Ask the average twentieth century man in the street what are the causes of disease and the chances are that he will say “germs”
or “viruses”. Ask the average Anglo-Saxon and he would’ve said “elves”. These are not the pretty little fairy folk of
modern culture but powerful supernatural beings, marked with the mark of Cain, existing in the wild places beyond the tamed world
of Man: the moors; the marsh; the forest; the night. Many illnesses, but particularly the sudden mysterious onset of
something crippling or deadly, were due to their invisible arrows. In the Leechbook of Bald — surviving manuscripts
which date from AD900-950 (though the Bald of the title may have been a physician to King Ælfred) — the following instructions
are given to combat elf-shot with elecampane (Inula helenium
"Go on Thursday evening after sunset to the helenium. Sing the Benedicite and Pater Noster and a litany, and stick your knife
into the herb. Then go away. Come again at the time for Matins; cross yourself and ask for God’s protection and go in
silence, and if any sort of supernatural being or frightening creature meets you don’t say a word to him until you come to the herb.
Then sing the Benedicite, Pater Noster and litany again, dig up the herb with the knife still in it and go straight and quickly to
church. Put the herb with the knife still in it under the altar. When the sun rises take it out, wash and make into a
drink with bishopwort and lichen off a crucifix. Boil in milk three times. Sing over it the Pater Noster, Credo,
Gloria and Excelsis Deo and a litany. Mark it with the cross on three sides using a sword then let the man drink it.
Soon he will be well."
From this it can be seen that medicine was a highly ritual, pious yet essentially magical activity, conceived of as a battle against
dangerous spirits. The Christian influence is extremely strong in the Leechbook, less so in the Lacnunga
(also circa AD900) —
a poetic lay largely in praise of the nine sacred herbs:
- Waybroad (Plantain)
- Steem (Thyme)
- Atterlothe (probably Bistort)
- Maythe (Chamomile
- Wergulu (Nettle)
- Crab Apple
All of these herbs were used to avert witchcraft, a variety of “venoms”, including the dreaded (and mysterious) “flying venom”, and
“loathed things that roam through the land” (elves again).
Not all the herblore was quite so exotic — Yarrow for example was recognised for the useful wound herb it is. Bone setting
was quite advanced using soaked birch-bark which will harden around a limb to form a light but rigid cast. Nor were the herbalist
confined to treating just serious and mysterious illness: They turned their attention to cures for such various things as aching feet
(mugwort in the shoes), wives who won’t shut up (the husband must fast and eat radishes), and baldness (bees burnt to ash and rubbed
on the head with a paste of honey).
It’s not possible to give more than a taster of the strange and wonderful world of Anglo-Saxon medicine — a world that makes it
plain that however much we think we understand them, we probably don’t — in such a short space. The four surviving manuscripts:
, and Saxon translations of the Herbarium Apuleii Platonici
, and On
of Petronius of Salerno, are available for serious research. Alternatively, and much easier, Eleanor Sinclair
Rohde’s Old English Herbals
(Dover Publications 1971) will tell you most of what you want to know. As a parting shot,
interestingly, the Anglo-Saxon term for a sudden and devastating illness still survives; elf-shot was also known as elf-stroke,
and in modern days just “Stroke”.