Though these may be good guesses, the answer is a rather mild form of hand deformation. So how and why do we refer to this as "Viking disease"?
A famous French baron and a Viking affliction
What does a 19th-century CE French baron have to do with the Vikings? Well, at first glance, one might assume there isn't much in common between the surgeon who treated Napoleon Bonaparte's hemorrhoids and early medieval Europe's greatest seafaring raiders and traders.
However, the Baron is known for the first successful operation on, and description of, what is commonly called Viking Disease or, to give its official name, Dupuytren contracture.
Baron Guillaume Dupuytren (1777 – 1835) was a French anatomist and military surgeon. Lithograph by Nicolas-Eustache Maurin. Source: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
The disease, which the Baron described in an 1834 article in the medical publication, The Lancet, has been known for over a millennium, yet it was the Baron's successful operation and description that introduced it to a modern audience. The disease is a condition that affects both the hands and fingers, causing the formation of "knots" of tissue that deforms the hands into a bent position.
The condition begins with the formation of very small lumps in the palm of the hand, which may go unnoticed. Over a prolonged period, these small lumps can form into "knots" of connective tissue that extend into the fingers. As the connective cords tighten, they pull the fingers towards the palm, causing pain and making it difficult to grip and hold objects.
It is a progressive and degenerative condition that only worsens over time and can make daily activities hard to perform.
So why was it called "Viking’s disease"?
The disease had been, until the Baron emerged onto the medical science, traditionally labeled "Viking disease." It has only been in the recent half-century that scientists and doctors have properly discovered the origins of the disease.
What we know now is that certain populations have genetically higher rates of risk of getting this disease than others. One such population is those of Scandinavian origin.
Mentions of the disease date back to the medieval period, when scientific knowledge and reasoning were extremely limited compared to what we possess today.
Due to a combination of lack of knowledge and the Vikings' relatively large migratory patterns – throughout Europe, from the Iberian Peninsula to the Black Sea, from modern-day Canada to Baghdad, and seemingly everywhere in between – the disease was first noticed amongst people from Viking societies.
The disease, for example, would eventually lead to any budding Viking being unable to grip an axe or sword, rendering them, in a military sense, useless.
While people from Viking societies were not the only ones to suffer from this progressive disease, it appeared, to pre-modern peoples, that it was both more noticeable and more documented (based on very limited historical records).
The name stuck, and it was only in the 19th century CE, with the help of the Baron, that a new medical term was introduced.
The term is, in fact, a misnomer as it occurs in a wide variety of populations aside from Scandinavians, including those living in parts of South-East Europe, particularly the Balkans.
Treatment and a famous victim
Unfortunately for those that suffered it during the pre-modern period, including many Vikings, there was no treatment. The condition worsened and made it impossible for the hand/s to function properly and perform routine everyday tasks.
Since the Baron's first successful operation, nearly two hundred years ago, medical science has advanced in leaps and bounds.
19th-century retentive metal splints for Dupuytren's contracture treatment, offering support and phalangeal extension to the affected fingers. Drawing by William Adams. Source: Internet Archive Book Images / Public domain
Treatment today depends on the severity of the disease but can include surgery and radiation therapy. It is a much more widely understood condition that has seen a series of risk factors – including genetic predisposition, sex, and the amount of alcohol or tobacco consumed – labeled just as important as if one had any "Viking" ancestry.
Perhaps the most famous person to suffer this condition is, if we are to believe the 11th-century Byzantine scholar Psellus, the tragic Viking hero Harald Hardrada.
In a chronicle of his life, Psellus wrote that Hardrada had a deformity in his hand that made him unable to grip a spear properly, something that sounds very much like Dupuytren’s contracture.
Yet, given this was written almost a millennium ago, by someone very much not a trained medical doctor, this may just be mere speculation.
For the latest scholarly and medical information on this condition, visit the Eureka Alert website here.
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