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In the early Middle Ages, dwarfs appear to have been associated with a medical condition. That is, the Old English word for dwarf, dweorg, could also denote “fever, perhaps high fever with delirium and convulsions” [Dictionary of Old English, s.v. dweorg]. As a result, the term dweorg pops up in various remedies that are intended to rid the patient of their dwarf and/or fever; here are five sure ways to get rid of those short-statured, bearded individuals!
1. Write some symbols! Old English charms
The Anglo-Saxon medico-magical collection known as the Lacnunga (surviving in a 10th/11th-century manuscript) features a number of remedies against a dwarf. Two of these involve writing a series of symbols (crosses and Greek letters) along one’s arms, followed by the mixing of great celandine with ale and calling upon two saints (Macutus and Victoricus):
Writ ðis ondlang da earmas wiþ dweorh, … 7 gnid cyleðenigean on ealað, sanctus macutus sancte uictorici.
Writ þis ondlang ða earmas wið dweorh, … 7 gnid cyleþenigean on ealað, sanctus macutus, sancte uictorici.
[Write this along the arms against a dwarf … and mix celandine in ale, saint Macuturs, Saint Victoricus.
Write this along the arms against a dwarf … and mix celandine in ale, saint Macuturs, Saint Victoricus.]
The notion that writing symbols may alleviate one from a dwarf is also found in one other Old English charm. On the flyleaf of an eleventh-century manuscript, an Anglo-Saxon scribe wrote a string of Christian gobbledegook (“thebal guttatim aurum et thus de. + albra Iesus + alabra Iesus + Galabra Iesus +”), followed by this Old English instruction:
Wið þone dworh on .iii. oflætan writ.
[Against the dwarf, write on three wafers:
THEBAL GUTTA seems to be pure mumbo-jumbo (akin to abracadabra); the use of wafers is interesting, since these are also used in the most famous Old English charm which is simply entitled “Wid dweorh” [against a dwarf].
2. Summon its sister! An Old English charm against a dwarf
This charm, found among the Lacnunga, instructs one to take seven “lytle oflætan swylce man mid ofrað” [little wafers like the ones people use to worship; i.e. the Host] and write down the names of seven saints (Maximianus, Malcus, Johannes, Martinianus, Dionysius, Constantinus and Serafion – the names of the Christian saints collectively known as the Seven Sleepers). The charm further instructs that a virgin must hang these wafers around the neck of the patient and that you are to sing a particular song, “ærest on þæt wynstre eare, þænne on þæt swiðre eare, þænne bufan þæs mannes moldan” [first into the left ear, then into the right ear, then on top of the patient’s head]. This ritual is to be repeated for three days in a row: “Do man swa þry dagas him bið sona sel.” [Do this for three days and then he will immediately be well].
The charm also provides the text of the song you are supposed to sing. This song is rather enigmatic, but the usual interpretation is as follows: the first four lines describe the cause of the patient’s complaints: a small being [the dwarf] has put reins over the patient and has started to ride them as if they were a horse; the next lines describe the cure: the sister of the dwarf is summoned and she puts an end to the patient’s ordeal and swears oaths that it shall never happen again.
Her com in gangan, in spiderwiht,
hæfde him his haman on handa, cwæð þæt þu his hæncgest wære,
legde þe his teage an sweoran. Ongunnan him of þæm lande liþan;
sona swa hy of þæm lande coman, þa ongunnan him ða liþu colian.
þa com in gangan dweores sweostar;
þa geændade heo and aðas swor
ðæt næfre þis ðæm adlegan derian ne moste,
ne þæm þe þis galdor begytan mihte,
oððe þe þis galdor ongalan cuþe.
[Here came a spider-creature crawling in;
His web was a harness held in his hand.
Stalking, he said that you were his steed.
Then he threw his net around your neck,
Reining you in. Then they both began
To rise from the land, spring fromthe earth.
As they leapt up, their limbs grew cool.
Then the spider-dwarf’s sister jumped in,
Ending it all by swearing these oaths:
No hurt should come to harm the sick,
No pain to the patient who receives the cure,
No harm to the one who sings this charm.
Amen. Let it be done. ] (Trans. Williamson 2017, p. 1075)
This charm’s effectiveness seems to rely on the combination of pagan Germanic, magical elements (the dwarf as a cause for the disease; its sister swearing oaths; a complex singing ritual involving a virgin) and Christian elements (the Host; names of Christian saints; the use of “Amen”) – this is a phenomenon often referred to as syncretism (the blending of two cultures).
3. Carve some runes! The Dunton plaque and Odin’s skull
Discovered as recently as 2015, a lead plaque dated to the 8th to 11th centuries features a very interesting runic inscription in Old English: “DEAD IS DWERG”. The inscription on this ‘Dunton plaque’ is easily translated to “The dwarf is dead” and may have worked in a similar manner to the Old English charms above. The act of writing the runes was part of a healing procedure; rather than a combination of Greek letters and Christian crosses or gobbledegook (THEBAL GUTTA!), the runic inscription is straightforward: the dwarf/fever is dead and gone. The hole in the plaque may indicae that it could be worn as a talisman (like the seven wafers used in the charm “Wið dweorh”).
John Hines (2019) has pointed out that this runic inscription has an interesting Scandinavian analogue in the Ribe skull fragment, dating to the early 8th century. Like the plaque, this skull fragment has a runic inscription and a hole suggesting it could potentially have been worn as a talisman:
ᚢᛚᚠᚢᛦᚼᚢᚴᚢᚦᛁᚾᚼᚢᚴᚺᚢᛏᛁᚢᛦ ᚺᛁᚼᛚᛒᛒᚢᚱᛁᛁᛋᚢᛁᚦᛦ ᚦᚼᛁᛗᚼᚢᛁᚼᚱᚴᛁᚼᚢᚴᛏᚢᛁᚱᚴᚢᚾᛁᚾ ᛒᚢᚢᚱ
Ulfr auk Ōðinn auk Hō-tiur. Hjalp buri es viðr þæima værki. Auk dverg unninn. Bōurr.
[Ulfr and Odin and High-tiur. Buri is help against this pain. And the dwarf (is) overcome. Bóurr.] (edition and translation from Schulte 2006, see also this Wikipedia article)
The interpretation of this skull fragment usually runs as follows: Buri/Bóurr is suffering from a fever/dwarf and this talisman is intended to alleviate Buri – it not only puts into writing the desired outcome (“the dwarf is overcome”), it also calls upon the aid of the Germanic god Odin, a wolf (Ulfr; perhaps Fenrir) and “High-tiur” (who may be the Germanic god Tyr). With this appeal to supernatural forces, this skull fragment resembles the invocations to Christian saints found in the Old English charms mentioned above.
4. Eat dog sh*t! A remedy from the Medicina de quadripedibus
The next dwarf expellant comes from the Old English translation of Medicina de quadripedibus, an early medieval medical compendium that outlines how various parts of four-legged animals may be used in remedies. Intriguingly, the text prescribes the use of a rather distasteful ingredient to get rid of a dwarf:
Dweorg onweg to donne, hwites hundes þost gecnucadne to duste 7 <gemengen> wið meolowe 7 to cicle abacen syle etan þam untruman men ær þær tide hys tocymes, <swa> on dæge swa on nihte swæþer hyt sy, his togan bið ðearle strang. 7 æfter þam he lytlað 7 onweg gewiteþ. (ed. De Vriend 1984, p. 266)
[To remove a dwarf, knead the excrement of a white dog to dust and mix it with milk and bake it into a small cake, give it the sick man to eat before the time of his [the dwarf’s?] coming, by day or by night whichever it is, his coming will be very strong and after that he grows small and will go away.]
It is not uncommon for Anglo-Saxon medical texts to prescribe waste products (excrement, urine, spit) to get rid of something – an example of sympathetic magic (for more examples, see: Early Medieval Magical Medicine: An Anglo-Saxon Trivia Quiz).
5. Kick it into the fire! Litr the dwarf’s fifteen seconds of fame in Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning
Perhaps the most effective way of getting rid of a dwarf is demonstrated by the Germanic god Thor in Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning (part of the Old Norse Prose Edda, c. 1220). After the beloved god Baldr died as a result of some trickery by Loki, the gods gather at Baldr’s funeral pyre, shedding tears of sadness. Snorri Sturluson paints a dramatic scene, with Baldr’s grief-stricken wife dying of sorrow, but then he follows this with a remarkable anecdote about Litr the dwarf:
Then was the body of Baldr borne out on shipboard; and when his wife, Nanna the daughter of Nep, saw that, straightway her heart burst with grief, and she died; she was borne to the pyre, and fire was kindled. Then Thor stood by and hallowed the pyre with Mjöllnir; and before his feet ran a certain dwarf which was named Litr; Thor kicked at him with his foot and thrust him into the fire, and he burned. (source)
This is, for as far as I know, the only appearance of Litr the dwarf in Scandinavian mythology. His fifteen seconds of fame demonstrate that the surest way of getting rid of a dwarf is to kick it into the fire; it is also a valuable lesson never to trip up a Germanic god!If you liked this blog post, you can follow this blog for regular updates and/or check out the following related posts:
- Cooked crow’s brains and other early medieval remedies for headaches from the Leiden Leechbook
- Early Medieval Magical Medicine: An Anglo-Saxon Trivia Quiz
- Creepy Crawlies in Early Medieval England: Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Minibeasts
- Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?–
- Hines, John. 2019. “Practical Runic Literacy in the Late Anglo-Saxon Period: Inscriptions on Lead Sheet.” In: Anglo-Saxon Micro-Texts, ed. Ursula Lenker & Lucia Kornexl, pp. 29-60. De Gruyter.
- Schulte, Michael. 2006. “The Transformation of the Older Fuþark: Number Magic, Runographic or Linguistic Principles?” Arkiv för nordisk filologi 121, pp. 41–74.
- de Vriend, Hubert Jan (Ed.). The Old English Herbarium and Medicina de Quadrupedibus. Oxford University Press.
- Williamson, C. (Trans.). 2017. The Complete Old English Poems. University of Pennsylvania Press.
The stomach of a hare, the excrements of a goat and the urine of a child – these are but a few of the awkward ingredients prescribed by the medical manuscript fragment known as the Leiden Leechbook. This ninth-century fragment, now in the Leiden University Library, is a unique witness to medical practice in the early Middle Ages and the multilingual nature of the documents from this period. This blog post outlines some of its remedies, its languages and its connection to Anglo-Saxon England.
How to cure a headache?
The first folio of the fragment contains a list of Latin remedies. As with other medical texts from the medieval period, this compilation starts with cures dealing with the head and then works its way down (in this case to the hair and eyes, then the text breaks off). To the modern reader, early medieval medicine presents a curious combination of herbal remedies and what might be called ‘magic’. The Leiden Leechbook’s remedies for headaches can serve as an illustration of this bewildering mix. The first three full remedies read as follows:
Item herbæ quæ in flumine super nascuntur subtilitær trita folia frontique illita mire purgationi capitis proficiunt.
Item lapilli in uentriculus pullorum hirundinum inuendi quamuis deuternos inueteratosque dolores remediant, habidi maximi albi, qui ne terram tangant erit cauendum.
Similiter noctuæ caput recens coctum et comestum deuternos labores sedare dicitur.
[Again: herbs which grow upon a river, (their) leaves chopped small and applied to the brow have a marvellous effect for clearing the head.
Again: stones found in the stomach of young swallows heal the pains, however old and persistent, chiefly white ones – care should be taken that they do not touch the earth.
Likewise: the head of an owl recently cooked, and eaten, alleviates so it is said persistent pains (in the head)] (ed. and trans. Falileyev & Owen, 2005)
While the first remedy is a sensible prescription to apply a herb to one’s forehead to alleviate a headache, the second one clearly features more ‘occult’ instructions. The third one is a clear example of so-called ‘sympathetic magic’ (“use like to treat like”): are you suffering from a head ache? Eat a head! (for similar examples of ‘sympathetic magic’ from the Middle Ages, see How to cook your dragon and a medieval cure for old age).
Other remedies for aching heads mentioned in the Leiden Leechbook include:
- The columbine plant
- Eating a coot
- Placing a small stone found on the side of a citygate on your head
- The root of plantain, picked before sunrise, bound around the head
- Smearing on the crushed seed of the elder tree
- Eating the brains of a cooked crow
- The nests of swallows, soaked in mud, applied to the forehead
- A drink of standing water out of which an ass or cow has drunk
Once more, we find the striking combination of purely botanical ingredients (plantain, columbine, seed of the elder tree) and more occult substances (the nest of swallows, a stone found on the side of a citygate). The instruction to eat the brains of a cooked crow to soothe aching brains is another case of sympathetic magic, as may be the advice to eat a coot (coots have a frontal shield on their foreheads).
One last cure for headache seems rather unhygienic:
Caprinus fimus aceto resolutus et front illitus mire succurrit.
[The excrement of goats, dissolved in vinegar and applied to the forehead, is of amazing benefit.] (ed. and trans. Falileyev & Owen, 2005)
One wonders how many long-sufferers of headaches walked around with acetic goat droppings on their foreheads in the early Middle Ages…
The Leiden Leechbook and the multilingual Middle Ages
The bifolium that is now known as the Leiden Leechbook was once used as a pastedown in another manuscript (i.e. it was pasted onto the board of another manuscript so as to hide its binding mechanisms). That manuscript, Leiden University Library, VLF 96, came from the famous abbey in Fleury, France, and, therefore, the Leiden Leechbook is generally assigned to the same abbey (see Bremmer & Dekker 2006; Falileyev & Owen, 2005) . Intriguingly, the Leiden Leechbook was certainly not written by a French monk: four hands are responisble for its texts and they all used an insular script (the kind used in the British Isles).
The languages in the Leiden Leechbook, too, suggest a multiregional background for the manuscript. Aside from Latin, there is one Old Irish gloss in the manuscript and some of its further remedies are written in a Brittonic language (possibly Breton or Cornish). The Old Irish gloss was added by the first scribe who copied the remedy for a headache that prescribed the use of crushed seeds of an elder tree. The Latin word sambuci ‘elder tree’ was glossed with the Old Irish word tromm ‘elder tree’:
The second folio of the Leiden Leechbook contains a different set of remedies, written in a mixture of Latin and a Brittonic language. A case in point is the following remedy for “guædgou” [parasitic complexion]:
Cæs scau; cæs spern; cæs guærn; cæs dar; cæs cornucærui; cæs colænn; cæs aball per cæruisam. Anroæ æniap æhol pær mæl.
[Take elder / fox-glove; take thorn; take alder; take oak; take staghorn; take holly; take apple-tree with beer. Poultice all the face with honey.] (ed. and trans. Falileyev & Owen, 2005)
In this remedy, all words, except Latin per/pær ‘with’, cornucærui ‘staghorn’ and cæruissam ‘beer’, are in a Brittonic language, which may be either Cornish or Breton (see Falileyev & Owen, 2005).
The manuscript’s provenance, scripts and languages thus are indicative of the pluriform origin story of the Leiden Leechbook which must include references to Fleury, France, Ireland, as well as Cornwall or Britanny. But there is more to the Leiden Leechbook: there may be a connection to Anglo-Saxon England as well!
Is that an Old English gloss or should I put a child’s urine in my eyes?
According to the German scholar O. B. Schlutter (1910), the Leiden Leechbook also contains three words in Old English. The first word, he suggested, was accidentally copied into one of the Latin remedies for a headache. The Latin remedy suggesting you eat cooked crow’s brains to cure your own aching brain reads: “cornicis … exrebellum coctum” [cooked brains of a crow]. The word exrebellum does not exist in Latin and this should have read cerebellum ‘brains’. According to Schlutter, the scribe made a mistake when he copied a Latin exemplar that read ‘cerebellum’ with an Old English gloss ex – the scribe accidentally copied the gloss into the main text and forgot to write down “ce”, producing the nonce word exrebellum. Falileyev & Owen (2005, p. 28) reject this hypothesis by Schlutter, claiming “[i]t is difficult to see how an AS word meaning ‘axe’ should be used to gloss cerebellum“. It should be noted, however, that the Old English word ex was, in fact, used for ‘brains’ in various Old English medical texts and the Dictionary of Old English (s.v. ex 2, exe) confirms Schlutter’s suggestion.
Schlutter identified another Old English word as an interlinear gloss in the following remedy for hairloss:
Ad capillos fluentes, leporis uentriculum coctum in sartagine et mixto oleo inpone capidi et capillos fluentes continet et cogit concrescere.
[For loose hair: put the stomach of a hare, cooked in a frying pan and mixed with oil, to the head, and that holds together loose hair and causes it to grow strong.] (ed. and trans. Falileyes & Owen, 2005)
According to Schlutter, an Old English gloss hara ‘hare’ had been added above the Latin leporis ‘of a hare’ – only the “h” is clearly visible, he writes, the rest has faded away. The most recent editors of the manuscript (Falileyev & Owen, 2005) reject Schlutter’s reading and claim that what Schlutter had seen is nothing other than a damage mark or scrape. You be the judge:
The third Old English word spotted by Schlutter is again rejected by Falileyev & Owen as an ink offset. This time, the Old English gloss is supposedly found in the headache remedy prescribing the crushed seeds of the elder tree. Here, Schlutter saw the Old English word ellærn ‘elder tree’ as a gloss for Latin sambuci (which was also glossed with Old Irish tromm). Despite Falileyev & Owen’s rejection, Schlutter’s reading is supported by the Dictionary of Old English (s.v. ellen noun 2, ellern) and, indeed, it is possible to make out some of the letters:
Are there three Old English words in the Leiden Leechbook, as Schlutter suggested, or none, as Falileyev & Owen argue?
There is one more reason to assume an Anglo-Saxon influence on the Leiden Leechbook: some of its remedies turn out to have (near) analogues in Old English medical texts. One such remedy is a cure for blurry eyesight, which is also found in the Old English Leechbook III:
Leiden Leechbook: Ad caliginem: lotium infantis si cum melle optima misces et iunges patientem.
[For clouded/blurred vision: if you mix the urine of a suckling child with honey of superior quality you will then heal the patient.] (ed. and trans. Falileyev & Owen, 2005)
Leechbook III: Gif mist sie fore eagum nim cildes hlond 7 huniges tear meng tosomne begea emfela smire mid þa eagan innan.
[If a mist be before the eyes, take a child’s urine and a drop of honey, mix together the same amount of both, rub the inside of the eyes with it.]
The existence of Old English analogues for some of the Leiden Leechbook’s remedies is an argument in favour of connecting the manuscript to Anglo-Saxon England. This connection, in turn, would strengthen the case for the existence of the Old English words spotted by Schlutter.
Are the Old English glosses hara and ellærn really in the Leiden Leechbook? I have looked long and hard at the manuscript and I cannot be sure whether the marks are letters, as Schlutter suggested, or damages to the parchment, as Falileyev & Owen argue; perhaps I should have another look after I have rinsed my eyes with child’s urine and honey…
If you liked this post, why not follow the blog (see button in the right-hand menu) and/or continue reading the following blogs on medieval medicine:
- Early Medieval Magical Medicine: An Anglo-Saxon Trivia Quiz
- Creepy Crawlies in Early Medieval England: Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Minibeasts
- How to cook your dragon and a medieval cure for old age
- Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?
Works referred to (and recommended reading on the Leiden Leechbook):
- Bremmer, Rolf H., Jr & Dekker, K., Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Microfiche Facsimile. Vol 13: Manuscripts in the Low Countries (Tempe, AZ, 2006)
- Falileyev, A. & Owen, M. E., The Leiden Leechbook: A Study of the Earliest Neo-Brittonic Medical Compilation (Innsbruck, 2005)
- Schlutter, O. B., ‘Anglo-Saxonica: Altenglisches aus Leidener Handschriften’, Anglia 33 (1910): 239-245.
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?
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!
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:
Perhaps, then, Anglo-Saxon medicine deserves more than a silly trivia quiz, but that’s something for future blog posts!
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy:
- How to cook your dragon and a medieval cure for old age
- Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?
- Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?
© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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):
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
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
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:
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’!)
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:
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:
Works referred to:
- T.O. Cockayne (1864). Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England. Vol. 2 (London)
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
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:
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:
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
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:
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:
- Anglo-Saxon obscenities: Explicit art from early medieval England
- Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?
- Sitting down in early medieval England: A catalogue of Anglo-Saxon chairs
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)
Last year, scholars from the University of Nottingham managed to defeat the superbug MRSA, using the recipe for an eye salve in an Anglo-Saxon medical manuscript. This blog post calls attention to some other early medieval recipes that may be worth trying out: four Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs.
Bald’s Leechbook: Warm milk is more effective than alcohol
Bald’s Leechbook is a compilation of various medical texts that survives in a tenth-century manuscript (recently digitized). A large part of the compilation dates to the ninth century and is associated with King Alfred the Great. One segment that may have interested Alfred in particular is chapter 70 of the first leechbook, which deals with ways to temper or arouse one’s lust (on Alfred’s problems with lust, see this blog post). The text is given below:
Gif mon sie to wræne wyl hindheoloþan on wiliscum ealað, drince on neaht nestig. Gif mon sie to unwræne wyl on meolce þa ilcan wyrt, þonne awrænst þu. Wyl on eowe meolce, eft, hindhioloþan, alexandrian, fornetes folm hatte wyrt. Þonne biþ hit swa him leofost bið. (Cockayne 1864-6, Vol. 2, p. 144)
[If one is too lustful, boil water agrimony in foreign ale, drink it [or let him/her drink] at night, fasting. If one is unlustful, boil the same plant in milk, then you make that person lustful. Boil in ewe’s milk, again, water agrimony, horse parsley and the plant that is called Fornet’s hand (a kind of orchid). Then it will be as if it is dearest to him.] (the translation of the Old English medical materials is derived from Pollington 2000)
Interestingly, the lust-arousing properties of the same plant, ‘Hindhealth’ or water agrimony, depends on the type of drink in which it is used. Should you ever want to seduce an early medieval person, it seems, warm milk is more effective than alcohol!
Medicina de Quadrupedibus: Sympathetic magic
Whereas the herbs required for the aphrodisiacs in Bald’s Leechbook may not be hard to get by, another Anglo-Saxon text uses some more exotic (and less appealing) ingredients. The text in question is the eleventh- or twelfth-century Old English translation of the Medicina de Quadrupedibus, a text which outlines how you can use the various parts of four-legged animals as medicine. The materials used include deer testies and the gall of a buck goat. The texts and translations of three lust-arousing draughts and ointments follow below:
Wif gemanan to aweccanne, nim heortes sceallan, dryg, wyrc to duste, do hys dæl on wines drinc. Þæt awecceþ wif gemanan lust. (Cockayne, Vol. 1, p. 337)
[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.]
To wifes willan, þæs buccan geallan meng wið recels 7 wið netelan sæd; smyre þone teors mid ær foran to þæs restgemanan. Þæt wif onfehð þæs willan on ðam hæmede. (Cockayne 1864-6, Vol. 1, p. 350)
[To arouse the desire of a woman, mix the gall of a buck goat with incense and with the seed of nettles; rub the penis with this before going to ‘rest’. The woman receives the desire for sexual intercourse.]
Weres wylla to gefremmanne, nime bares geallan 7 smyre mid þone teors 7 þa hærþan. Þonne hafað he mycelne lust. (Cockayne 1864-6, Vol. 1, p. 358)
[To carry out the desire of a man, take the gall of a boar and rub the penis with this and the testicles, then he will have great lust.]
One remarkable aspect of Anglo-Saxon medical texts is that they often rely on what might be termed ‘sympathetic magic’, a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence. For instance, Bald’s Leechbook advices someone to sleep on the ashes of a burnt dog’s head in order to cure a head ache; if you have trouble retaining your urine, you should eat the bladder of a goat or a ram; and if you suffer from swollen eyes, just catch a live crab, put out its eyes and place its eyes on your neck. The cure, in other words, matches the disease. Could the recommendation to slip some deer testicles into a woman’s drink be a product of the same line of reasoning, and would the buck goat and boar be used because they were known as particularly wanton animals?
Remarkably, the first editor of the libido-increasing substances discussed in this blog, the Reverend Thomas Oswald Cockayne, refused to translate them entirely into English and, instead, provided Latin translations. Perhaps he hoped to dissuade his readers from trying them out. Be that as it may, perhaps these ‘leechdoms’ will prove as useful as the Anglo-Saxon eye salve that defeated MRSA (for more info on this, click here). It may be rather hard, however, to find some voluntary testers for the last three…
Works referred to:
- Cockayne, T. O., Leechdoms Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England (London, 1864–6).
- Pollington, S., Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing (Little Downham, 2000)
The second episode of The Last Kingdom (UK airdate: Thursday, 29 October, 9 pm, BBC 2) introduces Prince Alfred, who would later become King Alfred the Great (d. 899). In his first scene, Alfred is portrayed as a man tormented both physically (because of his health) and morally (because of his lustful feelings towards the flustered maidservant that had just left his room). This blog post highlights some sources related to the historical Alfred and explores what they reveal about his passions…and his piles.
Alfred the Great (849-899): An unlikely king, a sickly sovereign
Known as one of the greatest monarchs of Anglo-Saxon history, defeater of the Danes and instigator of an important educational reform, Alfred was, in fact, an unlikely candidate for the throne of Wessex. For one, he was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex (reign 839-858), which means he had four older brothers: Æthelstan (d. 852), Æthelred (King of Wessex, 858-860), Æthelbald (King of Wessex, 860-865) and Æthelberht (King of Wessex, 865-871). Only after all his brothers had died, Alfred (apparently, Æthelwulf had run out of Æthel-names…) became eligible to rule. Given that he was the youngest of five, Alfred was probably groomed for an ecclesiastical career (his father took him to see the pope, twice), which may explain his interests in learning in his later life. Another reason why Alfred may have been considered an unlikely king at the time was because he suffered from a terrible illness, as is revealed by a biography written during his life by Bishop Asser in the year 893.
Be careful what you wish for!
Asser’s Life of King Alfred is a unique source on Alfred’s life and character, written by one of his own courtiers. Asser not only records Alfred’s battles with the Vikings and his dealings at court, he also reports some of Alfred’s medical details, mentioning that, from his youth, Alfred had suffered from “ficus” [piles, haemeroids].
Interestingly, Asser also tells us how Alfred acquired his piles in his early days:
when he [Alfred] realized that he was unable to abstain from carnal desire, fearing he would incur god’s disfavour if he did anything contrary to His will … [he would pray] that Almighty God through His mercy would more staunchly strengthen his resolve in the love of His service by means of some illness which he would be able to tolerate … when he had done this frequently with great mental devotion, after some time he contracted the disease of piles through God’s gift. (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 74)
In other words, young Alfred, afraid of his own dirty thoughts, asked God to grant him a distraction and God gave him haemeroids!
Out of the frying pan, into the fire: “A sudden severe pain that was quite unknown to all physicians”
Asser’s biography also records that Alfred was miraculously cured from his piles when , prior to his wedding, Alfred had asked God to “substitute for the pangs of the present and agonizing infirmity some less severe illness” (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 74). The young prince was miraculously cured: hurray! His regained health would be short-lived, however, since he suddenly fell ill on his wedding night: he had been struck by an illness that proved incurable. This new disease would torment him the rest of his life, as Asser noted:
he has been plagued continually with the savage attacks of some unknown disease, such that he does not have even a single hour of peace in which he does not either suffer from the disease itself or else, gloomily dreading it, is not driven almost to despair. (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 91)
While the disease may have been unknown to the Anglo-Saxon physicians, modern-day scholars have used Asser’s description to diagnose Alfred with Crohn’s disease (Craig 1991). This diagnosis is corroborated by another document made during Alfred’s lifetime: Bald’s Leechbook.
Bald’s Leechbook is a compilation of various medical texts, which was possibly made at Alfred’s own request. Within this compilation, there is a section that is concluded by “þis eal het þus secgan ælfrede cyninge domine helias patriarcha on gerusalem” [Elias, the patriarch of Jerusalem (c. 879-907), ordered all of this to be told to King Alfred]. Included in this section are remedies for the alleviation of constipation, diarrhoea, pain in the spleen and internal tenderness, which all fit well with the pathology of Crohn’s disease(Craig 1991, p. 304). The Old English text also records that Elias sent him a “hwita stan” [a white stone], which could be used against all sorts of illnesses; as an added bonus, the white stone would also protect the owner from lightning and thunders (the text is edited by Cockayne 1864, Vol. II, pp. 288-291).
To make a long story short: Alfred was a passionate boy, God gave him piles and the patriarch of Jerusalem gave him a pebble. Poor Alfred.
If you liked this post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or read the following blog posts about Alfred the Great:
- The Illustrated Psalms of Alfred the Great: The Old English Paris Psalter
- Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and Alfred the Great
- Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?
Works refered to:
- Asser, Life of King Alfred, trans. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge (Harmondsworth, 1983)
- Cockayne, T. O. (ed.), Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England (London, 1846; available here)
- Craig, G., ‘Alfred the Great: A Diagnosis’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 84 (1991), 303-305.