Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Historical Hair Care, Part Two, The Vikings

Depending on your sources, you can formulate two very different pictures of Viking hygiene. The two most famous written sources state as follows:

"(The Danes) …caused much trouble to the natives of the land; for they were wont, after the fashion of their country, to comb their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their garments often, and set off their persons by many frivolous devices. In this matter they laid siege to the virtue of the married woman, and persuaded the daughters even of the noble to be their concubines”.
-- John of Wallingford 

John of Wallingford was an English monk and chronicler who recorded the above in 1002, just after the massacre of St. Brice's Day.

By contrast an Arab Chronicler who traveled through the Middle Volga in 921 remarked as follows:

"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."


"Each (of the king's companions) has a female slave who serves him, washes his head, and prepares all that he eats and drinks, and he also has another female slave with whom he sleeps."

--Ibn Fadlan

What they do agree on seems to be that the Vikings did have great care and concern for their appearance. The degree of their cleanliness is colored by the culture of the two writers reported. The English seem to have bathed with less frequency and concern, and so the Vikings seemed to them to be very clean.

By contrast, many historians agree that Ibn Fahlan may have been disgusted by the custom of bathing with still water in a basin, as Islamic faith and custom requires washing to be done in running water or in water poured from a container so that used water does not again touch the bather. It is thought likely that the basin was actually emptied between users, but that Fahlan may still have thought it contaminated by previous use.

Linguistically, we know that “Lørdag” means Saturday in three Scandinavian languages and derives from the Old Norse “laugardagur”, which means “washing day”.

As to the archaeological evidence, finely carved combs, often made of bone or reindeer antler are a common find. The three below were discovered in Western Norway...

and these three were found at a site near Novgorad, Russia.

There are a couple things about these combs that particularly interest me. The first is that they seem overwhelmingly to have very fine teeth. With my mop of very curly hair, I doubt I'd ever get one of these through it, not even the wider-toothed side. There are, however, two likely explanations for the style. The first is that these likely helped in the removal of lice and nits.

The second is that the fine teeth, made of natural material would have pulled the scalp's natural sebum from the roots to the ends, conditioning the hair. In fact, wooden, bone, and hair combs are having a small resurgence in natural and long hair growing communities online for this very reason. The second thing of particular note is that combs are almost always found in men's graves, but less often in women's. I guess the boys were a little vain? 

As to styling, then, as now, there was no one universal hair style for men or women. One style that is commonly described for men is to have the hair shaved at the back and moderately long at the front.

It is thought that unmarried women wore their hair long and loose and that married women wore it up in a knot. There is a great deal of debate on head coverings, with some sources stating that they were mandatory for married women and archaeological evidence not quite backing this up. There is even argument about what the existing artwork suggest. Do these figures shown at the left, for example, show long hair tied up in knots and braids, or scarves which cover the hair tied up in knots?
At this point, nobody knows for sure. There is archaeological evidence of various kinds of head coverings, caps, and scarves. It is also known that fillets, a fabric band worn like a coronet and sometimes made of beautiful brocades, were worn.

It is important to remember that what we refer to as the "Vikings" were not a monolith. They were a people made up of various tribes and cultures. I personally think it likely that there would have been a great deal of variation in style choices. Perhaps, in some areas or tribes married women were required to cover their hair whilst in other areas they may in fact have worn long braids, tied up into buns, thus explaining the contradictory evidence.
Though I do not go into great detail, I tried to let all this information reflect in my novel Prince Dead. Of course, because it is set entirely in Ireland, much of this is not explored, particularly the customs of the women. I will be including more of that in the sequel, Land of Battles.

If you have any questions or comments, I would love to hear them. In the mean time, I will be working on Part Two, The Medieval Era.

Historical Hair Care, Part One, Introduction
Historical Hair Care, Part Three, The Medieval Era
Historical Hair Care, Part Four, The Victorian Era
Historical Hair Care, Part Five, The Experiment

1 comment:

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