History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

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A Headache in Medieval Scotland

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

The long history of headaches and their relief could doubtless fill many volumes. Although at the forefront of medicine in many ways (at least for the tenth century) Ali ibn Isa al-Kahhal seemed to have run out of practical solutions when he suggested lashing a mole to your head (then again have you tried it?). Hildegard of Bingen might suggest a need for more viriditas or 'greening' in your life, for "green is useful and mellow" as we know.

But sometimes there was only the suffering. Medieval Scots poet William Dunbar captures that pain well in his short poem:

The Headache

My heid did yak yester nicht,
This day to mak that I na micht.
So sair the magryme dois me menyie,
Perseing my brow as ony ganyie,
That scant I luik may on the licht.

My head did ache yesterday night, this day I cannot make [poetry]. So sorely does the migraine vex me, piercing my brow like any arrow, that I can barely look on the light.

And now, schir, laitlie eftir mes
To dyt thocht I begowthe to dres,
The sentence lay full evill till find,
Unsleipit in my heid behind,
Dullit in dulnes and distres.

And now, sir, just after mass, I thought to begin to try to address [my task], the words are so difficult to find, hiding in my unrested head, dulled by dullness and distress.

Full oft at morrow I upryse
Quhen that my curage sleipeing lyis.
For mirth, for menstrallie and play,
For din nor danceing nor deray,
It will not walkin me no wise.

Quite often on the morrow I rise, when my spirit lies sleeping. For mirth, minstrels and play, for noise nor dancing nor revelry, will not wake me in any way.


Dunbar describes well the pain of the migraine as well as its aftermath when the sharpness of the pain gives way to more general malaise. There was a surprisingly good understanding of migraines in the Middle Ages. Sufferers might wonder how far we have come.

[Title page of Dunbar's The Goldyn Targe in the Chepman and Myllar Prints of 1508, National Library of Scotland]

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.
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