Have you ever wondered how the Vikings did things like washing up after dinner or taking care of the laundry?
We know that Vikings were much more fastidious about their own hygiene than most early mediaeval people. The Saxon Abbot of St Albans complained that the Vikings were seducing Saxon women by not being smelly and dirty – ”The Danes, thanks to their habit to comb their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their garments often, and set off their persons by many such frivolous devices. In this manner, they laid siege to the virtue of the married women, and persuaded the daughters even of the nobles to be their concubines.”
This report is supported by the number of grooming tools found in Viking burials, they had combs, tweezers, razors and even little spoons for removing ear wax. There were also laws against cutting someone’s hair or making them dirty in order to humiliate them, these crimes were punished with outlawry which shows how serious they were considered. There are also verses in the Hávamál which advise a man to wash before dinner and before setting out for the day.
But what about their homes? Vikings lived in houses made of wood with roofs that were thatched or turfed. They would have used besoms to sweep the dirt floors, and may have covered the floors with rushes, or more likely wovan mats made from rushes as those wouldn’t have been caught up in the long skirts of Viking dresses. They had a fire in the middle of the house which provided heat in the winter and was used for cooking throughout the year. There were no windows so everything must have been smokey and ashy, the houses also included stalls for their animals. Evidence from Viking latrines shows that it was common for people to have parasites like roundworm due to the closeness to their animals, which we today would consider very unhygienic.
Washing dishes would have been a matter of adding ashes from the fire to the dregs of fat left in a pan after cooking and adding water to make a paste. Wood ash contains lye and fat plus lye is the basic recipe for soap. There are also a number of plants that have natural saponins which the Vikings would have used – soapwort, bracken, and horse chestnut for example.
Clothes were washed in streams and lakes, and would have been carefully mended to keep them looking good for as long as possible. The Vikings even had their own way of ironing clothes to keep them looking good – flat boards and smooth bottomed glass or stones would be used to remove creases and to keep pleats in place. One of the graves at Birka was of a woman who was buried with her smoothing board and stone, presumably so she could still do her housework in the afterlife. I’m not sure my interest in living history is enough to start doing laundry at events, but it is good to know that ironing our kit before events and ironing seams etc when making new Viking clothes is something the Vikings would have understood.