However, we live in an age that prides ourselves on breaking down stereotypes and reevaluating how we look at people. And so, as we as a society have reconsidered how we define the many different people we interact with in the contemporary world, the stereotype of the Viking has recently been given a makeover as well.
Far from being filthy brutes, we find that Vikings were actually very well groomed and perhaps even fashion conscious.
Just for the sake of perspective let us consider that for the past century or so Western society has seen a homogenizing of men’s fashion. The business suit as we know it is not that different than its earlier incarnation in the late Victorian Era. Mainstream men’s haircuts tend to be very similar, discounting sub-culture and counter-culture trends.
And while we may sometimes make assumptions about class due to a man’s hairstyle, hair itself does not represent class. In other words, the male mechanic, the school teacher, and the CEO likely all have a very similar haircut as Prince Charles.
Personal grooming was also expected from individuals in Norse societies during this period. Grooming tools have been unearthed which verify that Viking age men and women used tweezers, combs, and ear scoops for… erm, scooping out earwax. Ahem.
Another trend that the modern hipster man may embrace, while more a macho modern man often eschews, is coloring the hair. In our society it is predominantly women who dye their hair. There is a growing trend for aging men to consider covering the gray, but it is still done less often by men than women, and men tend to stay close to their original hair color.
And, in our society many women of all ethnicities and complexions ‘go blonde’ whether it looks remotely natural or not. Well, you guessed it, so did the Vikings!
Due to medieval accounts as well as archeological analysis, it is thought that the strong lye soap used by Vikings for washing was also used for bleaching hair. And it was not just the ladies going for that Marilyn Monroe aesthetic – it is recorded that many Viking men bleached their hair and beards blonde.
Soap is the invention of the Gauls and this is used to redden the hair. It is made from fat and ashes. The best is beech wood ash and goat fat, the two combined, thick and clear.
But it is true that Celtic groups tended to have slightly more redheads on average than others, just as Scandinavians had more blondes. Based on historical accounts about hair coloring, one might speculate that both groups were keenly aware of their respective hair color trends and may have considered it a mark of their tribal identity, attempting to emphasize their tribal stereotype by altering their hair color.
John of Wallingford, an English chronicler, lamented that the Danish men’s habits of washing and changing their clothes regularly was too strong a temptation for English women. Apparently many a marriage was ruined and more than one nobleman’s daughter lost her virtue to a well groomed Dane.
Not only were they as sparkling fresh as the morning dew, but Viking men were quite the romantics, evidently. When they weren’t marauding or inflicting the blood eagle on some poor English chap, Vikings enjoyed a bit of poetry with love being a popular topic. Professor Judith Jesch’s new book, “Viking Poetry of Love and War,” was recently reviewed by Emma Rayner on Medievalists.net.
She says that, if anything, this book proves that Vikings had a sense of humor. And it seems that love and romance were just as much daily concerns in the Viking age as they are today. Some of the poetry is just plain silly, if not bordering on the bawdy. One great example is this 10th century gem by Viking poet extraordinaire Egill Skallgrimsson entitled “The poet is past it”:
‘I’ve a crick in my neck,
and tend to fall on my head,
my trouser-snake is soft,
and my hearing’s gone away.’
Too bad for Egill, but his contemporary Ingolf had much better luck. As is attributed by the poem “Ingolf is popular with the ladies”:
All the grown girls wanted
to go with Ingolf,
those who were of age;
the wee ones were wretched.
‘I, too,’ said the old woman,
‘want to go with Ingolf,
as long as I have two teeth
still wobbling in my gums.’
“Viking Age Hairstyles, Haircare, and Personal Grooming” by The Viking Answer Lady: http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/hairstyl.shtml
“What Vikings Really Looked Like” by Irene Berg Petersen for ScienceNordic: http://sciencenordic.com/what-vikings-really-looked
“Viking History: Facts & Myths” by Ryan Goodrich for LiveScience: http://www.livescience.com/32087-viking-history-facts-myths.html
“Viking poetry of love and war – new book by Judith Jesch” by Emma Rayner for Medievalists: http://www.medievalists.net/2013/03/18/viking-poetry-of-love-and-war-new-book-by-judith-jesch/
“Vikings preferred male grooming to pillaging” by Jonathan Wynne-Jones for The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/3256539/Vikings-preferred-male-grooming-to-pillaging.html