Monday, October 08, 2012

Folk Medicine in Norway

While writing Oleanna, Kathleen Stokker's Remedies and Rituals: Folk Medicine in Norway and the New Land was incredibly helpful in understanding how people living in remote villages and farmsteads might deal with things like illness or childbirth.

It's an interesting time in Norway--1905, when the cities have grown quite modern, but the people living in geographically isolated and physically remote villages and farmsteads are in a liminal state, clinging to what they know and have always known, but beginning to understand that the modern world will not be held back.

For example, when Oleanna catches a fever and cold, Elisabeth asks Anders to go into the nearest town, Skei, to bring back both aspirin and whiskey—modern and traditional approaches to healing. Elisabeth, being a regular newspaper reader, would know about aspirin, which had been popularized by Bayer, who began selling it around the world in 1899. One of the remedies Stokker shared for fever and cold is:
"Rx for bad cold and coughs: Concentrated pine oil ½ oz., good whiskey 2 oz., Mix and shake well. Dose: teaspoonful to tablespoonful every 4 hours." (236)
Other traditional options included camphor oil, turpentine (rubbed on the chest), warm mustard plaster (applied to the chest), goose grease (rubbed on the chest), or goose oil WITH turpentine (rubbed on the chest and back).

Another popular cure-all seemed to be onions, fried or raw, tied into some kind of cloth and placed on the chest or throat. Can you imagine what a fragrant sick-room that would be? Yikes.

Kvann (Angelica archangelica)

Herbs were of course heavily used in remedies, and through history, Norway was well-known for one in particular: angelica, or kvann in Norwegian. Again, from Stokker:
Kvann (angelica)
"By the Viking era (ca. 800-1000 AD), kvann (Angelica archangelica or angelica) was already an important item of trade. Snorri's medieval Saga of Olav Tryggvasson describes the king buying it at the market place in Nidaros. The 1164 Law of Gulating emphasized kvann's continued importance, urging landowners to set aside special kvanngarder (patches to grow these leafy stalks, which in western Norway reached six or seven feet tall). Strict punishments were imposed for stealing kvann from another farm…

"Monks grew kvann in Norway's medieval cloister gardens, and many wore it as a protective amulet or carried it in their pockets to ward off sickness and danger…In addition to warding off food poisoning, kvann could be eaten to cure gikt (rheumatism) and taering (consumption)…When the Black Death struck Europe in the late 1340s, kvann gained a reputation for curing the afflicted and stopping its spread…According to legend, it was at this time kvann got its Latin name, Angelica archangelica
"In addition to its high Vitamin C content, kvann has aromatic oils and tannins that stimulate digestive juices. Along with its sweet taste and fragrance, these properties have long made kvann an important component of the French liqueurs Chartreuse and Benedictine, along with their Norwegian counterpart, St. Halvard likor." (108-10)
Elisabeth and Oleanna's mother was, like all good farm wives, well studied in the herbal arts for medicine, for wool dyeing, and for general wellness. Practitioners today note angelica's healing properties--soothing anxiety and promoting general well-being.

Elisabeth seemed to have learned well (to Oleanna's surprise and happiness).
Torjus emerged from the farmhouse and ran toward her [Oleanna]. She opened her arms and he tumbled into her lap. “What is it?” He wriggled around until he could look up into her face, and she smiled.

“Mama said you smell bad and should come take a bath.” He reached out and pulled at a strand of hair that had worked its way out of her braid.

Oleanna smiled, tipping Torjus out of her lap and standing up. “Is that so? She can smell me all the way from the farmhouse?”

He nodded earnestly. “I had to take a bath, too. It’s alright, Lea, it doesn’t hurt.”

She laughed and took his hand. “You’re very brave.”

Torjus pulled his hand free and ran away, down the hill. “Mama, mama, she’s coming,” he hollered.

Oleanna stretched her arms up over her head, grinning, and then wandered down the hill after him. She pushed the door open and was greeted with the sweet, musky smell of angelica. Elisabeth was bent over the fire, picking up a boiling pot of water to pour into the small tin tub.

“You’d better hurry,” Elisabeth said. “It takes ages for your hair to dry.”

“Lisbet, you didn’t have to go to the trouble—”

Elisabeth straightened and put her hand up. “Hush. Hurry up. You’re starting to smell like Terna.” She picked up a pile of linens from the bed and bustled out, shutting the door firmly behind her. Just outside the door, Oleanna could hear Elisabeth shushing Torjus and his whining complaint as they walked up the hill to the store house.
If you have any interest in folkways, the history of medicine, or the maintenance of tradition in immigrant communities, I strongly recommend Stokker's book. It is fascinating and well researched, and will make you very glad that you live in the 21st century.

As a side note, I'm definitely putting her Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land on my wishlist!

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