There is a common misconception that Vikings were these caveman-like unsanitary barbarians, who were covered in dirt, mud, and blood; however, considering the washing habits of the time, nothing could be further from the truth.
The Fresh Invaders?
Sources from English monks complain about the sanitary heathen invaders from the North, who “...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.” (historyofyork.org).
There is also evidence that suggests that Vikings braided both hair and beard, and they might even have worn decorative jewelry in their braids.
The mention of the Saturday bathing actually lies in the very word for Saturday in the old Nordic languages. ‘Laugardagur’, the root of the Danish and Norwegian ‘Lørdag’ and the Swedish ‘Lördag’, does in fact mean ‘washing day’. In Icelandic Saturday is even to this day called ‘Laugardagur’.
One of the sources depicting Vikings as smelly barbarians is Ibn Fadlan, an Arab traveller and diplomat, who met the Swedish ‘Rus’ Vikings at the Volga river in the first half of the 10th century. He described their personal hygiene as non-existent and vividly wrote about how they neither wiped nor washed after defecating. He also reported how they washed their hands and face once a day, sharing a bowl of water between an entire house or crew, combing dirt from their beards into the water, and even snotting and spitting in the bowl before passing it on.
The two different perceptions of the Vikings is interesting and tells us more about the vast differences in the cultures they met from the British Isles to the Middle East. Whereas Ibn Fadlan was a Muslim who washed five times a day for prayer, and was interested in passing on an entertaining story, the English monks were from a culture where people bathed maybe once a month, and clothing was worn for long periods of time.
So were Vikings the unbathed, smelly pillagers we have all come to know? All in all, Vikings were probably cleaner than most people in Christian Europe, though not up to the sanitary standards of the Byzantine or Arab worlds, therefore revealing this misconception of the Viking people.