Viking vanity and fashion
Many do not know that Váli is the name of an Old Norse god. So what couldn’t be better than writing an article about how the Vikings groomed themselves and what it meant to them during the Middle Ages. We asked Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, Ph.D. in Archeology, about why and how the Vikings were so vain to help us with this article. Because being vain was part of being viking.
The Vikings’ popular image is that they were a bunch of wild and dirty primitive barbarians. This is how Ahmad ibn Fadlan – an Arab traveler and chronicler – describes the encounter with the Vikings:
“Every day, they wash their face and head in the dirtiest and filthiest water imaginable. It happens that every morning a slave girl comes with a sink of water. She hands it to her master, and he washes his hands, face, and hair and sorts it out with a comb in the sink. Then he sneezes and spits in the water. Yes, there is no filth that he does not do in the same water. And so she carries it from one to the other until it has made its round to all in the house.
The reality, however, is probably the opposite. They had well-developed grooming routines, bathed in what is reminiscent of a Finnish sauna, and had various hairstyles that they cared for and took care of well. Ibn Fadlan is probably a bit colored by his prejudices (as a Muslim, one should wash oneself in clean water five times a day before prayers). Another contemporary source (Ibn Rustah) and the majority of other sources instead describe the Vikings as clean and adorned with various ornaments and bracelets of gold. For example, the Vikings bathed once a day compared to other Europeans, who at that time only bathed 1-2 times a year. The Swedish word for Saturday, “lördag,” comes from the Old Norse “laugardagur,” which simply means washing day. Compared to other Europeans, the Vikings were rather fashion-conscious, elegant men with charm and confidence. The monk John of Wallingford writes, among other things, that they were considered very attractive in the eyes of the conquered Anglo-Saxon noblewomen.
In Hávamál (a collection of Viking poems that contains practical, wise rules of life), we can read, among other things:
the hiker, who comes for a meal,
towel and friendly welcome;
if he can win such a thing,
conversation and invitation back. “
This means that water and a towel should be provided before each meal.
Archaeological discoveries show that it was widespread all over the Nordic countries with tweezers, toothpicks, nail clippers, and combs. It was even common for them to dye their hair and beard. Ibn Fadlan also observed, among other things, that the Vikings bleached their beards yellow and white with the help of soft soap. The advantage was also that soap then killed the lice. On old woodcuts by Vikings, you can see that grooming and trimming beards was common. Everything from full beards and mustaches to goatee beards has been found.
However, there were times when the Vikings let go of the fine pedicure and simply left everything alone. An example is in case of grief or if a loved one had passed away. In Sämund’s Edda (poetry collection), we can read, among other things, that Váli himself let his hair grow freely without care until he killed Balder’s enemy.
“Rind gives birth to Vale
in left-hand halls,
this son of Odin fights,
a single night old;
his hand he does not wash
or head combs,
before on the fire he lays
Forced I spoke,
now I will be silent “
We at magazine Váli wanted to know more about why the Vikings were so vain and adorned. To help us, we asked Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, file. Dr in archeology and defended her dissertation in 2006 on the dissertation “The Birka Warrior – the material culture of a martial society,” about why she thinks the Vikings were so vain:
Charlotte: That’s an exciting question. I do not think that the Vikings were really more vain than others – people have always been interested in looking good and making themselves beautiful, adorn themselves.
In the archaeological material, there are many combs, both in men’s and women’s graves. Tweezers are found in both men’s and women’s graves, while scissors and so-called scoops (the Viking Age equivalent of tops) are found in “rich” women’s graves. All of these things were used for personal hygiene and appearance. The few pictures of Viking people that exist always show people who are coiffured, if they have beards, these are never wild, and so on. It is true that there are written sources that describe the northerners as clean, or rather that they bathe relatively often. There are also Arabic sources that describe them as unclean. It is certainly in both cases the question of a kind of cultural clash where the northerners do not do in the same way as those who wrote / told about the event.
Vali: What kind of clothing and jewelry did Vikings wear?
Charlotte: When it comes to costumes and jewelry, it has of course been a question of how much assets you had. Fabric was an important commodity and the suit, if you could afford it, be lined with silk fabrics, ribbons with gold and silver thread, furs, etc. The fabrics were dyed using different plants, and the suit was not as beige-brown as one often thinks. Headgear was also important, and these hats were also decorated with colorful woven ribbons, fur, silver, and silver thread – all depending on the wealth and what contacts you had. A big difference from today’s society was that you carried your riches on you. They were not deposited in a bank. Jewelry, pearls, exotic fabrics, etc., served both as status markers and financial security. This has been the case in most older societies. Both men and women wore jewelry, but of different types. A typical male splendor jewel was, for example, the so-called ring pins. Status items such as swords, battle knives, etc., could also be richly decorated. The belt was also a way to show status and wealth. It could be decorated with fittings of bronze and / or silver.
Vali: Thank you Charlotte.
A few hundred years later, good personal hygiene was no longer trendy in Scandinavia. Among other things, a myth was spread that the plague could be spread with the help of water.
Thor Ewing: Viking Clothing, The history Press ltd, 2006
History of the World, No. 4 2013