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The Medieval in Middle-earth: Anglo-Saxon Elephants and Tolkien’s Oliphaunts

As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this post, I focus on the parallels between Tolkien’s oliphaunts and their counterparts from early medieval England.

Of oliphaunts and elephants

As the hobbits Sam and Frodo, guided by the creature Gollum, make their way to Mordor in The Two Towers, they chance upon a number of Southron forces marching to the Black Gate of Mordor. Sam wonders whether they might have brought oliphaunts. When Gollum expresses his ignorance concerning these animals, Sam stands up and recites a little poem:

Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South,
Flapping big ears.
Beyond count of years
I stump round and round,
Never lie on the ground,
Not even to die.
Oliphaunt am I,
Biggest of all,
Huge, old, and tall.
If ever you’d met me
You wouldn’t forget me.
If you never do,
You won’t think I’m true;
But old Oliphaunt am I,
And I never lie. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, bk. 4, ch. 3)

Sam’s poem (which is also reproduced as part of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil) has an interesting analogue in a homily written by Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010). Ælfric wrote about the Maccabees, a group of Jewish warriors (revered as saints in the early Christian church), who had several interactions with elephants. He described this exotic animal as follows:

TPBlog.Elephants1

Cambridge, University Library, MS Ii.1.33, fol. 189r.

Sumum menn wile þincan sellic þis to gehyrenne, forðan þe ylpas ne comon næfre on Engla lande. Ylp is ormæte nyten mare þonne sum hus, eall mid banum befangen binnan þam felle butan æt þam nafelan, 7 he næfre ne lið. Feower 7 twentig monða gæð seo modor mid folan, 7 þreo hund geara hi libbað, gif hi alefede ne beoð. 7 hi man mæg wenian wundorlice to gefeohte. Hwæl is ealra fixa mæst, 7 ylp is ealra nytena mæst, ac swa þeah mannes gescead hi mæg gewyldan.

Some men will think this is strange to hear, because elephants never came to England. An elephant is an immense creature, bigger than a house, completely surrounded with bones within the skin except at the navel, and he never lies. The mother is with foal for twenty-four months and they live for three hundred years if they are not crippled. And one can wonderfully train them for a battle. The whale is the largest of all fishes, and the elephant is the largest of all animals, but a man’s power of reason can nevertheless tame them.

Note how both Ælfric and Sam’s poem compare the size of these beasts to a house; they both mention their remarkable old age and the fact they never lie down. According to Ælfric, most people in early medieval England were as unfamiliar with elephants as Gollum was with oliphaunts – something that is confirmed by the following artistic impressions of elephants in two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts:

TPBlog.Elephants2

‘Elephants’ in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.v, fol. 81r; London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C.iii, fol. 82r

The ‘elephant’ on the left illustrates the passage “On þyssum stowum beoð akende þa miclan menigeo ylpenda” [In these places, the great multitudes of elephants are born] in the Old English Marvels of the East (for which, see The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex); the ‘elephant’ on the right accompanies a medical recipe that prescribes “ylpenban” [elephant bone]. Judging by the texture of the skin, lack of tusks and floppy ears, these Anglo-Saxon artists had clearly never seen an elephant.

How to kill an elephant or an oliphaunt

In his Hexameron (a work on the six days of Creation), Ælfric again wrote about the elephant, this time giving more context to how one might use it in battle:

TPBlog.Elephants3

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 302, pp. 16-17

Ða ylpas beoð swa micele swylce oðre muntas 7 hi magon libban ðreo hund geara 7 man mæg hi wenian to wige mid cræfte swa ðæt men wyrcað wighus him uppan 7 of ðam feohtað on heora fyrdinge. Þonne flyheð ælc hors afæred þurh þa ylpas, 7 gif hwa him wiðstent he bið sona oftreden.

[The elephants are as big as mountains and they can live for three hundred years and one can train them for war with skill in such a way that men build a battle-house upon them and from that they fight in their army. Then every horse will flee, afraid because of the elephants, and if anyone withstands them he will immediately be trampled.]

The notion that men will build houses on the backs of elephants is another aspect that Ælfric’s elephants share with what Sam tells Gollum about oliphaunts:

But I’ve heard tales of the big folk down away in the Sunlands. Swertings we call ’em in our tales; and they ride on oliphaunts, ’tis said, when they fight. They put houses and towers on the oliphauntses backs and all, and the oliphaunts throw rocks and trees at one another. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, bk. 4, ch. 3)

When Oliphaunts (who are named Mûmakil in the language of Harad) show up at the Battle of Pellennor Fields in The Return of the King, they indeed have war-towers on their backs and, like Ælfric’s elephants, they scare away horses:

TPBlog.Elephants4

Oliphaunts with war-towers on their backs in The Lord of the Rings films

… from the southward fields came footmen of Harad with horsemen before them, and behind them rose the huge backs of the mûmakil with war-towers upon them. … Horns were blown and trumpets were braying, and the mûmakil were bellowing as they were goaded to war. … But wherever the mûmakil came there the horses would not go, but blenched and swerved away; and the great monsters were unfought, and stood like towers of defence, and the Haradrim rallied about them. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, bk. 5, ch. 6)

In Tolkien’s chapter, we also learn about Derufin and Duilin of Morthond who “were trampled to death when they assailed the mûmakil, leading their bowmen close to shoot at the eyes of the monsters”. The risk of getting trampled by elephants is also touched upon by Ælfric in his homily on the Maccabees, when he narrates the heroic death of Eleazar, who struck at the navel of the elephant (its weak spot) and then found himself underneath the beast.

TPBlog.Elephants5

Two late medieval depictions of Eleazar’s death. London, British Library, Harley 4996, fol. 25v; London, British Library, Sloane 361, fol. 27r

And an his geferena, Eleazarus hatte, arn to anum ylpe þe ðær enlicost wæs, wende þæt se cyning wære on ðam wighuse ðe he bær. He arn mid atogenum swurde betwux þam eorode middan, and sloh æfre on twa healfa þæt hi sweltende feollon oð þæt he to þam ylpe com, and eode him on under, stang ða hine æt ðam nauelan þæt hi lagon ðær begen, heora egðer oðres slaga.]

[And one of his companions, called Eleazar, ran to the one elephant who was the most noble; he thought that the king would be in the tower that it bore. He ran with drawn sword through the middle of the mounted troop, and hacked continuously on both sides, so that they fell dying and he came to the elephant, and he went under it, struck it then at the navel so that they both lay there, each the slayer of the other.]

Perhaps Eleazar should have taken his cue from Legolas the elf, who, in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, manages to kill an oliphaunt and walk away unscathed:

Note: An elephant is not a camel!

In the Stapledon Magazine of June 1927, Tolkien published an earlier version of the Oliphaunt poem recited by the hobbit Sam in The Lord of the Rings, entitled “Iumbo, or ye Kinde of ye Oliphaunt”. This significantly larger piece is part of Tolkien’s attempt to make a parody of the medieval bestiary genre [I am writing an article about this , which will hopefully be out later this year]. The poem about the Oliphaunt starts as follows:

The Indic oliphaunt’s a burly lump,
A moving mountain, a majestic mammal
(But those that fancy that he wears a hump
Confuse him incorrectly with the camel). (J.R. R. Tolkien, “”Iumbo, or ye Kinde of ye Oliphaunt”, ll. 1-4)

The confusion between an elephant and a camel relies on a linguistic joke: the Old English word for ‘camel’ is olfend and bears a great similarity to present-day elephant. In his “Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings“, Tolkien explains:

Elephant in English is derived from Old French olifant, but the o is probably derived from old forms of English or German: Old English olfend, Old High German olbenta ‘camel’. The names of foreign animals, seldom or never seen, are often misapplied in the borrowing language. (J. R. R. Tolkien, “Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings“)

An interesting example of the names of foreign animals being misapplied is found in the early medieval manuscript of Beowulf, which also contains an illustrated copy of The Marvels of the East. In the passage of this text where the Latin source (and at least one other Old English translation, see above) mention elephants, the scribe of this version accidentally replaced the Old English word “ylpenda” [of elephants] with “olfenda” [of camels] and the illuminator followed suit:

TPBlog.Elephants6

“On þyssum beoð acende þa miclan mænego olfenda” [in these (places) the great multitudes of camels are born]. London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv, fol. 101v.

Was Tolkien thinking of the scribe and artist of the Beowulf manuscript when he wrote his little elephant-camel joke in “Iumbo, or ye Kinde of ye Oliphaunt”? Who knows? What is clear is that Tolkien’s oliphaunts clearly fit an early medieval mindset!

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

You can find my academic publications (some of which are Open Access) on Tolkien here.

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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:

Blog.EMMM CNN

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):

Blog.Insects.LeidenGlossary

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

Blog.Insects.CottonVitelliusCiii - 50r

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

Blog.Insects.CottonVitelliusCiii - 21v

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’!)

Blog.Insects.CottonVitelliusCiii - 78r

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:

Blog.Insects.Royal12DXVII 118r - 2

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:

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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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