Viking Health by Rob Shackleford
The Viking Age, approximately from the years 793 to 1066, was not an easy time to live. Harsh Scandinavian winters, food shortages, dirty living conditions near animals and rodents, raids and fighting, and a lack of hygiene compared to today created conditions that combined to ensure Vikings did not live longer than 35-50 years of age. In fact, it was a rarity if someone did live longer than 50 years, which throws into question the age of the famous Viking king, Harald Fairhair, who is purported to have lived into his 80s.
Vikings didn’t leave many manuscripts, so much of what we really know about them is from other peoples, including hostile Christian monks, or from archaeology.
Viking skeletons show that arthritis of the back, hands and knees plagued ordinary Viking farmers. Many also suffered from tooth problems. More than a quarter of the population had holes in their teeth. Finds of crania show that most Vikings had several teeth missing. In a number of cases only a couple of teeth were left by the time death occurred. Many other illnesses must have affected the Vikings. However, these are not shown by the bones but can be seen in studies of their toilet pits. These show Vikings suffered from parasites, such as intestinal worms, liver fluke, and more. Some studies suggest Viking genes developed to protect their vital organs from disease caused by worms and now is an inherited trait which can lead to lung disease in smokers.
Vikings had smallpox and may have helped spread the world’s deadliest virus. Researchers have discovered extinct strains of smallpox in the teeth of Viking skeletons, proving for the first time that the killer disease plagued humanity for at least 1400 years. Some scholars suggest that while the Vikings did not bring measles and smallpox to America, they may, however, have introduced typhus carried by lice in their hair and clothing.
Other illnesses are likely to have included pneumonia and badly inflamed wounds, which commonly caused deaths up until the modern era. There are many written sources from the European Middle Ages, which describe how plants were used to treat illnesses. However, we can only guess what knowledge the Vikings had of plants and their curative effects.
There is also another complaint attributed to the Vikings called Dupuytren’s contracture or Viking disease, a condition in which one or more fingers become permanently bent in a flexed position.
As is the case today, the women often lived slightly longer than the men.
It is almost impossible for those of us living 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-Saxons, who lived as neighbours and victims of Vikings, 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. 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.
The next Blog will discuss more about Viking medicine.
Here are some links for your own Viking research:
About the author:
Hi, I’m Rob Shackleford. I am author of a number of novels, though so far only Traveller Inceptio and Traveller Probo have been officially published. As Traveller Inceptio looks at the fates of modern historical researchers sent to the early 11th Century Saxon world, Vikings do feature.
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