Nostalgia and Old Urine

For land disease or nostalgia, boil wormwood so dry (or) so green, as he hath there, in oleum infirmorum, the oil of extreme unction, till a third part of the oil is boiled away, and smear all the body at the fire with it, and a mass priest shall perform the leechdom, if a man hath means to get one.

Wiþ londadle wyl wermod swa drigne, swa grenne swa þer he hæbbe on oleo <infirmorum> oþ þæt þæs eles sie þriddan dæl bewylled & smire mid þone lichoman ealne æt fyre & mæsse preost sceal don þone læcedom gif man hæfþ. (from Cockayne, T.O. Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England,)

While I was in grad school, I worked off and on as a research assistant at the Dictionary of Old English, where my job largely consisted of proofreading entries and double checking manuscript variants. It was a great way to get experience reading a wide variety of Old English texts outside of my research interests. One day I was proofreading the entries for hland, stale urine, and hlandadl, a disease of the urine, which I like to imagine was a urinary tract infection (although I am not an expert on Anglo-Saxon diseases).

In addition to the innate hilarity of urine, hland had also captured my interest for its ability to, apparently, be used to counteract necromancy. This made a weird kind of sense to me. If I were a medieval person who saved my urine, I’m sure I could use it to ward off all manner of malefactors, magical or not. In checking the citations for hlandadl, however, I was surprised to come across the translation above, in which Cockayne translated the word as nostalgia. His mistake derived from a variant spelling, in which the h is omitted, leading him to misinterpret the first element as a variant of land.

There were a few things that struck me about the way Cockayne proceeds from a land-disease to nostalgia. For starters, it privileges place rather than time, which is what I associate with nostalgia. But I also thought it was curious that Cockayne pathologized nostalgia as something requiring medical treatment (especially when the treatment was having a priest rub oil all over your naked body). That curiosity was eventually satisfied by an article in The Atlantic, “When Nostalgia was a Disease,” by Julie Beck:

These were some of the treatments proposed for nostalgia during the 17th to 19th centuries, when it was considered a psychopathological disorder–rather than a blanket term for fondness for anything that existed more than thirty minutes ago.

Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term in his 1688 medical dissertation, from the Greek nostos, or homecoming, and algos, or pain. The disease was similar to paranoia, except the sufferer was manic with longing, not perceived persecution, and similar to melancholy, except specific to an object or place.

I’ve been thinking about nostalgia a lot lately. I have a reason to call a number of places home: Stillwater, Lawrence, Toronto, Fargo, Detroit. This makes it difficult when people ask where I’m from. Oklahoma, but I’ve only been there once since my parents moved. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the way time, place, and people are all intertwined. Since I moved to Michigan back in June, I’ve gotten to know a lot of Renee’s friends and I’ve become friends with the people at the tutoring center where I work. But I’m not connected with an academic community here, and I miss having people to wrangle with about metaphor, form, perception, and translation.

I love wrangling. I like people who have strong feelings about mutual passions, especially if their opinions don’t match my own. But it’s also hard to feel that connection in writing, where wrangling without a personal context feels more like attacking. This is one of the reasons I’ve struggled with updating this blog more frequently. As a result, most of my posts have been inspired by something that annoyed me so much I had to write out my opposition. And that’s fine, although I don’t want every blog post to begin with “(fill in the blank) said something that really bugged me.” I want to talk about nostalgia and urine too! And other things that are less puerile. I’ve actually been meaning to write this post since August when that Atlantic article came out.

I’m still negotiating what it means to not be in grad school anymore, One thing it means is that I can split infinitives with impunity, According to the WordPress stats, over a thousand people viewed my post about Nicholas Kristof, including apparently Nicholas Kristof who tweeted it. I’m pretty sure that’s more than the total number of readers for everything I have ever written. I don’t think most of my posts will be interesting to that many people, although this particular post might garner some interesting google results, but I feel like I’m finding my feet a bit with this putting things out there on the internet for strangers to read thing.

Now I just need to find an open fire and a mass priest for this nostalgia.

Bonus facts: Cockayne was a philologist and school teacher who was sacked for explaining the dirty bits of the classics to his students. The section containing the instructions for treating a londadl also discusses how to ward off an elf and a strange visitor, how to treat the bite of a gang-weaving spider, and how to treat diarrhea. I think it’s more likely, though, that sipping horse gall and black snail boiled in milk would be more likely to induce diarrhea than treat it.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Nostalgia and Old Urine

  1. Renee Massarello

    “In addition to the innate hilarity of urine, hland had also captured my interest for its ability to, apparently, be used to counteract necromancy. This made a weird kind of sense to me. If I were a medieval person who saved my urine, I’m sure I could use it to ward off all manner of malefactors, magical or not.” This is a very good point 😉
    It is also a very intriguing discovery that reflects an understanding of disease in three different time periods. Have you found any other examples of things like this? Although I suppose other examples may not be as interesting as urine and nostalgia, I would be interested in hearing about them. I’m also curious about the relation of urine to counteract necromancy. Did it have anything to do with urine being liquid and thus related to something like flowing water?
    In any case, I’m glad you decided to post this and I hope that future posts help you further navigate to where you want to be and ease the nostalgia.

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