On his heid-ake:
A Medieval Migraine

Here’s a wonderful short poem (scroll down for text and translation) by the Middle Scots poet William Dunbar (born ?1460, died ?1513) which gives us a late medieval account of a migraine.   Dunbar was a cleric, poet and courtier in the service of James IV of Scotland.  I’ve been skimming through his works recently, partly for tutorials on late medieval poetry and partly because he uses so many different verse forms and stanza forms in his poems (which makes him a good subject of research for my book).

Wax anatomical model of a human head from the Wellcome Images collection

The poem describes Dunbar suffering a migraine or magryme.  Many of the familiar symptoms are there, the photophobia, the pain.  Dunbar extends the debilitating effects from his own body to the very poem which he is trying to write.  It is not only that he couldn’t sleep because of the migraine, but also that the sense of the poem itself is likewise lacking in sleep, as under the weather as he is.  It shows even in its vocabulary: the sense of the poem is dullit in dulnes, dulled in dullness, not even having the strength to vary its word choices.

He also captures the postdrome part of migraine really well, the ‘hungover’ feeling that affects some sufferers after the end of an attack.  Carrying on the sleep/wake imagery, he describes how his body gets up but his curage, his spirit, will not wake up and nothing can rouse it.  But of course, as the note in the TEAMS edition points out, there is a paradox.  All this inability to write verse is described in a cleverly constructed poem.  If the Sire addressed is James IV, his royal patron, then Dunbar is confident that this paradox will amuse him as much as, or more than, a conventional petitionary or occasional poem.

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.

[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.]

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, Sire, shortly after mass, though I tried to begin to write, the sense of it lurked very hard to find, deep down sleepless in my head, dulled in 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.

[Very often in the morning I get up when my spirit lies sleeping.  Neither for mirth, for minstrelsy and play, nor for noise nor dancing nor revelry, it will not awaken in me at all.]

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A Medieval Migraine

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