When we look back at Anglo-Saxon and Viking medicine in the early medieval period, we often think of it as inept at best, lethal at worst. We see a reliance on magic and religion over science and are glad we were born when we were. However, the reality is a little more complex and interesting than it first appears.
While the Anglo-Saxons believed that afflictions were just that, afflictions from God, they were the first people north of the Alps to create medical texts in their own language. This suggests that they took medicine seriously. Similarly, the Icelandic Sagas tell us of astute healers who employed fairly effective methods of healing.
To understand the medicine and society at the time we must look at the way people lived. If you were at the top of the social hierarchy the chances were, you would be well fed and have the possibility of a balanced diet. However, if you were at the other end of the scale in the winter months you would rarely have enough food and be unlikely to ever see a balanced diet. For most of society, malnutrition coupled with living in cold, dank hovels did not make for the best start to a healthy world.
Into this world strode the lǣċe, (pronounced leech or larch), which was the common term for a healer of any kind in Old English, in Old Norse it was læknir. Both words come from a similar Proto-Germanic origin and arguably derive from either the term to bleed or a term for an enchanter. Either of these origins would fit given the nature of the work they did.
Healers in Saxon England ranged from local healers often known as cunning women/men who had knowledge passed down through the ages in a verbal tradition, to monks who were specifically trained. Interspersed between the two, were secular, educated physicians of varying abilities who earnt their livelihood through their medical skills.
A lot of the book learned healing and monastic training came from old Latin and Greek texts. Some of these texts were translated such as the Herbarium, passing Mediterranean medicine into the Saxon tradition. This meant that bleeding, the four humours and Roman treatments were still being practiced in Saxon England to one degree or another.
One of the best sets of medical texts of the time were Bald’s Leechbooks. It still has elements of faith, superstition and magic but goes about critically looking at the body and its working, literally from head to foot. It often gives sound advice such as pregnant women should avoid salty foods, alcoholic drinks and vigorous exercise.
The Lacnunga by comparison is an erratically written collection of ‘knowledge’, often haphazardly put down. This may have not been the best for the patient but gives us an excellent look at beliefs that common people had that even Bald stayed away from. The best example of this is:
“157. Against when a man cannot sleep: take henbane’s seed and gardens mint juice; stir together and smear the head with it; better will come to him.
158. When a man first tells you that your cattle are lost, say then, before you say anything else “Bethlehem was that city called in which Christ was born…”
Here we can see that in the Saxon mind a purely herbal remedy held the same weight as a purely magical cure. Many cures, especially for things that were incurable at the time, were a mixture of both. This blending often meant that any success gained by the herbs, poultices and broths would also be giving credit to the more magical elements such as incantations, Luna phases and holy relics.
Vikings by comparison had none of these written traditions, to draw from or contribute to. Our evidence comes from the saga’s written generations after the events described and archaeological remains. Undoubtedly healing went on, and at the very beginning of the Viking period this was at a local level.
The use of runes and charms are often cited in the sagas and the belief in their power was just as strong as the Saxon belief in Christian religion. In Egil’s saga chapter 73 for example a young woman was first harmed by the improper use of runes and then healed by the correct use of runes.
Given the violent, dangerous world they lived in the Saxons and the Vikings often became proficient in first aid and surgery. The tools of their trade were in many ways not dissimilar to our own, if a little cruder. Many would come from everyday life such as a needle or sharp knife. Others would be closer to workmen’s tools such as a saw, mallet or given some of Bald’s descriptions, a sledgehammer.
Germs and infections undoubtedly killed a large percentage of patients. Surprisingly, many people survived these procedures. There is evidence that people even survived trepanning from skulls that have subsequently healed. More interestingly, some of the science they employed seemed far in advance of their age. Bald recommends an early variant of biodegrading stitches, while in Heimskringla we see a clever diagnostic technique.
The girl said, “Let me see thy wound, and I will bind it.” Thereupon Thormod sat down, cast off his clothes, and the girl saw his wounds, and examined that which was in his side, and felt that a piece of iron was in it, but could not find where the iron had gone in. In a stone pot she had stirred together leeks and other herbs, and boiled them, and gave the wounded men of it to eat, by which she discovered if the wounds had penetrated into the belly; for if the wound had gone so deep, it would smell of leek.
Many cures worked and are still supported by science today. Horehound was a treatment for coughs and is still used in lozenges. Honey was used as an antiseptic, and we know that its high sugar content draws out the water from bacteria, dehydrating and killing them. At one end of the scale there was often science behind the medicine, so genuine healing took place, even if the science wasn’t known to the practitioner. Just as often we have magical and (some) herbal cures that offer nothing more than hope and a placebo effect. At the other end, there were a number of lethal treatments which became more dangerous than the ailment they were trying to treat. All of these treatments combine into a lucky dip, that few in the modern age would be brave enough to try.
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I am constantly being told that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So, I decided to do some digging just in case I have been misinformed. This is what I found.
Hel in the Eddas was a little bit different to the similar sounding Hell of Christianity. For a start Hel was ruled over by Hel the daughter of Loki. To me that could get mightily confusing on the to day administration of the place. For a start does being told to go to Hel mean person or place? Does the person want us to report to the boss or just go to a place usually reserved for the dead? I guess the only way to find out is to go there. The question is how do we get there?
Not wanting to die, the best way to find out is to look for directions from the Prose Edda, especially concerning the death of Baldur and his time in Hel (the place not the person…). This is not a
ramble blog about Baldur, so I will keep it light and promise to talk about him and his misfortunes at a later date. Right now, it is about going to Hel and the best person for that was Hermóðr who volunteers to ride to Hel (the place, not the being) to get Baldur out.
Riding on Slipnirr, Odin’s 8 legged steed, he rides the Helvegr or hell road. Snorri Sturluson, the author of the Edda, almost certainly got this from earlier poetry, as Hermóðr has to ride through more alliteration than a one eyed Aseir could shake a stick at. He has to ride nine nights through deep and dark valleys which looks something like this in written form: Døkkva dala ok djúpa
Riding through all the alliteration he comes to the river Gjǫll spanned by a bridge Gjallabrú which is covered by a roof of gold. Here he was met by a young woman called Móguðr who asks him why he is riding to Hel. A reasonable question as he was not dead.
She comments that 5 groups of warriors passed that way yesterday which is interesting as it sounds like this was the default destination for people at the time. This is probably based on an earlier belief system where everyone goes to Hel. Being a coward and incredibly lazy this works for me as I have to put no extra effort into the afterlife.
Hermóðr who was not a coward asked Móguðr if she had seen Baldur, to which she says she had. He had ridden there earlier. This ties in with the fact Baldur was cremated with his horse, which is incredibly useful if you are Baldur, not so good if you are his horse. With stories like these it is not so good for any horse. The amount of Danish horse burials is quite staggering…
So, if you want to go to Hel, while avoiding the whole dying thing, head to the river Gjǫll and look out for a bridge with a gold roof. After that go down and north. While this is not quite Google Maps it is a good start for a time when maps were a bit thin on the ground. It is also the start of a phrase that lasted hundreds of years. Being told to go down and north was for hundreds of years like being told to go to hell.
Just like Rome, there appears to be many roads to Hel, just in case there is congestion. It also suggests it is more like a physical place than a conceptual one. In the poem Helreið Brynhildar in the Poetic Edda, Brynhildar rides to Hel after her cremation on a wagon. Again, not so good for the wagon, not so good for the horse.
Instead of finding a bridge of gold she rides through the farm of a giant woman whose name we are not given. Which is not that helpful, but just adds to the idea that this is a place where you journey to and where you can meet fairly normal things (for the Eddas).
The thing with both of these directions is that there is very much a physical road you can ride, which is part of your transitioning across. It also seems mundane compared to other concepts of the dead. Okay, a gold roof is pretty swish, but we are riding on a bridge over a river, or on a road past a farm… Hel itself does not seem to bad either, there are no tortured souls, roasting sinners or other unpleasantness. Baldur even got a feast, which has got to be better than turning up hungry.
My takeaway from the road to Hel is that it is not paved with good intentions, the chances are it is not even paved at all. No matter the state of the road it leads to a place, underground or not, it is a place, not some mystical state. You don’t find Hel at the centre of the earth just by digging and you don’t wake up there after falling badly off your horse. You can (if you are insane or a hero like Hermóðr) go there before you die, but my advice is that Miami is probably nicer this time of year. Should you wait until the end of your life there are no real entry requirements and you are likely to find some interesting people and the occasional Valkyrie, so it’s not all bad.
Most of what we know about Anglo-Saxon medicine comes from the medical texts written late into the Viking period. We can see how they translated, mistranslated, and adapted earlier Latin and Greek texts each time showing more and more of their process. There is also, of course, a veritable army of dead bodies that we can tell all kinds of things from. But sometimes it is nice to have a look at those early days and see what was going on through anecdotes and stories of saintly behaviour.
Enter Bede and his Ecclesiastical History of The English People. While he did not write a manual on keeping the sick alive, he did write some interesting things on how others did. More specifically he wrote about that group of people that could read and often practiced medicine, miracles and something in between.
The case I am thinking of today was concerning Bishop John of Beverly, who we meet in book five chapter two (conveniently called John of Beverley’s cures). Here John summons a dumb youth who has a scabby head to come to him to be cured. Given a few hundred years of language evolution I am talking about a youth with no speech rather than a not very clever one. While the youth’s intellect was never commented upon, I suspect he was actually quite clever given what happened to him.
John proceeds to put the sign of the cross on his tongue and gets him to start making letters and short words such as ‘yea.’ John is a patient if unrelenting sort of man and spends every waking minute of the next day teaching the boy to speak. By the end of the unremitting encounter the youth is no longer dumb and can communicate through words. John then sends him off to the physician to cure his scalp.
When Bede recounts this he is full of religious wonder, but when we break it down, Bishop John is doing some really interesting and purely medicinal things. I think from the description we have stumbled into the land of genuine Anglo-Saxon medicine, not otherworldly miracles.
John starts off icebreaking, giving confidence and probably giving a physical investigation into the limitations of the tongue. Doctors wear white and look very business-like today, it is part useful, part mental. John was doing the same thing, he had God on his side, while conveniently assessing the youth’s tongue. He knew of the youth, almost certainly knew he could understand, if not speak, so gave him a physical inspection.
He then goes through a day of speech therapy starting with the basics and working up. It sounds like there was lesson, practice, progress, next, rinse and repeat. After making progress he sends him to a physician to have his scalp healed and so he moves onto the next treatment. The unnamed physician is successful, and the youth goes off all healed and no doubt waiting to be struck down by some other form of horrible disease of the time.
If John had simply made the sign of the cross and the youth broke into song, a Saxon musical if you like, I would have been more than a little sceptical. But what I like about this is that there is work which is identifiable, the results are not instantaneous and when he can do no more, he sends the youth to a different specialist. This looks like medicine; this looks like therapy.
Was he totally mute before? Maybe, maybe not. Was there anything else going on? Quite possibly. But in the confines of the text this looks a good example of good healthcare when we know that health and well-being were in short supply.
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