Healing in the Medieval North

Gather ’round the hearth, my friends! It’s been awhile since we’ve come by the hearth to speak of the Olden Days, hasn’t it? I’ve been eager for the opportunity, although my travels have kept me aloft, soaring in far away places rather than sitting here comfortably in the hall with friends and company! But before we begin today’s storytelling, allow me to share my tidings with you all:

I was traveling by foot when a strong wind suddenly swept across the land. It seemed to me that a storm was coming, as I looked westward to see clouds building in the sky. I was near the river Hvíta by the time the storm had found me, but night had quickly descended upon the land and I was caught unready when it came. Bundled in my cloak looking for a farm to take shelter in, I found myself knocked into the river by a sudden gust of cold wind.

To my luck, I was saved by a local man named Helgi, but not before my ankle was injured. He was a kind lad with red cheeks and beaming green eyes; he took me to his home, which was not far from where I fell.

“Helgi the Healer, they call me,” he said as he set me down by the fire, his voice cheerful. “You’re a lucky man! But don’ take it personal, the wind’s not always kind ’round these parts, especially to unsuspectin’ wanderers.

He busied himself with a cauldron filled with a foul smelling broth bubbling inside.

It seemed to me that his manner of speaking was brisk, since he never actually spent time explaining why I was so lucky, or what he meant about the wind not being nice. But I assumed it must have been because I had fallen near the home of a healer. It would have been troublesome, after all, to have an injured ankle and no horse to carry me while out on my travels. Nevertheless, he took good care of me, and I was soon back on my way north. We shared many good tales — and ales!

After that adventure, the rest of my travels were full of questions about how healing worked long ago. How many healers were there? If I was so lucky, what were the chances of those before me to stumble across similar odds? Were there any gods who offered healing? Were healers associated with them? What herbs did they use to make that smelly broth? And what was their practice like? The list of curiosities goes on and on, but let’s not dwell on questions! Instead, let’s look for some answers.

Today we will be discussing the following topics:

  1. A Pagan God for Healing?
  2. Healing with Magic and Runes
  3. Medical Treatment (Without Magic)
  4. Herbal Remedies and Medical Books
  5. Monastic Medicine in the North
  6. Medical Miracles by Northern Saints
  7. Famous Medieval Scandinavian Healers

If you’re curious about the sources that I’ve used to create this post (and you should be), then I highly encourage you to visit the endnotes at the bottom of this page.

But now, without further delay, let’s continue!

A Pagan God for Healing?

It would certainly be to our benefit if we could ask the heavens for healing whenever we are struck with illness or harm, but I’m afraid there’s not much to share from the lore when it comes to gods directly associated with healing. Nevertheless, it still makes for a good place to begin, and if we put our faith into Snorri Sturluson‘s Prose Edda,[1] then there is at least one goddess known to be associated specifically with the art of healing, and her name is Eir. She is described as such:

Screen Shot 2018-03-24 at 8.53.24 PM

iij er eir hō er lækn̅ beztr
Þriðja er Eir; hon er læknir beztr.
The third is Eir; she is the best healer.[2]

Beyond that, however, we have little left to guide us. She is later listed among the names of valkyries,[3] and she is even in an Eddic poem called The Sayings of Fjolsvinn,[4] but in both cases she remains obscure to our senses. As such, we begin to unravel certain complexities, and in seeking answers, scholars have raised endless questions: Was she truly a goddess in her own right? Was she perhaps only a valkyrie, rather than a goddess? Or was ‘Eir’ just another name for Frigg?[5] These questions swirl about her, but there simply isn’t enough information to trap them all inside of a book so that we may put them to rest. Instead, we are left to ponder what she could have been.

Healing with Magic and Runes

But when we look to the realm of magic, there is a bit more to uncover. Of course, even here there are many things left vague and unclear, but in the Eddic poem The Sayings of the High One, there is an important reference to magical healing attributed to Odin in verse:

147. I know a second [spell] which the sons of men need,
those who want to live as physicians (læknar).[6]

While that stanza by itself may not yield much insight, it does at least show us that magical healing was something known to the medieval North—and that it may have been associated with Odin. But since the Poetic Edda alone cannot quench our thirst, let’s turn elsewhere. Taking a slight detour in both time and place, we must look to the Second Merseburg Incantation, which was preserved in Old High German around the tenth century. The spells from this source had a somewhat standard form, wherein the incantation was divided into two parts: a story and a magical analogy.[7]

“Wodan Heals Balder’s Horse” (1905) by Emil Doepler. [x]

Phol and Wodan (Odin) rode into the woods,
There Balder’s foal sprained its foot.
It was charmed by Sinthgunt, her sister Sunna;
It was charmed by Frija, her sister Volla;
It was charmed by Wodan, as he well knew how:
Bone-sprain, like blood-sprain,
Like limb-sprain:
Bone to bone; blood to blood;
Limb to limb — like they were glued.[8]

Considering this, Odin has been associated with healing spells before, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to consider stanza 147 of The Sayings of the High One in a similar manner. However, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this was the exact spell being referred to in that poem. Nevertheless, there are more examples to consider still. For example, what kinds of magical healing were practiced by normal folk? For that, let’s talk about the case of runic healing from Egil’s Saga.[9]

Healing with Runes

Egil was a…difficult man, to say the least; but as a true skáld (poet), he was certainly talented with words. As we saw above, spells could take the form of poetic incantations (the saying that “words have power” has much historical basis, you know), and in the passage of his saga recounted below, Egil uses words to heal a young girl named Helga who had been suffering from a wasting sickness for a long time. When Egil noticed her condition, he asked her parents if anyone had tried to cure her sickness, and they told him that the son of a local farmer had carved some runes to help her, but that she has only gotten worse since he did that for her.

Egil Skallagrimsson from the 17th-century manuscript AM 426 fol.

After Egil finished eating, he went over to where young Helga was lying and spoke to her. Then he told her parents to lift her out of bed and place clean sheets beneath her. Once that was done, he examined the bed and found a whalebone with runes carved onto it. After reading the runes, Egil shaved them off and scraped them into the fire. Then he burned the whalebone and had her bedclothes aired out. then he spoke a verse:

“No man should carve runes
unless he can read them well;
many a man goes astray
around those dark letters.
On the whalebone I saw
ten secret letters carved,
from them the linden tree (women)
took her long harm.”

Then Egil carved his own runes and placed them under Helga’s pillow. As soon as he did that, she felt as though she had just awoken from a deep sleep. Although she was still very weak, she said that she felt well again. Her mother and father were overjoyed, and they offered Egil as many provisions as he needed before he continued his journey.[10]

Archaeological Support

But what might such a runic spell have looked like? Luckily, my friends, we have archaeological evidence to confirm the saga’s account and thus give our eyes the sight they so crave. The Sigtuna Amulet, which has been dated to the mid-to-late eleventh century, is a great example for gathering a sense of what runic healing was like towards the end of the Viking Age.[11] Let’s have a look:

This example comes from a lovely book called Runic Amulets and Magic Objects, written by Mindy Macleod (from Deakin University) and Bernard Mens (from the University of Melbourne).[12] Although it is a bit expensive, I do recommend it to anyone interested in runic magic. But now let’s take a moment to understand what we’re looking at, shall we?

As you can see, the runic spell above demands that the “Ogre of wound-fever” (presumably the sickness troubling the patient) flee from the body it currently plagues. But this sickness is also referred to as a “wolf,” which was a term frequently used against criminals who were outlawed from society; and in Scandinavian folklore, wolves are often depicted as agents of evil.[13] Here, however, these cultural ideas surrounding wolves have come together in order to refer to a demon that needs to be ousted from a suffering patient. It was common during the Middle Ages, after all, to align sickness with the presence of evil demons that had entered the body through some kind of opening.[14] In this case, we may assume that the demon entered through a wound, and this amulet would have served to chase away the sickness-wolf that was harming its host—as long as the runes were carved correctly, that is.

A Lasting Legacy?

Dwelling just outside of the boundaries of our period, I think it is worth mentioning the Colic Leaf, or Kveisublaðið. Dating from around 1600, this manuscript is rather unique in that it was likely worn as an amulet that was tied around a patient. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Even around the sixteenth century, it seems that Icelanders were still using practices brought down to them from runic magic. You can even view this manuscript for yourself at handrit.is, and here is the description that they offer:

“Kveisublaðið [the Colic leaf] is probably the only one of its kind to have been preserved in Iceland. The leaf is a vellum strip with a text or a prayer against colic or arthritis. This kind of prayer leaves are considered to have been fairly common, but they were confiscated in the witch hunt in the 17th century. The strip was used as an amulet and was most often tied around the patient. This leaf was preserved in episcopal archives and is believed to have been written around 1600. The text on the leave is both in Latin and Icelandic.”[15]


Medical Treatment (Without Magic)

But not all healing involved incantations to the divine or runes carved on objects. Some healing relied on a different source of magic — knowledge of herbs and of the body. But what would this have been like in practice? For that we may turn to The Saga of Saint Olaf from Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, where a woman treats a man who has been injured in battle:

After a battle, a man named Thormod went off into a storehouse of sort. There were already many men inside there who were badly wounded. There was also a woman who was busy bandaging men’s wounds. There was a fire on the floor, and she was warming water to cleanse the wounds. Thormod sat down out by the doorway. One man was going out there and another in—they were both busy attending to men’s wounds.

Then someone turned to Thormod, looked at him, and said:
“Why are you so pale? Are you wounded? Why don’t you ask for treatment?”

[Thormod grumbles a few verses as people ask why he is so pale, including a healer. He was wounded by an arrow.]

Then the healer said, “Let me see your wounds and I shall give you some bandages.”

After that, he sat down and threw off his clothes. And when the physician saw his wounds, she examined the wound in his side. She felt that there was a piece of iron stuck in it, but she couldn’t tell for certain which way it had gone in.

She had been cooking in a stone kettle there, then ground garlic and other herbs before boiled it together. She was giving this remedy to the other wounded men and could use it to find out if they had intestinal wounds, for it smelt of garlic from out of the wound if it was intestinal. She brought this to Thormod and told him to eat it.


To this, Thormod replied: “Take it away. I’m not pining for gruel.”

Then the healer took some tongs and tried to pull out the iron in his wound, but it was stuck and wouldn’t budge; there was only a little bit of iron sticking out, since the wound was swollen.

Then Thormod said: “You cut in to where the iron is, so that it can easily be grabbed with tongs, then give them to me so I can tug at it.”

She did as he told her, and then he took a gold ring from his arm and gave it to her, telling her to do whatever she wanted with it before saying, “It was given by one who is good,” he said. “King Olaf gave me this ring this morning.”

After that Thormod took the tongs and pulled out the arrow head. But there were barbs on it, as well as bres from his heart stuck on it—some of them were red, others white. When Thormod saw this, he said:” Well has the king nourished us. There is still fat around my heart strings.”

After that he sank back and was now dead.”[16]

Unfortunately, that source doesn’t tell us what herbs that healer used, but we still gather a (fairly detailed) glimpse at what the process may have looked like (in the thirteenth century, that is). But there are a few other examples of healers working in the Sagas of Icelanders, and although they may not provide such specific details, they will at least help us gather a sense for what general medical practice may have looked like in the medieval North.

So what would one do after suffering an injury? In our example above, Thormod went to a make-shift hospital of sorts after battling among kings in Norway. But what about localized conflict? For that, we’ll look at the example from The Saga of Thord Menace to see what a person could do if they were injured in a feud or a skirmish:

“They (Thord and Indridi) fought for a long time, before Indridi fell at Thord’s feet, his wounds gaping. Then Thord charged at Indridi’s companions, and they did not fight long before Thord killed them both. After that, Thord sat down and bound his wounds, because he had received many deep wounds. He went over to Indridi and asked him if he could be cured.

‘I think there is some hope of it, if a healer sees me,’  he said.

Then Thord pulled Indridi out of the blood and helped him onto his horse. He got on his own horse, rode west into Bolstadarhlid and reported what had happened. Then he rode to Engihild with Indridi. Thorvald gave Thord a good welcome, told him to make himself at home, and asked him what had happened. Thord told him about the fight at Arnarstapi and the four deaths – ‘and I’ve come here because I want you to heal Indridi, since no man is braver than he.’ Thorvald said that he would do that. He took Indridi in, prepared a bath for him and cleaned his wounds. None of his wounds were life-threatening. Thorvald offered Thord treatment. He declined it: ‘I’m going to reach the north country, come what may.’

Indridi began to speak: ‘It’s like this: as you know, I tried to avenge Orm on Thord. But it turned out that four of my companions fells dead by Thord’s hand, and I am gravely wounded myself. My business with Thord might have been expected to turn out like this, because no man can match his valor. Now, Thord, my advice is that you ride north to my ship and wait for me there. The mistress of the house at Island is called Olof. She is a strong-minded woman, and a very skilled healer. Ask her for shelter, until I come north, and for treatment. …’

[He follows through with this plan, and Olof said (after debating with a man named Thorhall about whether Thord should be given treatment or not):]

‘I think anyone who helps him with be the better for it. Thord, I invite you to stay here as long as you like, and I’ll bind up your wounds and, if it’s fated, heal you.’

[Thorhall consents.]

Then Thord dismounted. The mistress of the house took him to an outbuilding and the farmer unsaddled his horse. Olof laid a table for Thord, and he started to eat. When he’d finished, she prepared a bath for him and cleaned his wounds. He had several deep wounds.

Thord stayed secretly at Osland until all his wounds were healed.”[17]

It’s interesting to note just how similar these examples of healers (Thorvald and Olof) are to the more detailed example from Heimskringla. But, it is also worth noting that The Saga of Thord Menace is thought to have been composed around the year 1350, which is much later than Snorri’s Heimskringla, so medical practices could have changed.[18] Nevertheless, both of these accounts still withhold a lot of detail from us, which is unfortunately true for most of our sources about the medieval North in general. In this case, we are left wondering about which kinds of herbs these healers used to treat these wounds. But to answer that, we’ll have to depart from our beloved sagas.


Herbal Remedies and Medical Books

Let’s first consider stanza 137 of Hávamál, which lists remedies to various illnesses:

137. I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take this advice,
it will be useful if you learn it,
do you good, if you have it:
where you drink ale, chose yourself earth’s power!
For earth soaks up drunkenness, and fire works against sickness,
oak against constipation, an ear of corn against witchcraft,
the hall against household strife, for hatred the moon should be invoked–
earthworms for inflamed parts, and runes against evil;
land must take up the flood.[19]

Here we begin to see herbal remedies sneaking their way into lists for maintaining good health — which, by the way, includes runes (for those pesky wolf-demons). Unfortunately this list is a bit unsatisfying, though, for it only mentions a handful of herbal remedies.

There are medieval Icelandic manuscripts containing more detailed lists of herbs used for medical remedies, but I am not able to access all of them in order to share their wisdom with you all. One of these, however, is Lækningabók (AM 655 XXX 4to), which dates to the later half of the thirteenth century. Yet, there is also Lækningakver (AM 434a 12mo), which is quite the treasure trove of medieval Icelandic medical knowledge, and you can view this manuscript for yourself over at handrit.is. This text was written around 1500, and thanks to Ben Waggoner’s translation of the manuscript, I can more easily share its details with everyone this evening.

A few things, however, should be noted: this is a text heavily mixed with continental knowledge and practices; not all of these herbs were readily available in the North and had to be imported; and this cannot be used to reflect (accurately) any other period than that which it was written — but even then, caution should be taken.

The question about which herbs were native to medieval Iceland and which were not, as well as what herbs were actually grown and used in Iceland at that time, is quite a difficult one to answer. Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir has been engaged in a careful study of medieval Icelandic herbs within the context of monastic gardens. For those who may be curious (and don’t mind delving into the depth of archaeological discussion), feel free to check out her article “The Icelandic medieval monastic garden – did it exist?

Medieval Medicine Abroad

But before we can continue, I should explain the absolute basics of medieval medicine as it was known to the rest of the medieval world: the humoral system.[20] Medieval medicine was centered around the concept of four bodily humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Each of these humors was then connected with different elements, seasons, and balances of heat and moisture. Consult the table below:

Artistole’s Four Qualities Linked to the Body
BloodAir 💨Spring 🌺Hot & Wet
Yellow BileFire 🔥Summer 🌞Hot & Dry
Black BileEarth 🌿Autumn 🍁Cold & Dry
PhlegmWater 🌧Winter ❄️Cold & Wet

It was important to keep these humors balanced, which meant considering the season and conditions affecting a patient’s heat and moisture. Yet, these humors were also linked to complexions, which were medical ‘traits’ associated with people. A medieval physician would use these complexions in order to help them decided how to treat a patient. For example, a person described as having a “sanguine temperament” was associated with the humor ‘blood’, and was generally happy, charismatic, and pleasant looking. Their body, then, would be more hot and wet than, say, a person associated with Black Bile.

You may notice some of these theories scattered throughout our example.

But now, let’s have a look:

AM 434a 12mo: A Medical Manuscript from Iceland

Screen Shot 2018-03-30 at 1.29.12 PM.png
AM 434a 12mo, 20v and 21r [x]

Since April is around the corner, let’s make sure we know what to look out for this month:

“In April, it is good to let blood and take drinks, eat meat, let a cupful of blood, make use of warmth. Rue cures a stomach-ace. And drink lovage.”[21]

Considering our saga examples from above, let’s look at the several suggestions for treating wounds:

Fjörn's Leaf

 “For a wound: lay salt on it and give the man oil with wine to drink.

Fjörn's Leaf

 If an arrow is stuck in a man (as was the case with Thormod), it may come out this way: take thistle and grapes and the white of an egg and bind them on.

Fjörn's Leaf

For a wound, take an eggshell and burn it, and a spoonful of honey and an equal amount of butter, and rub it on and crush up everything together. This remedy is good for wounds.

Fjörn's Leaf

If a wound has grown together and has become diseased all around, then take cheese; then it will be opened.

Fjörn's Leaf

But if a wound is old, take goat turds and boil them in cold wine or in goat’s milk, as much as porridge or cabbage. Lay that on the wound. That will heal, even though it may seem hopeless to the healer.

Fjörn's North Leaf

 Also, yarrow, crushed and laid on a wound, heals every wound remarkably well.

Fjörn's Leaf

Also for a wound: take iron rust and make fern and crush it all together and [lay it] on. That heals well.

Fjörn's Leaf

Crush the herb called celandine very well, with fresh fat, and lay it on. That cleanses and heals well.

Fjörn's Leaf

Also, for the same: take plantain and grind it with the white of an egg and lay it on a wound. Then it will be cleansed and not leave a scar.

Fjörn's Leaf

Also, for a wound which opens up by itself, take the herb called horehound and grind it with old fat. That cleanses and heals very well.

Fjörn's Leaf

For a wound, take the skin from bacon, and honey, and the juice of the herb called celery, and white flour, equal amounts of each, and make a paste of them and lay it on the wound. That heals it quite well.

Fjörn's Leaf

For a wound, take the powdered herb called century and sprinkle it on the wound. That heals and cleanses it.”[22]

Also relevant to our saga examples is this:

“A steam bath does these good things: It moistens the body and opens the sweat pores and washes away filth and decreases the foulness that the body has. It loosens the humors and helps one sleep well. It makes blood thin which was thick before.”[23]

But let’s also look at what there is to be said about a certain herb:

“Alanum, alum, cleanses the eyes and makes the sight clear, and shrinks excessive flesh in a man’s eyelids and in other parts, and doesn’t allow bad sores to grow. Alum tempered with honey and vinegar fastest loose teeth and heals swollen gums. Alum heals blisters and scabs, if they are washed with water in which alum is dissolved. Alum tempered with vinegar heals a sick belly and the sicklness called scruf.”[24]

Certainly that is enough to give us a glimpse at a few possible herbal remedies used in the medieval North, although this can only attest to the time around 1500 (and in Iceland). Was this book used in actual practice? If so, it is doubtful that your neighborhood healer would have such an expensive object laying around their hall (unless they were a wealthy chieftain, that is). So, who used books like these? Where else did healing take place in the medieval North? For more answers, we must once again to to other sources.


Monastic Medicine in the North

Skriðuklaustur today [x]

For the purpose of this post, we will only be looking at one monastery, although it is certainly rich with information. Iceland’s last monastery, Skriðuklaustur, was founded in 1493, around the same time that AM 434a 12mo was written.[25] Yet, archaeological digs between 2002 and 2010 have revealed that this location was not only a cloistered community of Augustinian monks, but also a hospital.[26]

Medical Monks (and Nuns)

Iceland’s Skriðuklauster was certainly not a unique development, though. Monasteries all around the medieval world were places of learning and therefore had access to medical texts. It was also generally expected for them to take care of the sick within their respective communities. Hildegard of Bingen (d.1179) is a famous example of monastic medical practice in action. She wrote Causes and Cures, which is a medical text heavily concerned with conception and women’s health. By the twelfth century, however, the Church was becoming rather anxious about medical monks and gradually introduced new ordinances against the practice. In 1123, for example, monks were forbidden to leave the monastery in order to visit the sick. Later they would be told not to practice medicine for money. Medical practice was not always seen as a strictly spiritual endeavor, which was supposed to be a monk’s primary goal in life. But this, of course, did not stop all monastic healing.[27]

The Saga of Skriðuklaustur

Excavations at Skriðuklaustur have revealed that it included an infirmary which tended to both men and women (when considered in light of the grave excavations), which suggests that it tended to lay people, and not just the monks living and working at the monastery. This is further supported by the evidence that most of the skeletons buried there show signs of various diseases.[28] There were also objects associated with medical practice found at this location, including (but not limited to) eighteen lancets, scalpels and pins, which suggests that both healing and surgery took place at this location.[29]

Archaeological dig at Skriðuklaustur [x]

During these archaeological endeavors, evidence of ten herbs have been found at Skriðuklaustur, which may help shed some light on our manuscript example from before. The following table has been recreated from “Medicinal Herbs and Medieval Healthcare at Skriðuklaustur Monastery, East Iceland” by Deborah Smith, page 206:

Medicinal Herbs Found at Skriðuklaustur

Latin Botanical name 🔬Icelandic name 🇮🇸English common name 🇬🇧
GaluimverumGulmaðraLadies’ bedstraw
JuniperuscommunisEinirCommon Juniper
Plantago majorGræðisúraCommon plantain
Ranunculus acrisBennisóleyButtercup
Rhinanthus minorLokasjodurLittle yellow rattle, Rattlebox
Sassafras albidiumSteinbrjoturSassafras
ThalictriumalpinumBrjóstagrasAlpine meadow-rue

Given the increasing amount of archaeological discovery at locations such as this, it is becoming more apparent that places in the medieval North, such as Iceland, were able to sustain herbal gardens in their monasteries despite the difficult environmental conditions they faced. Furthermore, Skriðuklaustur demonstrates that medieval knowledge (and practice) from abroad (which we saw with AM 434a 12mo) was indeed put to use through willing monasteries, if not by wealthy or notable individuals alone. To what extent did such monasteries contribute to healing and medicine in the medieval North, though? More research will need to be done before we can be too sure about anything.


Medical Miracles by Northern Saints

But the Church certainly had much to say about healing, and their narratives about miraculous healing through their saints is nothing to ignore. Thus, I would like to at least touch on this subject by providing three examples of miraculous healing from three different saints from the medieval North. I will be rather brief here, but eventually I will do a Fireside History post about Christianity (or even one specifically on saints) in the medieval North, which will be far more detailed.

A wooden statue of St. Olaf from Tylldalen church, Norway, (c.1275-1300) from the National Museum Copenhagen. [x]

Saint Olaf Haraldsson of Norway (995-1030)

Saint Olaf, who’s saga we have already included in this evening’s gathering, was a king in Norway who came to be venerated as a martyr and saint after his death in the battle of Stiklestad. His cult spread rapidly across the medieval North, even finding place in England only twenty years after his death. He became the most popular saint in Scandinavia and was even held in such high regard in Iceland.[30] The following medical miracle (which is but one of many) comes from The Passion and Miracles of the Blessed Olaf:

“Likewise, a year later, on Saint Olaf’s day, another girl won the bounty of the like grace, for her sinews were withered, and for more than five years her heels had been joined to her haunches. With the assistance of the faithful, she was carried before the door of the choir, and when the saint’s most holy body was lifted for the procession, a cracking of stretching sinews was heard, and at that moment she was healed by a miraculous power.” [31]

Saint Thorlak Thorhallsson of Iceland (1133-1193)

Statue of Saint Thorlak at the Catholic Cathedral in Reykjavik, Iceland. [x]

Saint Thorlak is perhaps the most well-known saint from Iceland, since he is the only one that managed to receive official recognition in the eyes of the Catholic Church. But his importance goes beyond that, for his veneration as a saint marked the beginning of indigenous hagiography in Iceland. He was elected bishop of Skálholt, and it is said that he fought for the Church’s right over property in Iceland, but his veneration seems to stem more out of his moral and ethical standing in life.[32] The following medical miracle comes from his saga:

“There was a man called Tjorvi; he suffered a great injury to his hands. The hands went stiff and leprous so that he could not straighten his fingers, and that injury lasted for fifteen years. He invoked the blessed Bishop Thorlak for his healing. He fell asleep after that and, when he wakened and wished to wash himself, his hands had been completely healed and they were shown to everyone who was present, and then the Te Deum was sung. And as soon as this miracle had become known to all then one after another started to invoke the holy Bishop Thorlak, and it was not strange, since the miraculous power was so great that it was granted almost before it was asked.”[33]

Gudmund the Good of Iceland (1161-1237)

Vilborg vor Statue von Bischof Guðmundur Arason in HólarHólar 08.06.2004
 A statue of Gudmund the Good near Hólar. [x]

Gudmund Arason was elected bishop of Hólar in 1203, although he was a priest since 1185. As bishop, he clashed with powerful chieftains over the issues of separating ecclesiastical courts from the secular courts (for no distinction was made in Iceland during his time). The result was a terrible feud that eventually cost him his life.[34] The following medical miracle comes from his saga:

“There was a farmer called Kalf, who was a good friend of Gudmund the priest. He became afflicted with such a severe throat-disease that he was unable to speak or to swallow food. Gudmund went to visit him, and prayed over him and dropped water frojn holy relics onto his lips. He had such difficulty in swallowing it that it made him sweat heavily, and he straightway afterwards told of this in a low voice and then stood up cured. Thereupon he went out to his cowhouse to look after the cattle, with his health completely restored.”[35]

While many of you may feel that including saints in a discussion regarding healing practices is unnecessary, we must remember that many people in the medieval period (including medieval Scandinavia after conversion) looked toward saints and their relics for healing when times were particularly difficult. It is true that some monasteries offered healing, but that was not the only option available to them. Some people living in the medieval North looked to religion for healing, hoping for a saint to work with God on their behalf.


Famous Medieval Scandinavian Healers

In fact, healing done by individuals who were not venerated as saints was actually not all that detached from the religious accounts we just spoke of. The Saga of Bishop Thorlak, for example, makes the following statement about healers: “God has established healers so that they should sometimes be able by God’s will to stop long discomforts with brief pain.”[36] Whether we like it or not, healing in the medieval world was never entirely separated from religious belief, whether pagan or Christian. But nevertheless, many good medieval Scandinavian healers were educated by secular institutions abroad, such as the famous “school” of Salerno.

Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson of Iceland (d.1213)

Hrafn Svenbjarnarson was among those fortunate enough to travel abroad and reap the benefits of far away knowledge. As a chieftain in the Westfjords who descended from a famous line of healers (which is recounted in chapter 28 of The Saga of Magnus the Good), Hrafn was exceptionally skilled in the art of healing (and likely more so due to his extensive travels). Here is an example of Hrafn curing a patient using cauterization:

“There was a man named Thorgils who suffered from an affliction that his whole body swelled up — his head, trunk, arms, and legs. He went to see Hrafn at a place where he had lodgings, and asked him for treatment. Hrafn cauterized him with many marks in the shape of a cross — across his chest, and on his head, and between his shoulders. And a fortnight later all the swelling in his flesh had disappeared, so that he was perfectly well.”[37]

Several other examples from his saga reveal a deep familiarity with continental surgical methods around the mid-thirteenth century. One such example is the account in which Hrafn performs surgery on a man named Marteinn, removing two bladder stones from him:

“Hrafn took [Marteinn] in and had him with him for a long time, and eased his suffering with great skill. But the illness afflicted him so that he became deathly ill, and lay swollen up like a bollock. And then Hrafn called in his priests and the wisest men in his household and asked whether they thought that the man was close to death on account of his sickness; and they all said that they thought he was doomed to die, unless treatment were administered. And Hrafn said that he would undertake it with God’s will and on their verdict. Then he ran his hands over the patient and felt the stone in his abdomen and manipulated it out of the penis as far as he could, and the he tied the penis behind it with a linen thread so that the stone should not shift back and then tied it in front of the stone with another thread. Then he asked everyone to chant five paternosters before he undertook the operation. And then he made an incision lengthwise with a knife and removed two stones. Afterwards he bandaged up the wound with salve and treated the man so that he grew well again.”[38]

Guðrún P. Helgadóttir has pointed out this example’s striking similarity to several texts from elsewhere in the medieval world.[39] Academic debates aside, this reveals that such knowledge was familiar to Icelanders, whether on behalf of the author or Hrafn himself (or even both, perhaps).

Henrik Harpestræng of Denmark (d. 1241)

Moving over the North Sea to Denmark, Henrik Harpestræng is perhaps the most famous of all medieval Scandinavian physicians. He is noted for introducing Salernitian medicine into Scandinavia through his writings, which influenced the manuscript we looked at today (AM 434a 12mo). Much of his work derives from texts written by Salernitan authors, such as Odo Magdunensis’ De viribus herbarum and Constantine AfricanusDe gradibus liber, which was a translation of an Arbaic text.[40] Although I do not have much at my disposal to discuss him with more detail, he is certainly worth including in our discussion, even if only briefly so.


Bringing Everything Together

But at last, my guests, we have finished our tale! After a tremendous amount of lecturing and recounting on my behalf, I do believe that it is time to recap all of the information shared today. What have we learned about healing after all of this? Let’s look:

In the medieval North, healing generally took place through individuals with varied levels of expertise and education. It wasn’t until after the twelfth century that we begin to see academically trained physicians and surgeons in the North, such as Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson. Prior to then, healing would have largely been in the hands of a few people in each district, and people who ended up getting injured (or sick) would have to seek them out if they wanted treatment — as we saw with Thord Menace.

Healing could be based in magic (via runes), herbal remedies, knowledge of the human body, or a combination of all three. Our sources are not always clear about their practice, but it is evident that a fair amount of individuals knew basic medical treatments, including how to clean wounds and provide certain herbal remedies. Our example from Heimskringla gave us a fair glimpse at how the average healer would have practiced their craft. As for magical healing, Egil’s Saga gave us a fair idea of what not to do, while our archaeological evidence gave us a better sense for what the practice would have actually looked like.

We also saw that healing began to change after the twelfth century as texts from abroad began to influence medical knowledge in the North. The one we looked was from c.1500 and contained a great deal of specialized information about herbs and various treatments. We also looked at a northern monastery in Iceland known as Skriðuklaustur, which gave us a sense for what a medical ‘institution’ may have looked like in the later medieval North. By this time, we see that medicine was not only the practice of a few notable individuals, but also communities of monks serving their local community.

A few pagan gods (such as Eir and perhaps Odin) could have been linked with healing, but our sources for that are unfortunately sparse. We do have evidence to suggest that healing chants existed in the early medieval period that invoked the powers of the divine in order to channel a healing spell. As for the later medieval period, we see several accounts of miraculous healing done by saints. Healing is still shown to be a complex relationship between religious and secular as even talented individuals, such as Hrafn, appeal to God before performing surgery of his patients.

And with that, I do believe we can all leave this hall with a better understand of healing  than we had before. It is certainly a complex topic, and I have hardly scratched the surface of what could be discussed and examined further. Nevertheless, it should do well as a basic overview and introduction to healing in the medieval North.

Keep wandering,




[1] It is important to remember the context of our sources. The Prose Edda was written in the early thirteenth century by a lay aristocratic Christian named Snorri Sturluson. While I call this ‘lore’, it is certainly not ‘pure’ — not that any historical source truly is. [return]

[2] Transcribed and translated from GKS 2367 4to 8v, line 9 by myself. [return]

[3] Snorri Sturluson, Edda, translated by Anthony Faulkes (London: Everyman, 1995), 157. [return]

[4] To read this poem for yourself, see Carolyne Larrington trans., The Poetic Edda (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 259-67. But do remember that this source was also written post-conversion. [return]

[5] John Lindow is skeptical and advices caution in trusting Snorri. For more, see John Lindow, Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 105. See also Rudolf Simek, A Dictionary of Northern Mythology, translated by Angela Hall (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1993), 71-2. [return]

[6] Larrington trans., The Poetic Edda, 33. (Hávamál, stanza 147) [return]

[7] This information is presented on cs.mdgill.ca. (Although a more academically sound source would have been preferred).[return]

[8] This translation was retrieved from pitt.edu. [return]

[9] For the sake of context, Egil’s Saga is thought to have been composed between 1220 and 1230 (or even as late as 1250). This source, like the Prose Edda, is not purely ‘pagan’ (if at all). It too was written by a Christian, and some scholars even believe the author to be Snorri Sturluson himself. [return]

[10] Bernard Scudder trans., Egil’s Saga (London: Penguin Classics, 2002), 158-9. (Chapter 73) [return]

[11] An even earlier example is known to us, which dates closer to the beginning of the Viking Age: the Ribe Cranium. [return]

[12] See Mindy Macleod and Bernard Mens, Runic Amulets and Magic Objects (Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2006). These images come from pages 119 and 118 respectively. [return]

[13] Ibid., 118. [return]

[14] Ibid., 116. [return]

[15] Description retrieved from handrit.is. [return]

[16] Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, vol. II, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes (Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 2014), 261-2. (Ólafs saga helga, chapter 235). [return]

[17] Katrina C. Attwood trans., The Saga of Thord Menace, in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, vol. III, edited by Viðar Hreinsson, 361-96 (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 380.. [return]

[18] Vésteinn Ólasson, “Family Sagas,” In A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture, edited by Rory McTurk (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 115. [return]

[19] Larrington trans., The Poetic Edda, 31. (Hávamál, stanza 137) [return]

[20] I obtained the following information from a class offered by Dr. Anne Koenig at the University of South Florida titled: History of Science and Medicine in Western Society (From Antiquity through 1700). [return]

[21] Ben Waggoner trans., Norse Magical and Herbal Healing: A Medical Book from Medieval Iceland (New Haven: Troth Publications, 2011), 6. [return]

[22] Ibid., 9, 13, 16, and 17. [return]

[23] Ibid., 24. [return]

[24] Ibid, 21. [return]

[25] Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir, “Skriðuklaustur Monastery: Medical Centre of Medieval East Iceland?Acta Archaeologica 79, 2008: 208. [return]

[26] Deborah Smith, “Medicinal Herbs and Medieval Healthcare at Skriðuklaustur Monastery, East Iceland”, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science 4, no. 13, (November 2014): 204. [return]

[27] Like endnote 20, I derived this information from my experience at the University of South Florida in the class History of Science and Medicine in Western Society (From Antiquity through 1700) with Dr. Anne Koenig. [return]

[28] Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir, “Skriðuklaustur: A Medieval Icelandic Monastery Following In The Christian Tradition” (September 2015): 30. [return]

[29] Ibid., 31. [return]

[30] Devra Kunin trans., A History of Norway and the Passion and Miracles of the Blessed Olaf (Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 2001), xxv-xxvi. [return]

[31] Ibid., 53. [return]

[32] Ármann Jacobsson and David Clark trans., The Saga of Bishop Thorlak (Þorláks saga byskups) (Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 2013), 24. [return]

[33] Ibid., 24. [return]

[34] D. Turville-Petre and E.S. Olszewska trans., The Life of Gudmund the Good, Bishop of Holar (Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 1942), xix-xxiii. [return]

[35] Ibid., 28. [return]

[36] Ármann Jacobsson and Clark trans., The Saga of Bishop Thorlak, 18. [return]

[37] Ian McDougall, “The Third Instrument of Medicine: Some Accounts of Surgery in Medieval Iceland,” In Health, Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture, edited by Sheila Campbell, Bert Hall, and David Klausner (Houndmills: Macmillan Academic and Professional, 1992), 66. [return]

[38] Ibid., 74-5. [return]

[39] See Guðrún P. Helgadóttir, Hrafns saga, for more. [return]

[40] Waggoner trans., Norse Magical and Herbal Healing, xxxvi. [return]


2 thoughts on “Healing in the Medieval North

  1. Pingback: Other Fjorn Articles | Exploring LokaBrenna

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s