Magical medicine in Viking Scandinavia

Magical medicine in Viking Scandinavia

By David Robertson

Medical History, Vol.20:3 (1976)

Page from the Old Norse manuscript Konungs skuggsjá

Abstract: Prior to A.D. 1213, the heathen Germanic peoples worshipped many gods and medical practice grew out of religious conceptions. Magical medicine and superstitions from the Old Norse literature are discussed in detail. By the time of Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson, medical practice had become extraordinarily different. Heathen chants gave way to paternosters, and stones to surgical instruments. Cauterization and phlebotomy came into use. Leeches became predominantly persons of catholic education, and the profession of medicine was increasingly the domain of men. Practitioners of heathen medicine had retreated far into the background.

Introduction: By the year A.D. 1213 Christianity was victorious across Europe; only a few isolated pockets of paganism in remote districts of Sweden, Finland, and Moslem Spain held out against what must have seemed to be the inevitable influence of the Church. Nordic expansion was in eclipse. The age of the Vikings was at an end. The marauders who had loosed such fury on the continent to the south, had, in the end, succumbed to the cultural influence of the very peoples against whom their expeditions had been directed. The mare nostrum of the Roman age had long since ceased to be the centre of European political gravity. Even in cultural matters the domination of Rome and the Mediterranean was being challenged.

A thousand years had elapsed since the death of Galen, the dominant authority in medieval medical practice. Avicenna, Rhazes, Isaac Judaeus, and Albucasis, the towering figures of Arabic medicine, had been dead some two hundred years. The renowned medical school at Salerno was in full maturity.

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