I recently received a message from Jenni Nuttall, a Lecturer in English at Oxford University, asking whether I had come across a migraine poem by the fifteenth-century Scottish poet William Dunbar that she had written about on her own blog.
The first verse of the poem reads as follows:
On his heid-ake
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.
Here is the translation from Middle Scots into English (with thanks to Jenni for allowing me to use this):
My head did ache last night,
so much that I cannot write poetry today.
So painfully the migraine does disable me,
piercing my brow just like any arrow,
that I can scarcely look at the light.
There are two more verses of the poem in which Dunbar describes the physical pain of looking at the light and, as Nuttall observes, he also beautifully captures a sense of the migraine aftermath, or ‘postdrome’ – although Dunbar would get up the following morning, his spirit remained asleep, unable to waken for mirth or minstrelcy, revelry or dancing.
There is actually a suprising amount of evidence of how medieval people dealt with migraine. Images of homo venorum often included instructions for bleeding, such as this one in a fifteenth-century guild book of the York Company of Barber Surgeons. The circle in the bottom left hand corner refers to the point between the thumb and first finger of the man’s right hand, and contains instructions in Middle English for treating ‘migram’ by opening the vein between the fingers and the thumb. The literature and imagery of phlebotomy offers some of the earliest evidence in a long history of migraine management in everyday medical practice. Other medieval treatments include a cap made of aloe, myrrh, wheat flour and poppy oil in the thirteenth-century manuscript of Causae et Curae, attributed to Hildegard of Bingen. In eleventh-century Chartres, a patient might have been told to stroke peony root over the site of pain, while a thirteenth-century Welsh text recommends eating a baked or roasted hare’s brain stuffed with rosemary flowers, followed by sleep to treat the ‘migran’. So there is evidence of medieval descriptions of migraine and of treatments, but what is so important about Dunbar’s poem is its expression of something much less tangible, of what people thought a migraine felt like in the fifteenth century.
I was delighted to finally learn of this poem, and yet Dunbar is hardly obscure: he was employed by James IV, and his migraine poem has been discussed a number of times. To my knowledge he has yet to be noticed by historians of medicine. This is a wonderful poem – in many ways it seems a staggeringly modern evocation of a migraine – and it certainly deserves to be included in our sources.