Mental images of Vikings often portray fierce, unkempt warriors with a somewhat disregard for hygiene. However, this narrative is far from the truth, especially when it comes to dental hygiene. Evidence shows that Norsemen had an advanced understanding of oral care and took hygiene quite seriously. Understanding how Vikings brushed their teeth is an exciting look into the past, shedding light on the surprisingly sophisticated practices of these seafaring Norsemen.
How Did People in Medieval Times Brush Their Teeth?
Contrary to popular belief, dental hygiene was not absent in medieval times. People in this era used tools at their disposal to maintain oral cleanliness. The primary tool for cleaning teeth was a ‘chewing stick,’ often a twig from specific types of trees known for their antibacterial properties, such as hazel and birch. They were chewed until one end frayed and became brush-like, which was then used to scrub the teeth.
In addition to the chewing sticks, there is evidence of medieval people using rough cloths and water to clean their teeth and gums. Some even used a form of dental powder or paste, a mixture of various substances, including herbs, honey, and even ground shells or charcoal, which was then applied to the teeth.
The medieval diet, similar to the Viking one, was less sugar-intensive than today’s, likely contributing to lesser dental decay. However, tooth problems, including cavities and gum disease, were still prevalent due to a lack of understanding of oral bacteria and the absence of refined dental care techniques.
Despite their rudimentary tools and limited knowledge, the attempt of medieval people to maintain oral hygiene reflects a timeless human desire for cleanliness and health, even in the face of limited resources and expertise. It serves as a reminder that while our techniques have vastly improved, the fundamentals of dental care remain unchanged.
What Did Vikings Use for Hygiene?
Vikings were more hygiene-conscious than commonly depicted in popular culture. Archaeological findings suggest they had a robust personal cleanliness and grooming system, which went beyond just dental hygiene.
Personal grooming tools such as combs, tweezers, razors, and ear spoons were common among Viking artifacts, suggesting they maintained a regular grooming routine. Vikings would have used these tools to keep their hair, beards, and nails neatly trimmed and clean, dispelling the stereotype of the unkempt, disheveled Vikings.
Vikings took advantage of their natural surroundings by using local rivers and streams for bathing. They also had a strong tradition of public bathing, with hot springs and bathhouses serving as social meeting places. A weekly communal bath day, known as “laugardagur” or “washing day,” suggests that regular bathing was a norm.
Soap, likely made from animal fat and lye, was used not only for its cleaning properties but also for bleaching hair, a beauty trend amongst Vikings. While it’s less clear what they used for oral hygiene, they likely used a form of a toothpick or primitive toothbrush to clean their teeth.
Their clothing, primarily made from wool and linen, was regularly laundered, and they also had sophisticated methods for cleaning and curing leather.
These practices indicate that Vikings had a comprehensive approach to hygiene, signifying their understanding of cleanliness’s role in health and societal interactions. Their methods demonstrate a sophisticated personal care approach, contrary to the dirty, brutal Viking stereotype.
Viking Brushing Teeth: The Evidence
Surprisingly, archaeological findings indicate that Vikings took good care of their teeth. Skulls from the Viking Age often have horizontal grooves on the front teeth, suggesting the use of some form of tooth-cleaning tool. These markings demonstrate that Vikings had a routine of oral hygiene, dispelling the notion that dental care was a modern invention.
Tools and Techniques: How Viking Brushed Their Teeth
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Viking tooth-cleaning tool was likely a form of the toothpick or a rudimentary toothbrush, probably made from bone, wood, or other available materials. They likely used this tool to scrape the surfaces of their teeth, removing food debris and plaque.
While it’s hard to precisely identify what they used as toothpaste, we can make educated guesses based on their environment and lifestyle. For example, Vikings may have used salt, herbs, or charcoal as abrasives to assist in the cleaning process. Furthermore, some suggest that Vikings may have used tree twigs, especially from species with antiseptic properties, such as birch or oak, for their mechanical and antibacterial properties. This method, also known as “chewing sticks,” has been practiced in ancient cultures and could have been part of Viking oral care.
The Viking Diet and Dental Health
The Viking diet, rich in fish and other protein sources and lower in sugars and refined grains than today’s diet, was also likely beneficial for their dental health. The reduced sugar intake would have meant fewer cavities and less plaque, contributing to the overall good dental health observed in Viking skeletons.
Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that tooth wear and tooth loss were common issues among Vikings, most likely due to their coarse diet and the lack of modern dentistry.
The Cultural Significance of Dental Hygiene
Given the societal structure of the Vikings, where one’s physical appearance held significant importance, the fact that Vikings took care of their teeth isn’t surprising. Oral hygiene was likely seen as part of one’s overall appearance, just as their well-maintained hair and beards.
Interestingly, some Vikings were known to file their teeth, a practice believed to have been done for aesthetic reasons or to indicate rank or toughness. While this might sound crude to modern ears, it underscores the Vikings’ importance of their teeth.
How to Brush Your Teeth as a Viking
If you replicate Viking oral hygiene today, you might start by adopting a diet lower in sugars and refined grains, akin to the Viking diet. You could also use a toothpick or even a twig from a tree with antibacterial properties to clean your teeth. For abrasives, you might consider using salt or charcoal. Yet, it’s important to note that modern dental hygiene practices, developed based on extensive scientific research, are far more effective and safer.
While the idea of Viking brushing teeth might conjure images of rough-hewn warriors wielding bone toothpicks, the reality is likely more nuanced. Vikings had a robust understanding of oral hygiene for their time, a fact attested to by the archaeological evidence we’ve uncovered. Although their techniques might not stand up to our modern understanding of dental care, they represent an impressive commitment to oral health in a time before fluoride and electric toothbrushes. Understanding how Vikings brushed their teeth dispels historical stereotypes and offers a fascinating glimpse into daily life during the Viking Age.