What Was Hygiene Like For The Vikings?

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.

Photo: E. Klein / Wikimedia Commons / No Known Copyright Restrictions

  • 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 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 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 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.

  • Vikings Enjoyed Bath Houses And Saunas

    Viking baths and saunas were visited for both cleanliness and enjoyment. Washing in a local stream during the summer months could provide relief from the heat, while bath houses and saunas offered warmth and a chance to sweat during the winter. Bath houses and saunas also served as meeting places and had medicinal value. A cold bath could ease aches and pains, while steam was thought to revitalize the spirit.

    Bath houses and saunas could be constructed near natural hot springs or by using water heated in large vats. 

    According to sagas, some Vikings had advanced piping systems to move hot and cold water to their baths. Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic writer and statesman from the 12th and 13th centuries, is believed to have built an elaborate bath at his farmhouse in Reykjaholt.

  • Vikings May Have Had Toilets In Their Homes

    There is evidence that some Norse communities had latrines near their longhouses. Viking sagas mention latrines, often ones found away from well-traversed and populated living spaces. Viking latrines were communal, but group facilities may also have been built inside longhouses.

    One kamarr, or privy, discovered at Stöng included trenches that carried waste from the longhouse to an outdoor location. Archeologists did find an outdoor latrine, however, and analyzed its contents. At a former Viking settlement in Denmark, researchers discovered a 1,000-year-old latrine containing parasites carried by both humans and animals.

    Scholars found roundworm, human whipworm, and liver fluke, as well as evidence that the worm infestations from the Viking Age contributed to a genetic anomaly that affects modern descendants of Vikings. Their genes adapted to counteract intestinal parasites and prevent potential diseases, a mutation that may now lead to lung cancer.