Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Food and physic in ancient Denmark

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX (1863)
Food and physic in ancient Denmark
by Hannah Leigh
2720361Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX — Food and physic in ancient Denmark
1863Hannah Leigh


In early times—so ancient authors tell us—the Danish nation, like every other primeval community, lived the hardy life of hunters. Scarcely had an infant uttered its first feeble wail, than it was plunged into a stream of ice-cold water, or rolled in a heap of snow. “No art, no nurse,” says the Danish author, Schœning, “taught the little Dane to walk;” he acquired the accomplishment himself, scrambling naked upon the earth among the scattered branches of trees, upon which he laid hold to raise himself from the ground. As soon as he could run with ease, he was set to explore the recesses of the forest, to launch his tiny arrow at the abundant game, or to paddle his little skiff over the smooth waters of the numerous lakes and creeks in search of fish. His nourishment was strong and coarse, but suited to the Danish climate, which is cold and humid, although pure and sufficiently healthy. A very common dish among the early Danes was gammelmad. This was a kind of salted meat; and the name of the dish, signifying in English stale food, originated in the custom of cooking it a week beforehand. An ancient writer on physiology praises the salubrity of this national diet; which was only varied by the occasional introduction of fish in various forms; or of the different soups then called by the generic name of skeemad (spoon meat). These still linger among the Danish peasantry, and are now denominated sœbemad.

Torfæus speaks of the gruels and milk soups; and it appears, according to Saxo, that oatmeal gruel, well-thickened, was used by the poorer class of people as a substitute for bread. A little later, cabbages were much cultivated. Salt was made by throwing water on the ashes of seaweed. The inhabitants of the small isle of Lessoe were celebrated among the Danes for their expertness in fabricating this species of salt.

Later still, bees were extensively kept, and carefully tended; their honey being used in the place of sugar. Vinegar came from fruits or beer. This beer was not made from hops, but from the berries of the Myrica gale of Linnæus. Cider, mead, and strong beer (gammeltœlel) were reserved for fêtes. If the early Danes sometimes drank gammeltœlel to intoxication, the nature of the climate must be their excuse; besides, strong beer, as they made it, was far less hurtful than the corn-brandy which they substituted in later times.

Gymnastic exercises were much patronised. Thorlacius has given an excellent description of these games. Saxo relates that the celebrated Danish bishop, Absalon, would often go unattended into the forests to chop wood by way of exercise. Nor were the early Danes inattentive to cleanliness. Their beautifully clear and rosy skins were continually washed and bathed; their flowing light hair was neatly dressed and frequently combed. Towels had been in use from the beginning, and were first made from plaited fibres, or thin bark. Snorro says that King Suend Estridsen, flying to the isle of Hueen, incurred the anger of his hostess; who, not recognising him as her sovereign, scolded him heartily for drying his hands too high up on the towel that she had lent him. The ancient meetings called gildrskraar, and at which fines were levied from offenders against cleanliness and propriety, are further evidence of the sanitary observances of the early Danes.

Doctors were as yet in small repute. During one of the wars prosecuted by the Danish King Suend Tveskieg against England, dysentery appeared in his army. No physician was present to arrest the ravages of the disease; it rapidly spread among the ranks of warriors, and several thousand men perished. The mortality would have been still greater, but for the medical knowledge of an English ecclesiastic whom they had recently brought a prisoner into their camp. In the pompous expedition made by Canute the Great to Rome, when every minister of luxury was included in the royal suite, physicians and apothecaries were alone wanting; and the monarch and his attendants were greatly indebted to the hospitable cares of the Comte de Namur, who welcomed the royal train, and healed the sick and ailing among them.

In those strong, hearty times, the people lived an active and stirring life; and when, by reason of illness or the access of extreme old age, their throbbing pulses waxed feebler and feebler, they boldly faced the shadowy future, and quietly resigned themselves to approaching death. “The hour is come,” was the submissive cry when the sick gave tokens of impending dissolution. After this, in place of striving to arrest the rapidly-nearing crisis, they rather sought to accelerate it. They cited Odin’s example as one worthy of imitation. According to Snorro, this hero no sooner felt his end approaching, than he decided between life and death by falling on the point of his sword. Traces of this feeling are still to be met with. Even yet, in the remoter nooks and corners of the Danish peninsula and its more distant islets, the peasantry neglect to invoke the offices of the physician, and die without his aid. When the tokens manifest themselves which are infallible signs of death, there still exist places in Jutland where the relatives will put on mourning before the patient is dead. The injurious custom of withdrawing the pillow from beneath the head of the dying, even now occasionally practised among the lower classes of the populace, is a disagreeable remnant of former ignorance. About a century and a half ago, it was regarded as a work of true friendship among the nobility and higher citizens to deprive a dying friend of the support for his head. This act of friendly sympathy could not fail to hasten the death of many persons who otherwise might have lived several hours or even days longer.

As may be supposed, from the frequent wars and turmoils, surgery was much more in request than medicine. Kings themselves were experienced surgeons; and every warrior learned the art of healing wounds. Nor were the women deficient in this respect; they often thronged in crowds to the field of battle to tend the wounded heroes. The use of knives and probes was well understood; gashes were sewed up, limbs amputated, and even replaced by wooden imitations. A species of sedan-chair was invented for the conveyance of the wounded. King Suend was carried in one of these. It is said that gashes made by arrows and other ancient arms, were much more difficult to heal than those inflicted by modern weapons. Female surgeons made great use of a kind of soup cooked in stone jars, and seasoned with onions and other herbs, which they administered to their patients before dressing their wounds. The sick having swallowed the decoction, their nurses pretended to judge by their breath whether the hurts were dangerous or not. Probably this soup contained a species of anodyne, which assuaged the sufferings of the wounded, and thus afforded more facility for the examination and dressing of his wounds.

The use of herbs as medicinal applications, was thoroughly understood by the women of those ancient times. In this branch of the art of healing the fair sex were wholly unrivalled. Idun, the wife of Braga, succeeded in many cures by means of a certain species of apple, of which she alone understood the properties, and which has since been supposed to be neither more nor less than a large pill made up of pounded herbs. In the funeral orations pronounced over the graves of noble ladies, their knowledge of the properties of herbs was frequently the subject of distinct eulogium.

It rather undermines our theories of health, to find that, notwithstanding the simple and hardy habits of the early countrymen of our princess, acute illnesses of all kinds were tolerably prevalent. The two prevailing diseases were scurvy and fever; although other sicknesses are incidentally mentioned, as jaundice, dropsy, consumption, smallpox, and so forth. Canute the Great died of the jaundice.

The more violent maladies, as madness, convulsions, epilepsy, were regarded as effects of the malice of the devil and of evil spirits (Onde Aander).

Leprosy, which is but a scorbutic affection of extreme and loathsome virulence, was fearfully common. The first hospitals erected by the Danish nation, owed their origin to this disgusting malady; as is amply proved by the first name of these abodes of sickness and contagion being simply “leprosy-houses.” Since those remote centuries, the extension of agriculture, a moderated consumption of fish, and a better regulated dietary altogether, have expelled the leprosy from Denmark.

Even so early as the sixteenth century, this disease had so much diminished in the country, that the emptied hospitals were applied to other purposes.

During the tenth century, the plague made its appearance several times, and was confidently looked for every ten years. That form of it which prevailed there and all over Europe in 1349-50, was known to the Danes by the name of Sorte Daed (the Black Death). Gebhardi and other historians affirm that two-thirds of the inhabitants of Denmark perished by this fearful pest. It was introduced into Jutland by an English vessel, and spared neither men nor animals. The sufferers never lingered more than two days, and died vomiting blood.

The mistletoe berry (Seidou mistel) was a remedy long in vogue for various diseases, and much relied on by the ancient Danes. Snorro attributes its discovery to Odin. It grew on several species of trees besides the oak; and was applied externally as well as internally. Juniper berries, mustard, and wormwood, cured all kinds of pains and colics. Cows’ milk, and the bark of the oak, were very useful in dysentery. The roes of fish were recommended in many maladies. The blood of ferocious animals, such as the bear and the wolf, was imbibed by way of a tonic. Biarke, an ancient hero, caused his ailing friend, Hialté, to suck the blood of a recently-killed bear. Drowned people were recovered, much as in these days, by means of friction and the application of heat.

Warming-pans were known; and bleeding was a common remedy in diseases of repletion. It was usually resorted to in the spring and fall of the year; and certain days were regarded as fortunate or unfortunate for the purpose.

Water ranked among the simple remedies. Baths were established in all the towns of Denmark. That these were usually warm is proved by their name, Badstner, the word bad signifying “to heat.” But, being gradually used for other and wrong purposes, these establishments were submitted to severe inspection, and their numbers gradually diminished.

Certain springs enjoyed the reputation of being medicinal. One in the cemetery of Skandrup, in Jutland, cured diseases of the eye in men and animals. Another at Tyrsback, in Jutland, healed burns and scalds. Qualities that would prevent the plague were attributed to a spring at Brœnshœli, in Zeeland. King Waldemar Christofersen used the water from a spring near Vorddringborg to cure his gout. Every province had its principal spring, to which crowds of the peasantry resorted on the eve of St. John. These spots are still occasionally visited.

There formerly existed in Denmark a famous compilation of medical recipes, called “The Eleven Books,” several volumes of which have survived the ravages of time and neglect, and are to be met with in the cabinets of the curious in such matters. These books used to be distributed over the country, and were handed down as precious bequests to the third and fourth generation. The first court-physician whose name has descended to us was the Abbé Johannes. This learned man attempted the cure of King Waldemar the First, ill of a mortal disease. He prepared for that monarch a peculiar tisane, and enveloped him in linen coverings by way of producing a profuse perspiration, but egregiously failed. Another eminent medical man of those later times was Henri Harpestraeng, who wrote a treatise on the art of healing. This book is still extant, and, being written in the Danish tongue, affords much insight into the early history of that language. Henri Harpestraeng died in 1244. When the Kings of the House of Oldenburg ascended the throne of Denmark, civilisation made a few steps in advance. In 1480 the University of Copenhagen was founded, and medicine represented there; but only moderately cultivated until the Reformation in 1536. Since then the healing art has been sedulously studied in Denmark; and that kingdom abounds with able surgeons and physicians, who will stand a comparison with the medical practitioners of any other educated state.