Medical Texts in Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture

This book looks at a group of four collections of medical material from early medieval England. These collections are generally known by the names Bald’s Leechbook, Leechbook III, Lacnunga, and the Old English Pharmacopeia (comprised of two distinct halves: the Old English Herbarium and the Medicina de Quadrupedibus). Unlike other medical texts from the early Middle Ages, these collections are not written in Latin but in Old English.

My book draws attention to the fact that these works represent a serious literary and intellectual undertaking. Much previous scholarship on these texts has focused on their supposed ‘pagan’ or ‘popular’ elements, yet all four of these collections were almost certainly compiled in major ecclesiastical centers. This book dedicates one chapter to each of these four collections, focusing on how these works formed a part of the wider intellectual and monastic culture of the period. I argue that one can helpfully read these texts alongside particular literary or historical movements including the vernacular flourishing associated with King Alfred’s court, the study of grammatica and the ‘hermeneutic style’, and the Benedictine reform movement. In my final chapter, I take a step back to reflect more broadly on the fundamentally positive characterization of medicine and doctors found within Anglo-Saxon literary culture.

This book was awarded the biennial prize for Best First Monograph by the International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England (ISSEME).

More on the Old English medical corpus

The most common types of entries found in these collections are short practical remedies drawn from the Latin medical tradition. These could be something like: ‘For a headache, take dill flowers, boil in oil, [and] rub the temples with that’ [Bald’s Leechbook, I.1]. However, a whole variety of other sorts of texts are also found inside; these include remedies apparently coming from a native English background, longer more theoretical sections from Latin texts, Old English metrical charms, Latin prayers, and entries shared with liturgical texts.

One argument I make in my book is that we should put more attention on the individual nature of each of the four extant collections in Old English, which are all quite different, rather than referring to them together as a single homogenous corpus. For instance, while some of the other collections are organized by parts of the body, the contents of the Old English Herbarium are organised by herb; this text is also a translation of a selection of complete Latin treatises, unlike most of the other collections.