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Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?

Last year, scholars from the University of Nottingham managed to defeat the superbug MRSA, using the recipe for an eye salve in an Anglo-Saxon medical manuscript. This blog post calls attention to some other early medieval recipes that may be worth trying out: four Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs. 

Bald’s Leechbook: Warm milk is more effective than alcohol

Bald’s Leechbook is a compilation of various medical texts that survives in a tenth-century manuscript (recently digitized). A large part of the compilation dates to the ninth century and is associated with King Alfred the Great. One segment that may have interested Alfred in particular is chapter 70 of the first leechbook, which deals with ways to temper or arouse  one’s lust (on Alfred’s problems with lust, see this blog post). The text is given below:

Blogaphrodisiac

Anglo-Saxon Aphrodisiacs in Bald’s Leechbook. © The British Library, Royal MS 12 D XVI, fol. 54v (source)

Gif mon sie to wræne wyl hindheoloþan on wiliscum ealað, drince on neaht nestig. Gif mon sie to unwræne wyl on meolce þa ilcan wyrt, þonne awrænst þu. Wyl on eowe meolce, eft, hindhioloþan, alexandrian, fornetes folm hatte wyrt. Þonne biþ hit swa him leofost bið. (Cockayne 1864-6, Vol. 2, p. 144)

[If one is too lustful, boil water agrimony in foreign ale, drink it [or let him/her drink] at night, fasting. If one is unlustful, boil the same plant in milk, then you make that person lustful. Boil in ewe’s milk, again, water agrimony, horse parsley and the plant that is called Fornet’s hand (a kind of orchid). Then it will be as if it is dearest to him.] (the translation of the Old English medical materials is derived from Pollington 2000)

Interestingly, the lust-arousing properties of the same plant, ‘Hindhealth’ or water agrimony, depends on the type of drink in which it is used. Should you ever want to seduce an early medieval person, it seems, warm milk is more effective than alcohol!

Medicina de Quadrupedibus: Sympathetic magic

Whereas the herbs required for the aphrodisiacs in Bald’s Leechbook may not be hard to get by, another Anglo-Saxon text uses some more exotic (and less appealing) ingredients. The text in question is the eleventh- or twelfth-century Old English translation of the Medicina de Quadrupedibus, a text which outlines how you can use the various parts of four-legged animals as medicine. The materials used include deer testies and the gall of a buck goat. The texts and translations of three lust-arousing draughts and ointments follow below:

Wif gemanan to aweccanne, nim heortes sceallan, dryg, wyrc to duste, do hys dæl on wines drinc. Þæt awecceþ wif gemanan lust. (Cockayne, Vol. 1, p. 337)

[To arouse a woman for sexual intercourse, take the testicles of a deer, dry them, grind them to dust, do a part of this in a drink of wine. That will arouse a woman with the lust for intercourse.]

To wifes willan, þæs buccan geallan meng wið recels 7 wið netelan sæd; smyre þone teors mid ær foran to þæs restgemanan. Þæt wif onfehð þæs willan on ðam hæmede. (Cockayne 1864-6, Vol. 1, p. 350)

[To arouse the desire of a woman, mix the gall of a buck goat with incense and with the seed of nettles; rub the penis with this before going to ‘rest’. The woman receives the desire for sexual intercourse.]

Weres wylla to gefremmanne, nime bares geallan 7 smyre mid þone teors 7 þa hærþan. Þonne hafað he mycelne lust. (Cockayne 1864-6, Vol. 1, p. 358)

[To carry out the desire of a man, take the gall of a boar and rub the penis with this and the testicles, then he will have great lust.]

One remarkable aspect of Anglo-Saxon medical texts is that they often rely on what might be termed ‘sympathetic magic’, a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence. For instance, Bald’s Leechbook advices someone to sleep on the ashes of a burnt dog’s head in order to cure a head ache; if you have trouble retaining your urine, you should eat the bladder of a goat or a ram; and if you suffer from swollen eyes, just catch a live crab, put out its eyes and place its eyes on your neck. The cure, in other words, matches the disease. Could the recommendation to slip some deer testicles into a woman’s drink be a product of the same line of reasoning, and would the buck goat and boar be used because they were known as particularly wanton animals?

Remarkably, the first editor of the libido-increasing substances discussed in this blog, the Reverend Thomas Oswald Cockayne, refused to translate them entirely into English and, instead, provided Latin translations. Perhaps he hoped to dissuade his readers from trying them out. Be that as it may, perhaps these ‘leechdoms’ will prove as useful as the Anglo-Saxon eye salve that defeated MRSA (for more info on this, click here). It may be rather hard, however, to find some voluntary testers for the last three…

Works referred to:

  • Cockayne, T. O., Leechdoms Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England (London, 1864–6).
  • Pollington, S., Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing (Little Downham, 2000)
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5 Comments

  1. Wonderful! Thankfully, it’s nettle seeds and not nettle leaves.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. katehthomas says:

    Fantastic – I love the medical books.

    Like

  3. beckfjord says:

    Once again, an excellent post about a fascinating subject. I love reading Cockayne’s translation of the leechbook as well. It’s almost as good as the original 😉

    Like

  4. […] Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages? (a blog post that also features examples of sympathetic magic) […]

    Like

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