire fell on hard times in the West, the public money, organization, and impetus towards public baths quickly fell by the wayside. Most places in Europe had little room for luxury spending in the chaos and decline of the Migration Era (often known as the Dark Ages). Meanwhile, most men and women put their effort into survival and neglected anything non-essential to those goals.
But there may have been another reason, too. Along the way, attitudes towards bathing changed in much of mainland Europe. In the crucible of the Dark Ages, Christianity was heavily influenced by monks – many of whom embraced an ascetic lifestyle of self-denial. As scholar Giusto Traina explains:
“The excess of personal hygiene, which had once distinguished the Roman from the barbarian, was now held in contempt and condemned as a symptom of sin and lasciviousness. Moreover, in Celtic areas [the western fringes of Europe], baths were associated with ancestral therapeutic practices, now considered forms of paganism” (2009, p. 77).
So, this is not to say that non-Viking medieval peoples never washed, but that washing was significantly downplayed and deprioritized in their society. A variety of unusual hang-ups about cleanliness arose, such as the idea that it was unhealthy to be too clean or that washing certain parts of the body (such as too near to the eyes) could be dangerous. These ideas and practices varied from place to place. Hygiene has always been a relative concept. As we shall see, not everyone was impressed with the Vikings’ cleanliness.
But what about that "spit bowl" story?
When some people think about Viking hygiene, they immediately think of the disgusting scene in the movie The 13th Warrior ...or the similar scene in the Vikings tv series. Both of these scenes are based on an account from a 10th-century Arab diplomat Ibn Fadlan who was the inspiration for the 1999 film. Though Fadlan was highly impressed by much of what he saw, he found Viking hygienic practices revolting. “They are the filthiest of God’s creatures,” he said, acknowledging that Vikings indeed washed their bodies, cleaned their mouths, and combed their hair every morning ...but did so from a shared, communal basin bowl (Lunde & Stone, 2012, p. 47).
As valuable as Ibn Fadlan and other Arab geographers are to the historical record, their testimonies still must be taken with a grain of salt. Assuming the account is not (grossly) exaggerated, it would mostly prove that Vikings were not exactly germaphobes. Ibn Fadlan was witnessing Viking merchants on the road. His mission was to the Bulgars along the Volga, not the Rus in Kiev (Kyiv). So, these Vikings may have been making do with what they had on hand. Moreover, Ibn Fadlan was a sophisticated man from the capital of the wealthiest empire in the world at that time, so he was used to palace standards. He was also comparing Viking hygiene to Islamic standards of ritual purity (which specify only washing in running water). In any case, it is a reminder that standards of cleanliness have always been relative.
ConclusionVikings valued their appearance and cleanliness, they spent time, effort, and wealth on it, and they were about as clean as they practically could be during that time. Vikings equated daily combing, grooming and cleanliness with self-respect ...and personal presentation with honor and self-worth.
According to some literary clues, their daily cleaning may have been a daily acknowledgment of Fate. To whatever degree that may be true, the archeological record is clear that these practices were important to them.
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- Traina, G. 428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire. Princeton University Press. Princeton. 2009.
- Frankopan, P. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. Penguin Random House. New York. 2015.
- The Saga of the People of Laxardal (K. Kunz, translator). The Sagas of the Icelanders (editor, Thorson, O. & Scudder, B.) Penguin Books, New York, 2001
- Vikings seduced women across Europe. Nordic Culture. 2018. https://skjalden.com/vikings-seduced-women-across-europe/
- The Russian Primary Chronicle: The Laurentian Text. Translated by S. H. Cross & O. Sherbowitz-Wetzor. Medieval Academy of America. Cambridge, MA. 1953. https://www.mgh-bibliothek.de/dokumente/a/a011458.pdf
- Short, W. R. Health, Grooming, and Medicine in the Viking Age. Hurstwic. 2021. Hurstwic: Health and Medicine in the Viking Age
Danish comb: Courtesy of the Museum of South Western Jutland. https://www.sydvestjyskemuseer.dk/en/museums-archives/viking-museum-of-ribe/
Antler comb: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1866-0510-1