In my research for my Medieval Warriors series, I have learned much about the Nordic peoples who at one time raided and ultimately settled in England and Scotland. These included the Danes, who settled in Yorkshire and what became known as the Danelaw, as well as other Nordic groups. There were also Danes who remained in Denmark, which in 1069, launched 240 longships against William the Conqueror.
To write scenes in the home of my half-Danish heroine in York for Rogue Knight, I had to understand the names, the personal grooming habits and the clothing, even the jewelry. Here are some of the things I discovered about “Vikings” along the way.
1. As a people they were not called “Vikings” but “Danes”, “Norse” or “Northmen”.
The term “Viking” was originally a Norse term describing a raid for plunder. Hence the Danes and Norsemen went “a-viking” or raiding. It wasn’t who they were, it was their hobby so to speak. Only later did the term “Vikings” come to describe the Norse people. In William the Conqueror’s day in the 11th century they were all generally referred to as “Danes.”
2. They weren’t all raiders; they were farmers and traders.
Although Viking raiders plundered countries like Britain, Ireland and Normandy, the majority of Viking settlers were farmers. Many married local women, grew barley, rye and oats and raised cattle, goats and sheep. Others became metal traders, establishing trading posts in Turkey and the Middle East.
3. They bathed often.
3. They bathed often.
There is a belief that the raiding Northmen were dirty savages. Not so. Typically the Danes bathed once a week on Saturday. This was at a time when an Anglo-Saxon would only bath once or twice a year. In fact, the original meaning of Scandinavian word for Saturday (laurdag / lørdag / lördag) was ‘Washing Day’.
Arab writers of the time confirm that the Vikings also washed their faces each morning at a time when European Christians did not.
Viking burial mounds reveal many personal grooming tools, such as razors, tweezers and ear spoons. In fact, combs seem to be the most common artifacts
found from the Viking Age.
Danielle Daglan, director of Jorvik's Viking Festival, says, “In ancient images, Viking men are depicted with finely-trimmed beards, and waxed - often curling - moustaches.”
5. They bleached their hair.
Not all Vikings were blond; some were brunettes and redheads. However, blond hair was their ideal and hence many bleached their hair with a special soap. Ibn Fadlan, a contemporary Arabic writer, observed that the Vikings bleached their beards to a saffron yellow—to woo the ladies, don’t you know. The strong soap they used for bathing was also good for bleaching their hair.
6. They were not all tall and blond.
The Anglo-Saxons described the Vikings as tall and muscular, however, they were not all tall, blond hunks. Historical records show that the average Viking man was about 5’7”, which was not especially tall for the time. But the Vikings were great at absorbing people, and many people who had been kidnapped as slaves became part of the Viking population. So, in Viking groups, you might find Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Irish, English, French, and Russians — a very diverse group built around a core of Northmen from Denmark or Norway.
While the Norse god Thor wore a helmet with wings on it, which some might think look like horns, there are no records of horned helmets having ever existed. All depictions of helmets dating to the Viking age, show them with no horns.
8. They loved jewelry, even the men.
Viking graves and hoards tell us that various decorative personal items in bronze, silver and gold were plentiful, including coins.
Viking Age metalworkers were more than highly skilled craftsmen; they were designers and artisans. For example, to make their gold jewelry shine, they cut tiny chips into the designs that would catch the light. They also soldered filigree to the surface of an ornament. And to make a design stand out, they inlaid them with a black compound called niello (silver sulphide).
Both men and women wore brooches, necklaces, neck rings, arm rings and finger rings. In addition to the pins, brooches and such, there are also necklaces. In some Scandinavian cultures, women wore many beads to display the wealth of their husbands. While evidence for necklaces worn by the men is sparse, where pendants are found, the Thor’s Hammer seems to be the most common. No surprise there.
9. They were into fashion and strong women, quite modern, really.
Vikings were quite fashion conscious. They cared about their appearance, keeping their facial hair well trimmed and waxing, plaiting and trimming their beards.
They also favored headstrong, independent women. (However, there is evidence that the Norse warriors kept sex slaves, so these Viking men clearly differentiated between ‘keepers’ and ‘casual’.) Viking women ran households and commanded the thralls (slaves) when the men were away. If a Viking man displayed too much chest hair, his wife could divorce him, and he was liable for alimony. Now there’s a thought.
Like their Anglo-Saxon sisters, Viking women could own property and pass it on, something that changed in England when William the Conqueror came along (as Serena in The Red Wolf’s Prize laments).
With their love of fashion, strong women and dyed hair, they were actually quite romantic figures, and modern.
10. They were great storytellers and poets, though most could not read or write.
On those long, cold winter evenings, they sat around the fire telling tales about feuds, battles, kings, gods and heroes. They loved poetry and when they feasted, a poet, or skald, was usually invited to entertain them.
When the Danes celebrate their victory in York in Rogue Knight, Waltheof, an actual historic figure who had joined the rebellion, had his Icelandic skald entertain the men.
11. They weren’t all pagans.
The Christianization of Scandinavia took place between the 8th and the 12th centuries. Denmark, Norway and Sweden established their own Archdioceses, responsible directly to the Pope, in 1104, 1154 and 1164. Iceland converted to Christianity earlier, after a debate at the Althing, in the year 1000 AD. Despite the "official" decisions, it took a few hundred years for the people to become Christians. The Roman Catholic Church later sainted the Norwegian King, Olaf for officially adopting Christianity.
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