I don’t live in the past—I only visit—and so can you!

Archive for October, 2011

Take Your Medicine 3

When the jars and bowl were finished, I transferred the salve I purchased from Jas. Townsend & Sons, an old friend and purveyor of eighteenth-century merchandise. It was composed of wheat, honey, bees wax, and lavender oil (all accurate for my period even if it does not duplicate any known recipes of the time). Townsend adds, “And it’s guaranteed not to contain lead, mercury, or arsenic as did so many of the original salves.” Sin e the jar it came in was an eighteenth-century style, I gave to my wife, who is a lover of fine ceramics.

Then I designed a new box large enough to contain them. I did not make the ends sloping like so many boxes of the time had, simply for reasons of space. I have grown accustomed to pegging all my boxes, but for this one—I figured that a physician would have the money for metal—I used cut nails to hold it together (cut nails resembled forged nails, but they are much more affordable; Tremont Nails are great to work with and offer several appropriate styles!). I briefly considered studding it with a huge bunch of nails, à la the Oseberg chest, but decided not to do so. The chest was made of poplar, a hard wood that is far lighter than oak. No provenance; that was just for convenience in carrying it.

After sanding the poplar, I stained it a dark color. Though I do not distress items I make—everything is new once, and I like the patina that age and use gives an item!—this resulted in what both I and others have seen as a distressed product. Still looks good.

Afterwards, I needed hinges, of course, and then it occurred to me: the ingredients of the chest are valuable and would have been protected by a lock. Turning again to Daegrad, I bought a pair of hinges and a lock. The hinges are applied. And I’ll apply the lock as soon as I can regularly unlock it!

There are still a few things that I need to acquire before next season. One, of course, is crosswort. I have an empty jar reading to receive some of it. I’ll bring halms of various types as they became available, but they will not be parts of the regular kit. And I intend to make a mereswine whip.

And there is the rub. Mereswine is Old English for porpoise. Finding porpoise skin is, to say, the least, difficult and possibly illegal. Mereswine whips were used for flogging the madness out of patients, so I had to have one. Using the style of whip owned by the Museum of London ), I made a prototype reproduction that looks a lot like the original. Consulting with a local leather expert, we decided that lambskin would be the best readily available, legal alternative; and I will be making another whip just to be certain of construction details and then makng my own faux-mereswine whip!

A local organic food store had a sale, but unfortunately they did not have rue, lily berries, crosswort and other ingredients I needed. I got ingredients for some more jars:

• Salve (from Jas. Townsend, already mentioned)

• Wormwood (actually a brewing supply)

• Honey

• wheat

• fennel

• berries (dried blueberries because they did not have ivy, and these look good…and can be eaten on the line as well)

• Hempseeds (in addition to the more recognizable plastic)

• willow leaves

I’m looking forward to trotting it all out next season and healing a few MoPs!

For copies of translations of Bald’s Leechbook and other leechbooks of the period, see the three volumes of Thomas Oswald Cockayne’s Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: Volume One , Volume Two  and Volume Three.

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Take Your Medicine 2

When I decided to do an Anglo-Scandinavian leech impression on the line, a few things occurred to me. The first was how to display the leeches. There were plenty of canisters and jars from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but there was very little evidence for what was done in earlier days. A few people suggested that leeches were just kept in the pond out back. But as I read further, it become increasingly evident that the worms were not used inAnglo-Scandinavian  England of this period (nor undoubtedly in the rest of England nor in Scandinavia). After reading treatises of the time on bleeding, I became certain not only that bleeding was done by piercing parts of the body but that the laeces knew that bleeding could be much more harmful than it could be theoretically beneficial. Times were listed when bleeding was warned against, and there are warnings that a patient should not be overbled. This rather sagacious commentary was forgotten later, when nearly a third of George Washington’s blood may have been removed to cure him (right before he died, possibly from blood loss). The leeches were tossed out (well, most of them. One named Læknir the Leech was kept because one of the mmbers of the group was smitten with the name).

I found a source for medical instruments of the time, Daegrad tools. Three were offered: a scalpel, a bone saw and, to my delight and while not terms as such, a fleam. I made a leather container for them; I have no documentation for such an item, but I needed someplace to kep them!

This meant that I needed a bleeding bowl. The styles available were all from later periods, and there was no evidence that they were used in our time. I found an illustration showing a bowl being held beneath a dripping wound and, having seen nothing else, decided that was the shape that I needed. I had too few ceramic jars that could hold the herbs and other ingredients. I had an idea of what I wanted. I contacted old friends, Mike and Sarah Wisdom of Hearthstone Arts. They love doing accurate reproductions, and I was able to show them period illustrations of what I needed, and they agreed to make a number, as well as the bleeding bowl.

I already have three leechbooks that I had assembled, two leechbooks from he tme and one a compilation selected from these and other sources. Since only one book of this period and place that I know of—the Stonyhurst or Cuthbert gospel—has not been rebound, I looked to it for the method of binding the book. It was bound in a style similar to Coptic binding, and I have done several variations, all experimental, trying to find a reasonable alternative. (I have one that I like now, so I may be reproducing these leechbooks again using that style!)

Because two ingredients in very many recipes was hemp and dung—and for legal and other reasons I hesitated to include the actual raw materials—I found a source for plastic cannabis leaves and, at a local novelty store, dog poop. Granted, many recipes called for boar or sheep dung, while others just mentioned dung, but finding plastic versions were impossible, and I’m certain my wife would divorce me if I carried around real dung of any type even if I had wanted to! These formed the basics of my pharmacy, and it is amazing how easily they engender conversations with MoPs!

Using red linen, I hand stitched a band that could be wrapped around the head to cure headaches. It was to contain crosswort.

Using a period illustration of a man mixing ingredients for a potion in a mortar and pestle, I actually found a jar that looked like the mortar and then added a pestle, which I carved from wood to look like that in the illustration. At least one person said that it should not be wood, but she does a later-period impression and was selling ceramic mortar and pestles, What I have is considerably smaller than that showed in the illustration.

A short and informative text from he turn of the last century on Anglo-Saxon leechcraft is available at http://www.archive.org/details/anglosaxonleechc00welliala.


Take Your Medicine 1

You might say that I’m obsessed with getting well in the Viking Age. Or at least in knowing how folk of the time supposedly got well.

My obsessions start with little things. A desire to learn about agriculture during the early middle ages and to build tools started when my wife bought me an old sickle at an antiques store for a buck, and I noticed how similar it was to sickle used in the Julius Work Calendar. Avalanche! I discovered an accurate rubber leech and thought it would be fun to buy a few to display on the line (I didn’t want the responsibility of live leeches). And then a year ago, I saw Dennis Riley of Daegrad was offering some surgical tools from the time. Guess what? Avalanche!

Let me digress at this point and speak for a moment about laeces, leeches (physicians)  and leeches (worms). It is certainly a byproduct of the avalanche, and like the detritus after an avalanche, does not easily fit in anywhere. Forgive me!

The Old English word for a physician/surgeon was laece, from the Old English for “healer.”. This was pronounced leech, and it is by that spelling that we know it today. The process of bleeding as a medical remedy had been known since ancient times, but there is no indication that the worm leech was used in medical practices during the early middle ages in Britain and Northern Europe; the Anglo-Saxons seemed to prefer to make a cut from which their patients could bleed. In fact, it appears that the term “leech” was not applied to the worm until the seventeenth century, when it was associated intimately with physicians and with bleeding! And with this fondation laid, let’s get back to my obsession and learning.

The first thing was to find out what was done and known during the time. Oh, I knew the basics like everyone, that the ignorant, superstitious savages of the time knew nothing and used a lot of superstition, no experimentation and revered what the ancients had told them. That was the first surprise. In saga, there was a reference to using odorous soup to tell if a person’s guts had been pierced by a wound, bandaging wounds and extracting metal objects causing wounds. I found translations of Bald’s Leechbook (a standard set of recipes surviving from the time), and that led to other books. I found out that they knew quite a bit. They could do plastic surgery, and there was a logical foundation for some of their medicines. They said prayers and charms, but that has been over-stressed, I came to believe, and there seemed to be an evolution of the concept of using prayer—toward using it instead of medicine—over the years. They experimented, and they wrote down their experiences, ideas and advice. The leechbooks they had were translations, and the strict adherence to what the ancients said only seemed to start when the original versions were brought back to Europe.

I bought Steve Pollington’s book on Leechcraft of the era, and it had some useful material but concentrated on subjects that I was less interested in, and it raised as many questions for me as it solved. I created and bound several leechbooks, including Bald’s, an herbarium and a special edition that I edited myself from various sources. And I began to develop a leech impression for doing on the line.

And there was the rub that was not massage.

There is relatively little that is known about medicine of the time, at least about the physical side. Did the Norse and the English share any medical knowledge (probbly, since what the English wrote down were often associated with folk practices which the Norse might already know). Where the doctors all ecclesiastics or were there laymen? (Answer: we think there were lay doctors as well, but schools that taught medical practices were probably all ecclesiastical). Were there signs for practitioners (the Caduceus was apparently not used in northern Europe, and the barber pole—representing the bandages and blood—was a later development, when ecclesiasticals were no longer allowed to do surgery, and the whole class of barber-surgeons was created). Were there medicine cases (probably, but certainly not the leather doctor cases we are used to, though there is one ambiguous reference to such a case during the time covered with rawhide). Were all physicians of the time male (probably predominantly, though there were of course female midwives, wise women and, if you read between the lines, probably female physicians).

I decided to set up a medical shop on the line, and the MoPs loved it, asking questions and being genuinely interested. I made a preliminary medical case (an altered wooden trunk from Michael’s) and filled it with books, bowls, a couple examples of the herbs and other ingredients that would have been used and, of course, the surgical tools. It was quite preliminary, and from its beginning, I was looking for ways to make a better presentation. The next installment deals with this evolution toward that better presentation!

Besides Pollington’s book, there are a few other worthwhile sources. A fine article on Norse medical practices is available from Christie Ward’s “Viking Answer Lady” site.  A very useful article on English ptactices may be found in Stanley Rubin’s “The Medical Practitioner in Anglo-Saxon England.”


Brigadoon Found!

Not really, but just as exciting!

The Norse first settled Ireland in Dublin–they founded it!–and at a site once believed to be lost. No more. “A year after test trenches were dug on the ‘virgin’ site, the results of radio-carbon testing on some of the artefacts recovered have confirmed that ‘Linn Duachaill’ exists and is perfectly preserved underneath farmland in Annagassan, Co Louth.”

Artifacts uncovered in initial explorations are going on display and include slave chains and whetstones, and more might be primed to show up! It could become one of the most important Viking sites not only in Ireland but in the world!

For further information, see http://www.examiner.ie/ireland/joy-as-mythic-viking-village-found-170117.html?fb_ref=.TpS8I0jozK4.like&fb_source=home_multiline