Book Review : Old English Medical Remedies

This book is based on Bald’s Leechbook III (written in the 9th-10th centuries in Winchester) which along with a manuscript from the sixth century called the Lacnunga,  is a repository for herbal remedies, charms and exorcisms. This is a time when the christian church was fairly new and the population was that in-between stage of pagan/christian.

The manuscripts are first hand accounts of healing techniques recorded directly from folk healers at the time. What this shows, is not only the remedies themselves, but the mindset of the people at the time.

As well as the straightforward herbal remedies for physical complaints, Balds Leechbook III contains remedies that are, or cure things that are not simply physical.

So for instance there are remedies for Elf shot, for dwarf attacks, ‘nightwalkers’ and hags. Many of these remedies include herbs of course, but also include singing or chanting over the herbs/patient. Of summoning other spirits to counter the primary spiritual attack.

There is also an account of King Edwin of Northumbria’s conversion to Christianity in AD 601, he was to be baptised by Bishop Paulinus. On their way to the bishop’s catechism, King Edwin and his entourage came to a sudden halt at the appearance of a large black crow which began crowing at them. Everybody knew this was an omen, but the king who had renounced his pagan beliefs, had got rid of his former advisers. The Bishop also knew this to be a pagan omen, and ordered that the bird be shot with an arrow.
What the bishop failed to acknowledge was that once the crow had delivered its message, it would have been expected to return to the otherworld, so him having the bird shot dead merely confounded that the crow had come with a message from the otherworld, had delivered it, and then returned whence it had came. All that had gone wrong was that the king was unable to have the message translated. He converted to christianity, and was killed in battle soon afterwards on the 14th October.

The aim of the book is not just to list remedies, but they are arranged into different sorts of treatments and then put into chapters, so that the book uses them to show the mindset of the people at the time.
For instance there are chapters on belief in the Otherworld (as shown above)
Belief in elves (the problems caused by elves are now understood to be caused  by bacteria, and the remedies still seem to be effective treatments),
Sympathetic healing (transferring the sickness from the human into something similar, which can then be got rid of)
The use of mandrake as a sympathetic and ritualistic treatment
The Nine Herbs Charm which has been found to be effective today as a treatment for MRSA
Herbal remedies
A chapter on ‘womens issues’
And a chapter on preventative treatments for attacks by elves, hags and ‘nightwalkers’ which then goes on to explore what these entities were understood to be by the population, and by looking at the ingredients of the remedies , the author suggests actual physical symptoms that these would have been helpful for and by marrying these up with conditions that were unknown at the time and could easily have been thought of as supernatural attacks, shows a good understanding of how to treat the conditions and also a worldview that makes the unknown knowable and thus understandable and treatable without the benefits of modern science and medicine.

I enjoyed the book and found it easy to read. I don’t think I am the target audience, but that is not a critisism of the book. The target audience, I imagine would be people new to the subject or with a general interest in the past, but still, it was a good read and has provided me with information that I am sure I will refer back to in the future.

There is also more discussion about this book on the Rune Soup podcast below.