The power of plants (and an Anglo-Saxon cold remedy)

Snake Har585.66v
London, British Library Harley 585, fol. 66v

This blogpost is part of a series on Anglo-Saxon medicine, which was introduced here.

The other day, I came across one of the Old English language’s many words related to battle and heroism and realised that it had been a long time since I had encountered it. On reflection, however, it occurred to me that I am well familiar with the words for ‘coeternal’ (efenece) and ‘phlegmy colds’ (geposu), which may give you an idea of where my research interests lie. It probably also says a lot about the fact that it has been winter here in Eoforwic for several months now, and for me, the past few winters have come accompanied by low-level but enduring sniffles – winter and colds are, not coeternal exactly, then certainly coenduring. It’s nothing I can’t coexist with, however; at least it wasn’t until yesterday, when my snuffliness rose above its usual levels, and I am now properly snoflig (great word!), which the Bosworth-Toller Dictionary of Old English defines as “full of snivel, having a cold in the head“, suffering from geposum and hracan (onomatopoeia if ever I heard it).

If I were in Anglo-Saxon England now, what might I be reaching for, instead of the honey and lemon? The first part of the Leechbook, which I introduced in my earlier post on Anglo-Saxon medicine, proposes this cure:

With gesnote Ro12Dxvii20v.png
London, British Library Royal D. xvii, fol. 20v

Against mucus and colds: take [the] downward [part of] oxna lyb, pound it well with water (if it is green, do not put water into it), then squeeze it into the nose.

Oxna lyb has been translated by Oswald Cockayne as ‘stinking hellebore‘, which is probably not something that I will be squeezing into my nose: according to Plantlife.org.uk, ingesting it can cause vomiting, delirium and possible death (although the site also rather interestingly notes that it blooms in Britain at around this time of year, and thus is easy to find precisely when we are most likely to suffer from snote and geposum). Much as I would love to find a cure for the common cold in Anglo-Saxon medical literature, I don’t think that this is what I was looking for.

Anglo-Saxon medicine is full of little herbal remedies which take this sort of form: ‘Against [illness], take [plant] and mix it with [other plant/water/wine/ale], apply to the [body part] or pour into [facial orifice]; soon he will be well.’ However, sometimes it is difficult to identify the illnesses referred to, and sometimes the plant names cannot necessarily be translated with any confidence. (I once listened to an excellent conference paper by Maria Amalia D’Aronco of the University of Udine, in which she demonstrated brilliantly why even the most obvious-sounding plant names cannot be taken at face value.)

Of the medical collections which I introduced in my last post, the Leechbooks and Lacnunga contain some element of organisation according to the part of the body which is being treated: parts of each collection follow a head-downwards scheme, or group together cures for the same illness or treatments for the same internal organ. The Herbarium, on the other hand, gathers its remedies together according to the plant on which they are based:

Heortclaefre Har585.26v
London, British Library Harley 585, fol. 26v

This plant which one calls chamedris and by another name heortclæfre is produced on downs and on solid ground. If someone has been crushed, take this plant which we called camedris, pound it in a wooden vat and give it [to the patient] to drink in wine; in the same way, it also heals wounds.  Against the bite of an adder, take the same …

(Incidentally, the scribe of Harley 585 seems peculiarly serpent-obsessed: whenever a snakebite remedy appears in its copy of the Herbarium, a line drawing of a snake appears in the margin of the text. I have only skimmed through the digitised manuscript as far as folio 62r, and I’ve already counted nine. Have a look through it and see what I mean.)

The compilers of these manuscripts clearly had a knowledge of wild plants and their uses which few people nowadays have. Plants had power, a power which was put there by their creator, and which could be augmented further by using them in God’s name, as is seen in this blessing of plants from the Lacnunga collection:

BenHerb Har585192r.PNG
London, British Library Harley 585, fol. 192r

‘Omnipotent, eternal God who from the beginning of the world has established and created all things, as with the species of trees so with the seeds of plants, which also by the blessing of your benediction you have sanctified the same, now may you deign to sanctify and bless with your benediction the herbs of the garden and other fruits, so that to those consuming them they may confer health of mind and of body and a protection of defence and an eternal life …’ Trans. Edward Pettit, Lacnunga, I, p. 129.

At around this time, the abbot, prolific homilist and all-round grump Ælfric of Eynsham felt the need to make an important distinction between the legitimate and illegitimate uses of plants in healing. Eat them, yes, as they were created by God with healing power, but don’t do anything sorcerous with them. Following St Augustine, in his De doctrina christiana, he warns:

Se wisa agustinus cwæð þæt unpleolic sy þeah hwa læcewyrte ðicge; ac þæt he tælð to unalyfedlicere wigelunge. gif hwa þa wyrt on him becnytte buton he hi to þam dolge gelecge; ðeahhwæðere ne sceole we urne hiht on læcewyrtum besettan; ac on þam ælmihtigum scyppende þe ðam wyrtum þone cræft forgeaf.

(Homily for the Passio Sancti Bartholomei, ed. Clemoes, p. 450.)

The wise Augustine said that it is not dangerous if someone eats a medicinal herb, but he censures it as an unlawful sorcery if he binds the herb onto himself, unless he lays it on a wound; however, we ought not to place our hope in medicinal herbs, but in the Almighty Creator, who gave that power to the herbs.

However, such prohibitions do not necessarily prove anything: how widely were they paid any attention to? It happens that Anglo-Saxon medical literature includes a number of such ligatures: sometimes they are plants, at other times they take the form of pieces of parchment with words written upon them (I hope to discuss these in a later post). Indeed, the cure for colds quoted above is immediately preceded by a series of treatments for nosebleeds, including this one:

Blood stanching Ro12D27.20r.PNG
London, British Library Royal 12 D. xvii, fol. 20r

To stop blood, again, take hedge clivers and bind on the neck.

Otherwise, why not do as the Leechbook suggests and try sticking various plants into your ear?

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