Good Anglo-Saxon Medicine Resource

20 Mar

Since I don’t seem to have any thoughts bursting to be released from my brain, I think I’ll return to talking about stuff I’ve read. I just finished another book which I think deserves a mention. After reading Pagan Survivals by Bernadette Filotas I decided now would be as good of a time as any to tackle the books I have on Medieval Magic. My “to read” shelf is actually three shelves; over 90 books. Several of them fit into categories fairly easily. For example, I have five books on Medieval women, seven on Anglo-Saxons and nine on Carolingians. Heck, I even have three to read on Medieval prisons. I’ve read three books on magic/medicine since Filotas. The first two didn’t do much for me but I just finished Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing by Stephen Pollington. This is a very good book and will make a useful reference.

This book can be divided into three sections; an opening section discussing Anglo-Saxon medicine; a middle section consisting of translations of Old English medical sources and; a final section, divided into appendices, where Pollington discusses specific aspects of source material.

The opening section includes substantial background information. A brief overview of Anglo-Saxon medicine, uses of herbs in medicine and a discussion of sources is included. This last was the most useful part of this section for me. The focus is on the origination of plant-names, whether they are from Germanic, Latin or Old English (or quite often a combination of these). I’ve always found these kind of discussions interesting and consider them important in discussions of the evolution of cultures though I’m woefully ignorant of the basics of linguisitics or philology. He closes this section with an encyclopedic catalog of all of the plants named in the Lacnunga, Old English Herbarium and Bald’s Leechbook. He does the same for all other materials used in medicine.

The second section is the translations. These are in facing-page format with the Old English on the left, the English translation on the right. The manuscripts include the Lacnunga, Old English Herbarium and Bald’s Leechbook. I am, of course, unable to comment on the quality of the translations but I’m looking forward to having these to refer to when I run across citations.

The book ends with another encyclopedic section. As appendices, Pollington lists and describes the uses of the following in Anglo-Saxon medicine: 1) amulets; 2) causes of disease; 3) charms; dreams, omens, 4) fate and well-being and; 5) tree lore. He organizes this section by the materials they were made from for physical objects, and by theme for the non-physical. For example, he discusses amulets made from antler, teeth, amber, quartz, etc., and for tree lore by species. For causes of disease he has included dwarfs, elves and elfshot, flying venom, and worms and serpents.

I think this will be a good reference for me. Interestingly, when it comes to the Late Antique/Early Medieval period I am less familiar with Anglo-Saxon/Britain than continental Western Europe (which is why this post is much more a description than an analysis). I need to work on that, fairly soon – in looking at the Kalamazoo program, I noted a lot of Anglo-Saxon sessions that I’ll likely be attending.

Pollington, Stephen, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing. Hereward: Anglo-Saxon Books (2008). ISBN: 978-1-898281-47-4.


Posted by on March 20, 2011 in Books, Disease and Medicine


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8 responses to “Good Anglo-Saxon Medicine Resource

  1. Anonymous

    March 21, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    You might be interested in Alaric Hall's work if you aren't already aware of it. It's pretty philologically intense, but he takes a very interesting methodological approach to his subject-matter.

  2. Curt Emanuel

    March 21, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    Thank you – I know of it but I'm not familiar with it. I may have to pick that up.

  3. Jonathan Jarrett

    March 23, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    I was thinking a similar thing on reading this. Alaric's immense fun, and even in text that comes through as a subcurrent. Only person I've ever seen present barefoot at an international conference, for a start.What happens to the books you read but didn't find useful? Will they ever be named? >:-)

  4. Curt Emanuel

    March 23, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    The problem with weaker books is that I feel if I find one lacking I need to go to a fair level of detail explaining just what problems I found with it including a lot of source citations, discussions of the argument, etc. I'm having a hard time finding the time to do that at the moment.Interestingly, I have a book I just finished that I felt was disappointing and I really want to discuss in some depth, at least in part (being honest here) from the standpoint of patting myself on the back since 10 years ago I might have been impressed by it. I wouldn't have recognized that the appealing argument was built on sand.Not sure if it'll end up being an amateur tip or a book review (if I get to it). I'm hoping to get started this weekend.

  5. Jonathan Jarrett

    March 25, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    Well, I'll look forward to that, but yes, I know what you mean; if you're going to rule against something one needs to make it clear what one's reasons are, especially on the Internet where they may find you and want to argue…

  6. Curt Emanuel

    March 25, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    Additionally there are two relatively favorable reviews to this out there. Fortunately, not from specialists but even so, I should have a handle on things before I venture into it. It's possible once I really start digging that I'll find I misread some things. It hasn't happened often but it has happened.


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