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

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.”


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