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Were The Vikings Dirty? What Were Their Bathing Practices?

Were the Vikings Dirty? What Were Their Bathing Practices?

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.

The Arab chronicler Ibn Fadlan, who encountered the Rus along the Volga River, described them exactly as we might expect: dirty. He wrote:

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.

Further reading:

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:

http://www.salon.com/2007/11/30/dirt_on_clean/

Christophe Adrien

A bestselling​ author of Viking historical fiction for young adults.

This Post Has 9 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on Time Slips and commented:
    No, our Vikings were not dirty! In fact we were cleaner than most of those nasty and smelly people that we raided… excepting perhaps, King Ecbert, because we all know his fondness for bathing!

  2. […] You read it correctly. The Norse were not describing Sasquatch, they were critiquing the natives’ bad hair. This is not surprising, considering the Norse cultural fixation on personal grooming (see Were the Vikings Dirty?). […]

  3. […] Prior to converting to Christianity, Norse culture valued good grooming habits. We know this from several sources, including both Christian and Muslim texts, as well as archeological finds of combs, washbowls, and saunas. Christianity, however, viewed Norse grooming habits as signs of vanity. In Christendom, it was required of some people, especially clerics, to never bathe. In fact, monks actually thought the dirtier they were, the more holy they were. As Christianity spread across Scandinavia, the Scandinavian people joined the rest of Christendom in their smelliness. Read more about Norse grooming. […]

    1. Sur un blog Francais! Très bien! Mes romans sont basées sur les Vikings en Bretagne, et mon éditeur a la traduction française en cours!

      Merci pour le link 🙂

  4. I really enjoy reading historical notes on the Vikings culture, history, genealogy, and so forth.

  5. An English translation by Joseph Stevenson was published in 1854.

    Stevenson found that:

    There are few histories more perplexing than the production of this unknown chronicler which we have here translated. The tone of confidence with which he questions the statements of others (upon points of chronology as well as history), and advances his own conclusions, is calculated at first to secure deference to his authority. A more accurate investigation, however, shows us that the greater number of his assertions must be received with caution unless supported by collateral evidence. Several of them have been pointed out in the foot-notes, but their number might yet further be extended.

    William Hunt, writing for the Dictionary of National Biography in 1899, considered that

    The author evidently used several excellent authorities, such as Bede, the Saxon priest’s Life of Dunstan, Florence of Worcester, and the like; but, though he makes some attempts at comparison and criticism, has inserted so many exaggerations and misconceptions apparently current in his own time, and has further so strangely confused the results of his reading, that his production is historically worthless.

    The chronicle writer is nonetheless still occasionally quoted, for example his remark preceding his account of the St. Brice’s Day massacre датчан в 1002 году во время правления Этельред неразумный, что

    the Danes, thanks to their habit of combing their hair every day, of bathing every Saturday and regularly changing their clothes, were able to undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses.

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