Medieval + medicine = magic

Or does it? The study of medieval medicine has become quite in vogue over the last few years. It often falls under the aegis of ‘the history of medicine’, but it is also of great interest to cultural historians who see it as a rare insight into the medieval thought-world. Constantine the African’s translations of eastern medical texts in the eleventh century has usually been regarded as the watershed moment when the people of the Latin West began their journey from the throes of superstition and magic into the exalted realms of medicine. I am no specialist in either the history of medicine or the later medieval period, so I cannot comment upon the development of medical ideas following Constantine’s contributions. But I am far more interested in the understanding of Western medicine before the distribution of Constantine’s translations.

Approaching medieval medicine has always been a tricky business, and this is certainly no less true in the case of the Anglo-Saxons. By modern scientific standards, their prescriptions appear crude or even counter-effective. What the Anglo-Saxons would have considered ‘medicine’ seems like nonsensical superstition: pull out mandrake plants by tying it to a famished dog or send a virgin to collect a jug of running water to be used in holy drink for ‘elfish magic and all temptations of the Devil’. We can hardly help but question the efficacy of such prescriptions. On the other hand, completely dismissing the importance of these medical treatments would be to cover our eyes, already darkened by the mists of the centuries, with the veil of modernistic arrogance. We may doubt the usefulness of prescriptions themselves, but the precise instructions contained within and the effort taken to write them down suggest that they were held in some esteem by proto-medical practitioners, if not necessarily their patients. In contrast to the didactic nature of ecclesiastical sources like homilies and hagiographies, the corpus of Anglo-Saxon medical (or medico-magical, if you will) texts provides us with precious insights into the everyday concerns of Anglo-Saxon society.

While most scholars would agree that these texts are of intellectual value, there remains the question of how to approach them as historical sources. One way has been to consider the Anglo-Saxon medical conditions and prescriptions in terms of modern medical terminology. This approach assumes that the ailments and remedies described by the Anglo-Saxon medical compilers had legitimate physiological effects that can be explained using modern science. An excellent example can be found in Anne Van Arsdall’s translation of the Old English Herbarium. Van Arsdall uses modern language to translate the conditions found in the Herbarium, such as ‘dreadful nightmares’ for nihtgengum and ‘demon-like illnesses’ for swylce deofulseocnyssa. Audrey Meaney’s later research employs a similar approach, as found in her description of deofles costung (the devil’s temptation) as hallucinations.

Although this approach legitimises the medical skill of the Anglo-Saxon practitioners, it also runs the risk of severe anachronism. In her review of Van Arsdall’s translation, Faith Wallis expresses apprehension towards Van Arsdall’s attempts to ‘silently rationalize’ the Anglo-Saxon text: ‘to simply “medicalize” deofulseocnyssa (Latin daemonia) sidesteps the complex questions of the relationship of religion, magic, and medical practice that have leavened much current research of Anglo-Saxon, and indeed early-medieval, medicine’ (p.1169). This is not to say that any attempt to understand the descriptions of Anglo-Saxon illnesses with modern science is wrong; rather it is a warning against the temptation to blithely medicalise Anglo-Saxon prescriptions and ailments without regard for their social and cultural context.

Another line of inquiry which has proven popular in the field has been to take a comparative approach to Anglo-Saxon medicine. As far as I’m aware, there are few contemporary analogues to the Anglo-Saxon corpus of remedies in the early medieval West. So, Anglo-Saxon medicine has instead been compared with classical remedies from the Graeco-Roman tradition. There is definite evidence that the Anglo-Saxon remedies derived some knowledge from classical antecedents, especially in the Old English Herbarium but also found in Peter Kitson’s paper, ‘From Eastern Learning to Western Folklore’. Probably the most famous contribution adopting this comparative approach has been M. L. Cameron’s Anglo-Saxon Medicine (which I admit I have yet to read fully). An early prototype of his arguments can be found in his article on ‘The sources of medical knowledge in Anglo-Saxon England’, where he proposes that Anglo-Saxon medicine may have been ‘debased and superstition-ridden [but] it was no more so than that of other countries and in most respects was borrowed directly from the Classical Greek and Latin background’ that would form the foundations of later medieval medicine (p.152).

Regrettably, I’m not quite knowledgeable enough about other forms of early medieval medicine to provide a detailed critique on the validity of Cameron’s approach – though there is little doubt that it has proven to be a seminal contribution to the field. What I will suggest, however, is that both the modern medical and contemporary comparative approaches tend to downplay the importance of Anglo-Saxon medicine as a window into the thought-world of the people who practised it. Karen Jolly (whom I’m aware might read this!) is a strong proponent of an alternative approach that blurs the line between ‘magic’ and ‘religion’, regarding it as an attempt by the ecclesiastical elite to impose a duality upon Anglo-Saxon medicine which may not have existed in the minds of those who practised it. She’s helpfully posted a brief summary as a comment here, but it is also evident in the early pages of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, vol. 3.

In the midst of these myriad approaches, I’m still endeavouring to find my own voice, particularly pertaining to the role of demons in the medical texts in contrast to their role in the hagiographies and in other ecclesiastical writings. While my research does not strictly fall within the purview of the history of medicine, there are many fascinating, yet-answered questions in the context of demons and Anglo-Saxon medicine. Were demons a spiritual problem, a medical problem or perhaps both? Were demons simply blamed for inexplicable illnesses or did they have a discrete set of injurious powers and abilities? These are some of the questions I’m wrestling with as I work on the boundaries of demonic influence in Anglo-Saxon England – questions that I hopefully will have answers to in a couple of months!


Cameron, M. L. Anglo-Saxon Medicine. Cambridge: CUP, 2006.

Cameron, M. L. ‘The sources of medical knowledge in Anglo-Saxon England’. Anglo-Saxon England 11 (1982): pp.135-155.

Jolly, Karen. ‘Medieval Magic: Definitions, beliefs, practices’. In Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, vol. 3. Edited by Karen Jolly, Catharina Raudvere and Edwards Peters, pp. 1-66. London: Athlone Press, 2002.

Kitson, Peter. ‘From Eastern learning to Western folklore: The transmission of some medico-magical ideas’. In Superstition and Popular Magic in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Donald Scragg, pp.57-72. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.

Meaney, Audrey. ‘The Devil Can Seriously Damage Your Health’. In The Devil and Society in Premodern Europe. Edited by Richard Raiswell with Peter Dendle, pp.69-108. Toronto: CRRS, 2012.

Van Arsdall, Anne. Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine. New York; London: Routledge Press, 2002.

Wallis, Faith. Review of Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine, by Anne Van Arsdall. Speculum 79, 4 (Oct., 2004): pp.1168-70.