Top 10 facts about the Vikings

2. Vikings Took Great Care Of Their Personal Appearance

Vikings kept it sexy
Vikings kept it sexy

Far from being unkempt savages Vikings were, for their time, remarkably clean and presentable.   When at home they would bathe every Saturday and, of course, when possible take a sauna in a sweat lodge.

Archaeological digs have turned up a variety of grooming implements including tweezers, nail cleaners and combs, hardly the sort of things one would expect someone who did not care about their appearance to carry about with them. An English writer from 1220 described the Vikings personal habits.  They were said to comb their hair every day and change their clothes frequently.  Their beards were always kept neatly groomed and a self-respecting Viking would put a lot of effort into his hairstyle.  Men typically shaved the back of their head but wore the hair near their face long.  Women had long hair which they tied up with colored ribbons. Because they were so clean English women were known to find Viking men reasonably attractive.

Arab chroniclers, by contrast, reported that the Vikings were filthy. The real truth is probably somewhere in between i.e. that the Vikings were clean and well-groomed by the standards of northern Europe but not by the standards of the middle east where Muslims were required to wash 5 times a day.

Vikings loved to wear bright, colorful clothing with women wearing longer dresses often for the more wealthy, adorned with broaches.  Men wore shorter tunics with trousers down to their knees.  Extravagantly luxurious fabrics such as silk (which was traded for furs) were very highly prized.

1. Vikings Ran a Profitable Slave Trade

Unfortunately Vikings were slavers
Unfortunately Vikings were slavers

The Vikings made a lot of money from slaves (whom they called thralls).  Many of their raiding trips were designed with the aim of recovering, not just plunder, but also people to keep and sell as slaves.  High status captives were often ransomed back to their families and communities (this was particularly common in raids in Ireland). Most ordinary captives were, however sent back to the Viking home countries where they were either sold in markets or kept by their captors to work on their farms, some were even sent to be traded as far away as Byzantium where northern slaves were seen as exotic and were very highly prized for their light skin, hair and eyes.  Similarly Moorish slaves taken in Mediterranean raids sometimes found their way up to the north.  The legacy of this slave trade can be seen today in the blond hair and blue eyes that sometimes crop up in people from the middle east.

Once a slave came to a Viking family, whether by capture or through sale in a slave market they were the property of the family and had the same status as a farm animal.  They could be murdered without reprisal and were, occasionally sacrificed to norse gods.  Slaves were often beaten brutally and many were subject to sexual abuse.  Some were treated well and were permitted to work towards buying their freedom but this was a matter of luck as good treatment of slaves was not a societal norm.  Even the adoption of Christianity as the main Viking religion did not improve the lot of slaves.  Church leaders encouraged people to free their slaves to gain credit in the next life but did not insist on it and certainly never condemned the practice of keeping slaves.  The only concrete step they took to improve the lives of slaves was to forbid Christians from killing a slave during lent.

Slaves were not just taken in raids, any Viking who failed to pay his taxes or whose crops failed so that he was unable to support his family might be forced into slavery through poverty.

So now this list has turned everything you thought you knew about Vikings on its head.  Far from spending their lives raiding coastal settlements and instilling terror in the seaboard communities Europe Vikings were farmers who only raided as a sideline (a fun hobby that generated some extra money if you like), many preferred trading adventures to violent raids; they didn’t even have horns on their helmets!  Viking society was one of the most democratic of its day with every freeman able to vote and elect their king.  Viking women were some of the most emancipated of the ancient world and enjoyed more rights than their female contemporaries.  They loved to travel, were pious and took great care of their personal appearance and loved to wear fashion forward, bright clothing.  It seems, they have been terribly maligned and given a bad press.

It is not all good though, the Vikings may have raided only as a sideline but these raids helped to provide the raw material for their reprehensible slave trade that helped finance their economy and ease the strain of the day to day lives of Viking farmers.  They may have been misrepresented but you would still not like to be a Viking’s victim!