Medicine and Magic in Anglo-Saxon England

Our speaker in June 2023 was Dr Charlotte Ball. Her doctorate was awarded for an investigation of Early Medieval Art and Iconography; and involved looking at the, mainly animal, imagery across different media.

The Anglo-Saxon period spans the early Medieval period from the mid 5th century to the Norman conquest in 1066; although the term 'Anglo-Saxon' is a later denomination. From the mid 5th century the power of Rome was draining away from Britain; Germanic tribes were moving into our country and these were also the first people to speak the language we know today as 'Old English'. But, after taking the English crown in 1066, William also took away the power of the Anglo-Saxon nobility.

Medicine in those days was simplistic; but it might surprise us, as remedies were often more insightful than one might think. During the so-called 'Dark Ages' many written records were lost and knowledge was spread orally. Later, in the Anglo-Saxon period, Christianity, based in the monasteries, began keeping written texts. Their favourite material included illustrated herbals. For example: "The Enlarged Herbarium", which was translated by monks from Latin into Middle English.

An example which Charlotte illustrated was from the Cotton Library of Manuscripts; a collection once owned by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571-1631), an antiquary whose skill lay in preserving the products of monastic libraries (he had the only copy of several works such as 'Beowulf'). In 1731 the Library caught fire and many books, including the famous Lindisfarne Gospels manuscript, were thrown out of a window in a desperate action to save them.

One book in this library, Bald's Leechbook, which is possibly a copy of an earlier example written in English between 925 and 950 AD, concentrates on the 'outwards'; beginning with remedies for the head and moving down to the liver and limbs. There is a second volume on the treatment of internal complaints and a third is a collection of herbal remedies, possibly dating from an earlier tradition.

An example of an early remedy for an eye infection, possibly a wen or growth, involved the creation of a salve with Garlic (allium), wine and ox bile; this to be mixed in a brass vessel, passed through a cloth to a horn and applied with a feather. This recipie was in Bald's Leechbook and research by scientists at Warwick University has proved the salve's efficacy. The reconstructed salve was found in 2015 to have a strong anti-bacterial activity against a range of pathogens, as well as five bacteria. The researcher's clinical trial used four batches of the salve, trying various versions before the successful outcome. This remedy has also been the subject of research at Nottingham University.

The third volume of Bald's Leechbook contains recipies that are not so scientific and pertain more to the magic of charms. For example a charm for painful cysts involved taking a virgin to a spring and reciting the creed and Pater Noster - a mix of old and new! Against the spider's bite, it says: "Take a hen's egg; mix it raw in ale with a fresh sheep's turd, so that he does not know and give him a good cup full to drink". This illustrates the 'magical' side of Anglo-Saxon medicine. Spider bites may be alleviated by the use of vervbain, ivy and stonecrop.

Christianity brought writing and many pre-christian rituals were lost. In 597 AD the Gregorian Mission, with Augustine and 40 missionaries, arrived to convert the Anglo-Saxons who were subjects of King Ethelbert. Writing in the early 8th century, the Venerable Bede did not approve of folk beliefs; seeing magic as diabolical charms, not orthodox medicine.

Charlotte then looked at specific remedies. In 'The Herbarium', an untranslated word equates to 'worm', as in "the wound of the worm". A usage that appears to be unique to this book. These worms appear to range in size from maggots to serpents. There is an illustration in 'The Herbarium' of a snake and a scorpion in the entry for common plantain; no doubt both were seen as 'worms'. For example: "Against the bite of the scorpion, take the roots of the plantain and bind them onto the man" - they thought the bite was harmful not the sting!

Also: "If intestinal worms harm a man, take the juice of the way bread, pound and wring, give it to him to drink and take the same plant, pound it to dust, put it on the navel (or anus) and fasten it tightly thereto". The Herbarium gives illustrations for each herb and their use as remedies.

Charlotte said that The Herbarium contained a seemingly untranslatable word relating to worms, of Latin or Greek, rather than Old English origin. Her interest in Natural History revealed the word to be 'phalangioides', which probably means 'daddy long legs'.

So-called worms could be found in all parts of the body: for example the liver; this could be an abcess. In the third volume of the Herbarium there is a reference to the 'Lay of the Nine Herbs' (Woden's 'Nine Herbs Charm'). Remedies for flying worms might relate to air-born viruses. Some other medical practices of the period involved blood letting, lancing of lesions and lumps.

The study of this subject reveals the knowledge of past remedies and their ingredients some of which are used in medicine today. There is also a fascination in observing and explaining the 'worms' and other bugs in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.

This was an excellent presentation by Dr Ball; which perhaps makes simply taking a pill today, rather than a strange concoction of plant and animal origin, with a doubtful outcome, is something we should all appreciate.

Further reading:

More examples of Anglo-Saxon medicine can be seen on the internet in "Creepie Crawlies in Early Medieval England and Anglo-Saxon medicine and Mini Beasts".

Lorna Bushell
June 2023