Who treated the sick in Anglo-Saxon England?

Recently in the UK there have been a number of strikes by hospital doctors over the new contract handed to them by the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt.  On a couple of these occasions, I spent a brief period, before going to work in the morning, holding banners with doctors and their supporters at my local hospital: one time they even brought out a seat for Mr Hunt to join them at the table.  He hadn’t yet turned up by the time I left, though.


This is a world away from Anglo-Saxon medicine, of course, but it got me thinking about what we do and don’t know about those who were involved in treating the sick in the early Middle Ages.  The Leechbooks, introduced in more detail in my post here, have little to say about the sources of their remedies.  Two of them, however, are credited to one Oxa, and another to someone called Dun.  Here is one of Oxa’s recipes:

Oxa Roy12Dxvii.45v
London, British Library Royal 12 D. xvii, 45v

‘Oxa taught us this remedy’.  Who Oxa is – or, for that matter, who ‘we’ are – isn’t clear.  We know, though, that he recommended gathering a number of different plants, putting them into ale, letting the patient drink them for nine days, and then letting his or her blood.  Bloodletting was accepted medical practice, but there appear to have been some controversy surrounding the treatment.  One text on the matter asserts that

Ða ealdan læcas gesetton on ledon bocum þæt on ælcum monðe beoð æfre twegen dagas þa syndon swiðe derigendlice ænigne drenc to drincanne • oþþe blod to lætenne … we gehyrdon seggon sumne [w]isne mann þæt nan mann ne leofode þe him blod læte on ealra halgena mæsse dæg • oþþe gif he gewundod wære • nis þis nan wiglung • ac wise menn hit afunden þurh þone halgan wisdom swa heom god ælmihtig gedihte.

(London, British Library Cotton Caligula A. xv, in Cockayne, ed., Leechdoms, III, 154.)

The old physicians wrote in Latin books that in each month there are always two days which are very dangerous for drinking any [medical] drink, or letting blood … We have heard a certain wise man saying that no man has lived from whom blood was let on the mass-day of All Saints, or if he was wounded.  This is no sorcery; rather, wise men found it out through the holy wisdom just as God Almighty directed them.

Clearly, someone at the time was unhappy that these ideas might be regarded as some kind of witchcraft: in defence of this, the writer invokes the old doctors of the past, a particular wise man, and the actions of wise human beings in seeking truth with the help of God.  We can discern something like a community of learned physicians, passing on their ideas of what was considered to be good for healing.

Amongst all the references, direct and indirect, to Anglo-Saxon medics, one remedy stands out from the others.  There is a cure for ælfsogoþa in Leechbook III which suggests that the physician might not want to go to too much trouble!  He or she must first consider the sex of the patient and their symptoms, then prepare a writing in Latin with some words of power, sing a prayer to cast out illness from every part of the patient’s body, make a drink with holy water and some herbs, make the sign of the cross with holy oil, use the writing to make the sign of the cross over the drink, sing another prayer in order to expel the devil, wet the writing in the drink and make the sign of the cross on each of the patient’s limbs, and then say some words of blessing.  The compiler seems to doubt that the physician will want to go through all that:

If you'd rather not bother ...
If you’d rather not bother … Royal 12 D. xvii, fol. 125r

If you don’t feel like it, tell [the patient] himself or whichever relative he has who is most closely related, and may he sign [himself with the cross] as best he can.

This is a jarring and (as far as I can see) unique example in Anglo-Saxon medical literature of a physician who might be unwilling to go to the trouble of helping a patient.  It’s certainly one of the Leechbook‘s longer remedies, but there are a number of others of similar length elsewhere in the same volume in which this suggestion is not made.

Of course, medicine was a very international affair: bloodletting was a treatment deriving from Classical theories of the body, and a couple of the remedies in Anglo-Saxon medical literature are attributed to knowledge from overseas.  Folio 105r-v of the Leechbook gives a number of cures for various ailments – including a white stone with all sorts of supernatural powers – which are said to have been given to King Alfred by the Patriarch of Jerusalem.  Unfortunately, there are some folios missing from the manuscript at the start of this entry, so any more we might have learned on this subject is lost to us.

Another great expert was one King Arestolobius, who was ‘wis 7 læcecræftig’ (wise and learned in healing): to him the Lacnunga (also introduced in my earlier post) attributes a complicated recipe for a ‘good morning-drink’ for all internal or external  illnesses.  It’s a pretty comprehensive list: headache, lung disease, urinary difficulties, swollen feet, any kind of poison, and the persecution of the devil!  The answer, by the way, is to gather the seeds of over thirty different plants (get them at harvest-time so that you have them ready later in the year), grind them into fine dust, and drink the dust with wine, without food, at night, whenever you need to.  Maybe the wine helps too.

Arestolobius Har585.186v
The remedy of King Arestolobius. London, British Library Harley 585, fol. 186v

I don’t know how effective these seeds might have been – and identifying plants from their Anglo-Saxon names is difficult enough – but it is worth noting the complexity of the medicines which the reader had to prepare, and the different stages of religious ritual which he or she had to go through: these manuscripts bear witness to just how much people cared about the healing of the sick.  Doctors and medical researchers today are the same: they deserve our support.


Related reading:

Cockayne, Oswald, ed. Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England. Rolls Series 35:1-3. New York: Kraus Reprint, 1965.

Pettit, Edward, ed. Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers from British Library MS Harley 585: The Lacnunga, 2 vols. Mellen Critical Editions and Translations 6. Lewiston, NY, Queenston and Lampeter: Mellen, 2001.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Thom Hickey says:

    Fascinating! Delighted to have found your blog. Looking forward to exploration. Regards Thom.


    1. katehthomas says:

      Glad you’re enjoying! More soon (hopefully)!

      Liked by 1 person

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