September 6, 2013, by Christina Lee

Different Strokes


Last Sunday I joined the community cycle ride as part of the University of Nottingham’s Life Cycle 3, and while I was cycling along with my IMR colleague Gaby Neher I was pondering the nature of stroke rehabilitation in Anglo-Saxon England. For all the difference between Anglo-Saxon life experience and our own, there are some things which remain entirely the same, such as a human need to help those in pain. The term ‘stroke’ itself is from Early Modern English (derived from ‘stroke of God’s hand’, note 1), but the condition was known in Anglo-Saxon times.
There is some archaeological evidence for paralysis attributable to a stroke, which lasted long enough for the person’s muscles to wither and bones to thin. One example is a woman buried at West Heslerton, Yorkshire (2): while she may not have had much in form of rehabilitation, someone had to feed, wash and help her in her daily tasks.
Written sources also refer to paralysis, which might have been caused by a stroke. For instance in Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert, a young man endures such severe paralysis he can only move his mouth; he is healed by stepping into the shoes of the dead saint, since the paralysis had first started in his feet. His health is so much restored that he joins the monks in the singing of matins. Because this is a miracle story rather than a medical report, and because posthumous diagnosese, we can’t of course be sure that this is a stroke, but it looks possible. Anglo-Saxon doctors had access to classical training (via Latin handbooks) as well as being instructed in native traditions. Recipes came from Greek and Roman medicine, as well as from Byzantine works, and in addition to Galen, are based on other well-known medical authors such as Oribasius and Marcellus (3). In one of the medical textbooks, the so-called Bald’s Leechbook (Bald is the name of an owner, rather than his description), we hear about a treatment for the healfdeade adle ‘the half-dead disease’, which is considered to be hemiplegia (4). The Leechbook does not describe this condition, but another text does, and talks about a disease that befalls the right or left side of the body and which will be cured by a warm bath and blood lettings. Paralysis is mentioned in the Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History where a monk named Baduthegn is seized with a sudden pain, so that he falls to the ground and then is paralysed in one half of his body from head to foot. We are told that this is lyftadl, literally ‘air disease’ and what the ‘Greeks call paralysis’ (5).
While we cannot be sure that these refer to strokes, there had to be stroke victims. These texts are written as instructions – as examples of faith healing and yet, I cannot help to think that the authors had some, if limited, knowledge of pathology when they tell us how a condition developed. Authors, such as the Venerable Bede, were very much interested in how things ‘work’.
Today a stroke victim can get the help of many health professionals who will help the patient to regain as many areas as possible. In Anglo-Saxon times a person who had suffered a stroke would either be cared for by the community or perhaps be taken to a monastery which offered care in the infirmary. We do know that there were secular doctors, but we yet have to find the surgeries from where they operated from. In any case, the text sources describe the immense efforts that are invested in getting the afflicted care – in one case a paralysed boy is brought to St Cuthbert in a litter by his mother. Often relatives travelled far to get care, and while we do not hear about costs, we may imagine that families spent good money to help. Cycling a few miles to support our team is very little effort in comparison, which I tried to bear in mind when I had the wind in my face.

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1. OED entry on stroke:
2. Haughton, Christine & Dominic Powlesland eds, West Heslerton : the Anglian cemetery. Yedingham : Landscape Research Centre, 1999, 2 vols.
3. M. Cameron, Anglo-Saxon Medicine . Cambridge: CUP, 1993.
4. Ibid, 16.
5. The full passage reads: ‘Þa he arisende wæs, þa gefelde he his lichoman healfne dæl from þæm heafde oð þa fet’, Miller ed. The Old English Version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People ,4 vols., EETS 95, 96, 110, 111. London, 1890-98.

Posted in Anglo-SaxonArchaeologyMedicineMedievalOld English