When examining the history of medicine, there can be a tendency to focus on the classical theories of doctors like Hippocrates and Galen. Galen, we should remember, thought that the body made blood in the liver and it disappeared into tissues as it moved around the body.
But is this the kind of medicine favoured by ‘ordinary’ people or local healers? Would Old English medicine have been the same?
Thankfully, we don’t need to guess. There are documents in the British Library that lay bare the foundations of Anglo-Saxon medicine. These remedies are a mixture of charms, classic medical practice, folklore, and magic.
Yet this earlier medical practice relies far less on costly astrology or treatments related to the four ‘humours’ than later medieval medicine did. Julian Walker points out that some of the remedies sound strange to our ears. But elsewhere, there are plenty of remedies that make a lot of sense (2013).
It’s these remedies, the cures and treatments used by healers and ordinary folk alike, that we’ll look at today! Hit ‘play’ to hear the podcast episode or keep reading!
The Early Medical Texts
The only reason why we know how our ancestors dealt with medicine and health is through Old English medical texts. The British Library holds some of the surviving Old English books, referred to as Bald’s Leechbook, Leechbook III, and the Lacnunga.
Bald ordered the compilation of the Leechbook texts in around 900. Sinead Spearing notes that the copies that exist today are actually copies of a 6th-century manuscript (2018: ix). This earlier version was also a compendium of earlier work, so it’s hard to tell exactly how old many of these remedies were.
Julian Walker notes that Bald’s Leechbook also contains Mediterranean medicine alongside homegrown practices (2013). This demonstrates the sharing of (and perhaps trading of) medicinal knowledge during the period.
Volume 1 deals with external problems and Volume 2 focuses on internal complaints. Yet Volume 3 and the Lacnunga collects medicinal remedies, invocations, and magic charms to ward off supernatural ailments.
The Lacnunga dates to the late 10th/early 11th century. It’s written in a combination of Old English, Old Irish, and Latin. You can view the manuscript on the British Library website.
What did people believe caused illness?
Put simply, they didn’t always know. But they did believe in a shadowy Otherworld, described by Spearing as “a realm of powerful supernatural forces recognised as tangible beings responsible for illness and disease” (2018: xii). These beings are usually referred to as elves, but nightwalkers (aka vampires), spirits, and ‘hags’ also get a mention in the texts.
These spirits could cause illness or disease among humans from their place in the Otherworld. Elves were particularly blamed for causing medical conditions, with the term ‘elf-shot’ referring to this idea.
Part of this concept was supported by the discovery of Mesolithic flints and other stone arrowheads.
The late Eric W. Edwards wrote that the belief in elf-shot was still common in Scotland and northern England as late as the 18th century (2014). While the belief was particularly common around horse and cattle, humans could also suffer. Doctors would be unable to find any physical evidence of an elf-shot wound. Apparently this demonstrated the skill of the elf marksmen, but rather we would understand the illness as the physical manifestation of an internal malady.
Alaric Hall notes the famous case of Bessie Dunlop during the Scottish Witch Trials. She explained that she was working alongside Thom Reid, “a dead man in the service of the ‘Quene of Elfame‘” (Hall 2005b: 25). In her confession, Dunlop explains that if people had been “elf-grippit“, she would ask Thom how to help them. Hall further explores the etymological significance of the word ‘grippit’, but concludes the effect was much the same. People thought they had been afflicted by faeries.
Pagan Practice Meets Christian Belief
Hall takes issue with some of the discussions of elf-shot, believing instead that the Old English word ofscoten has been mistranslated (2005a: 198). Yet the underlying belief in supernatural causes of ailments persists. Karen Louise Jolly explains how the medical attack by elves “was eventually linked with Christian ideas of demons” (1996: 134).
These medical texts emerged from the period in which Anglo-Saxon culture mixed with early Christianity. While we usually imagine these two societies to be at loggerheads, the remedies show a fusion of the two world views. The medical work lies in this liminal space between magic and religion. Remedies frequently include prayers and Latin alongside ‘pagan’ concoctions.
As Jolly points out, most people see the conversion from the Saxon pagan religion to Christianity as “a dramatic event” (1996). It involves a full-on switching of sides. And that would absolutely be the case within formal religion, but popular religion isn’t so neatly defined.
How did these Old English medicine remedies work?
It depends on the remedy and the ‘prescription’. Some of the remedies work based on the properties of the plants involved. Others work more on the principle of ‘sympathetic magic’. Most involve a degree of psychology through the holistic process that’s followed.
Spearing does caution us that “not once” within the texts does anyone use the words “magic, spell or charm” (2018: xvii). They only mention such words if the remedy is intended to cure the effects of one. So the practitioners understood these to be ‘cures’ rather than magic. It’s worth bearing this in mind before we dismiss them out of hand! We also need to remember that the recipes were compiled and catalogued by Christians.
The Power of Plants
The Lacnunga contains an invocation called the Nine Herbs Prayer. S.E.S. Eberly theorises that it may have been used to help practitioners ‘time’ their preparations (2011).
It included mugwort, plantain, shepherd’s purse, nettle, betony, chamomile, crab apple, chervil, and fennel. The plants were boiled, mixed with soap, and made into a salve to treat skin infections.
Concoctions like this worked due to the medicinal properties of the ingredients. Julian Walker notes the huge importance of herbs to medicine in the period. It’s sometimes hard to work out which plants they mean since names have changed over the centuries. He also points out that Leechbook III contains remedies that only use plants native to Britain.
This hints at a medical practice particular to the Anglo-Saxons, irrespective of the classical traditions of medicine. Yet ironically, these remedies also have contemporary versions. Walker notes a recipe in Bald’s Leechbook for an ointment to treat muscular pain that contained nettles (2013). You can buy similar ointments now!
Likewise, binding plantain around the head of a migraine sufferer with red thread may sound surprising. The thread acts to protect the sufferer from the spirits that caused the pain (Spearing 2018: 25). But plantain is an anti-inflammatory, so who’s to say the remedy didn’t actually work, albeit in a different way than it was intended?
Beyond that, researchers at Nottingham University re-created a salve from the Leechbook in 2015. It contained cow bile, garlic, onion and leek. They didn’t expect it to work as an antibiotic. Yet the salve was so potent, it can kill the MRSA superbug (Spearing 2018: xvii).
These herbal concoctions are often accompanied by charms or invocations. When using the Nine Herbs Prayer, healers sang the charm three times over each of the herbs during preparation. Then someone sang the charm into the injured person’s mouth, ears, and wound, before application (Jolly 1996: 127).
Why do this? Partly, these rituals involve the power of numbers. Yet they also provide a sense of theatre. It allowed healers to create a special space for the patient. Songs, rhymes, or charms characterised these spaces. They set the stage for the healing that was about to occur.
The placebo effect has been well-documented. If you believe a cure will work, it has a greater chance of doing so. While it’s unlikely early medieval healers were masters of psychology, they understood enough to spot the mind-body connection.
Sinead Spearing gives the example of a remedy for an adder’s bite. You were to repeat the charm “Omnes malas bestias canto” (I charm and overcome all evil wild beasts) three times before you cut elder from the plant. Then you were to visualise the person you needed to cure while you cut the elder into three. You would turn away from the plant, and pound your cuttings into a paste. If you applied it to the bite, the person would recover (2018: 17).
While elder is unlikely to have had an effect on adder venom, it does ease inflammation or swelling. So it might have provided some local relief. Yet the fact that someone had produced a remedy and focused on the idea of healing could produce the placebo effect required to make the cure work.
There’s a principle that has taken root in popular culture that ‘like attracts like’. You may have come across it within the Law of Attraction (despite the fact the LoA is essentially Hermetic philosophy repackaged for the Instagram Age).
But it originally comes from the idea of sympathetic magic. Here, if you do something to an object, it has an effect on whatever the object represents.
One of the charms in the Lacnunga is to alleviate a stitch. The healer should boil feverfew, red nettles and plantain in butter (Jolly 1996: xx). They should speak another invocation and then dip a knife into the liquid.
While the instructions don’t explain why this should be done, we can guess. A stitch feels like a sudden stabbing pain. If we soothe a stabbing implement, then we should soothe the stitch. You’re essentially drawing the pain of the stitch into the knife.
Benjamin Slade also points out that all three of the plants used in the charm are “vaguely spear-shaped”. The logic runs as follows: use a spear-shaped leaf to cure a complaint that feels like stabbing.
The Leechbook III includes a remedy for swollen eyes. The remedy involves removing the eyes of a raven before it’s dead and placing them onto the neck of the sufferer. Here, the body is believed to absorb the ‘good’ eyesight of the raven. Incidentally, Spearing notes that a major artery leads from the back of the neck to the eyes. Folk healers may have noted the link between eye complaints and the neck (2018: 42). Yet the cure is believed to work through the transfer of power from one thing to another.
The Demise of the Elves
Nowadays, we know viruses and bacteria cause many illnesses. Venom or toxins cause other ailments. The discovery of bacteria in 1676 seemed to hasten the end of a waning belief in elves. It would take until the 19th century and the work of Louis Pasteur around germ theory before the true causes of many complaints became known. Yet some of the Old English remedies no doubt continued to work – just look at the MRSA cure.
Nicholas Culpeper had already produced his Complete Herbal in 1653. This helped to make medical knowledge more accessible to ordinary people. And of course, the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII led people to seek out folk healers rather than monks. Old English medicine passed into different hands.
That doesn’t mean medicine still has all the answers. Anyone who’s ever been to the doctor and been told they just need to lose weight / exercise / meditate knows how frustrating it can be. Still, it beats being shot by an elf…
What do you think of this Old English medicine? Let me know below!
Eberly, S.E.S. (2011), ‘The Nine Herbs Prayer
from the Lacnunga’, Wyrtig, http://www.wyrtig.com/GardenFolklore/NineHerbsPrayer.htm.
Edwards, Eric W. (2014), ‘Elf-shot cattle and folklore’, Eric Edwards Collected Works, https://ericwedwards.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/elf-shot/.
Hall, Alaric (2005a), ‘Calling the Shots: The Old English Remedy ‘Gif Hors Ofscoten Site’ and Anglo-Saxon ‘Elf-Shot’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 106: 2, pp. 195-209.
Hall, Alaric (2005b), ‘Getting Shot of Elves: Healing, Witchcraft and Fairies in the Scottish Witchcraft Trials’, Folklore, 116: 1, pp. 19-36.
Jolly, Karen Louise (1996), Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Slade, Benjamin (no date), Text of Charm Against a Sudden Stitch facing a New Translation (with explanatory notes), Heorot, https://heorot.dk/stitch-i-txt.html.
Spearing, Sinead (2018), Old English Medical Remedies: Mandrake, Wormwood and Raven’s Eye, Barnsley: Pen & Sword.
Disclaimer: This post is for entertainment purposes only. If you are unwell, seek the assistance of a trained and qualified medical professional. This post is no substitute for medical advice.
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