History may have depicted Vikings as brutish, horned helmet-wearing warriors, but there’s far more to their culture than seafaring and plundering. The Vikings had a very unique culture that could be harsh at times, but also emphasized practices in hygiene that many people might find surprising. Would the hygiene practices of these people fit your lifestyle?
Some May Have Had Latrines In Their Homes
For the most part, a Viking community had communal latrines typically located away from homes or other frequently trafficked areas. However, there has been evidence of some members of the community having latrines in their actual longhouses.
One of these personal bathrooms was discovered at the ruins of Stöng, which featured a latrine with trenches that carried the waste away from the home and to a distant location outdoors. These were likely reserved for people of status.
They Were Buried With Their Grooming Utensils
When a Viking was laid to rest, not only were they buried with their meaningful personal belongings and other items such as weapons, they also had grooming tools such as razors and tweezers.
These items had significance because they were typically ornate and usually worn around their neck or attached elsewhere on their bodies, indicated by the holes drilled in them. Some items, such as their brushes, were so cherished that they had their own boxes.
They Washed Their Faces Daily
It was common practice for many Vikings to wash their faces and hair at least once each day. According to the Arabic traveler Ibn Fadlan, a servant would bring a basin of water to their master, in which he would wash his hands and hair before combing his hair with a comb dipped into the water.
He would then blow his nose and spit in the water before passing it to the next person. However, it’s most likely that the water was changed first.
Some Vikings May Have Filed Their Teeth
Although not much is known about Vikings and teeth modifications, in 2005 and 2009, archaeologists discovered filed teeth in the remains at a Scandinavian burial site. Some theories as to why these teeth were filed are that they could have been used as an intimidation tactic against their enemies or to show their victories.
Regardless of why the teeth were filed, archaeologist David Score notes that the filing was done by someone that knew what they were doing.
Combs Were A Big Deal
Much like a weapon, jewelry, or other meaningful possession, a Viking’s comb was of particular importance. Essentially, each Viking had their own that they would keep with them at almost all times.
They could be made out of wood, ivory, bone, or even antler and were usually customized and decorated by the owner. Often, these combs were kept in wooden cases to protect the teeth while Vikings were traveling and were considered a special piece of their equipment.
It Was A Criminal Act To Dirty A Fellow Viking
In The Laws of Early Iceland, it’s made clear that humiliating a Viking by harming his appearance is a clear offense.
It reads: “If a man cuts hair from someone’s head or makes him dirty anywhere to disgrace him or tears or cuts clothing off him… and for anything a man does to disgrace someone else, however, he sets about it, the penalty in every case is outlawry.” If someone was deemed an outlaw, they could be stripped of their legal and social protections.
They Cared About How They Dressed
Both men and women in Viking society wore clothing made mostly of wool and linen, which were frequently washed by the women in nearby streams and lakes. On top of keeping their clothes clean, they also cared about what they wore and how they looked.
John of Wallingford commented on this, saying that the Vikings were so focused on how they looked that they would “change their clothes frequently to draw attention to themselves by means of many such frivolous whims.”
They Had A Number Of Tools To Stay Well-Groomed
Although keeping one’s nails clean may not seem like a priority when trying to survive in the harsh lands of Scandinavia, history has proven otherwise. Over the years, countless artifacts have been discovered that resemble modern-day combs, tweezers, ear cleaners, and more.
Of course, many of these were made from animal bones and antlers, as Vikings didn’t have the benefits of driving to the nearest drug store after losing their favorite pair of tweezers.
They Lived Inside With Their Livestock At Times
Typically, Viking families lived in longhouses made from wood and roofed with straw or turf. With a fire in the middle for warmth and cooking, these structures didn’t have windows and had very little privacy.
During the cold months, the Vikings would bring their livestock into the longhouse to prevent them from freezing to death. Unsurprisingly, sharing a living space with livestock resulted in the Vikings contracting numerous parasites and diseases, which have been discovered in ancient latrines.
They Used Utensils To Eat
Although Vikings frequently ate with their hands, like many cultures around the world still do today, they also had utensils. While they may not have had forks, they did have spoons and knives that they used for eating.
Their knives were particularly important because they were used for eating, hunting, grooming, and even fighting. Like their grooming tools, Vikings often kept their eating utensils on them, as they never knew when they would need them.
They Bathed Every Saturday
By no means were the Middle Ages the cleanest of times for the human population. Today, the Vikings are considered to be one of the cleanest cultures at the time, considering how often they bathed. It was a ritual for all members of a Viking community to bathe each Saturday in nearby lakes and streams.
Bathing weekly was essentially unheard of in most other parts of Europe at the time, which made the Vikings far cleaner than most other people they would have encountered.
They Were Particular About Their Hair
One aspect of their look that Vikings were very particular about was their hair. Men mostly wore their hair long and had their slaves’ hair cut short for quick identification.
Sometimes, Viking men were also known to wear their hair long in the front and short in the back and they’d wear it in a braid or ponytail. Because they had long hair, they cared about how it looked and would comb it frequently throughout the day.
They Constructed Their Own Saunas
While taking a dip in a nearby lake or stream may have been refreshing in the summer months, the Vikings devised another way to keep warm during the depths of winter. They constructed bathhouses and saunas that served as meeting places and were thought to provide medicinal value by causing people to sweat.
For the most part, these saunas were built on top of or near hot springs. However, if there weren’t a hot spring nearby, they would heat water in large vats.
They Trimmed Their Beards Diligently
Another aspect of their appearance that Vikings took great pride in was their facial hair. Although Hollywood might portray Vikings as having great out-of-control beards, that certainly wasn’t the case.
While they did sport facial hair, they also kept it well maintained and trimmed. The length of one’s beard was a sign of maturity and masculinity, but how clean and well-kept a Viking had it was also important. This is why it was common for many Vikings to also carry a shaving razor on them.
They Wouldn’t Wash Themselves While In Mourning
While Vikings were known for washing their bodies weekly, combing their hair regularly, and other hygienic practices, they would often show their grief by no longer washing if they lost a loved one.
This is detailed in the sagas, such as the one describing the death of Baldr in the poem Völuspá. It reads: “His hands he washed not nor his hair combed Till Baldr’s bane was borne to the pyre.” Once their time of mourning was over, they would then return to their typical cleaning rituals.
They Would Dye Their Hair As Blonde As Possible
For Vikings, the blonder the hair, the better, which applied for both men and women. Although having blonde hair wasn’t necessary (which would be impossible), it was the preferred color.
Vikings who were born with darker hair would use lye to bleach it as much as possible. By chance, lye also helps to kill lice, so not only did it help make hair more blonde but kept the Vikings clean as well.
It Was Law For Women To Have Long Hair
Much like Viking men, when it came to women’s hair, the more of it and the longer it was, the better. However, women didn’t even have a choice in how they wanted to wear their hair. It was dictated by law that women were forbidden to wear their hair short.
Of course, the women also took great pride in their hair and made sure to wash and comb it as much as possible to keep up their looks.
Only Women Would Wash And Cut A Man’s Hair
While the Viking men may have taken care of their own beards and other parts of their bodies that needed to be cleaned, men rarely washed and cut their own hair.
This task was reserved for the women, although it is not known whether wives did it for their husbands or if there were specific women that all the men came to. Literary accounts have also been discovered that state it would be considered an honor for women to wash a certain man’s hair.
Their Oral Health Was Generally Good
In a time when oral care was low on people’s list of priorities, Vikings had surprisingly decent oral care despite not doing much to maintain it. Compared to other Western diets, the Viking diet had less refined sugar, which helped their teeth last longer.
However, their food was relatively coarse. This would cause considerable wear on their teeth, as seen on many of the Viking remains that have been excavated over the years.
Vikings Relied On Nature For Their Toilet Paper
When it came to going to the bathroom, most Viking communities shared a latrine, but it was most likely up to the individual to bring their own “toilet paper.”
Archaeologists have discovered that the Vikings preferred to use the moss they collected from the surrounding forests to do their business. Some of the used moss has even been unearthed from latrine excavation sites. The discovery of this moss has also helped us learn more about the Viking diet.