Medical Arts & Illness During the Viking Era
Viking battles were bloody intense. It was hard to imagine the significant number of civilians dying from all the savage raids and pillaging of these fierce, unrelenting Norse warriors. The exact count of the number of casualties were unknown but Viking warriors were no exception. Despite successfully securing material possessions and slaves, some of them died from battle wounds and other non-combat-related diseases. Let’s find out how they practiced medical arts back in the day.
Medical treatments at that time consisted of lancing (cutting/opening the infected skin part using sharp tools in order to release pus and other infected matter), cleaning wounds, anointing wounds (rubbing or sprinkling an antiseptic ointment and other bacteria killing liquids), bandaging, resetting broken bones, herbal remedies like hvönn, mugwort, chicory,angelica, yarrow, etc., as well as midwifery (bjargrýgr, "helping-woman.") Grágás, a 13th century Icelandic law book stated that “One must hold harmless a person who bleeds or cauterizes someone for the good of their health.” Based on this, the author suggested that those techniques were used.
Most of the people living at that time had to rely on their abilities to heal and other people with knowledge in medical arts. However, only a few healers (læknir) were capable of providing medical assistance. Women were the primary medical practitioners during the Viking age but as time went by, some men decided to pursue and practice medicine as their livelihood. One proof is from chapter 28 of Magnúss saga ins góða. It was indicated there that King Magnús the Good decided to ask for help and chose twelve men to bandage the wounds of injured warriors after the battle on Lyrskov Moor in 1043. These men were later on known for this act and were able to acquire reputations as medical practitioners. Several respected families of medical specialists and physicians descended from these 12 men and the Viking medical arts scene flourished, but Viking women also remained active in this field.
When it came to skeletal remains from grave sites during the Viking age, there was archaeological evidence of healed body parts (arm bones, leg bones, ribs, limbs) from fractures and other proof that surgeries were occasionally performed. There were also recorded cases of occasional epidemics that caused a lot of distress and killed the lives of many of those who suffered from leprosy, smallpox and dysentery in densely settled areas. One disturbing written record was reflected in chapter 28 of the Ljósvetninga saga. Þorvaldur (a leper) was murdered by Már so that he could avoid any type of interaction with him. Even though they were relatives, he had to find a way to get rid of him.
Other skeletal remains revealed that some Viking men lived to old age and experienced common aging-associated diseases such as degenerative joint disease, blindness and deafness.