Viking hygiene | Were Vikings clean or dirty?

viking hairstyle, viking hygiene, viking tattoo -

Viking hygiene | Were Vikings clean or dirty?

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Hygiene, hairstyles and body modifications

Summary

Hygiene
Toilet accessories

  • The combs

  • The earwig

  • The tweezers

The hairstyles

  • Men's hairstyles

  • Women's hairstyles

Body modifications

  • The tattoo

  • The image of the teeth

Were Vikings clean or dirty?

Hygiene

The Vikings have a reputation for giving little importance to personal hygiene and the popular imagination has often made them dirty and hirsutious savages. But this is an opinion contradicted by all archaeological discoveries. In reality, the Vikings took care of their personal hygiene, bathing and styling.

Perhaps the most revealing commentary comes from the pen of the English clergyman John of Wallingford, prior of St. Fridswides. Indeed, he complained bitterly about the fact that the Danes comb their hair, take a bath on Saturdays and frequently change their woolen clothes, and that these pagans try, by such actions, to seduce English women of high birth.

The Arab observer Ibn Fadlan, in his travel account Risāla § 84, wrote: "Every day they have to wash their faces and heads and this is done in the dirtiest and most indecent way possible: to tell you, every morning a girl at their service brings a large basin of water; she presents it to her master and washes her hands, face and hair - he washes them and untangles them with a comb soaked in water; then he blows through her nose and spits into the basin. When it is finished, the servant carries the basin to the next person, who does the same. She carries the pelvis to everyone and everyone in turn blows through her nose, spits out and washes her face and hair."

Ibn Fadlan's main source of disgust with the bathing customs of the Rus has to do with his Islamic faith, which requires a Muslim stake to wash only in running water or with water poured into a container so that the rinsing water is different from the bath water. However, sagas often describe a woman washing a man's hair for him, most of the time as a gesture of affection. It is very likely that the basin was in fact emptied between each bath: Ibn Fadlan would have perceived this basin as contaminated by a previous use. It seems that here, Ibn Fadlan is exaggerating by forcing the line. With the exception of Ibn Fadlan, almost all sources indicate that the Vikings were among the cleanest among Europeans in the Middle Ages.

In summer, swimming could be done in lakes or streams. But archaeological excavations have uncovered basins and ovens (these must have been a bit like the Finnish sauna) in many places in the Scandinavian countries. Many of the larger farms had a washroom adjacent to the main dwelling. In Iceland, where natural hot springs are common, naturally heated water could be transported to the bathroom. It is estimated that the Vikings took a bath - and changed clothes at least once a week, on Saturdays, the weekly laundry day.

The Vikings also washed their hands and face, at least on a daily basis, usually in the morning when they woke up. Hávamál also suggests that hand washing before meals was customary.

The few iconographic representations that have come down to us from the Scandinavians of that time show well trimmed beards and carefully combed hair. It seems clear that regular hand and hair washing was the norm, and that stopping staying clean was only an exceptional event, perhaps reserved for bereaved people. It is said that Odin, the king of the gods, kept his dirty hair as a sign of mourning for the death of his son Baldr.

  • Toilet accessories

The combs

Probably the most important accessory was the comb, which was not only used to smooth and clean the hair, but also to remove all dirt or vermin, especially lice that are documented in scientific analyses of different strata. Combs were used daily and by all social classes. Combing was part of the hair washing process, as the comb was passed through wet hair during the bath.

Bone combs are among the most common archaeological discoveries in a Viking context. Two types of combs are inventoried:

  • the combs in one piece
  • composite combs

comb made of deer

The combs in one piece were made, as their name suggests, in one piece from a piece of bone or ivory. The majority of these combs had teeth on both sides of the central axis. The need for a large enough piece of material to make such a comb required in most cases that it be made from cetacean bones (whales) or walrus ivory or even imported elephant. The choice of material was important, since materials such as bone and ivory have like wood veins, and for maximum strength, the teeth of the comb had to be cut parallel to the vein of the material.

Although one-piece combs were predominant in Scandinavia during the migration period, they became much less frequent during the Viking period. However, the few known one-piece combs of that time were either made from elephant ivory (and may have been imported from the Mediterranean), or they were made from cetacean bones, and were extremely ornate. Some experts call them "liturgical combs" but it is doubtful that they were actually used in the liturgy before the 13th century.

The double combs of the Viking era, either in one piece or in composite construction, generally have fine teeth on one side of the comb and coarser teeth on the other. The thin teeth are extremely tight and this side was probably used to extract vermin from the hair. The coarser side would have been used to untangle and style the hair.
Peigne-composite-from-Hemse
Composite combs make up the majority of the combs found. A composite comb was made of several pieces of living material, more commonly divided deer antler, cut into independent slabs and assembled.

The different steps of manufacturing a composite Viking combAll sections that overlap and extend beyond the comb axis plates were cut and the joint thus formed sanded to a curve on the back of the comb. Sometimes, on the contrary, they were preserved in order to be shaped, sculpted and incised until they became ornamental decorative elements. The teeth of the comb were then properly delimited, often with an angle of attack sanded on one side, and then the teeth were cut, often using a special small saw with two parallel blades.

Replica of a Viking bone comb with holsterThe findings in the tombs showed a slight difference in the use of combs between men and women. Men's combs are most often found with a protective case, almost identical in shape to the comb itself, but without teeth. This case protected the teeth of the comb against any damage. Women's graves rarely include combs with cases, while men's graves almost always contain combs.

  • The earwig

viking-earwig

In the Viking Age, there were no cotton buds to clean his ears but a earwig.
Copy of a Viking earwig discovered in Birka, SwedenThe earwig could be made of a wide variety of materials, bone, ivory, silver and other metals. Women often wore the earwig hanging from their fibulae at the end of a chain, not only to have it handy when necessary, but also in an ostentatious way because many of them were elegantly decorated.

  • The tweezers

viking-tweezer

Viking Bronze Tweezers, Björkö, SwedenThe tweezers were also worn frequently in the same way as the earwig. It could be made of iron, bronze, silver, or even deer antler or bone.

Archaeological findings have shown that tweezers were also used for eyebrows.

The hairstyles

  • Men's hairstyles

There is not a single style of hairdressing for men of the Viking Age. Men had multiple ways of doing their hair, just like we do today. Some may have been more common in a particular region, or an activity may have imposed a hair style.

Generally, only slaves wore very short hair. The middle-class man probably wore his hair shoulder-length or in the neck, and his beard grew as long as it was comfortable for him. A professional warrior could make other choices to minimize the risk of being caught by hair or beard in combat.

Arab observer Ibn Fadlan noted that the men he called Rus shone their beards to a saffron yellow. As a result, some researchers believe that they were probably thinning their hair the same way. This discoloration was achieved by using a highly basic soap. Pliny the Elder also noted this practice among Germanic tribes, and noted that men were more likely to bleach their hair than women. [Pliny the Elder, Natural Stories].

  • Women's hairstyles

Women's hair styles seem to have been more codified than men's, according to the testimonies we have received (amulet, Goldgubber...). Research suggests that blond hair was the most popular, so brown women could have bleached or lightened their hair using the method previously described for men.

  • Female slaves, like their male counterparts, were forced to wear their short cut hair as a sign of servitude.
  • Unmarried girls wore long, loose hair or were held by a headband, especially on solemn occasions. Sometimes they would tie their hair into a braid.
  • Married women usually wore their hair tied together at the back of their heads, or wrapped around the top of their heads in a bun, and often covered their hair with a cap, veil (hustrulinet) or cap. Several sources indicate that it was mandatory for married Scandinavian women to wear headgear, but archaeology does not really seem to support this belief because many 9th and 10th century women's graves in Birka and elsewhere did not contain any. However, a wide variety of headgear has been more commonly found in Christianized geographical areas such as Dublin and Jorvik. (cf. Viking clothing)

Body modifications

  • The tattoo

viking-tattoo
Tattooing is one of those art forms that is not well preserved in historical archives. Because the skin is fragile and rarely preserved in burials, it is difficult to know exactly what patterns may have been represented. Only the discovery of a tattooed remains preserved in frozen ground so that the skin is preserved, would make it possible to obtain a real confirmation.

Yet we know that the Rus at least had tattoos on them, because the Arab observer Ibn Fadlan wrote (Risala § 81): "Every man has an axe, sword and knife that he keeps on him at all times. The swords are wide and grooved, in the frank manner. Each man is tattooed from toes to neck with trees, figures [...], dark green"[or green or blue-black]. The Arabic word for the color of tattoos can mean green, blue or black. These were certainly dark blue tattoos, created using wood ash as a pigment. Ibn Fadlan refers to the tattooed motifs as "trees", but it is very likely that he actually describes the interlacing patterns that were so common in Nordic art in this way.

Pattern tattooed on the skin of the Scythian chief's arm Although they predate the Vikings by about 1300 years, an interesting parallel can be drawn with the tattoos found on a Scythian chief in southern Siberia, in the Pazyryk area, around 500 B.C. The Scythians lived in the steppe regions, and their descendants probably came into contact with the Rus and other Vikings who made contact with them.

This Scythian in particular is very well preserved, because the burial mound, or Kurgan, in which it was buried, has been dug deep enough to place the burial chamber below the level of permafrost (or permafrost, i.e. a layer of earth or solid rock located at a variable depth below the surface of the ground, where the temperature has been constantly below O°C for several thousand years). Thus, the chief's skin, and therefore his tattoos, have been preserved.
The patterns used in these tattoos are clearly based on Scythian artistic styles, and it is then easy to imagine that if the Vikings practiced tattooing, their body art should reflect the patterns found in their wood and metal sculptures.
This Scythian in particular is very well preserved, because the burial mound, or Kurgan, in which it was buried, has been dug deep enough to place the burial chamber below the level of permafrost (or permafrost, i.e. a layer of earth or solid rock located at a variable depth below the surface of the ground, where the temperature has been constantly below O°C for several thousand years). Thus, the chief's skin, and therefore his tattoos, have been preserved. The patterns used in these tattoos are clearly based on Scythian artistic styles, and it is then easy to imagine that if the Vikings practiced tattooing, their body art should reflect the patterns found in their wood and metal sculptures. Kunsten på Kroppen from anders engraver on Vimeo.

 

British Museum Evidence of this practice comes from decapitated skeletons found in a pit uncovered during work in Dorset, from Vikings who were victims of a massacre. The image of the teeth therefore seems to have mainly concerned warriors. The incisors have horizontal lines that have been carefully filed down, archaeologists believe they were made by a qualified person rather than by their owners, due to the depth and precision of the engraving as well as the pain accompanying such an act. The filed teeth were probably stained, perhaps with red. Since no other European culture presents this practice and the Vikings travelled extensively, anthropologists believe that they were able to learn these techniques from other places such as West Africa and the Americas, places they explored. However, the modification of teeth in Africa was of a different kind, with teeth filed down to the tip. Thus, by elimination, this could be North America where this type of horizontal markings on the dentition has been documented in the Great Lakes region and in the current states of Illinois, Arizona, and Georgia. It is not clear why the Vikings did this, but it was probably a symbol of pride, accomplishment and intimidation to scare off enemies. More recently, Anna Kjellstrom, a specialist in Biological Anthropology at Stockholm University, found the same furrows on the remains of two men who appear to have been buried as slaves in central Sweden. Although it does not allow itself to conclude that tooth modification was a characteristic of slaves, this discovery forces specialists to rethink the idea that this practice was reserved for warriors, as well as the place of slaves in Viking society. Sources Viking Age Hairstyles, Haircare, and Personal Grooming Viking Tattoos, Ancient tattoos: Theories of Heaven and Earth The Vikings filed their teeth for combat, New Studies show Vikings filed their teeth 

Evidence of this practice comes from decapitated skeletons found in a pit uncovered during work in Dorset, from Vikings who were victims of a massacre. The image of the teeth therefore seems to have mainly concerned warriors.

The incisors have horizontal lines that have been carefully filed down, archaeologists believe they were made by a qualified person rather than by their owners, due to the depth and precision of the engraving as well as the pain accompanying such an act. The filed teeth were probably stained, perhaps with red.

Since no other European culture presents this practice and the Vikings travelled extensively, anthropologists believe that they were able to learn these techniques from other places such as West Africa and the Americas, places they explored. However, the modification of teeth in Africa was of a different kind, with teeth filed down to the tip. Thus, by elimination, this could be North America where this type of horizontal markings on the dentition has been documented in the Great Lakes region and in the current states of Illinois, Arizona, and Georgia.

It is not clear why the Vikings did this, but it was probably a symbol of pride, accomplishment and intimidation to scare off enemies.

More recently, Anna Kjellstrom, a specialist in Biological Anthropology at Stockholm University, found the same furrows on the remains of two men who appear to have been buried as slaves in central Sweden. Although it does not allow itself to conclude that tooth modification was a characteristic of slaves, this discovery forces specialists to rethink the idea that this practice was reserved for warriors, as well as the place of slaves in Viking society.

Sources
Viking Age Hairstyles, Haircare, and Personal Grooming
Viking Tattoos, Ancient tattoos: Theories of Heaven and Earth
The Vikings filed their teeth for combat, New Studies show Vikings filed their teeth

To discover: Viking jewelry

 

 

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