Leeches were not the only option

July 7, 2000

Research shows Anglo-Saxons could teach today's herbalists a thing or two about healing

Although they might appear less advanced than other Dark Age cultures, it seems the Anglo-Saxons could hold their own when it came to medicine.

The medical prowess of the healers of pre-Conquest England has tended to be regarded with scepticism, conjuring images of superstitious charlatans chanting mystic rites, drawing blood and administering noxious potions. Yet analysis of one of the great medical texts of the 11th century suggests historians may have underestimated the skill of the Anglo-Saxon physician. The study, by Susan Perry, a herbalist and assistant professor of English at DeVry Institute of Technology, Texas, United States, has identified a number of apparently efficacious concoctions, as well as some that are rather suspect, in the Lacnunga.

If Perry's conclusions are correct, many of the book's therapies are comparable to complementary remedies popular today: "An examination of modern herbal remedies, written by established healers who offer empirical evidence, can be compared favourably to many of the remedies prescribed in the Lacnunga."

Alongside the Leechbook of Bald and Leechbook III, the Lacnunga, now kept in the British Library, is a remarkable anthology of medicine. It draws on pagan, Christian and classical sources as well as anecdotal evidence and contains a list of short recipes and practices for a professional healer to follow.

While the church, declaring that disease was a punishment dealt to sinners, provided a great deal of medical help, professional, literate leeches (physicians) were on hand to provide an alternative source of specialist knowledge on health problems, from toothache to childbirth.

"Anglo-Saxon physicians did indeed have useful information to turn to as the need presented itself, knowledge about herbal remedies that had come to them from a variety of sources and that succeeded them through the ages as folk remedies, still available and prescribed today," says Perry.

But not every remedy in the Lacnunga is based on useful folk medicine. A number have an obviously superstitious origin. The book advises that if a horse is shot by an elf, for example, then a holy cure recited by the owner will cure the stricken beast. SF

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