Medical Resources for Novelists

I commented yesterday on Gemæcca about a book as a resource for medical information and it occurred to me overnight that there may be a few novelists who read Heavenfield who would like to know about this book and a couple others.

All three books I’d like to recommend here are by Stephen Pollington. He has written a whole series of books aimed at making Anglo-Saxon studies accessible to the average person. I don’t know him personally or what his intentions are, but it seems likely that his target audience are re-enactors in England and those who belong to similar societies. His books are all heavy on the how-to aspects of Anglo-Saxon studies. Here is the first of the three, and I’ll do the other two in another post.

Stephen Pollington. Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore and Healing. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2000. 539 pages.

Leechcraft is I think the most interesting and novel book of the three. I have always wanted to spend a lot more time with this book but I haven’t managed it. Its contents are:

  1. English Herbal Lore: introduction stuff
  2. The Early English Healer: discussion of healers
  3. The Anglo-Saxon Medical Manuscript Tradition: discussion of the available manuscripts
  4. The Cultivation of Herbs in Anglo-Saxon England: particular attention is given to plant names and naming traditions
  5. Old English Medical Materials: encyclopedia-like discussion of the plants and herbs mentioned in the Old English manuscripts translated in the book
  6. Translations of Three Old English Texts: The Lacnunga Manuscript, The Old English Herbarium Manuscript V, and Bald’s Leechbook- Book III. (200 pages facing page translations Old English and Modern English)
  7. Appendix I: The magico-medical background
  8. Appendix II: Amulets (for men, women and children, and materials used for amulets)
  9. Appendix III: Causes of disease (dwarves, elves and elfshot, venom, and worms and serpents)
  10. Appendix IV: Charms
  11. Appendix V: Dreams, omens, fate and well-being
  12. Appendix VI: Tree Lore

There is just some fascinating stuff in here. Who would have expected that strawberries were an important herb — berries used as laxatives and conversely an infusion of the leaves from the plant are used for dysentery. Pollington notes that strawberries have been found in Viking age sites in Denmark. Who would have thought that rough tough warriors would have used the “scent to sweet violet” in their potions to calm horses? Then again Bald’s Leechbook gives specific instructions for creating potions for all kinds of diseases. Bald’s Leechbook #40: “For that one be moon-mad, take a dolphin’s hide, make it into a scourge, beat the person, he will soon be better.” (p. 395). Bald’s Leechbook #38, has potions and instructions for when menstrauls are absent from a woman and when they are too strong. Then there is a little physical therapy in Bald’s #55: “For if a man’s skull be wrenched, lay the man out flat, drive two pegs at the shoulders then lay a board crosswise over the feet, then strike thrice with a hammer, it will go aright shortly.” (p. 399) Then there are a  few like the following

“For elfsickness, take bishopswort, fennel, lupin, the lower part of elfthorn, lichen from the hallowed sign of Christ, and storax, take a handful of each, bind up all the plants in a cloth, dip it into hallowed font water thrice, have three masses sung over it — first ‘omnibus sanctus’, second ‘contra tribulationem’, third ‘pro inwirmis’, then put coals into the censer, and lay the plants on it; smoke the man with the plants before morning and at night, and sing the litany and credo and ‘pater noster’ and mark Christ’s sign on each limb, and take a small handful of plants of the same kind, likewise hallowed, and boil them in milk, dip in hallowed water thrice, and let him sip it before his food, it will soon be better for him. For the same, go on Wednesday evening when the sun is setting where you know dwarf elder to be growing, then sing ‘benedicte’ and ‘pater noster’ and the litany, and stab your knife into the plant and lit it stick therein, go away, go back to it when day and night divide, on the same dawn go first to church and sign yourself, and bid good for yourself, then go in silience, and no matter what frightful thing or man should come towards you say no word to him before you come to the plant which you marked the previous evening, then sing ‘benedicte’ and ‘pater noster’ and the litany, dig out the plant, let the knife remain thereon, go back as quickly as you can to the church, and lay it under the alter with the knife, let it lie there until the sun be up; afterwards wash it and make it into a drink, and bishopswort, and lichen from the sign of Christ, boil them three times in milk, pour holy water in three times, and sing over it the ‘pater noster’ and the ‘credo’ and the ‘gloria in excelsis deo’ and sing on him the litany, and mark around him with a sword on four sides in a cross, and let him drink the drink afterwards, it will soon be better for him…. (more remedies to follow for the same) (p. 401, 403).

What ever you may think of the last remedy above, it is a unique insight into the medieval mind and most of the specific prayers listed above are still used today in liturgical churches (though not in this way). I don’t have to tell novelists how useful a book like this could be.

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