A skaldic verse from Egill Skallagrimson paints the picture of what once was considered the perfect Viking; created impatient from birth, presumptuous, and with a burning desire for a far-off adventure: “My mother promised me, and soon she will buy me, a vessel and oars, to leave to distant lands with the Vikings…and to strike and fight.”
These early explorers are today remembered as brave, rustic men with long beards and flowing hair. As historians of the 19th century would have it, the Vikings were uncivilized in their pre-Christian culture, thus making them unclean. The notion of the Romantic Savage prevailed well into the latter half of the 20th century, and arguably remains part of popular culture’s view of the Vikings today. What most people do not know, however, is that grooming was a central feature in Viking Age Scandinavian culture.
“Every day they must wash their faces and heads and this they do in the dirtiest and filthiest fashion possible: to wit, every morning a girl servant brings a great basin of water; she offers this to her master and he washes his hands and face and his hair — he washes it and combs it out with a comb in the water; then he blows his nose and spits into the basin. When he has finished, the servant carries the basin to the next person, who does likewise. She carries the basin thus to all the household in turn, and each blows his nose, spits, and washes his face and hair in it.”
In interpreting this passage, we must consider the cultural lens from which the Arab chronicler wrote. In Bagdad, his home, Ibn Fadlan was a writter. His position earned him a high place in society, and he considered himself an above average figure. Arab society at the time — especially among the elites — prided itself on cleanliness. In fact, their fixation with cleanliness and elaborate costuming was heavily chastised by their Christian Byzantine neighbors for being vain. It is not surprising that Ibn Fadlan would consider the Rus as dirty, but he did help us to understand their customs by describing a few of their grooming habits. We learn from his writings that they practiced some form of grooming at least once a day. This is a stark contrast to the popular conception of the Vikings being dirt-clad savages.
The grooming began with combing of the hair and beards. They rinsed their mouths and faces with fresh water from the river (although, it was shared). If read in the proper context, Ibn Fadlan’s account provides us with a fantastic insight into how the Vikings viewed and practiced grooming. They were, in fact, quite clean for the time. Although the Rus are one among many different tribes of Scandinavians, it may be deduced that many of the Vikings had similar grooming practices. For example, in what is modern day Finland, archeologists have found and dated Viking Age saunas used to bathe. It is surmised that many villages across Scandinavia would have known how to build and use saunas for cleansing. There is even evidence that saunas were built in the new world settlements as well, which hints heavily as to the importance of cleanliness in Viking culture.
Other sources allude to the bathing rituals of the Vikings, including one John of Wallingford, prior of Saint Fridswise. In his writings he expressed discontentment with the Northmen who combed their hair, bathed every Saturday, and changed their clothes regularly. How then did Vikings earn a reputation for uncleanliness? Several theories exist to answer this question, but the most convincing is the theory of negative propaganda. Most of what we know about the Vikings is still taken from what was written about them. The only people capable of writing anything of substance at the time were priests (such as our friend John) who were the Vikings’ preferred victims. It must be recognized that the Christians of the time avoided bathing specifically because they considered too much cleanliness to be a sign of vanity, which was sin. Thus the infamous smelliness of the medieval period began. Not until the christianization of Scandinavia did the people from that region stop grooming as extensively as they had previously done.
Were the Vikings dirty? I suppose by today’s standards they would not appear as clean as, say, a person who showers and shampoos every day; but for the times, they appear to have been the cleanest of the European cultures.
On Ibn Fadlan:
Frye, Richard N. (2005) Ibn Fadlan’s Journey to Russia: A Tenth-Century Traveler from Baghdad to the Volga River. Princeton: Marcus Weiner Publishers.
Flowers, Stephen E. (1998) Ibn Fadlan’s Travel-Report: As It Concerns the Scandinavian Rüs. Smithville, Texas: Rûna-Raven.
On saunas in the Viking Age:
Nordskog, M., Hautala, A. (2010)The Opposite of Cold-The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition. University of Minnesota Press.
On John of Wallingford:
Vaughan, R. ed. “The Chronicle Attributed to John of Wallingford.” Camden Miscellany 21 (1958): pp. 1-67.
For more information on cleanliness in the Middle Ages in Europe, read this fun article about how Buddhists and Muslims thought of the Christians as dirty: