When you think of Vikings, the chances are soap and water aren’t the first things that spring to mind – but Norsemen were far from the filthy grizzly stereotype (as this rather fine photo of Chris Hemsworth shows) . They bathed weekly, had their own kind of soap which they made using lye-heavy wood ash to lighten their hair and Old Norse for Saturday translated as “washing day”.
By contrast the Anglo Saxons, who thought monks were weird for bathing five times a year, would probably take a dip once or maybe twice every 12 months. After discovering the Viking penchant for bathing, Anglo Saxons would actually time their attacks for Saturday bathing, so they could catch their enemies at – ahem – their most vulnerable.
A later writing often credited to John of Wallingford, the Abbot of St. Albans reports that “thanks to their habit of combing their hair every day, of bathing every Saturday and regularly changing their clothes, [Vikings] were able to undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses.”
Vikings would even have it written into peace treaties that they should have access to baths whenever they wanted.
HERBLORE OF THE VIKINGS
An ancient text called Lacnunga, which dates from the 10th century, gives us a glimpse into how people used herbs 1,000 years ago. There’s remedies, charms and prayers plus tips for using spices like cinnamon and ginger. It lists ways to cure everything from headaches, sore feet and coughs to lice infecting your livestock.
People believed disease was spread on the wind, and that herbal remedies and chants would help protect people from falling prey to these illnesses. The Nine Herbs Charm, which would have been known to people in Viking times, lists nine sacred herbal plants and a chant.
Interestingly, it also names Woden (Odin) as helping to come up with the cure using “magic twigs” which might be carved with runes.
” A worm came creeping and tore asunder man. Then took Woden nine magick twigs and smote the serpent That he in nine pieces dispersed. Now these nine herbs have power, Against nine magick outcasts, Against nine venoms,against nine flying things, Against the loathed things that over land rove.”
THE NINE SACRED HERBS
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) It was used as a flavouring for beer before hops and, tucked under your pillow at night, was said to bring clarity and focus to your dreams
Plantain (Plantago major) This tiny herb was applied to wounds to draw out toxins and to help staunch bleeding.
Betony (Stachys officianalis)
Headache? Betony was the go-to herb taken as a tea or a tincture. Its name comes from the Celtic Bew (head) and ton (good) meaning it was a great tonic for headaches.
Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) The Saxons knew this apple-scented herb as Maythen and it was used as a mild mouthwash and to treat stomach ache. It’s known as the plants’ physician because it can revive other plants when grown nearby.
Nettle (Urtica dioca) An infusion of nettles in a tonic can help when you’re feeling run down and off your food. It’s packed with nutrients
Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris) Once thought to treat poison, crab apples were a huge part of the Viking diet, sweetened with honey to take away any tartness. Medicinally, apples were prescribed to boost energy.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) Thyme is packed with health benefits but was used for its antiseptic properties. It was also used as a flavouring herb in dishes.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
With its aniseed aroma and tasty seeds, it was used in lots of different ways. People would chew seeds for easing stomach aches and mix with vervain and rue as an eye bath.
Lamb’s Cress (Cardamine hirsuta) This tiny, rosette-forming plant has a peppery hot flavour and is also known as ‘popping cress’ because its seedheads can explode scattering seeds far and wide.
THE CHARM: Mugwort, plantain open from the east, lamb’s cress, venom-loather, chamomile, nettle, crab-apple, chevil and fennel, old soap; pound the herbs to a powder, mix them with the soap and the juice of the apple. Then prepare a paste of water and of ashes, take fennel, boil it with the paste and wash it with a beaten egg when you apply the salve, both before and after. Sing this charm three times on each of the herbs before you prepare them, and likewise on the apple. And sing the same charm into the mouth of the man and into both his ears, and on the wound, before you apply the salve.