“…the læknir, who is not a special someone who sits in a special room all day but is probably a real person with a real life and a real farm who has inherited medicinal knowledge.
The læknir is probably weeding a garden or something when Hiccup arrives, rather than organizing herbs or something…”
Healing was not a profession for the majority of the Viking Age, and it certainly was not a profession in small, rural areas for any of it. Healing was practiced by people who did other things, like farm or build ships, but had inherited some medical knowledge from their mothers and fathers. Most people in the Viking Age relied on a local person who knew a little but not a lot to help them when they were sick or injured. Medical specialty was rare.
There were some whose medical knowledge and skill was greater than the average person, and these people would have been called for larger injuries like broken legs, large puncture wounds, and so on.
Viking age Healers were both men and women, so the notion “a village healer was ONLY the Witch in the cottage on the outskirts.” is a misnomer. However women did tend to be the ones who took up this important skill set, seeing as Mothers tended to the well-being of her household, knew plant values, and of course were very much in control of child birth!
The Óláfs saga helga is very specific regarding the gender of the healers tending to Þormóðr (who we all remember as the man who ripped an arrow out of his side, exclaimed over the amount of fat around his heart, declared that the king kept his people fat and happy, and promptly died). The healer in this instance was women.
We do know, however, that toward the very end of the Viking Age, that healing did emerge as a profession and that some men did go into it. And I mean the very end. Like, 1043. In Magnúss saga ins góða, twelve men are chosen to tend to the wounded, they gain reputations as healers, and their descendants become very famous 12th century (note that this is no longer the Viking Age) physicians.
So with that said, let’s look deeper into Viking age healing arts:
~What kinds of illnesses were prominent in Viking times? What kind of medical knowledge was available and what used to treat various illnesses?~
Good health was seen as an extension of good luck. So preventative medicine consisted primarily of chants and charms that would maintain one’s good fortune. The eddaic poetry is full of charms for the maintenance of health in daily life, such as those in Hávamál.
Runic inscriptions were used as magic to maintain health. Chapters 73 and 77 of Egils saga Skalla-grímssonar 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.
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 Grágás says that one must hold harmless a person who bleeds or cauterizes someone for the good of their health [St364], suggesting those techniques were also known and used.
Studies of skeletal remains from the Viking age show evidence of fractures that have healed in ribs, and bones of the arms and legs. The stories also provide evidence of broken limbs that were manipulated to allow the bones to knit more satisfactorily. 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. (Þá var vafiður fóturinn og í liðinn færður.) In Íslendinga saga (which takes place after the Viking age, in 12th century Iceland), it is said that Loptr broke his leg one summer (chapter 40). When it was set, Loptr thought it too weak to stand on. He had the leg broken a second time and instructed how it should be set. When the leg knit a second time, Loptr was not very lame. In chapter 45 of Eyrbyggja saga, Þóroddr was wounded in the neck. As the wound healed, his head drooped to one side. He asked Snorri goði to reopen the wound and reset his head straighter.
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 Eiríks saga rauða tells of an protracted period of disease at Lysufjorður in Greenland. The sick lay in bed in the hall, while the healthy helped them prepare for death.
An inured person sought a healer (læknir) for medical assistance. In chapter 6 of Þórðar saga hreðu, Indriði 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.”
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.
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. The attitude towards the sick is reflected in an incident from chapter 28 of Ljósvetninga saga. Már booked a passage from Iceland to Norway on a ship. While the captain waited for favorable winds, a boat drew up to the ship and asked if Már was aboard. The boat carried Már’s kinsman, Þorvaldur the leper, and the men in the boat insisted that Már take his sick kinsman with him. Már took Þorvaldur back to shore and returned to the ship without him, telling the crew he had made arrangements. Later, it was discovered Már had murdered his kinsman to avoid having to deal with him.
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.
Skeletal remains show that at least some people lived to old age in the Viking era, but they also show that degenerative joint disease was common in old age. The stories tell of other conditions due to old age, such as blindness and deafness. Egils saga (chapter 85) says that when Egill was an old man, he grew frail, with stiff legs, and that both his vision and hearing failed. His skill in composing poetry seems to have been unimpaired, based on the poetry he composed mocking his infirmities in old age. He was more than 80 years old then.
Next time we will discuss the healing given to the other cause of mortality in the Viking age: Battle wounds.