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Creepy Crawlies in Early Medieval England: Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Minibeasts

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Kings, queens, warriors and monks often take centre stage in writings about Anglo-Saxon England; by contrast, this post calls attention to the beings that generally shunned the limelight: worms, earwigs, scorpions, spiders and dungbeetles. As it turns out, these minibeasts played an important role in early medieval medicine.

Lice for the learned: Crawling among the glosses

While Anglo-Saxon England must have been crawling with all sorts of little critters, ‘minibeasts’ (a general term denoting insects, spiders, scorpions and such) only rarely receive mention in Old English texts. In fact, most Old English words for various bugs only survive because they were listed as glosses (translations) of Latin words. The so-called ‘Leiden Glossary’ (c. 800), for instance, features the Old English words “hnitu” (‘nit’ for Latin lendina); “ęruigga” (‘earwig’ for Latin auricula) and “snægl” (‘snail’ for Latin maruca):

Blog.Insects.LeidenGlossary

Insects in the Leiden Glossary. Leiden University Library, Special Collections, VLQ 69, fol. 35v.

Other minibeasts whose names only survive as glosses include:

  • ticia ‘tick’
  • beaw ‘gad-fly’
  • sidwyrm ‘silk worm’
  • seolcwyrm ‘silk worm’
  • rensnægl ‘rain snail’
  • sæsnægl ‘sea snail’
  • buterfleoge ‘butterfly’
  • eorþ-maþa ‘earth worm’

Some of these buggy Old English glosses are wonderfully descriptive, such as flǣsc-maþu ‘maggot, lit. flesh-worm’ and niht-butorflēoge ‘moth, lit. night-butterfly’.

Invasive insects: Purging pests with Anglo-Saxon medicine

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Some creepy crawlies and the common ivy in the Old English Herbarium. London British Library, Cotton Vitellius C.iii, fol. 50r

Other than glossaries, Anglo-Saxon medical texts are the best place to find creepy crawlies. Anglo-Saxon medical practicioners were well aware of the dangers posed by parasites for the well-being of their patients. As such, Anglo-Saxon medicine features various recipes to purge the body of bugs. Bald’s Leechbook (compiled in the ninth century) provides ample examples of such remedies against invading worms and earwigs:

Wiþ wyrmum on eagum genim beolonan sæd, scead on gleda, do twa bleda fulle wæteres to, sete on twa healfe 7 site þær ofer, bræd þonne þæt heafod hider 7 geond ofer þæt fyr 7 þa bleda eac, þonne sceadaþ þa wyrmas on þæt wæter.

Wiþ earwicgan genim þæt micle greate windelstreaw twyecge þæt on worþium wixð, ceow on þæt eare. He bið of sona.

[For worms in eyes, take seed of henbane, shed it onto glowing embers, add two saucers full of water, set them on two sides of the man, and let him sit there over them, jerk the head hither and thither over the fire and the saucers also, then worms shed themselves into the water.

Against earwigs, take the big great windlestraw with two edges, which grows on highways, chew it into the ear; he (the insect) will soon be off.] (ed. and trans. Cockayne 1864, 38-39; 44-45 – I have slightly modernized the translation)

As these two remedies demonstrate, Anglo-Saxon medical practice could involve a mixture of bodily maneuvers (some practical, other less so) and the application of herbs.

Aggresive arthropods: Curing scorpion and spider bites in early medieval England

Blog.Insects.CottonVitelliusCiii - 21v

A snake and a scorpion in the entry for common plantain in the Old English Herbarium. London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C. iii, fol. 21v

The beautiful Old English Herbarium (an eleventh-century Old English translation of a fifth-century Latin text) is a testimony to the importance of herbs in Anglo-Saxon medicine. The Herbarium gives illustrations for each herb, followed by various remedies that can be made with them. The common plantain (or: waybread), for instance, was said to help against the bites of scorpions, as well as intestinal worms:

Wiþ scorpiones slite genim wegbrædan wyrtwalan, bind on þone man. Þonne ys to gelyfenne þæt hyt cume him to godre are.

Gif men innan wyrmas eglen genim wægbredan seaw, cnuca 7 wring 7 syle him supan 7 nim ða sylfan wyrte, gecnuca, lege on þone naflan 7 wrið þærto swyðe fæste. (London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C. iii, fol. 22r)

[Against the bite of a scorpion, take the roots of the plantain, bind them onto the man. Then it is believed that it will come to good use for him.

If intestinal worms harm a man, take the juice of the waybread, 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 Old English Herbarium has various recipes against the bites of scorpions, despite the fact that, for as far as I know, these critters were not native to Anglo-Saxon England.

Another biting bug to be featured in the Old English Herbarium is the spider, whose bites may be alleviated with the help of the herbs vervain, ivy and stonecrop. Yet another medical text, known as Leechbook III, features a more obscure remedy for a spider bite:

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Cure against spider bite in Leechbook III. London, British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 118r

Uiþ gongewifran bite nim henne æg, gnid on ealu hreaw 7 sceapes tord niwe, swa he nyte, sele him drincan godne scenc fulne.

[Against the bite of a spider, take a hen’s egg, mix it raw in ale with a fresh sheep’s turd, so that he does not know, give him a good cup full to drink.]

This cure seems hardly effective! Although it would, I suppose, prevent people from ever complaining about spider bites again. This cure also demonstrate another aspect of Anglo-Saxon medicine: some of its remedies make absolutely no sense or even come across as magical.  (also worthy of note: the Old English word gongewifran literally means ‘a weaver as it goes, a walking weaver’!)

Blog.Insects.CottonVitelliusCiii - 78r

Another scorpion from the Old English Herbarium. London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C.iii, fol. 78r

Medicinal minibeast magic: Creepy crawlies as part of the cure

The ‘magical’ side of Anglo-Saxon medicine truly comes to the fore in those remedies that feature insects not as causes of diseases, but as parts of the cure. Some of these cures rely on what might be termed ‘sympathetic magic’, a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence – i.e. the cure often resembles the ailment. Leechbook III seems to be appealing to this kind of magic when it proposes to use earthworms and ants in the case of severed or shrunken sinews:

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Cures against severed and shrunken sinews in Leechbook III. London, British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 118r

Gif sinwe syn forcorfene nim renwyrmas, gecnuwa wel, lege on oþ þæt hi hale synd. Gif sinwe sien gescruncene nime æmettan mid hiora bedgeride, wyl on wætre & beþe mid & rece þa sinwe geornlice.

[If the sinews are cut, take earthworms (lit. rain-worms), pound them wel, lay them on until they are whole. If the sinews are shrunk, take ants and their nest, boil in water and bath therwith the sinews and expose them earnestly to the smoke]

The rationale behind these cures is simple: since earthworms can regenerate after having been cut, they must surely be able to help severed sinews; the best thing to use against small sinews is small insects like ants.

Leechbook III also features another peculiar cure, which involves a dung beetle. The occult procedure outlined below promises to give the practitioner the ability to cure stomach aches for a whole year:

Þær þu geseo tordwifel on eorþan up weorpan, ymbfo hine mid twam handum mid his geweorpe. Wafa mid þinum handum swiþe and cweð þriwa: Remedium facio ad ventris dolorem. Weorp þonne ofer bæc þone wifel on wege. Beheald þæt þu ne locige æfter. Þonne monnes wambe wærce oððe rysle, ymbfoh mid þinum handum þa wambe. Him biþ sona sel. XII monaþ þu meaht swa don after þam wifel. (London, British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 115r)

[Where you see a dungbeetle throw up on the earth, grab it with two hands along with its dung-ball. Wave greatly with your hands and say three times: Remedium facio ad ventris dolorem (I make a a cure for the pain in the stomach). Throw then the beetle over your shoulder onto the way. See to it that you do not look back. In case of a person’s stomach or abdomen pain, grab with your hands the stomach. It will soon be whole for them.  You are able to do this for twelve months after the beetle.]

I wonder how many Anglo-Saxon dungbeetles fell prey to aspiring doctors in search of ways to alleviate rumbling tummies.

A blog for a charitable cause: Lyme disease in the 21st century

The Anglo-Saxon remedies described above would certainly be classified as ‘alternative’  by modern standards and it is to be hoped that today’s medical professionals have found more effective ways to remedy diseases caused by worms, earwigs, spiders, scorpions and other parasites. Regrettably, this is not always the case.

The tick (Old English ticia; an insect that is never mentioned in a medical text from early medieval England) is responsible for spreading one of the most aggravating diseases: Lyme disease, which, when it has turned chronic, knows no effective regular treatment. As a result, sufferers of chronic Lyme disease are often forced to turn to costly alternative treatments (though none involve dungbeetles!). In order to create awareness for this chronic illness and raise money for one long-suffering patient in particular, I will be participating in a national charity event ‘Walking for Lyme’. You can find out more about the event (and sponsor our team) by clicking on this link (every donation is greatly appreciated and for a good cause).

Blog.Insects.CottonVitelliusCiii - 59r

Creepy crawlies in the Old English Herbarium. London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C.iii, fol. 59r

Works referred to:

  • T.O. Cockayne (1864). Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England. Vol. 2  (London)
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2 Comments

  1. Lois says:

    I have seen little scorpions in the Mendip Hills near Charterhouse – are these native or brought over, knowingly or unknowingly, maybe by the Romans? Well done for supporting ‘Walking for Lyme’ – a vile disease… is it native to the UK? For some reason I thought it had been introduced by imports from North America.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Fascinating! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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