Viking Medicine

The news this week is once again full of illness as the pandemic is ramping up again and putting off even more plans, and that got me thinking about how the Vikings would cope with illnesses.

We know that the Vikings had some knowledge of medicine, archaeologists have found skeletal remains with evidence of healed fractures and there are reference to bones being deliberately broken and reset in the sagas.  There are also reference to healers which shows that medicine existed as a job, but it’s likely that common people would have had to fend for themselves.

It seems certain that disease was every bit as prevalent then as it is now.  Recent research has found evidence of Smallpox in Viking remains from in 11 Viking-era burial sites in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Russia, and the UK. Dysentery, and leprosy are mentioned in the sagas.  It must have been much harder to control the spread of disease without the benefit of modern PPE and understanding of transmission vectors.

There is some reference to magic being used medicinally, whether that is by sacrificing and petitioning the gods or using runes, chants and prayers.  Bald’s Leechbook (also known as Medicinale Anglicum) is a fascinating 9th century text which includes all manner of strange sounding potential cures, at lot of them we’d write off as superstitious nonsense but among the herbal remedies there are some real gems, like the eye balm which made the news in 2015 when it was found to combat MRSA. 

We do know some plants were cultivated for their medicinal properties, but others that were grown primarily for flavour could also be used in healing.  One of the most interesting references to using plants comes from Olafs Saga, Þormóðr was hit by an arrow, he was taken to see the healing women who gave him a really smelly broth packed with leeks and onions and garlic.  These plants are known to have anti-biotic properties but this was a much more prosaic approach, if after eating the broth the wound smelled of onions etc the healers would know his internal organs were leaking, which would mean he was too badly injured for them to heal him.

To finish, let’s have a look at some of the herbs the Vikings grew that are still in everyday use now and see how they can help with simple ailments today:

Sage – Sage is anti-bacterial and a natural antiseptic, It is high in vitamins and very soothing both for sore throats and stomach upsets.  

Thyme – Thyme is a natural pain reliever and great for respiratory problems.  It’s also a mood enhancer that can lift the spirits of the sick.

Peppermint – Peppermint is refreshing, cooling and soothing. It helps an upset stomach, colds, flu, fever, headaches, and sinus congestion.

Garlic – Garlic has antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and anti-fungal benefits, The Vikings would mostly have used Ramsons or wild garlic but the modern kind has similar benefits.

Rosemary – Rosemary boosts memory, and contains many beneficial properties that can help fight off colds and flu.  It’s renowned for fighting infections.

Parsley – Parsley Is good for boosting the immune system. It’s a diuretic which is beneficial to the urinary system and can help lower high blood pressure.  It energizes the digestion and is packed with anti-oxidants.  Parsley is also prized as a breath freshener, chewing a few leaves can remove foul tastes and halitosis.

If you want to feel the benefit of these herbs yourself the easiest way is simply to include them in your cooking, I find they work particularly well in vegetable soups, just add an extra teaspoon of the dried herb when the soup is cooking. if you are lucky enough to have fresh herbs use twice as much. Or you can make a herbal tea by steeping a teaspoonful of the herb in a cup of hot water for 10 minutes before straining and drinking – add honey to make it taste nicer and give an extra boost to the immune system.  Peppermint and Rosemary can also be used as a steam – put a teaspoon of the herb into a large bowl of not quite boiling water and lean over the bowl with a towel over your head to inhale the vapours.

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