These are my Mother’s hands, she suffers from Dupuytren's Disease (DD), an affliction in which shortening and thickening of fibrous tissue causes the fingers to bend towards the palm. It is painless, but prevents the fingers being fully straightened. It is named after Baron Guillaume Dupuytren, the French anatomist who described an operation to correct the affliction. It is more popularly known as the "Viking disease". Tradition has it that the disease originated with the Vikings, who spread it throughout Northern Europe and beyond, as they travelled and intermarried.
Greek and Roman literature contain no record of anything resembling DD. The Icelandic sagas of the 12th and 13th centuries, however, describe a number of “miracle cures” for a condition sounding very similar to DD. Researchers have found no evidence of DD in early Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic medical literature. In addition, the more extensive medical literature of medieval Europe before 1614 shows no evidence of the condition.
In his 1963 book, Australian hand surgeon John Hueston wrote, “Dupuytren’s contracture is virtually confined to people of European descent”. Its highest incidence is recorded in Iceland. As expected, the incidence is also high in Scandinavia. In a large 1962 review of published figures, P. F. Early listed the countries of Europe and countries with large populations of North European descent, in order of the incidence of DD: Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States. The incidence in Sweden was matched by that in Edinburgh. Two different Scottish studies by James and Ling showed such a high family incidence of DD that they described it as being an inherited disorder transmitted through a single gene.
My Mother’s maiden name was Tingle. Tingle is the old Norse word for the cross-member inside a ship that joins the gunwales towards the tip of the prow. (Here is an illustration of the Tingle from the Oseberg ship www.flickr.com/photos/30591976@N05/4685539760/in/photostr... , the well-preserved Viking ship discovered in a large burial mound at the Oseberg farm near Tønsberg in Vestfold county, Norway). Her paternal Grandfather was born in Lincolnshire, often called England’s most Scandinavianised county and her paternal Grandmother hailed from Whitby (The White farm in Old Norse). Thus a Viking origin for my Mother’s DD would seem to fit fairly securely.
So why the inverted commas around Viking?
Well theories are only as good as the evidence found to support them. Like many medical theories, that of the origin of DD, was originally based on evidence taken from ‘developed’, i.e. Western countries. Now as more data from other areas of the World is collected theories are being revised. Researchers have now found that Dupuytren's Disease is also widespread in some Mediterranean countries, like Spain and Bosnia, which could be accounted for by Norse traders, Viking raids and Scandinavian soldiers serving in the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Emperor. The discovery of cases in the Punjab (though Vikings traded in Baghdad) and Japan are less easy to explain. Perhaps the Vikings travelled further a field than is thought, or maybe the cause of Dupuytren's Disease lies further back in the human genetic story. Or possibly there is another theory just waiting for new evidence to support it…
Good health/God helse/God hälsa/Iechyd da/¡Salud!