Anglo-Saxon detox diets

It’s April already: how has over a quarter of the year already passed?  One of my New Year’s resolutions was to write at least two blogposts a month, which I have managed to keep so far.  It’s probably easier than embarking on some kind of unforgiving health regime, like one of those detox diets which some people take up.  Whatever people might say about juice cleanses and cutting out dairy products, there is really only one good way of detoxing, and some Anglo-Saxons knew what it was:

Have a liver.PNG
Have a liver

Physicians in the antique and early medieval periods sought to understand the liver’s function, and this information was translated into Old English, in the medical book known as Leechbook II (Bald’s Leechbook), which I introduced here:

Sio biþ on þa swiþran sidan aþened oþ þone neweseoþan.  sio hæfð fif læppan helt tha lendenbrædan • Sio is blodes timber • 7 blodes hus • 7 fostor … 7 þa unsefernessa þe þær beoþ hio awyrpþ ut7 þæt clæne blod gesomnaþ.

(London, British Library Royal 12 D. xvii, fol. 73v; Cockayne, ed., Leechdoms, Starcraft and Wortcunning, vol, II, pp. 196, 198)

 (It [the liver] is stretched out on the right-hand side, up to the stomach.  It has five lobes and holds the loins.  It is the generative material, housing and nourishment of the blood … and it casts out the impurities which are there, and gathers the clean blood.)

But what precisely was the body to be cleansed of?  A modern person might think of toxins; a medieval doctor was concerned with overabundances of humours.  Although the theory of the four humours is not as central to Anglo-Saxon medicine as it was to other classical and medieval medical traditions, they are still mentioned from time to time: the Old English term is wæta.  One way of cleansing the body of bad wætan is through dietary treatments:

Nettle cleanse Roy12D17 81r

þonne man þas tacn ongite • þonne is se æresta læcedom dægfæsten þæt mon mid þy þa wambe clæsnige þæt hio þy þe leohtre sie … Sume to þære wambe clæsnunga seoþað netelan on wætre 7 on wine • 7 on ele • sume þære readan netlan twigu grene • sume betan oþþe doccan on geswettum wine seoþað 7 sellað to þicgenne.

(Royal 12 D. xvii fol. 81r-v; Cockayne, pp. 216-18)

(When one recognises these  signs, then the first remedy is fasting by day, so that one may in that manner cleanse the stomach, so that it may thus be lighter … For the cleansing of the stomach, some boil nettles in water, in wine and in oil; some use the green twigs of the red nettle; some boil beet or dock in sweetened wine and give it to drink.)

An excess of blood was considered to be harmful too: it could, for example, lead to liver disease.  Bloodletting was believed to solve that problem by cleansing the body, after which a suitable diet was to be followed:

Æfter þon þa se lichoma sie þurh þa blodlæse geclænsad • þæs mannes bileofa is to besceawianne.

(Royal 12 D. xvii fol. 78v; Cockayne, p. 210)

(After the body is cleansed through the bloodletting, the person’s diet is to be examined.)

Eggs are bad; breadcrumbs are fine in moderation; apples and wine are bad, and so are osterhlafas – oyster loaves? – whatever those were.

But the ultimate toxin was, of course, the devil.  A number of references to deofolseocnes – literally, devilsickness – appear in Anglo-Saxon medical books.  It is not clear exactly what this was – hopefully I will post on this at some point in the future – but of course the devil was something that you wanted out of your body as quickly as possible.  As discussed in my earlier post on Anglo-Saxon vomit, one Leechbook I remedy recommends a spiwdrenc or emetic in these circumstances:

Wiþ feondseocum men • þonne deofol þone monnan fede oððe hine innan gewealde mid adle.  Spiwedrenc eluhtre • bisceopwyrt • beolone cropleac gecnua tosomne do eala to wætan læt standan neahterne do fiftig lybcorna on 7 halig wæter.

(Royal 12 D. xvii fol. 51v; Cockayne, p. 136)

(For a devilsick person, when the devil wants to feed the person or control him from within with disease, an emetic drink: lupin, betony, henbane, garlic.  Pound them together, put in ale as a liquid, allow to stand overnight, and put in fifty purgative seeds in and holy water.)

Betony, Egerton747 14r
Betony: a weapon against the devil. From a 13th/14th century Italian herbal, London, British Library Egerton 747 f. 14r

Here, it is as if the devil – a spiritual being – is physically within the body and needs to be driven out of it with the aid of bodily medicine, rather than through the sole use of spiritual remedies such as psalms, prayers and confession (although these were often used too).

Bloodletting, henbane, vomit, giving up apples … I think I’ll stick to having a liver, thanks.


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