When we look back at medicine in the Viking age, 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 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 Saga’s 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.