Vikings!! Big burly, wild haired, smelly looking savages with horned helmets? Not so! The truth is that Vikings took personal grooming, bathing and hair styling quite seriously. In fact, compared to most people of their era, Vikings were considered to be very clean and handsome. So much so that an English cleric, John of Wallingford, complained about them combing their hair every day, taking a bath every Saturday, and changing their clothes frequently. His main complaint wasn’t that they were clean and well-kept; it was more the fact that high born English women preferred the Viking men because of it. Woohoo! Cleanliness wins over cool!
Vikings were among the cleanest of all the Europeans during the Middle Ages. In the summer, bathing could be performed in lakes or streams, or within the bath-houses found on every large farm (these would be much like the Finnish sauna today, though tub bathing was also used), while in winter the heated bath-house would be the primary location for bathing. In Iceland where natural hot springs are common, the naturally heated water was incorporated into the bath-house.
They also washed their hands and faces on at least a daily basis, usually in the morning upon arising. Some sources suggest that handwashing was also customary before meals as well. It seems clear that regular washing of hands and hair was the norm, and that failing to keep oneself clean was an unusual practice, perhaps reserved for those in mourning.
During the Viking era people used a variety of implements for personal grooming and cleanliness. Perhaps the most important grooming tool was the comb, which was used not only to smooth and tidy the hair, but also to help remove any dirt or vermin. Combs were in everyday use at every level of society. They were used as a part of the hair washing process, being used to comb through the wet hair during washing. Some scholars believe that the widespread use of combs throughout the ancient world was their way of controlling lice and nits. Nit combs are not such a new thing! Who knew?
In the Viking Age, there were no such things as cotton swabs for ear cleaning. Instead, an implement known as an “earspoon” was used to scoop out earwax. (I won’t be eating with that spoon!) Often women wore an earspoon dangling from one of their brooches on a chain. Other items used for personal grooming include nail cleaners, tweezers (yes, even Vikings plucked their eyebrows), metal tooth picks and razors. You could get them all in a set to hang of your brooch.
For both men and women of the Viking age, blonde or fair hair was highly prized. Brunette women could bleach their hair by washing it with a basic soap with a high lye content. The bleaching action provided by the lye produced a red or red-gold hair colour. Men and women who were slaves (called Thralls) could only wear their hair cropped short, as a sign of their servitude.
Unmarried girls would wear their hair long and loose, they might confine their hair with a circlet or kransen (headband), especially on formal occasions, or they might wear their hair in two braids falling either side of their face. Married women usually wore their hair gathered up into a knot at the back of the head, or coiled atop their head in some arrangement.