Anglo-Saxon Medicine…works?!

Who would’ve thought it? I’ve had a laugh at the absurd medical remedies in Bald’s Leechbook, but the microbiologists at Nottingham University actually decided to give them a go. Against all rational human sense, one of them actually works. In fact, not only does it work, but it’s even more effective than established antibiotic treatment against a highly antibiotic-resistant bug known as MRSA.—a-medieval-remedy-for-modern-day-superbugs.aspx

My Old English was never much good to begin with, so I refer you to Cockayne’s 1865 translation of Bald’s Leechbook. The remedy that has now become newsworthy can be found on page 35 of his translation (or in Book I, ch. ii.16 of the Old English original), which reads:

‘Work an eye salve for a wen, take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together, take wine and bullocks gall, of both equal quantities, mix well with the leek, put this then into a brazen vessel, let it stand nine days in the brass vessel, wring out through a cloth and clear it well, put it into a horn and about night time apply it with a feather to the eye; the best leechdom.’

I am genuinely startled by the efficacy of this medieval medical prescription. These remedies have been the subject of historical debate for years. The key question has been whether these remedies were merely superstitious hocus-pocus or if they had genuine medical value. The prevalence of fantastical charms against demons, elves and the like within the Anglo-Saxon medical texts like Bald’s Leechbook have led many to believe that these remedies were little more than a placebo for their recipients. Of course, this debate has largely been a matter of words and theory among historians (myself among them). No-one seriously considered recreating these remedies – so, credit is due to the fine folk at the University of Nottingham for attempting something so seemingly ridiculous.

Will this discovery lead to a revival of interest in Anglo-Saxon history? I certainly hope so. But even if it doesn’t and this turns out to be just another passing internet sensation, the sudden relevance of my otherwise antiquarian knowledge about Anglo-Saxon medicine has been a pleasant surprise.

Read more about Bald’s Leechbook here, as well as some of the other remedies that I’ve found amusing – which you might now consider trying at home (the Eastern Anglo-Saxonist claims no responsibility for any unpleasant side-effects that may result)