View Full Version : Daily Living in the Viking Age: Health and Medicine

Friday, August 12th, 2005, 09:59 AM
Studies of burial remains from the Viking age suggest that good health and long life was possible for at least some of the population. But that is not to say that life was free of disease and pestilence.

Good health was seen as an extension of good luck. So preventative medicine consisted primarily of chants and charms that would maintain ones good fortune. The eddaic poetry is full of charms for the maintenance of health in daily life, such as those in Hvaml.

Runic inscriptions were used as magic to maintain health. Chapters 73 and 77 of Egils saga Skalla-grmssonar tell how a young woman's health was first ruined through the use of improper runes, and then restored by correct runes. The runes were carved on a whalebone placed under the woman's bed.

Magic was used to heal the injuries received in a duel, as described in chapter 22 of Kormks saga. rds advised orvarr to speed his recovery by reddening a nearby hill with the blood of the sacrificial bull killed by Kormkr after the duel, and by making a feast out of the meat from the bull for the elves living in the hill.

Magic was used to prevent a wound from healing, as well. In chapter 57 of Laxdla saga, Eiur says that a wound inflicted by his sword Skfnung will not heal unless rubbed with the sword's healing stone (lyfsteinn).

In addition to magical arts, the medical arts were also practiced in the Norse era. Classical herbal remedies appear to have been known, along with local herbs specific to the Norse region. Medical treatments consisted of: lancing; cleaning wounds; anointing; bandaging; setting broken bones; the preparation of herbal remedies; and midwifery. The 13th century Icelandic law book Grgs says that one must hold harmless a person who bleeds or cauterizes someone for the good of their health [St364], suggesting those techniques were known and used.

In chapter 10 of Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu, Gunnlaug's ankle was twisted out of joint in a wrestling match. Later, his foot was bandaged and the joint re-set. ( var vafiur fturinn og liinn frur.)

Archaeological evidence from grave sites shows that surgery was performed from time to time, some of which was successful (i.e., the patient lived for a time after the procedure). In addition, some of the late literature (e.g., Biskupa sogur) suggests that surgery was occasionally performed.

Both the saga literature and forensic studies of skeletal remains show that people survived serious battle injuries and lived to fight again after their wounds healed.

In the Norse era, various emotions were believed to reside in the body's organs. Chapter 21 of Fstbrra saga lists them: "A man's anger resides in his gall, his life-blood in his heart, his memory in his brains, his ambition in his lungs, his laughter in his spleen and his desire in his liver."

In the early part of the Norse era, most of the population had to rely on themselves or on local people with special abilities. Educated medical specialists were rare. Chapter 6 of Eirks saga raua tells of an protracted period of disease at Lysufjorur in Greenland. The sick lay in bed in the hall, while the healthy helped them prepare for death.

Later in the Norse era, it appears that certain men chose the practice of medicine as their livelihood. In chapter 29 of Magnss saga ga, King Magns the Good chose twelve men to bandage mens wounds after the battle on Lyrskov Moor in 1043. These men subsequently acquired reputations as medical men. From these men, several notable families of physicians descended, including the Icelander Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson (whose grave is shown below), who was regarded as a famous surgeon.


An inured person sought a healer (lknir) for medical assistance. In chapter 6 of rar saga hreu, Indrii suffered gaping wounds during a battle. When asked if he might pull through, he said, "I think there is some hope of it, if a healer sees me."

In more densely settled areas, such as trading towns, epidemics must have been occasional occurrences. Smallpox, dysentery, and leprosy are recorded in the literature. The Norse must have faced these with resignation, since little could be done to control them.

A mass grave at the winter camp of the Viking Great Army in Repton (England) suggests that the people buried there succumbed to an epidemic of some sort. Of the several hundred individuals buried there, most were adult males with no indications that they died of battle injuries. The Viking invaders wintered over in this camp during the winter of 873-874.

An example of battlefield medicine is described in chapter 234 of lfs saga helga. ormr was wounded by an arrow in his side. He broke off the shaft and supported his companions as best he could. After the battle had been lost, he left the field and entered the building where the healer women were tending the wounded. One of the women inspected the wound and could see the iron arrow head, but could not determine its path to determine what internal organs it had struck. She gave ormr a hot broth, containing leeks and onions and other herbs. If, after eating it, she could smell the broth from his wound, she would know that vital parts had been injured, and that the wound was fatal.

ormr refused the broth. Instead, he directed the woman to cut into the wound to expose the iron arrow head. He grabbed hold of the arrow head with pincers and pulled it out. Seeing fatty fibers on the arrow head, ormr said, "See how well the king keeps his men. There is fat by my heart," and he died.

Evidence from both literary sources and archaeological sources shows that cleanliness, good hygiene, and regular grooming were a part of Norse life. The Norse poetic literature emphasizes the need for cleanliness and regular grooming. Here are two examples:

From Reginsml (25):

Kemr ok veginn skal knna hverr | Combed and washed every thoughtful man should be
ok at morni mettr; | and fed in the morning;
vat snt er, hvarat apni kmr; | for one cannot foresee where one will be by evening;
illt er fyr heill at hrapa. | it is bad to rush headlong before one's fate.

From Hvaml (61):

veginn ok mettr ri mar ingi at, | Washed and fed, a man should ride to the Assembly
tt hann s vddr til vel; | though he may not be very well dressed;
ska ok brka skammiz engi mar, | of his shoes and breeches no man should be ashamed
n hestz in heldr, tt hann hafit gan. | nor of his horse, though he doesn't have a good one.

In chapter 21 of Heiarvga saga, Bari stopped to collect Odd to ride to the heath where the revenge killings were to take place. Bari found that Odd's wife was washing his hair. Odd's horse was saddled, and his weapons were prepared. But the final preparation for the trip was a cleansing. Bari asked Odd's wife to finish the job properly before their departure.

At Aling, people bathed in the xar river. In chapter 8 of Hrafnkels saga, Smr and orbjrn bathed below the bridge early one morning

Hair washing was a function performed by women for men and seems to have usually been performed outdoors. In chapter 18 of Vglundar saga, Vglundur asked Ketilrur to cut and wash his hair before he left for Norway. After the job was done, he promised her to permit no one else to cut and wash his hair as long as she was alive.

The medieval Icelandic lawbook Grgs (St 361) calls for the most severe penalties for a man who makes someone dirty in order to disgrace him. Similarly, pushing a man into water or urine or food or dirt resulted in the same penalties, whatever the reason.

Besides the comments in the stories, there is other evidence that the Norse were regular bathers. Hot spring baths built in the Norse era still exist in modern Iceland. The photo to the left shows the bath built by Snorri Sturluson at his farm at Reykholt, probably around the year 1210. It's fed by water piped from separate hot and cold water springs, so the temperature can be adjusted to suit. The door in the hillside behind the bath leads to a tunnel which probably led back to Snorri's farmhouse. Snorri apparently spent many hours in the bath daily. It's about 4 meters in diameter (13 feet), with stone steps leading down into the bath and bench seats around the periphery below the water for comfortable lounging.


Not surprisingly, hot springs baths drew bathers from a wide area. Shelters built at the bath served not only bathers, but also women who were washing clothes in the hot water. Bathing in the hot springs was also a social activity. While Kjartan was wooing Gurn, he timed his visits to the hot springs bath to coincide with hers, as described in chapter 39 of Laxdla saga.

The reconstructed hot bath Grettislaug is shown below. After Grettir swam from his island hideaway Drangey across the cold waters of Skagafjrur, his first stop was at the hot bath to warm up, as described in chapter 75 of Grettis saga.


Another form of Icelandic bathhouse is described in chapter 28 of Eyrbyggja saga. It was an outbuilding, dug into the ground. It had a window set above a stone oven so that water could be thrown onto the oven from the outside, making the bathhouse very hot.

Some longhouses had rooms which are thought to have been used as sweatrooms, an early precursor to the modern Swedish sauna.

The Anglo-Saxon defenders of England realized that the Norse invaders took regular baths, and were known to delay their attack until Norse bath time, when the Norseman had shed their clothes (and their weapons).

A treaty negotiated in the year 907 between the Byzantine Empire and the Rus (the Norse people from Sweden and the east Baltic area who traded with Byzantium) contained most of the usual provisions one might expect: the Byzantium empire was obliged to give the Rus traders food, drink, and supplies for their ships. However, an unusual condition in the treaty was that Byzantium was required to provide baths for the Rus "as often as they want them".

A variety of grooming aids are common archaeological finds in virtually every occupied site. They're so common that one has to conclude that they were in wide use, and they are found in both male and female graves.

Shown blow are modern reproductions of a comb (top), and from left to right below, an ear wax scraper, a toothpick, and a pair of tweezers. These reproduction items are made from bone or antler, although some luxury items from the Norse era were made from ivory. In addition, a variety of wash basins have been found at archaeological sites.


Source (http://www.hurstwic.org)