Viking Medicine by Rob Shackleford
The Viking Age was from the 8th to the 11th Centuries. If you were to travel back to that time, as described in my novel Traveller Inceptio, the greatest difference would be in the ability to receive effective medical care (Sorry – US readers not included).
This was a time of very little knowledge of the human body and medical procedures, relying instead on superstitions and the belief in magic and religion.
We have very little information at all about Viking medical practices. It is thought that women were probably the primary medical practitioners. Since women in general are so much in the background in most sagas, you don’t see them operating in this role often, and even male physicians don’t get much description when they appear. After Christianity began to appear, men in all European contexts tend to hold the official titles associated with medical roles, although women remained active as the first line of everyday healthcare in their homes.
In Anglo-Saxon society, medical practitioners were named after the common medical tool and were called Lachs – after leeches. Leeches were a common remedy to remove excess old blood from around a wound or bruising.
Here are a few examples of medicine in the Viking Age:
As contemporaries of Vikings, we know of some Anglo-Saxon remedies which could work, even if their effectiveness is questionable when put up against modern medicine.
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 sty 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. Vikings would not know this, but honey makes the wound heal rather than fester and turn septic or gangrenous.
The use of the herb marrubium vulgare, or Horehound, as a treatment for a cough is still used today in lozenges – Bald’s Leechbook describes how: “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 herbal alternatives to modern medicine might be perceived as an option for some today, to rely on limited medical knowledge and natural solutions often had people die from easily curable maladies. Yet herbs and care were often all they had and, for some, were effective.
Viking Age healers would 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 always belong to a 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 cauterize 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 have been 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. The screams emanating from the lach’s ‘surgery’ must have sounded 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
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.
Despite what we might see in popular fiction, some wounds were almost impossible to survive, while the risks of infection would have been insurmountable.
While Vikings might have practiced a good degree of hygiene compared to many peoples of the day, having a dirty sword, axe or spearhead penetrate the body cavity would result in a high degree of fatality, even today. Lingering infections would have killed many who might have walked from the field of battle. Until the development of penicillin and effective anesthetic, wounds received in battle were often fatal, or left the victim permanently disabled.
So much was true for the time of the Vikings.
Some Viking Medicine links for your own 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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