CategoriesMaterial CultureTrade and Economy

Coins and Trade in the Viking Age Britain

One of our most popular displays at our viking reenactment events is our coin-strike, where you can make your own replica Viking coins. But what was money to an early-medieval person? What did they buy with it, and who did they pay?

A Bullion Economy

Before coinage was introduced, people often traded using the value of the material or goods they wanted to sell or buy. The value of a good milking cow, or an amount of butter or grain may have been their point of reference when bartering. However, if you wanted to trade your cow for some grain, but couldn’t find anyone who wanted a cow, then you’d need something else. In the Viking-age, valuable precious metals, usually silver but occasionally gold, could be used as a third unit of payment.

Unlike today’s money which represents an agreed face-value, coinage in the Viking-age was itself valuable. Silver coinage from far flung places such as Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey) could easily be used in places such as Dublin, Ireland, or in York, England. In fact, several Viking hoards in Britain have been found containing Islamic Dirhams, English Pennies and Frankish Deniers amongst other currencies made from precious metal.

Coins weren’t the only valuable silver trade good however. Many hoards contain silver bands of ‘hack silver’ where slivers of metal were cut from a bracelet to make the silver-weight value of a trade, and there are many examples of ingots – trade weighted bars – in Viking hoards. Similarly, silver and gold jewellery fragments have found to be deliberately broken for this reason, as have coins which are sometimes cut into halves, or quarters.

Silver was very valuable, so it’s unlikely that it was used to buy mundane things where a barter culture better served. A single coin of silver would be too much to buy a single loaf of bread for example – change would be an issue! It’s more likely that silver currency would be used for large purchases of animals, grain, weapons and land. And for paying taxes to the King, or tribute to a warlord for protection.

Silver Viking arm rings based on examples from hoards in the north of England, stamped with simple patterns
Arm rings decorated with punched designs

The primary precious metal found in Viking hoards is silver. Many items, particularly coins, bare marks of testing processes used by traders. Without the aid of modern science traders relied on knowing the feel of good silver, just in case an opportunistic criminal tried to counterfeit them. Cuts into the edge of coins called ‘nicks,’ and ‘pecks’ onto the surface of the coin test to see if the coin is merely gilded (plated) over a base metal such as lead. Bending the coin would also show if it was made from silver as it is considerably harder to do so than if the coin was made of an alloy of lead or tin.

Coins and the Law

One way the kingdoms of Europe tried to control money, and it’s silver-purity, was by licencing coin making to only a few mints. In Britain during the time of Alfred the Great there were few mints, mainly located in large population centres, or places of royal power like Winchester. The Vikings were getting in on the action too – the Scandinavian ruled city of Jorvik (York) were minting their own Viking coins in the 10th Century.

By the time Alfred’s grandson Athelstan became ‘Rex Totius Brittanae’ (King of all Britain) in 927AD there were numerous mints around the country, usually in fortified towns called burhs. There were eight mints in London alone! By the reign of Aethelred II (978 AD) there were around 90 mints in England. This shows just how the Wessex power base had spread into what became England and how much wealth was being generated in trade with the Viking settlers that had raided and stayed over the last hundred years, and with traders from the other parts of Europe. For matters concerning payments to the crown, this line of Anglo-Saxon kings had enough power to refuse foreign currency in internal affairs.

Viking coin dies from York (Jorvik)
Coin dies – each face is punched with a design in reverse
Making Coins: Ingots were heated up and beaten into thin sheets with a hammer. Coins were cut from it with tin snips, or perhaps with a specially made chisel (though none survive for us to know for definite). The coin dies were made of iron with the pattern punched into it. The coin is placed between the two dies and the pressure exerted by hammer blow causes enough friction to melt the silver for enough time to dip into the punched pattern and create a relief effect.

As well as showing the extent of kingly or national power, especially in the control of wealth generation and taxation, coins can show how money travelled. Certainly in the case of Islamic coins found in Britain and Scandinavia, they show how the trade routes through Russia and Eastern Europe reached Britain and Ireland, especially in the tenth century when Viking power was building.

The English silver penny was introduced around 765 AD and persisted until the 13th century. During the late 9th century, until the mid-late 10th century there was a round half-penny, but after currency reform by King Edgar in 973 AD people were required to cut the coin in half or quarters (usually following the design of a cross on the reverse). During King Edgar’s reign, the number of mints stabilised and the die patterns were controlled centrally at a master die cutting workshop. The last Viking coins minted at York disappeared with Eric Bloodaxe and Scandinavian rule in 954.

Minting official coins was heavily regulated. Coin dies were issued to the mints, and often replaced with new designs to stay current and project the power of the king. ater there were five such workshops. The Domesday Book mentions that owners of a Mint would have to travel to London and pay a Monetagium (tax), as well as buy new dies quando moneta vertebatur (‘when the coinage was changed’). And there were severe punishments for forgery, and clipping (stealing excess silver by reducing the size of a coin). A law by King Athelstan in the early 10th Century prescribes mutilation as punishment for this crime: the hand being cut off.

Some coins, such as those minted at York, (Viking kings Ragnald, Sihtric and Eric Bloodaxe etc.) show how the Vikings were embracing Christianity. Several Viking coins bare the symbol of St. Peter who was the patron saint of York Minster. Some even bear the inscription ‘SCIPE TRIIO’ which is abbreviated Latin for Sancti Petrus Moneta, Saint Peter’s Money. Included on the face of a few issues of ‘St. Peter’s Money’ is also the hammer of Thor, the Viking God of Thunder. Linking St. Peter to such a popular god in the Scandinavian pantheon was a sensible move in the conversion and assimilation of Vikings into Christian Europe.

Further Reading about Viking Coins and Trade

  • Ager, B & Williams, G (2010). Objects in Focus: The Vale of York Hoard
  • Graham-Campbell, J (2011). The Cuerdale Hoard and Related Viking-age Silver and Gold from Britain and Ireland in the British Museum
  • Graham-Campbell, J. Sindbæk, S.M. & Williams, G eds (2011). Silver Economies, Monetisation & Society in Scandinavia, AD 800-1100
  • Graham-Campbell, J & Williams, G eds (2006). Silver Economy in the Viking Age
  • Grierson, P (1986). Domesday Book, the Geld de Moneta and Monetagium: a Forgotten Minting Reform
  • Gullbekk, S.H. (2008). Coinage and Monetary Economies in Brink, S eds (2008) The Viking World
  • Mainman, A.J & Rogers, N.S.H (2000). Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Finds from Anglo-Scandinavian York
  • Malmer, B (1972). King Canute’s Coinage in the Northern Countries
  • Naismith, R (2005). Islamic Coins from Early Medieval England
  • Skre, D (2009). Means of Exchange: Dealing with Silver in the Viking Age
  • Williams, G (2008). Shire Archaeology: Early Anglo-Saxon Coins
CategoriesMedicine

Curing Eye Infections in the Viking Age

This video, filmed at an event at Tatton Old Hall in 2018, explores the cure for an eye infection recorded in Early Medieval ‘leechbooks’ and tested by modern science – it worked!
CategoriesCookingDaily Living and Pastimes

Making Early Medieval Flat Bread

One of the most exciting things about ‘Living History’ is exploring the methods of making something using the tools and materials of the people we’re trying to represent. One of the most fulfilling things to do – mainly because it’s yummy – is cooking.

While there’s no surviving written recipes from the early medieval period, we do get information from remains of things like bread, and the cereal that was used to make it. Coupled with the finds of domestic ware like pots and pans, mill stones and threshing tools, we can build a picture, and make our own experiments.

For example, cereal husks have survived in the archaeological record, so we know that some breads were made of wheat, barley, rye and spelt, and some from pulses (peas and beans) mixed with oat flour. Bread has been found in the Viking world, such as in burials at Birka, Sweden. There’s a small biscuit-like bread full of protein that was found in a cremation burial in Jämtland, Sweden, and may have been mixed with blood (the protein) to make something akin to black-pudding.

Various kernals of cereal in a container - wheat, oats, barley etc.
Ceral husks before the kernels are harvested and ground into flour.

Some breads were leavened (like modern fluffy bread that rises), but probably using a sourdough starter as domestically grown yeast hadn’t yet been adopted. Sourdough is made from a culture of flour, water, and wild yeast that lives on the flour or is blown around by the wind in the environment.

Leavened breads would require a large clay bread-oven to get an even heat for the loaf to raise. Ovens such as these are passively described in an 8th Century biography of the abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow called the Life of Ceolfrith.

Much simpler is a flat bread, or cake – kaka in Old Norse, and what Old English speakers would call cycel (pronounced ‘kytchel’) which is where we get the word ‘cake’ and ‘kitchen.’ It’s suggested in Sally Crawford’s Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England that these can be cooked on hot stones, the hot ash of a fire, or on a frying pan or skillet.

For our experiment, we used wheat, which needed to be ground into flour. There’s evidence of small hand-turned quern stones throughout the early medieval world, which suggests that grinding flour was a part of the daily routine of bread-making.

A rotary quern stone used for grinding grain into flour.
A small rotary quern that we used to grind the flour.

One thing to note here is that reproducing historical food is often full of ‘ifs.’ While we know certain ingredients existed, they certainly weren’t distributed evenly – it’s not like they could pop to Tesco. Without modern techniques, farmers in the north of England would have a tough time growing wheat, whereas the south has the perfect soil and weather conditions for that crop. People in areas of poor soil, or urban areas might make flour from garden crops such as beans and peas, or oats. Trading towns may have had access to a larger variety of grains with which to make bread, as well as ingredients to add to it. Contaminants might also be a factor in geography. There’s a fair bit of evidence that weeds such as corncockle got into the flour, so there may well have been plenty of upset tummies! So, with that in mind, ‘if they had access to wheat, they may have made…’

Viking Flat Bread – The Recipe

Start with flour and add a little water until you form a dough that isn’t super sticky. If you over do it, add more flour. Water is a interesting resource here – there’s plenty of myths surrounding potable water (that is, water that is safe to drink). Water precured from flowing streams or rivers that aren’t downstream from waste or latrines would be fine to use in cooking. Salt water could potentially be used to flavour the dough (there’s an experiment!)

Knead the dough until everything is mixed and you can form it into cakes. If you are cooking on an open fire, let it burn down to the embers – you don’t want ash and grit in your bread.

Viking flat breads being cooking in a large iron pan over an open fire.

Use an iron pan or skillet. The pan is dry – not oiled – put it on the fire for a few minutes to warm up, then place to one side. The pan can’t be too hot else you’ll burn them or have them fire-welded onto the pan!

Pans like the one pictured have been found at Winchester and York (or bits of them anyway), but there’s loads of flat skillet-type pans from around the Viking world. The above isn’t too dissimilar from a wok.

The flatbreads take a couple of minutes on each side. Enjoy with butter, cheese, or salt. The Saxon Forager has a gorgeous recipe with oats and butter.

A freshly cooked viking flat bread on the end of a spatular.
Enjoy!

Further Reading

  • Banham, D. Faith, R. (2014). Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming.
  • Crawford, S (2009). Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England. p101-107
  • Hansson, A. (2002). Pre- and protohistoric bread in Sweden: a definition and a review. In Civilisations Vol 49.
  • Karg, S. (2007). Food: The Rest of Europe in Graham-Campbell, J. Valor, M eds (2007) The Archaeology of Medieval Europe Vol. 1.
  • Serra, D. (2013). An Early Meal-A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey.
CategoriesBooks and PapersGeneral HistoryLists

10 Books about Vikings and Saxons for your Christmas Lists (2021)

Nothing says Christmas like being given a glut of books to keep you occupied during the long nights of winter. Taking a lovely, pristine book, gently curling back the first page while sitting in front of the warm glow of a wood fire, snow pitter-pattering outside… Ah bliss.

Ok, not many people actually get to curl up in front of a roaring fire in their houses these days, and we barely have snow in England, but we get points for trying right? Luckily, there are many great books about Vikings and Saxons to keep us occupied, many which only came out in the last couple of years. So even without the idyllic setting, there’s still plenty to read.

In no particular order, here are our favourite current books about Vikings and the Early Middle Ages in general that will be a great addition to your 2022 reading list.

The Cover of River Kings,a book about vikings who travelled from Britain in the west to the shores of the Caspian sea in the east,
River Kings by Cat Jarman

1. River Kings: The Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads by Cat Jarman. Now a Sunday Times best seller, this book manages to tread the fine line between being a well-written, easy to digest popular history book, and a book about modern archaeology. It explores the Viking world through the lens of an object found in Britain that can trace its origin across the North Sea, along the great rivers of Russia, up to the shores of the Black Sea and beyond. It forges a wonderfully detailed narrative, while supporting it with up to date thinking about trade networks, daily life and behaviour.

The cover Children of Ash And Elm by Neil Price, a book about the history of the Vikings
The Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price

2. The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price. This is basically the bible on the state of ‘Viking’ stuides within popular history. It takes everything we know about the world of Early-Medieval Europe and filters the guff. It tackles all the problematic projections of modern culture that has piled on the legend of the ‘Vikings’ and distils it into a neat, enjoyable volume that even well-read history enthusiasts will find illuminating.

Valkyrie cover
Valkyrie by Jóhanna Karín Friðriksdóttir

3. Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World by Jóhanna Karín Friðriksdóttir. Since the incredible re-examination of a grave at Birka, Sweden with the possible burial of a female warrior, the Viking-nerds of the world have cried out for a serious look at the evidence and Jóhanna has done a great job. Not since Judith Jesch’s amazing ‘Viking Women’ book back in the early 90s has a clearer picture of early-medieval women’s lives from birth to death been so clearly illustrated. It does what it says on the cover – this is one of the best books about Viking women.

The Anglo Saxons cover
The Anglo-Saxons by Marc Morris

4. The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England by Marc Morris. Ok, it’s not all books about Vikings. We can’t have Vikings without Anglo-Saxons! Or should we say terms like ‘Viking’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ makes things easier to understand for us, but in reality the complexity of the relationships between people, lords, kings, the church and the invading Dane means that neither of those terms actually apply to the age? Thankfully, Marc Morris sweeps aside all the inventions of our Victorian ancestors where our ideas of Englishness tend to come from, and embelishes our understanding of the period in a fantastic tome that covers the retreat of the Romans, to the era of England brought by the Norman conquest.

The Viking great Army cover
The Viking Great Army and the Making of England by Dawn Hadley and Julian Richards

5. The Viking Great Army and the Making of England by Dawn M. Hadley and Julian D. Richards. There’s been a few books about the ‘making of England’ in the last few years (including the excellent ‘Never Greater Slaughter’ by Michael Livingstone which narrowly avoided this list). Perhaps it’s an identity crisis in our post-Brexit psyche or a reaction against groups that seek to co-opt Early Medieval iconography to forward their own hateful purposes. Or, hopefully, it’s just bloody good scholary publishing, like this book, that explores the formative epoch of early-English history – the invasion of the Great Heathen Army, and the fight back that, while affecting the ordinary people of the British Isles greatly, was really a dynastic struggle between powerful families.

DK Findout Vikings cover
DK Findout! Vikings by Phillip Steele

6. DK Findout Vikings by Phillip Steele. Full disclosure, we’re in this one, including adorable pictures of our (now not so little) Viking baby! It’s a wonderfully assembled book for children full of pictures of real and reproduction objects (not all of them our ours, but the ones that are are georgiously presented!) It focuses on many different aspects of the era: daily life, religion, warfare and so on, and it’s all very accessible for 5-7 year old readers, and still relevant for older kids.

Norse Mythology Cover
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

7. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. Even word for word translations as well written, researched and presented as Jackson Crawford’s ‘The Poetic Edda’ are difficult for casual readers to digest. That’s where this comes in. Those same mythological stories from Norse literature are filtered through the imaginative brain of Neil Gaiman, and coerced (as they are living, breathing things, and thus must be convinced) into a beautifully realised compilation of stories. I love this book.

Cover of Eat like a viking, a book about vikings food
Eat Like a Viking: Volume 2 by Craig Brooks

8. Eat like a Viking! Volume 2: A Guide to Anglo Saxon & Viking Age Food & Drink by Craig Brooks. We loved the first book by the Saxon-Forager Craig Brooks and we are so glad that he wrote a second one! Step into the culinary world of the Viking age with this new volume. Created as a book of ideas for using the ingredients that were available to our ancestors for cooking at re-enactment events (like the ones we do), it has loads of amazing recipes that are just down-right delicious for any table.

Thraldom cover
Thraldom by Stefan Brink

9. Thraldom: A History of Slavery in the Viking Age by Stefan Brink. A little more at the scholarly end of things, this book covers something that is often avoided when talking about Vikings, or at best, sped over: slavery. The taking of men, women and children by force, then relocating them and selling them. This book demystifies the Viking-age practice throughout Europe, which has always been somewhat ambiguous to us as modern people, as our idea of slavery comes from the horrific exploitation of African peoples and the societal implications still felt today.

women of pwoer cover
Women of Power by Annie Whitehead

10. Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England by Annie Whitehead. Well, it wasn’t just Scandinavian women who were using every opportunity afforded to them by a patriachal society to better the lives of themselves and their families. In Britain, women such as Æthelflæd and Emma of Normandy were forging incredible paths worthy of the chronicles they were mostly edited out of… This excellent book explores the lives of women who are oft forgotten and had to fight for eery scrap in the power-dynamics of early medieval Britain.

Books about Vikings – Honorable Mentions

CategoriesMedicineReligion

Viking Age Surgery and Medicine

It is very difficult for people in the 21st Century to fully comprehend the rudimentary state of medicine and healing of a thousand years ago. Steeped in ancient superstition, people then believed that ill-health had more to do with God (or Gods) and worship than any other factor. In an age where the existence of germs was unknown and the circulation of the blood as yet undiscovered, many so-called ‘cures’ and remedies belonged to the world of quackery, old wives’ tales and a gullible populace.

The Anglo-Saxon word for doctor was Lach, from whence derives the word leech; hence the common title of collections of remedies – ‘A Booke of Leechdoms.’ That universal panacea for all ills, the humble leech, so beloved of the Middle Ages and ‘Blackadder’ alike, takes its name from this early word rather than the other way round. There are those, however, who, quite cruelly suggest that this epithet, as applied to modern private practitioners of the art, is not entirely inappropriate! Many early lachs were monks, and other learned people.

Despite the perceived wisdom of these ‘doctors’, our ancestors knew little of the workings of the human body. Indeed, in the few remaining texts dealing with Anglo-Saxon medical procedure, magical remedies and charms are used as treatments, often in conjunction with holy days and solar or luna events on the calendar – but not on one of the ‘Egyptian Days’ where a healer must not let neither man’s nor beast’s blood be diminished.

One such charm used to remove a fever is unbelievable to modern eyes and would act as a placebo at best:

“For fever: One shall take several little wafers such as are offered [at the Mass], and write these names on each wafer: Maximianus, Malchus, Iohannes, Martinianus, Dionisius, Canstantinus, Serafion. Then afterwards one shall sing the charm which is named hereafter, first in the left ear, then in the right ear, then over the top of the man’s head; and then let a virgin go up to him and hang it on his neck, and let this be done thus for three days. He will soon be better.

Here came stalking in an (inspiden) creature,
Had his (haman) in his hand,
Said that you were his steed.
I Lay for thee his (teage) on the neck.
They began to move from the land.
As soon as they came for the land.
Then his limbs began to cool.
then came stalking in the animal’s sister.
Then she made an end and swore oaths
That never this should do harm to the sick one
Nor to the one who might get this charm
Or who knew how to sing this charm. Amen, so be it.

Lacnunga

Despite these superstitions, there were still practical procedures to deal with ailments. Much of our understanding of Anglo-Saxon medicine comes from only a few texts, and extrapolations from the earlier Roman period. While there is the odd bit of evidence of surgery performed on a broken bone, there has been no archaeological discoveries of tools, or salves, or medicine. However, we can build a picture of a number of procedures and cures from the combined texts of the Venerable Bede, Bald’s Leechbook, the Lacnunga, latin texts translated into Old English and others such as the Roman Celsus. The Viking Sagas also occasionally describe cures and techniques for healing. It is likely that many remedies were simply passed down through the generations; but as we know from the game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ this is hardly going to lead to the consistent application of medicine!

Astronomical pages from Bede, Harley MS 3091 from the British Library
Astronomical pages from Bede, Harley MS 3091 from the British Library.

Cures

Some Anglo-Saxon remedies could work, even if their effectiveness is questionable when put up against modern medicine, or the severity of the ailment.

A compound of leek and garlic (antibiotics) mixed with wine in a brass or copper container released cytotoxic properties – literally salt in the wounds. It would be painful, but useful against infection. Bald’s Leechbook describes this for a remedy against a stye on the eyelid.

Honey was also used as an antiseptic – it’s high sugar content draws out water from bacteria cells, dehydrating and killing them. While the Viking Age Lachs’ would not know this, the effects could be seen as a wound heals rather than festers, turns septic or gangrenous.

The use of the herb marrubium vulgare, or horehound, as a treatment for a cough is still used today in lozenges – the Roman, Celsus and the author of Bald’s Leechbook certainly knew that it worked:

“For a cough: boil a good deal of horehound in water, sweeten and give the man a cupful to drink.”

Bald’s Leechbook, Volume III

While they didn’t know the roots of families of plants (sometimes using a plant because its name sounds like it should work on a body part, or against an affliction), experimentation and results were at least noteworthy. It is clear that an awful lot of trial and error led to workable cures.

Surgical Procedure

Just as today, the Viking Age doctors could perform operations on wounded men and women. The tools are broadly the same as today, but larger and less precise: scalpels, knives, tweezers, pincers, saws. It’s unlikely that a surgeon’s tools would belong to a specialised kit. It’s more likely that should a limb need to be amputated, the surgeon would call on the carpenter for his saw; or a seamstress for her needles and silk thread to suture a cut. Other tools might include irons to cauterise a wound, the preferred method of closing a wound, and probably the most devastating to the patient – although he might not have to worry about infection from a dirty needle!

The irons are placed into a fire until red hot, the wound is held closed with pincers and the hot iron is placed upon the wound, searing the flesh shut. Without anaesthetic, the pain would be unbearable. The patient may have been given strong alcoholic drinks, or small amounts of the poisonous hemlock or belladonna – both methods dangerous during surgery as they thin the blood. Simply knocking him unconscious wouldn’t be without risk either with one wrong move inadvertently ending his life. The screams emanating from the lach’s ‘surgery’ must have sounded absolutely horrendous. Perhaps the patient was given something to clench between his teeth, but more often than not, mercifully, he probably passed out.

Even with the risks, these surgeries must have had a degree of success. A simple procedure, like draining an abscess is described by Bede:

…the physician Cynifrid, who was present at both her death and exhumation. Cynifrid used to relate that during her last illness she had a large tumour under the jaw. “I was asked,” he said, “to open the tumour and drain away the poisonous matter in it. I did this, and for two days she seemed somewhat easier…

Ecclesiastical History of the English People

There are also much more dangerous procedures. A stomach wound, perhaps from battle, comes up in many texts.

If someone’s bowels be out […] put the bowel back into the man, sew it together with silk

Bald’s Leechbook

Celsus also describes the treatment of a stomach wound where the intestines have fallen out, and a similar procedure seems to have been used on Thormod after the Battle of Stiklestad, described in Heimskringla, a saga about the Kings of Norway.

Sometimes the abdomen is penetrated by a stab of some sort, and it follows that intestines roll out. When this happens we must first examine whether they are uninjured, and then whether their proper colour persists. If the smaller intestine has been penetrated, no good can be done, as I have already said. The larger intestine can be sutured, not with any certain assurance, but because a doubtful hope is preferable to certain despair; for occasionally it heals up. Then if either intestine is livid or pallid or black, in which case there is necessarily no sensation, all medical aid is vain. But if intestines have still their proper colour, aid should be given with all speed, for they undergo change from moment to moment when exposed to the external air, to which they are unaccustomed. The patient is to be laid on his back with his hips raised; and if the wound is too narrow for the intestines to be easily replaced, it is to be cut until sufficiently wide. If the intestines have already become too dry, they are to be bathed with water to which a small quantity of oil has been added. Next the assistant should gently separate the margins of the wound by means of his hands, or even by two hooks inserted into the inner membrane: the surgeon always returns first the intestines which have prolapsed the later, in such a way as to preserve the order of the several coils. When all have been returned, the patient is to be shaken gently: so that of their own accord the various coils are brought into their proper places and settle there. This done, the omentum too must be examined, and any part that is black is to be cut away with shears; what is sound is returned gently into place in front of the intestines. Now stitching of the surface skin only or of the inner membrane only is not enough, but both must be stitched…

..The signs when the small intestine and the stomach have been wounded are the same; for food and drink come out through the wound;

Celsus, De Medicina

In Heimskringla the wound is diagnosed by ingesting a soup with a strong odour:

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.

Heimskringla

The probing, diagnosis, surgical procedure are what you would expect in today’s hospitals; a learned doctor with years of evidence using the best tools he or she has at their disposal. As a patient, you’d probably just hope the ‘magic’ would work.

Further Reading

For more about Viking and Anglo-Saxon medicine, see more posts on the blog!

  • Bald’s Leechbook (Translation available online)
  • Celsus: On Medicine (Translation available Online)
  • Cameron, M.L (2006). Anglo-Saxon Medicine
  • Heimskringla (Translation available online)
  • Herbal remedies, Paulinus of Aquileia, Astronomical tables and more – Harley MS 3091
  • Lacnunga, Herbarium, Medicina de quadrupedibus – Harley MS 585
  • Sherley-Price, L trans. Bede (1990). Ecclesiastical History of the English People
  • Pollington, S (2008). Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing

This article is a repost of an older article from our website, originally at https://www.vikingsof.me/surgery-medicine. See also a further exploration into Viking and Anglo-Saxon medicines here.

CategoriesMedicineReligion

Medicines for all infirmities

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.

See more posts about Anglo-Saxon and Viking medicine throughout our blog!

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Anglo-Saxon Medicine: speech therapy and hair care

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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