[Ansteorra] Viking/Anglo-Saxon Medicine

C. L. Ward gunnora at vikinganswerlady.org
Wed Oct 23 17:51:09 PDT 2002

I vaguely recall that *someone* asked me over the weekend for info on Viking
Age medical practice, but whoever you were, you forgot to write me and
remind me.  Anyway, I thought I'd just send it along this way, in case
anyone else is interested in the big bibliography...


We have very little information at all about Viking medical practices. The
goddess Eir was in charge of healing. Other than that, there is a scene in a
saga where a man with a gut wound is fed onion soup, then the women check
the wound afterwards to see if they can detect the scent of onion. If yes,
then the bowels were perforated and the victim was going to die of
periotonitis, otherwise, he might recover.  Beyond that there just isn't a
lot of evidence.  Women were probably the primary medical practicioners.
Since they are so background in most sagas, you don't see them operating in
this role. The dead and wounded vanish offstage pretty quickly, the sagas
don't throw in much detail that doesn't move the story forward.

Some of the best information we have about northern European medical
practices comes from Old English leechbooks (medical practice) and wortbooks
(medicinal herbals), which record various herbal remedies and the charms or
incantations that go with them. (Actually, there are some medieval Swedish
leechbooks, but thus far I haven't found any translations to make them more
accessible.) We can guess that Norse medical practices would have been at
least somewhat similar to those of the Anglo-Saxons due to cultural
similarities and ties of commerce.

For instance, the Herbarium of Apuleius lists the various ills and the
corresponding plant remedies known to the Anglo-Saxons. The Old English
version of Medicina de quadrupedibus of Sextus Placidus describes the use of
various kinds of animals and their bodies in medicine. And there were many

The medical practitioners of late Anglo-Saxon England were apparently both
physicians and surgeons, as shown by their descriptions of the kinds of
ailments they are evidenced as treating. The majority were monastic; whether
there were also lay medics is uncertain. Most Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical
foundations appear to have had an infirmary, where sick monks or nuns, or
those who were about to die, were looked after. Some infirmaries may have
tended lay people, but there do not appear to have been any hospitals in the
later medieval sense.

Circa 1000 AD, a manuscript was produced in a monastic setting which is now
known as Harley 585 (London, British Library), which contains texts of three
compilations in Old English: the Herbarium and the Medicina de
Quadrupedibus, both translated from Latin, and the Lacnunga, which is a
collection of remedies from diverse sources, some translated from Latin,
some of native origin, some wholly rational, some containing Christian or
folkloric incantations and rituals, and including four metrical charms. This
is an invaluable store of information for someone wanting to know more about
Anglo-Saxon medical practice and beliefs at the turn of the millenium.

These texts are now available in modern English in a number of sources, most
with commentary, and many with the Old English provided as well as the
translation. Some useful books/articles:

Adams, J. N. and Marilyn Deegan. "Bald's Leechbook and the Physica Plinii."
Anglo-Saxon England 21 (1992) pp. 87-114.

Anglo-Saxon Metrical Charms. (based on texts in G. Storms, below)
http://www.ealdriht.org/charms.html [Reproduces the Old English text plus
translation of a handful of the most pagan-seeming of the charms from some
of the Anglo-Saxon medical documents.]

Bonser, Wilfrid. "Anglo-Saxon Medical Nomenclature". English and Germanic
Studies 4: 1951-2. pp. 13-19.

Bonser, Wilfrid. The Medical Background of Anglo-Saxon England. London:
Oxford University Press, 1963.

Cameron, M. L. "Bald's Leechbook: its sources and their use in its
compilation" Anglo-Saxon England 12 (1983) pp. 153-82.

Cameron, M.L. "Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine." Anglo-Saxon England vol. 17.
Cambridge: University Press. 1988. pp.191-216.

Cameron, M.L. "The Sources of Medical Knowledge in Anglo-Saxon England".
Anglo-Saxon England 11:1983. pp. 135-55.

Cameron, M.L. Anglo-Saxon Medicine. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon
England, Vol 7. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1993. To order from

Cockayne, Oswald. Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England:
The History of Science Before the Norman Conquest. Chronicles and Memorials
of Great Britain and Ireland During the Middle Ages Series. 3 Vols. London:
Longman. 1864-1866. Reprint, October 2001. Thoemmes Press. Reprinted with a
new introduction London, 1961. To order from Amazon.com:

D'Aronco, Maria Amalia "The botanical lexicon of the Old English Herbarium."
Anglo-Saxon England 17 (1988) pp. 15-33.

Grattan, John Henry Grafton and Charles Singer. Anglo-Saxon Magic and
Medicine. London: Oxford Univrsity Press. 1952. To order from Amazon.com:

Grendon, Felix. "The Anglo-Saxon Charms." Journal of American Folklore. 22
(1909): 105-237.

Hill, Thomas D. "The aecerbot charm and its Christian user" Anglo-Saxon
England 6 (1977) pp. 213-21.

Holton, Frederick S. "Literary Tradition and the Old English Bee Charm."
Journal of Indo-European Studies 21 (1993) pp. 37-53.

Horden, P. "The Millennium Bug: Health and Medicine around the Year 1000."
Social History of Medicine (13:2) Aug. 2000. pp. 201-219.

Jolly, Karen Louise. Anglo-Saxon Charms.
http://www2-94.its.hawaii.edu/~kjolly/unc.htm [These are some samples from
Dr. Jolly's book, listed above.]

Jolly, Karen Louise. Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in
Context. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 1996. (Discusses
the relationship between the elf charms found in late Anglo-Saxon medical
texts and the Christian culture that produced those texts. For an excellent
review of this book, see

Klemming, G.E., ed., Läke- och Örte-Böcker från Sveriges Medeltid.
Stockholm. 1883-6. (Swedish Medieval leechbooks and Wortbooks).

Lambert, C. "The Old English Medical Vocabulary." Proceedings of the Royal
Society of Medicine 33:1940. pp. 137-45.

Meaney, Audrey L. "The Practice of Medicine in England about the Year 1000."
Social History of Medicine (13:2) Aug. 2000. pp. 221-237.

Meaney, Audrey L. "Variant versions of Old English medical remedies and the
compilation of Bald's Leechbook" Anglo-Saxon England 13 (1984) pp. 235-68.

Payne, J.F. English Medicine in the Anglo-Saxon Times. Oxford. 1904.

Perry, Susan. "Witch Woman-Healer in the Lacnunga: A Rhetorical Analysis."

Pettit, Edward, ed. and trans. Polyglot Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and
Prayers from British Library Ms Harley 585: the Lacnunga. Lewiston, N.Y.: E.
Mellen Press, 2001. To order from Amazon.com:

Savage-Smith, E, and P. Horden. "Symposium on Medical Practice around the
Year 1000." Social History of Medicine (14:3) Dec. 2000. pp. 387-388.

Storms, Godfrid. Anglo-Saxon Magic. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. 1948. Out
of print, but occasionally available used at Amazon.com:

Talbot, C.H. "Some Notes on Anglo-Saxon Medicine." Medical History 9:1965.
pp. 156-69.

Voigts, Linda E. "Anglo-Saxon Plant Remedies and the Anglo-Saxons." Isis
70:1979. pp. 250-68.

Weston, L.M.C. "Women's Medicine, Women's Magic: The Old English Metrical
Childbirth Charms." Modern Philology, 92 (1995) pp. 279-293.

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