Weird History

What Was Hygiene Like For The Vikings?  

Melissa Sartore
1.3k views 12 items

The Vikings - a group of exploring and raiding seafarers from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway - traversed the world from the eighth to the 11th centuries. As warriors, traders, and eventual settlers, the Vikings disrupted the lives of those groups they encountered while simultaneously facilitating cultural exchange and making an impression that was often less than positive.

As a result, the Vikings' contemporaries wrote extensively of their inhumane, fierce, and filthy ways. In actuality, Viking hygiene reveals concern for cleanliness and grooming, with much attention paid to personal appearance. Many of the Vikings' hygienic practices reflected the realities of their daily life, although there are a few noteworthy activities that are somewhat surprising - at the very least, they may make your teeth hurt.

Vikings Diligently Cleaned And... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list What Was Hygiene Like For The Vikings?
Photo:  Gilwellian/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Vikings Diligently Cleaned And Combed Their Hair

During the time Vikings were active, Scandinavians were concerned with their appearance, especially their hair. According to a chronicle attributed to John of Wallingford, a 13th-century English monk, Vikings "were - according to their country's customs - in the habit of combing their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change clothes frequently, and to draw attention to themselves by means of many such frivolous whims."

Viking men seem to have worn their hair long in the front with short or shaved locks in the back - what many might recognize today as a reverse mullet. The long sections may have been pulled back, something women also could have done with their long hair. 

Some Viking Men May Have Filed... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list What Was Hygiene Like For The Vikings?
Photo:  Wolfgang Sauber/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0
Some Viking Men May Have Filed Grooves Into Their Teeth

The extent to which Vikings modified their teeth is unclear, but archeologists discovered filed teeth among the remains at Scandinavian burial sites in 2005 and in England in 2009. The teeth were intentionally filed with grooves that may have indicated victories against opponents. Another theory claims that Vikings filed their teeth to intimidate enemies.

Equally unclear is what they used to file their teeth, although David Score, the manager of the site in England, indicated the filing was done by a skilled practitioner.

Vikings Were Buried With Their... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list What Was Hygiene Like For The Vikings?
Photo:  Christian Bickle/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0
Vikings Were Buried With Their Grooming Tools

Viking burial sites reveal military tools accompanied by combs and other personal items. Combs were made of bone, antler, or metal, as were tweezers, razors, and ear picks.

Items used for grooming were ornately decorated and, as evidenced by holes drilled in them, were probably worn on a chain either attached to the belt or hanging around the neck, or they were worn as brooches. At times, Vikings also carried combs in boxes, attesting to the tools' importance.

Vikings Kept Their Facial Hair... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list What Was Hygiene Like For The Vikings?
Photo:  Starbäck, C.G , Kræmer, F.R./Wikimedia Commons/No Known Coryright Restrictions
Vikings Kept Their Facial Hair Trimmed

Most, if not all, Viking men had facial hair that they kept trim and tidy. Grooming tools like razors, combs, and tweezers were just as likely to be used on beards and mustaches as they were on the hair atop a Viking's head.

The length of one's beard was an indicator of maturity and even masculinity, while a lack of facial hair could be mocked. In Njals Saga, Njal was described as "wealthy in goods, and handsome of face," although "no beard grew on his chin." His lack of facial hair receives continued mention, even earning him the moniker "beardless carle" while his sons are called "dung-beardlings."

Njal's competence and manliness are constantly called into question due to his lack of facial hair, and the text even implies that his sons - or at least their hair - were derived from dung rather than their father's fertility.