Session 35: Ystafell 11
Medicine and healing in Irish and German texts

Chair: Nicholas John Evans

Diagnosing mental infirmity in medieval Irish legal scholia

Anna Matheson
Université de Tours

This paper will present a much-needed compendium of the different signs and characteristics that are indicative of mental infirmity in medieval Irish legal and literary sources. The latter half of the paper will focus on a curious legal commentary, found in sixteenth-century Trinity College Dublin MS H 3 17 (1), explaining how to diagnose different forms of mental impairment. I will offer a translation of the commentary and a discussion of its date. By identifying the sources (both native and non-native) from which some of the citations were drawn, I will show how this text is indicative of the state of medical learning in late fifteenth-century Ireland.

'Bone to bone, blood to blood': an ancient Celtic healing spell and its Indo-European parallels

Ulrike Roider
University of Innsbruck

In the ninteenth century, the German comparative philologist Adalbert Kuhn drew attention to an Old High German healing spell and a striking parallel in a Vedic hymn. Was this an elementary parallel that was used by healers in Europe as well as in Asia or could it be derived from a common Indo-European basis? The answer to this question is not easy and scholars came to diverging conclusions. In this paper the focus is on an Old Irish myth. The Celtic healing formula found in this mythological text was still widely used in Scotland up to modern times, with variants in other Northern European countries. In Indo-European tradition there existed a learned class whose members were experts in myths, poetry, and law as well as astronomy and medicine. There is evidence from archeological data that surgical procedures for the healing of bone fractures were already used in the Neolithic age. It can be shown by comparing textual passages from Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, and Celtic that the method for healing broken bones and injuries caused by weapons was based on three components: surgery, herbal healing, and reciting healing spells or prayers. Medical knowledge was passed on over a long period of time. Languages changed but ancient medical practices and the old spells lived on in modernized form.

The rôle of the physician in the political authority of medieval Irish kings

Emmet Taylor
Saint Francis Xavier University

This paper explores the relationship that existed between the professional physicians of early medieval Ireland, the legai, and the political authority of kings. Though little is definitively known about the medical procedures used by these physicians, their social position and relationship to the kinship system is addressed in several different saga texts such as Aided Chonchobuir, Tochmarc Étaíne, and Cath Maige Tuired as well as in the legal tracts Bretha Crόlige and Bretha Déin Chécht. Both literary works and legal tracts show that the legai were instrumental to the political authority of Irish kings. Minor plastic surgeries and other medical treatments allowed kings to minimize the risk of damage to their bodies (and thus their kingship) while participating in socially expected martial activities. This paper emphasizes the benefits of finding points of intersection between the literary works of early Ireland and other historical documents to help substantiate some of the information found within the saga texts, as well as adding to the growing field of historical research on medieval medical practices. This paper also increases our knowledge of the medical practices of the legai, highlighting a potential historic tradition of cosmetic surgery in early medieval Ireland distinct from Classical medical tradition.