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I heard that Vikings had a lot of parasites like worms in their poop. So my question is how did people deal with parasites back in the olden days? Suffer and bear it or were there remedies?(r/AskHistorians)
People dealt with it back then and yes, there were some remedies. Luckily art and writings from these times clues us into what supposed cures older cultures used to fix common medical problems like worms and parasites. For simplicity, I’ll try to focus on Norse Viking culture pre-Christianity because the medicinal beliefs in bloodletting and humors changed the culture of medicine in Scandanavia so much.
Here are a few methods of prevention Nordic peoples believed led to better gut health:
1) Rune charms, often on bone.
2) Salting meat heavily, or failing that, picking maggots from slaughtered meat before cooking.
3) Herbs like angelica and ingestion of onions and leeks was not only used to detect deadly wounds, but believed to promote good intestinal health. This one actually has evidence behind it, as garlic and onions do have many beneficial properties when ingested.
But how did a Viking deal after parasitic infestation? Well, almost everyone in Western Europe had worms and parasites back then, so it was really a matter of degree. The Vikings, like the Romans, were pretty obsessed with outward hygiene compared to many other cultures at the time. They shaved, groomed, combed, and went out of their way to bathe in warm water. They battled lice and fleas but went out of their way to eliminate it in the body and home. Marital vows included a man forswearing that his grooming be undertaken by anyone other than his wife, and dirtying someone else on purpose was a HUGE insult punishable by litigation and restitution in Nordic cultures. Unfortunately, when it comes to internal parasites, what the Vikings didn’t know was the same thing the Romans didn’t know: how they got spread. Fertilizers used for crops meant human and animal poop, so no matter how clean you were on the outside, if you ate crops that grew from poop, you were getting all the parasites and their eggs right back. It was kind of a huge problem back then and since no one knew how to stop it, symptoms of worms like malnutrition, liver disease and poor gut health couldn’t be properly prevented. IBS, liver and heart disease, and the connection to food contamination, weren’t understood like they are now. So if you got parasites in the intestines, liver or heart, or anywhere else, you’d probably be treating the symptoms.
That being said, Nordic medicine did have some remedies for those symptoms of parasites and infection. Some still hold up today:
1) Honey, and honey mead, was held in high regard as an antiseptic and as a cure for IBS. Honey does hold antiseptic properties.
2) Pastes and ingestion of garlic and leek remedies, often mixed with animal bile, were used to treat wounds, eye infections, and hemorrhoids, all which can be caused by parasites.
3) Salting wounds and ingestion of salt can kill infection, and was a form of wound treatment.
Luckily, recent studies have shown Nordic peoples evolved with resistances in their intestinal linings to help with parasitic infections. But that same preventative protein may contribute to a rise in emphysema and heart disease in Nordic populations nowadays,which is bad luck for Norwegian, sun-adverse vampires like me.
This isn’t what you asked, but there are two good books that I want to recommend if you want to know more about sanitation and home health care in the middle ages in Europe. One is fiction, its called Catherine Called Birdy. Its a fake diary written as a girl in England in the 1200s but its very funny and goes into everyday life including the role of medicine in the home and food preparation. It’s also incredibly well researched and might give you a better idea of how every day people in older cultures in Western Europe approached the body. The other book is The Age of Vikings by Anders Winroth for more specific information, very good reference on art and culture.
Behold, more sources!
The Age of Vikings, Anders Winroth
Oxford Bibliographies Warning, subscription needed.
www.vikinganswerlady.com(various fast fact and translation checking since i know the site and sources)
I’d also like to add this as a good source, but my grandmother can’t find it for me. Its a book my grandfather had and I used for school projects.
Recent articles on possible modern medical uses of garlic based antiseptics, interesting in context but take with HUGE grain of salt as I am not a doctor: