“Eyrsilfr drukkit, þat gerir bana”

The Earliest Old Norse Medical Book, AM 655 XXX 4to, and Its Context

  • Brynja Þorgeirsdóttir


This essay offers an examination of an Icelandic thirteenth-century manuscript fragment which represents the earliest extant traces of a medical book in the vernacular in medieval Scandinavian culture. The fragment contains fifty-two articles, describing various ailments and their cures as well as the medical effects of different plants and other materials. The origins of this manuscript remain enigmatic. The essay aims to shed what light is possible on its origins and use. It includes a description of the manuscript’s physical characteristics, an analysis of its literary and sociological context, and a critical discussion of what this may tentatively tell us about the production, purpose, and use of the medical codex to which the fragment once belonged. The manuscript materially exemplifies the movement of Arabic and Latin medical knowledge from Italy to Denmark through Norway to Iceland. The essay further argues that the manuscript’s obscure relationship to five other Old Norse medical books illustrates the common medieval tradition of freely reworking medical material into individual specific contexts. The physical features of the fragment indicate that the codex which it represents was considered both practical and important, and that its purpose was to be used as an instrument in healing practices in thirteenth-century Iceland. An English translation of the fragment’s text is appended.