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Cooked crow’s brains and other early medieval remedies for headaches from the Leiden Leechbook

The stomach of a hare, the excrements of a goat and the urine of a child – these are but a few of the awkward ingredients prescribed by the medical manuscript fragment known as the Leiden Leechbook. This ninth-century fragment, now in the Leiden University Library, is a unique witness to medical practice in the early Middle Ages and the multilingual nature of the documents from this period. This blog post outlines some of its remedies, its languages and its connection to Anglo-Saxon England.

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The Leiden Leechbook. Leiden University Library, VLF 96A, ff. 1v-2r

How to cure a headache?

The first folio of the fragment contains a list of Latin remedies. As with other medical texts from the medieval period, this compilation starts with cures dealing with the head and then works its way down (in this case to the hair and eyes, then the text breaks off). To the modern reader, early medieval medicine presents a curious combination of herbal remedies and what might be called ‘magic’. The Leiden Leechbook’s remedies for headaches can serve as an illustration of this bewildering mix. The first three full remedies read as follows:

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First three full remedies from the Leiden Leechbook. Leiden University Library, VLF 96a, fol. 1r

Item herbæ quæ in flumine super nascuntur subtilitær trita folia frontique illita mire purgationi capitis proficiunt.

Item lapilli in uentriculus pullorum hirundinum inuendi quamuis deuternos inueteratosque dolores remediant, habidi maximi albi, qui ne terram tangant erit cauendum.

Similiter noctuæ caput recens coctum et comestum deuternos labores sedare dicitur.

[Again: herbs which grow upon a river, (their) leaves chopped small and applied to the brow have a marvellous effect for clearing the head.

Again: stones found in the stomach of young swallows heal the pains, however old and persistent, chiefly white ones – care should be taken that they do not touch the earth.

Likewise: the head of an owl recently cooked, and eaten, alleviates so it is said persistent pains (in the head)] (ed. and trans. Falileyev & Owen, 2005)

While the first remedy is a sensible prescription to apply a  herb to one’s forehead to alleviate a headache, the second one clearly features more ‘occult’ instructions. The third one is a clear example of so-called ‘sympathetic magic’ (“use like to treat like”): are you suffering from a head ache? Eat a head! (for similar examples of ‘sympathetic magic’ from the Middle Ages, see How to cook your dragon and a medieval cure for old age).

Other remedies for aching heads mentioned in the Leiden Leechbook include:

  • The columbine plant
  • Eating a coot
  • Placing a small stone found on the side of a citygate on your head
  • The root of plantain, picked before sunrise, bound around the head
  • Smearing on the crushed seed of the elder tree
  • Eating the brains of a cooked crow
  • The nests of swallows, soaked in mud, applied to the forehead
  • A drink of standing water out of which an ass or cow has drunk

Once more, we find the striking combination of purely botanical ingredients (plantain, columbine, seed of the elder tree) and more occult substances (the nest of swallows, a stone found on the side of a citygate). The instruction to eat the brains of a cooked crow to soothe aching brains is another case of sympathetic magic, as may be the advice to eat a coot (coots have a frontal shield on their foreheads).

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Ingredients mentioned in the Leiden Leechbook’s remedies against headaches: A crow’s brains, a coot, a swallow’s nest, a columbine plant, the plantain and the elder tree.

One last cure for headache seems rather unhygienic:

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Leiden Leechbook. Leiden University Library, VLF 96a, fol. 1v

Caprinus fimus aceto resolutus et front illitus mire succurrit.

[The excrement of goats, dissolved in vinegar and applied to the forehead, is of amazing benefit.] (ed. and trans. Falileyev & Owen, 2005)

One wonders how many long-sufferers of headaches walked around with acetic goat droppings on their foreheads in the early Middle Ages…

The Leiden Leechbook and the multilingual Middle Ages

The bifolium that is now known as the Leiden Leechbook was once used as a pastedown in another manuscript (i.e. it was pasted onto the board of another manuscript so as to hide its binding mechanisms). That manuscript, Leiden University Library, VLF 96, came from the famous abbey in Fleury, France, and, therefore, the Leiden Leechbook is generally assigned to the same abbey (see Bremmer & Dekker 2006; Falileyev & Owen, 2005) . Intriguingly, the Leiden Leechbook was certainly not written by a French monk: four hands are responisble for its texts and they all used an insular script (the kind used in the British Isles).

The languages in the Leiden Leechbook, too, suggest a multiregional background for the manuscript. Aside from Latin, there is one Old Irish gloss in the manuscript and some of its further remedies are written in a Brittonic language (possibly Breton or Cornish). The Old Irish gloss was added by the first scribe who copied the remedy for a headache that prescribed the use of crushed seeds of an elder tree. The Latin word sambuci ‘elder tree’ was glossed with the Old Irish word tromm ‘elder tree’:

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Old Irish tromm glossing Latin sambuci. Leiden University Library, VLF 96a, fol. 1v.

The second folio of the Leiden Leechbook contains a different set of remedies, written in a mixture of Latin and a Brittonic language. A case in point is the following remedy for “guædgou” [parasitic complexion]:

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A Latin-Brttonic remedy for a parasitic complexion. Leiden University Library, VLF 96a, fol. 2r

Cæs scau; cæs spern; cæs guærn; cæs dar; cæs cornucærui; cæs colænn; cæs aball per cæruisam. Anroæ æniap æhol pær mæl.

[Take elder / fox-glove; take thorn; take alder; take oak; take staghorn; take holly; take apple-tree with beer. Poultice all the face with honey.] (ed. and trans. Falileyev & Owen, 2005)

In this remedy, all words, except Latin per/pær ‘with’, cornucærui ‘staghorn’ and cæruissam ‘beer’, are in a Brittonic language, which may be either Cornish or Breton (see Falileyev & Owen, 2005).

The manuscript’s provenance, scripts and languages thus are indicative of the pluriform origin story of the Leiden Leechbook which must include references to Fleury, France, Ireland, as well as Cornwall or Britanny. But there is more to the Leiden Leechbook: there may be a connection to Anglo-Saxon England as well!

Is that an Old English gloss or should I put a child’s urine in my eyes?

According to the German scholar O. B. Schlutter (1910), the Leiden Leechbook also contains three words in Old English. The first word, he suggested, was accidentally copied into one of the Latin remedies for a headache. The Latin remedy suggesting you eat cooked crow’s brains to cure your own aching brain reads: “cornicis … exrebellum coctum” [cooked brains of a crow]. The word exrebellum does not exist in Latin and this should have read cerebellum ‘brains’. According to Schlutter, the scribe made a mistake when he copied a Latin exemplar that read ‘cerebellum’ with an Old English gloss ex  –  the scribe accidentally copied the gloss into the main text and forgot to write down “ce”, producing the nonce word exrebellum. Falileyev & Owen (2005, p. 28) reject this hypothesis by Schlutter, claiming “[i]t is difficult to see how an AS word meaning ‘axe’ should be used to gloss cerebellum“. It should be noted, however, that the Old English word ex was, in fact, used for ‘brains’  in various Old English medical texts and the Dictionary of Old English (s.v. ex 2, exe) confirms Schlutter’s suggestion.

Schlutter identified another Old English word as an interlinear gloss in the following remedy for hairloss:

Ad capillos fluentes, leporis uentriculum coctum in sartagine et mixto oleo inpone capidi et capillos fluentes continet et cogit concrescere.

[For loose hair: put the stomach of a hare, cooked in a frying pan and mixed with oil, to the head, and that holds together loose hair and causes it to grow strong.] (ed. and trans. Falileyes & Owen, 2005)

According to Schlutter, an Old English gloss hara ‘hare’ had been added above the Latin leporis ‘of a hare’ – only the “h” is clearly visible, he writes, the rest has faded away. The most recent editors of the manuscript (Falileyev & Owen, 2005) reject Schlutter’s reading and claim that what Schlutter had seen is nothing other than a damage mark or scrape. You be the judge:

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An Old English gloss or a scrape? Leiden University Library, VLF 96a, fol. 1r.

The third Old English word spotted by Schlutter is again rejected by Falileyev & Owen as an ink offset. This time, the Old English gloss is supposedly found in the headache remedy prescribing the crushed seeds of the elder tree. Here, Schlutter saw the Old English word ellærn ‘elder tree’ as a gloss for Latin sambuci (which was also glossed with Old Irish tromm). Despite Falileyev & Owen’s rejection, Schlutter’s reading is supported by the Dictionary of Old English (s.v. ellen noun 2, ellern) and, indeed, it is possible to make out some of the letters:

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Ink offset or Old English gloss ellærn ‘elder tree’? Leiden University Library, VLF 96a, fol. 1v.

Are there three Old English words in the Leiden Leechbook, as Schlutter suggested, or none, as Falileyev & Owen argue?

There is one more reason to assume an Anglo-Saxon influence on the Leiden Leechbook: some of its remedies turn out to have (near) analogues in Old English medical texts. One such remedy is a cure for blurry eyesight, which is also found in the Old English Leechbook III:

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Remedies for poor eyesight in the Leiden Leechbook (Leiden University Library, VLF 96a, fol. 1v) and Leechbook III (London, British Library, Royal MS 12 D.xvii, fol. 112r).

Leiden Leechbook: Ad caliginem: lotium infantis si cum melle optima misces et iunges patientem.

[For clouded/blurred vision: if you mix the urine of a suckling child with honey of superior quality you will then heal the patient.] (ed. and trans. Falileyev & Owen, 2005)

Leechbook III: Gif mist sie fore eagum nim cildes hlond 7 huniges tear meng tosomne begea emfela smire mid þa eagan innan.

[If a mist be before the eyes, take a child’s urine and a drop of honey, mix together the same amount of both, rub the inside of the eyes with it.]

The existence of Old English analogues for some of the Leiden Leechbook’s remedies is an argument in favour of connecting the manuscript to Anglo-Saxon England. This connection, in turn, would strengthen the case for the existence of the Old English words spotted by Schlutter.

Are the Old English glosses hara and ellærn really in the Leiden Leechbook? I have looked long and hard at the manuscript and I cannot be sure whether the marks are letters, as Schlutter suggested, or damages to the parchment, as Falileyev & Owen argue; perhaps I should have another look after I have rinsed my eyes with child’s urine and honey…

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Old English glosses or damages to the manuscript? Leiden University Library, VLF 96a, ff. 1r-1v.

If you liked this post, why not follow the blog (see button in the right-hand menu) and/or continue reading the following blogs on medieval medicine:

Works referred to (and recommended reading on the Leiden Leechbook):

  • Bremmer, Rolf H., Jr & Dekker, K., Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Microfiche Facsimile. Vol 13: Manuscripts in the Low Countries (Tempe, AZ, 2006)
  • Falileyev, A. & Owen, M. E., The Leiden Leechbook: A Study of the Earliest Neo-Brittonic Medical Compilation (Innsbruck, 2005)
  • Schlutter, O. B., ‘Anglo-Saxonica: Altenglisches aus Leidener Handschriften’, Anglia 33 (1910): 239-245.
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Early Medieval Magical Medicine: An Anglo-Saxon Trivia Quiz

This blog post features an Anglo-Saxon trivia quiz that will test (and/or increase) your knowledge about magical medicine in early medieval England.

A bad reputation for early medieval medicine

Whereas the bulk of early medieval English medicine consists of herbal and botanical remedies, some of the more fanciful ways to alleviate various ailments border on witchcraft. These remedies involve incantations, love potions, occult rituals and references to supernatural beings including dwarfs and elves. According to some early scholars, there was a fine line between magic and medicine and, as a result, much of early medieval English medicine should be regarded as little more than nonsense:

Surveying the mass of folly and credulity that makes up Anglo-Saxon leechdoms, it may be asked “Is there any rational element here? Is the material based on anything that we may describe as experience?” The answer must be “Very little”

(J. H. G. Grattan and C. J. Singer, Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine (Oxford, 1952), p. 92)

Indeed, it is not hard to find examples of seemingly irrational, magical medicine in Anglo-Saxon sources, as the following trivia quiz will illustrate.

Have you got the folly and credulity to be an Anglo-Saxon doctor?

Anglo-SaxonLeechQuiz

The following 10-question-quiz introduces some characteristics and intriguing examples of ‘magical medicine’ from Anglo-Saxon England.  Each multiple-choice question has at least one right answer and clicking this will reveal an explanation with further information. Good luck! N.B. Unfortunately the quiz does not work in all mobile browsers (such as the Twitter browser), if you see all the explanations expanded, better use another browser!

1. The best cure against a head ache is:
Lying on a dog’s head, burned to ashes.
Correct! A common principle in early medieval medicine is ‘sympathetic magic’: the cure often resembles the disease. In the case of a head ache, you use a dog’s head. No actual puppies were harmed during this remedy, however, since Old English hundes heafod ‘dog’s head’ was the name for the plant now known as the small snapdragon [Antirrhinum orontium]. Here is a drawing of the hundes heafod in the eleventh-century Old English Herbal:
“Hundes Heafod” (Small snapdragon) in London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C.iii, fol. 45v.
Drinking a hen’s egg, mixed in warm ale.
Singing nine Pater Nosters.
Leeches.
2. In an Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiac, you would likely use:
Oysters.
A carrot and two plums.
Leeches
Deer testicles.
Correct! The principle of sympathetic magic may be at work here as well. This ‘love potion’ is found in the Old English translation of Medicina de quadrupedibus: Wif gemanan to aweccanne, nim heortes sceallan, dryg, wyrc to duste, do hys dæl on wines drinc. Þæt awecceþ wif gemanan lust. (London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C.iii, fol. 76v.) [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.] Read more about Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs here: Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?
3. A hiccough is most likely caused by:
Accidentally swalllowing an elf.
Correct! The Old English word for hiccough was ælfsogoða ‘elf-sucking’, suggesting a hiccough was caused by sucking in an elf. Elves, dwarves and worms were often assumed to be the cause of diseases in Anglo-Saxon magico-medicine.
 An imbalance of the humours.
Drinking too quickly.
 Leeches.
4. Which is the best cure against warts?
A mixture of dog’s urine and mouse blood.
Correct! Waste products were often used in Anglo-Saxon medicine. “Wiþ weartum. Genim hundes micgean 7 muse blod, meng to somne, smire mid þa weartan, hig witaþ sona aweg.” (British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 116r) [Against warts. Take the urine of a dog and mouse blood, mix together, rub the warts with it, they will immediately go away.]
Applying some leeches.
Cutting them off with a heated knife.
5. In case of severed sinews, I apply:
The bark of a young and healthy tree.
Earthworms.
Another case of sympathetic magic: Earthworms resemble sinews and, as an added bonus, they regenerate after being cut in half. What better to use for severed sinews? Gif sinwe syn forcorfene nim renwyrmas, gecnuwa wel, lege on oþ þæt hi hale synd.” (British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 118r) [If the sinews are cut, take earthworms (lit. rain-worms), pound them wel, lay them on until they are whole.
Leeches.
6. Throwing a dungbeetle over your shoulder and saying “Remedium facio ad ventris dolorem” three times will:
Give you the power to cure stomach aches for a full year.
Get rid off an annoying itch between your shoulder blades.
Get rid off the dungbeetle.
Technically correct, but try again!
Alleviate diarrhea in the entire village.
7. A child has a fever, you:
Put it on a rooftop in the sun.
Correct! This way of curing a child was considered rather sinful and is mentioned in various Anglo-Saxon penitentials, including this one: “Gyf hwylc wif seteð hire bearn ofer rof oððe on ofen for hwilcere untrymðe hælo .vii. gear fæste” (Brussels, Bibliothéque royale, 8558-63, fol. 152v) [If any woman sets her child on a roof or in an oven for the cure of any illness, fast for seven years].
Put it in an oven.
Correct! This way of curing a child was considered rather sinful and is mentioned in various Anglo-Saxon penitentials, including this one: “Gyf hwylc wif seteð hire bearn ofer rof oððe on ofen for hwilcere untrymðe hælo .vii. gear fæste” (Brussels, Bibliothéque royale, 8558-63, fol. 152v) [If any woman sets her child on a roof or in an oven for the cure of any illness, fast for seven years].
Apply leeches on its forehead.
8. Against heart ache:
Ribwort, boiled in milk, drink it for nine mornings.
Correct! Nine is a magic number that is often used in Anglo-Saxon magico-medicine.
Ribwort, boiled in milk, drink it for seven mornings.
Ribwort, boiled in milk, drink it for six mornings.
Ribwort, boiled in milk, drink it for three mornings.
9. Which one of these remedies is NOT an actual Anglo-Saxon remedy?
Against a stomach ache, sleep next to a fat child.
Nope, this one is real: “Him hylpð eac þæt him fæt cild æt slape 7 þæt he þæt gedo neah his wambe simle”(British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 83r) [It also helps him that a fat child should sleep by him, and that he should put it always near his (stomach).]
Against madness, hit the patient with a whip made of dolphin skin.
Nope. This one is real: “nim mereswines fel, wyrc to swipan, swing mid þone man sona bið sel. Amen.” (British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 120r) [take the skin of a dolphin, make into a whip, hit the man with it. He is immediately healthy. Amen.] Note that the ‘Amen’ was added by a later hand!
Against misty eyes, rub the eyes with child’s urine and honey.
Nope. This one is real: “Gif mist sie fore eagum nim cildes hlond 7 huniges tear meng tosomne begea emfela smire mid þa eagan innan” (British Library, Royal 12 D XVII, fol. 112r) [If a mist is before the eyes take a child’s urine and a drop of honey, mix them both together equally, smear it into the eyes].
None; They are all real.
Correct! Click on all individual answers to see the actual early medieval English remedies.
10. Your patient has a sore throat, you prescribe:
Drink heated honey with some herbs.
Correct! Not all Anglo-Saxon medicine is magical or silly!
Gurggle with the spittle of a horse.
No! Don’t be silly.
Take the neck of a goose and wrap it around the patient’s neck.
No! Don’t be silly.
Nine leeches.
No! Don’t be silly.
Put the patient in an oven.
No! Don’t be silly.

Does early medieval English medicine deserve its bad reputation?

While the quiz above may suggest that Grattan and Singer were justified in rejecting Anglo-Saxon medicine as folly and credulity, more recent scholarship has suggested this harsh criticism is undeserved. Treatments with magical and irrational elements only make up about fifteen percent of all early medieval English remedies. The majority can be categorised as herbal medicine, an alternaive form of medicine still practised today. M. L. Cameron tested out some of the ingredients in Anglo-Saxon remedies and concluded:

Did ancient and medieval physicians use ingredients and methods which were likely to have had beneficial effects on the patients whose ailments they treated?… I think the answer is “Yes, and their prescriptions were about as good as anything prescribed before the mid-twentieth century”. (M. L. Cameron, Anglo-Saxon Medicine (Cambridge, 1993), p. 117)

In other words, Anglo-Saxon medicine may not have been as ineffectual as it might seem. In fact, a few years ago, an Anglo-Saxon remedy for eye stye shocked the world by being able to succeed where modern antibiotics had failed:

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CNN news report on Anglo-Saxon potion (more on this remedy here)

Perhaps, then, Anglo-Saxon medicine deserves more than a silly trivia quiz, but that’s something for future blog posts!

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

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):

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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

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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’!)

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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.

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.

If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy:

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)

Half-assed humanoids: Centaurs in early medieval England

With the upper body of a human and the lower body of a horse, centaurs are one of the most recognisable creatures of Greek mythology. However, these horse-human-hybrids also make their appearance in the cultural record of early medieval England, as this blog post demonstrates.

Half-horsed or half-assed half-humans

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Centaurs in London, British Library, Cotton Vitelius A.xv, fol. 103r; on the Bayeux Tapestry (source); and on an Anglo-Saxon coin (source)

Depicted as they are in manuscript versions of The Marvels of the East, on the Bayeux Tapestry and on various early medieval English coins, centaurs were certainly no strangers to the Anglo-Saxons. The inhabitants of early medieval England were probably aware of the centaur’s origins in Greek mythology, which describes the centaurs as a legendary tribe of half-horses living in Thessaly and often at blows with the Lapiths (both peoples were said to descend from the twin brothers Centaurus and Lapithes, sons of Apollo; Centaurus mated with horses, Lapithes did not). A mention of the centaurs and Lapiths is found in the Old English translation of Orosius’s Historia adversus paganos:

On ðæm dagum wæs þætte Lapithe 7 Thesali wæron winnende him betweonum. Þonne þa Lapithe gesawon Thesali þæt folc of hiora horsum beon feohtende wið hie, þonne heton hi hie Centauri, þæt sindon healf hors, healf men, for þon hie on horse hie feohtan ne gesawen ær þa. (Bately 1980, p. 28)

[In these days it was that the Lapiths and Thessalians were fighting among themselves. When the Lapiths saw that the Thessalian people were fighting against them from their horses, then they called them ‘Centaurs’, that is half horse, half man, because they never before then saw them fight on horseback.]

A centaur-like being also gets a mention in The Marvels of the East: “Hi beoþ oð ðene nafelan on menniscum gescape 7 syððan on eoseles gescape” [they are in a man’s shape down to the navel and afterwards in the shape of an ass] (London, British Library, Cotton Vitelius A.xv, fol. 103v; see the image of this centaur above. For more on this fascinating text, see The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex). The idea that centaurs were half-assed, rather than half-horsed is also evident from the Old English gloss “healf man healf assa” [half man, half ass] for the Latin words centaurus, ippocentaurus and onocentaurus in an eleventh-century glossary:

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Part of a marginal glossary in London, British Library, Additional 32246, fol. 3r.

On viking ships and in monastic rules: Centaurs in unexpected places

While centaurs might not seem amiss in texts about wonderful creatures, ancient histories and lists of obscure Latin words, references to these horse-human hybrids also pop up in more unexpected places. According to the anonymous author of the Encomium Emmae Regina (1041-1042), for instance, centaurs could be seen on the Viking longboats used by Swein Forkbeard when he invaded England in the year 1013:

On one side lions moulded in gold were to be seen on the ships, on the other birds on the tops of the masts indicated by their movements the winds as they blew, or dragons of various kinds poured fire from their nostrils. Here there were glittering men of solid gold or silver nearly comparable to live ones, there bulls with necks raised high and legs outstretched were fashioned leaping and roaring like live ones. One might see dolphins moulded in electrum, and centaurs in the same metal, recalling the ancient fable. (trans. Campbell 1949)

Who knew those Vikings were so keen to decorate their boats with such exotic and mythological animals?

Another surprising place to stumble on a mention of centaurs is in the late eleventh-century Old English translation of the Enlarged Rule of Chrodegang, a monastic rule that originated in the eighth century. In a chapter dealing with the difference between clerics under episcopal rule and clerics that were not ruled by bishops (‘acephalous’ or headless clerics), the latter are described as “gewitlease nytenu” [witless animals]. While they may pretend to be clerics, they lead base lives. They are neither clerical nor lay and, thus, the rule explicitly states, they resemble centaurs:

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The Old English Version of the Enlarged Rule of Chrodegang. Cambridge, Parker Library, CCCC MS 191, p. 128

Hi sind gelice ypocentauris, þa ne synt naðer ne hors \ne/ men, ac synt gemenged, swa se bisceop cwæð, Ægðer ge cynren ge tudor is twybleoh. Þæra sceanda and þæra swæma mænigeo wæs æfre ure westdæl afylled.

[They are like centaurs which are neither horse nor men but are mixed as the bishop said, ‘Their kindred as well as their offspring is dual’ (a reference to Virgil’s Aeneid). Our western world was forever filled by a host of these imposters and idlers.] (trans. Langefeld 2003, p. 382)

Given their appearance on boats of Viking invaders and their link to unruly clerics, it seems centaurs did not have a good reputation in early medieval England. Matters change, however, when we take into account an important medical text.

Chiron, a centaur-doctor in the Old English Herbal

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London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C.iii, fol. 19r

London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius c.iii opens with a full-page miniature of a man and a centaur offering a book to a blue-veiled individual. The texts that follow this miniature are the Old English Herbal and an Old English translation of Medicina de quadrupedibus [Remedies of four-footed animals]. The presence of this centaur is not an artistic flourish, as the entry in the Old English Herbal for the herb centaury demonstrates: “Eac ys sæd þæt Chyron centaurus findan sceolde þas wyrta þe we ær centauriam maiorem 7 nu centauriam minorem nemdon, ðanun hy eac þone naman healdað centaurias” (de Vriend 1984, p. 82) [It is also said that Chiron the centaur had to find the herb that we earlier called centauriam maiorem and now called centauriam minorem, thence they also have the name centaury]. The centaur offering the book at the start of this manuscript, then, is none other than Chiron, the wisest centaur of all Greek mythology and inventor of, among other things, botany and pharmacy!

This same Chiron is associated with the zodiac sign Sagittarius, which of course was also known to the Anglo-Saxons:

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Sagittarius in London, British Library, Cotton Julius A.vi, fol. 8v

To sum up: Whether half-assed or half-horsed, on Viking boats or in monastic rules, as a mythological medicine man-horse or a zodiac sign, centaurs clearly left their mark (or: hoofprints) in the cultural record of early medieval England!

If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested in:

Works referred to:

  • Bately, J. (1985). The Old English Orosius. EETS, s.s. 6 (London)
  • Campbell, A. (1949). Encomium Emmae Reginae (London)
  • Langefeld, B.T (2003). The Old English Version of the Enlarged Rule of Chrodegang: Edited together with the Latin Text and an English Translation. Münchener Universitätsschriften, Texte und Untersuchungen zur Englischen Philologie, Band 26 (Frankfurt am Main)
  • de Vriend, H.J. (1984). The Old English Herbarium and Medicina de quadrupedibus. EETS 286 (London)

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Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?

The second episode of The Last Kingdom (UK airdate: Thursday, 29 October, 9 pm, BBC 2) introduces Prince Alfred, who would later become King Alfred the Great (d. 899). In his first scene, Alfred is portrayed as a man tormented both physically (because of his health) and morally (because of his lustful feelings towards the flustered maidservant that had just left his room). This blog post highlights some sources related to the historical Alfred and explores what they reveal about his passions…and his piles.

Alfred (The Last Kingdom, BBC) (SOURCE)

Alfred the Great (849-899): An unlikely king, a sickly sovereign

Genealogical tree of Æthelwulf of Wessex (reign 839-858) © The British Library, Royal 14 B V

Genealogical tree of Æthelwulf of Wessex (reign 839-858) © The British Library, Royal 14 B V (Source)

Known as one of the greatest monarchs of Anglo-Saxon history, defeater of the Danes and instigator of an important educational reform, Alfred was, in fact, an unlikely candidate for the throne of Wessex. For one, he was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex (reign 839-858), which means he had four older brothers: Æthelstan (d. 852), Æthelred (King of Wessex, 858-860), Æthelbald (King of Wessex, 860-865) and Æthelberht (King of Wessex, 865-871). Only after all his brothers had died, Alfred (apparently, Æthelwulf had run out of Æthel-names…) became eligible to rule. Given that he was the youngest of five, Alfred was probably groomed for an ecclesiastical career (his father took him to see the pope, twice), which may explain his interests in learning in his later life. Another reason why Alfred may have been considered an unlikely king at the time was because he suffered from a terrible illness, as is revealed by a biography written during his life by Bishop Asser in the year 893.

Be careful what you wish for!

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1722 facsimile of manuscript containing Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’ (source)

Asser’s Life of King Alfred is a unique source on Alfred’s life and character, written by one of his own courtiers. Asser not only records Alfred’s battles with the Vikings and his dealings at court, he also reports some of Alfred’s medical details, mentioning that, from his youth, Alfred had suffered from “ficus” [piles, haemeroids].

Interestingly, Asser also tells us how Alfred acquired his piles in his early days:

when he [Alfred] realized that he was unable to abstain from carnal desire, fearing he would incur god’s disfavour if he did anything contrary to His will … [he would pray] that Almighty God through His mercy would more staunchly strengthen his resolve in the love of His service by means of some illness which he would be able to tolerate … when he had done this frequently with great mental devotion, after some time he contracted the disease of piles through God’s gift. (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 74)

In other words, young Alfred, afraid of his own dirty thoughts, asked God to grant him a distraction and God gave him haemeroids!

Out of the frying pan, into the fire: “A sudden severe pain that was quite unknown to all physicians”

Asser’s biography also records that Alfred was miraculously cured from his piles when , prior to his wedding, Alfred had asked God to “substitute for the pangs of the present and agonizing infirmity some less severe illness” (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 74). The young prince was miraculously cured: hurray! His regained health would be short-lived, however, since he suddenly fell ill on his wedding night: he had been struck by an illness that proved incurable. This new disease would torment him the rest of his life, as Asser noted:

he has been plagued continually with the savage attacks of some unknown disease, such that he does not have even a single hour of peace in which he does not either suffer from the disease itself or else, gloomily dreading it, is not driven almost to despair. (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 91)

Bald's Leechbook © The British Library, Royal 12 D XVII

Bald’s Leechbook © The British Library, Royal 12 D XVII (Source)

While the disease may have been unknown to the Anglo-Saxon physicians, modern-day scholars have used Asser’s description to diagnose Alfred with Crohn’s disease (Craig 1991). This diagnosis is corroborated by another document made during Alfred’s lifetime: Bald’s Leechbook.

Bald’s Leechbook is a compilation of various medical texts, which was possibly made at Alfred’s own request. Within this compilation, there is a section that is concluded by “þis eal het þus secgan ælfrede cyninge domine helias patriarcha on gerusalem” [Elias, the patriarch of Jerusalem (c. 879-907), ordered all of this to be told to King Alfred]. Included in this section are remedies for the alleviation of constipation, diarrhoea, pain in the spleen and internal tenderness, which all fit well with the pathology of Crohn’s disease(Craig 1991, p. 304). The Old English text also records that Elias sent him a “hwita stan” [a white stone], which could be used against all sorts of illnesses; as an added bonus, the white stone would also protect the owner from lightning and thunders (the text is edited by Cockayne 1864, Vol. II, pp. 288-291).

To make a long story short: Alfred was a passionate boy, God gave him piles and the patriarch of Jerusalem gave him a pebble. Poor Alfred.

Works refered to:

  • Asser, Life of King Alfred, trans. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge (Harmondsworth, 1983)
  • Cockayne, T. O. (ed.), Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England (London, 1846; available here)
  • Craig, G., ‘Alfred the Great: A Diagnosis’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 84 (1991), 303-305.

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