The Ravens Warband

How to Get Better the Anglo-Saxon Way (or Not As the Case May Be)

Archaeology can provide us with some instances of the myths held by people of the day; such as the scene apparently showing Weyland the Smith on the Franks casket. It can also reveal some of their more durable charms and wards - e.g. the minute hammers, spears etc. found in a few early graves. Unfortunately, what it cannot tell us is anything about the basic beliefs or magical practices that were prevalent. That is left to what little literature that available. The only English texts which survive that even touch on any "superstitious" topic are those that have become enshrined in monastic healing lore, and have become entwined with practices from other traditions.

The first serious translator and collector of these texts was Cockayne who was active in the latter part of the 19th century. He divided them up into three main collections (which often overlap, having copied the same source material in many instances). His titles, derived from references from various places within the manuscript, were:

All three differ, and for the purpose of discovering something of the beliefs and practices of the 5th and 6th century English, the most important is the Lacnunga. However, if one wants to discover some interesting, and often rather weird alleged cures (an especially cringe-worthy "cure" for the "fig" (piles) springs to mind), then the OEH and Leechbooks provide interesting reading.

The Leechbooks came, according to Cockayne, from Glastonbury Abbey originally, and contain than a series of remedies for ailments ranging from "headwark" to a man's bowels falling out! They are obviously derived from Latin and Greek originals. This is indicated by the close resemblance between many cures found in them to those found in existing, earlier Mediterranean manuscripts - complete with the use of Mediterranean fauna.

The OEH, with its appendix - the "Medicina de Quadrupedibus", is a translation of Latin originals dating to the 4th and 5th centuries, which in turn were derived from Greek rhizotomists such as Diokles of Karystos. The translations were made apparently in the 7th and 8th centuries, from three originally separate Latin treatises, namely:

The Lacnunga consists of three main sources of inspiration:

It appears that at an early point in compilation, the original pagan Mediterranean material was added to by a native leech, who was only superficially Christianised, and was evidently familiar with the local persistent paganism - collecting charms and incantations used by other leeches and by the people themselves - tacking them onto the original work.

This compiler evidently had some monastic training - he could write (although his Latin is poor), but seems not to have dwelt within the confines of a monastery. He had access to literature of a debased sort, including Anglo-Saxon medico-magical texts - such as the Leechbooks of Bald. It is unlikely that he was a full-time leech as it is noticeable that most of his material is for the direction of others or of the patient, rather than for himself. Also had he been practising, it is likely that his notes would have revealed a far greater practical experience and a much wider scope.

Cockayne also includes at the end of his translations of the OEH, Leechbooks and Lacnunga some translations of a series of works dealing primarily with astrology and astronomy. He gives little commentary on them, and it is apparent that they are Anglo-Saxon codification of material from the Mediterranean (some remains in Greek and Latin) and possibly Arabic sources as well. Anyhow, none is of pagan Anglo-Saxon form, and it is set out in a manner that is organised and at least semi-logical - i.e. typical later monastic style, so it is unlikely that they were known in the settlement period.

All the books reveal a surprising amount about the thinking processes of the Anglo-Saxon mind, quite apart from the religious element. For instance, the Anglo-Saxon leech originally had no accurate means of measurement - the early recipes employ such terms as "eggshell full", "handful", "small amount", and so on. With the re-introduction of Latin, more precise weights became known. However, de Vriend's analysis shows that they were rarely understood, and their values seldom remained static even with respect to later Medieval values.

The Anglo-Saxon also seem to have had no concept of "exactness", for when Latin weights and measures were introduced, they produced jumbles of elaborately complex and totally irrational remedies, which combined exact and inexact measures, and also used both native and classical names for the herbs, often within the same prescription.

As a result, some of the underlying concepts of Anglo-Saxon superstitious belief in the pre-Christian era can be seen. For instance and idea which spread early from a pagan Mediterranean source was the insistence on silence during many magical or sacred rituals and practices - such as cutting or gathering herbs. Words were considered to have power for both evil and good, and unprompted speech could harm the spell. Similarly, a taboo against the use of iron to cut plants used for medicinal purposes apparently spread from the Roman world, although the Anglo-Saxon were well capable of inventing their own. Such a case is in the translation from Marcellus Empiricus where the scribes add the taboo:

"Mind that they ("stones" cut from the throat of a swallow) touch not earth, water or other stones".

From native Teutonic origin come the four main ideas of:

  1. "Flying venoms": disease-causing "onfliers" which seem to fly around in the air;
  2. The "worm" as a cause of disease. There is hardly a symptom, from toothache to fits, that is not at one time or another ascribed to "worm" in the literature. There is a constant association of ideas of the poison of the serpent and the supposed venom of the "worm"; and
  3. The "evil nines". This is perhaps best illustrated in the pagan lays of the Lacnunga, most particularly in the "Lay of the nine twigs of Woden":
    "These nine darts against nine venoms. A snake came crawling, nought did he wound; Then Woden took nine twigs of glory Smote the adder that in nine bits she flew apart. There that apple and venom bring it about That she never would turn into the house."

    LACGNUNGA LXXX b. (Grattan)

    Incidentally, the lay provides an insight into how Woden and the gods were viewed by the people of the time: as magical heroes perhaps. It is hard to tell, however, exactly how the gods were viewed, as the Christianity at the time of the writing of the lay had forbidden the recording or saying of incantations TO the pagan gods (although not ABOUT them). It is probably the case though that by the 8th century, Thunor and Woden had become little more than the names of "bogey-men" type characters.

    In considering the poor survival of the old Anglo-Saxon religion, apart from the quenching effect of the new one, it faced many innate disadvantages. Firstly, it contained no organised belief system - the Scandinavian system even 4 or more centuries later was still an illogical and regionally disparate system. Secondly, the Anglo-Saxon "invasion" itself, in stretching on for so long and covering such a large geographical area, contributed to the break-up and destruction of what simple system there may have been in existence. The invaders were cut off from their homeland, with no holy places of ancient repute (although place name evidence does point to the springing up of numerous shrines to Thunor and Woden long before the Danish invasions.)

    As has been mentioned, what little remained in Anglo-Saxon writing, the gods were devoid of the attributes given them in the Scandinavian cycles. Woden has no Valhalla and is no All-Father - just a rather noisy supernatural warrior. He may appear with his own peculiar entourage, or his name may be a word of power in healing. Only vague hints remain with no real personality.

    Of lesser supernatural beings, a much deeper-rooted belief remains. This brings us to the fourth main idea of Teutonic illness:

  4. The power of elves, and especially of "elf-shot". A particularly good idea of their power is given in the "Pagan lay against elf-shot".

    "Loud were they, yea loud, when they road over the hill; Fierce were they, when the rode over the land. Shield thou thee now; if herein thou be. Stood he under the linden, under the light, Where the mighty women got ready their powers, And the whizzing darts they sent. I back to them will send another, A flying shaft in defence against them. Out little spear, if herein thou be; Sat a smith, a knife he sledged, Small the iron, woeful the wound. Out little spear, if herein it be; Six smiths sat; battle-spears they wrought. Out, out, spear, not in, spear! If herein be of iron a fragment, Hag's work, it shall melt away. Of thou wert shot in the skin, or shot in flesh, Or shot in blood, or shot in bone, Or shot in limb, may thy life never be shattered. Were it Aesir shot, or Elves' shot Or Hag's shot, now I will help thee. This is thy cure of Aesir shot; this is thy cure of Elves' shot; This is thy cure of Hag's shot; I will help thee. It hath fled there to the mountains; no respite hath it had, Be thou now whole! Lord help thee!"

    LACNUNGA CXXV B. (Grattan)

    In the storm, Woden (the "Aesir" OE: "esa") once roared through the sky in company with his fierce women and elves.

    Elves, especially male ones were terrifying and malign. They are listed in Beowulf alongside monsters (OE: "eotenas"), spirits of hell (OE: "orcneas") and giants (OE: "gigantes"). They were peculiarly fond of wastes and dark places, from which they wood shoot passers-by. Belief in water-elves was also prevalent - as probably personified in the "nicras" of Beowulf. They appear as "nixes", "nikkers" and "nixies in German, Dutch and English folk tales.

    Dwarfs too were frightening, as is shown in the "Lay of the night goblin".

    "For dwarf . . . Here came stalking a creature all swathed. He had his bridle in his hand; said that thou wert his steed; Laid his bonds on thy neck; they began to move from the land. As soon as they came of the land, then began their limbs to cool. Then came stalking in the sister Ear She made then an end, and oaths she swore That never this one the sick should harm Nor him who might obtain this charm Or understood this charm to sing. AMEN FIAT"

    LACNUNGA XCII B (Grattan)

    They were as harmful as elves, but less frequently mentioned. Always they are small and noxious. They have none of the grander characteristics of the Scandinavian myths, or of Tolkien. OE: "Dweorg" is allegedly derived from the Greek "serfos" - stinging or biting insect. They are like the incubus of nightmare and preside over lingering disease.

Further indications of the standard of medical thought are contained in all three texts. For instance, all the recipes are exclusively for the treatment of symptoms. There is no notion of underlying disease other than the vague ideas in the later (Mediterranean inspired) sources of "evil humours" (other than of course "elf-shot" and "onfliers").

Other miscellaneous ideas include the association of the left side with femaleness and the right side with maleness. This was important for removing the correct sex of worm - you needed to know which ear to sing into. Spittle was seen as a common agent for healing (as it is . . . if used externally!) The power of breath was also important: a common method of treating the patient was by singing into one or more facial orifice. A more pleasant remedy was the "stone bath": a sauna produced by dropping hot stones into water. This was apparently common practice if you were feeling "addled".

Not all remedies were useless however. Although many were indeed nasty or downright dangerous - such as the practice of using a suspension of pepper or aloes to soothe (!) sore eyes. Some of the herbs, as far as they can be identified, were useful, and some are still used today: e.g. horehound which is used today to treat bronchitis, coughs and skin disorders:

"For a cough: boil a good deal of horehound in water, sweeten and give the man a cupful to drink."


"For lung disease: work the patient a brew from roots of wall, wort and from fleath and dill seed. Boil these in butter and let the patient eat this cold in the morning."


Rue was similarly used then, as now, to treat skin disease, stomach cramps and colic. Dill was used to treat stomach disorders, while today it is a primary ingredient in "gripe water".

It is important not to forget that such cures as had been found were gained by trial and error, involving many spurious principles such as the idea of "sympathy" where a plant which looked or had a name sounding like the afflicted part was thought to have power to help or harm it.

Also, the cures, once found, were unlikely to be passed on by literary methods (although mnemonic methods may have succeeded rather better). Reasons for this are varied. Apart from the general lack of literacy, plant names differed from one area to another, as did the species themselves. Also, while leeches were aware that the time of day or year affected the strength of the plant, there was no scientific or logical basis for locating the best plants.

In trying to find modern equivalents of the plant names used, innumerable problems arise. While some herbals (those derived from Mediterranean sources) contain illustrations, the scribes who copied them often distorted the pictures beyond recognition. Also, they were usually no experts in botany: recipes include poisonous plants as well as varieties never found in the British Isles. This indicates that the recipes were often copied blindly from their sources. Also Anglo-Saxon names were far from universal. The Anglo-Saxon had no conception of scientific methods of categorising plants such as the modern "Linnean" system. This system presupposes the recognition of six important principles, none of which were necessarily believed by the Anglo-Saxons:

Another problem faced by the Anglo-Saxon leech was that their colour discrimination was poor, and their terminology (at least in the form it has survived in) is limited and vague.

So what sort of picture emerges about leechcraft in the early dark ages? It is unlikely that until the monasteries came any organised leechcraft even existed. It is inevitable in an agricultural society that some knowledge of the healing power of plants was developed, and committed to memory in the trusted manner of the day, where it was assimilated with whatever theology and folklore was in existence at the time. It is also not surprising that in a dangerous world with limited life expectancy and no concept of the causes of disease, that dwarfs, elves, the "wiccan" etc. were credited with having power to cause illness - indeed the belief in "elfshot" was prevalent in England, Germany and the Netherlands well into the last century.

Consequently some body of local herblore was stored in the old folks' memories alongside the tales of the doings of gods and heroes, trolls and elves. It is perhaps logical to see that Woden, master of hags, elves and sorcerous power, dwell in woods and the storm, should be acknowledged as giving the inspiration for healing knowledge as illustrated in this rhyme, common among all Teutonic peoples. Grimm showed it amongst the Norwegians, Swedes, Scots and Danish. It has parallels in Gaelic and in Sanskrit. This particular version is translated from 9th century German:

"Balder and Woden
Fared to the wood
There was to Balder's foal
His foot wrenched
Then charmed Woden
As he well know how
As for the bone wrench
So for blood wrench
So for limb wrench
bone to bone
blood to blood
limbs to limbs
as if they were glued".


Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine, JHG Grattan and C Singer;

The Old English Herbarium and Medicina de Quadripedibus, ed. HJ de Vriend (Early English Text Society);

Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, O Cockayne;

Anglo-Saxon Herbs and Medicine, G Brown (St Paul's Jarrow Development Trust);

Grandmother's Secrets, J Palaiseul.

Paul Mullis

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