Disease and Medicine

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How do we know about early mediæval disease and medicine?

To be written, including - leechbooks and herbals, mentions of illnesses and causes of death in chronicles/sagas, skeletal remains, privy archaeology.

What might a medical kit contain?

For playing an Anglo-Saxon nun, I (Freya) put together a collection of things that she might have used for treating common complaints. There's opium poppy seeds for general aches and pains, toothache etc.; fennel and dill for digestive complaints and assorted other things (they crop up a lot in Anglo-Saxon remedies); pennyroyal for speeding up a long labour (or perhaps getting young ladies out of trouble); cumin for asthma, wheat flour and beeswax for making poultices and ointments; clean feathers for applying said unguents; linen for bandages and silk thread for stitching wounds. To go with this, I made a book containing several recipes from leechbooks.

How well did remedies work?

This probably varies! Firstly, the fact that many remedies include the recital of a charm or a prayer speaks volumes about the likely success rate. It can be very hard to judge how well a medicine may have worked, especially as the specific ingredients or preparation methods can be unclear. A Saxon remedy for supporating and presumably infected wounds includes several ingredients known to have antimicrobial effects (honey, garlic, possibly copper salts leached form a brass pot) showed remarkable efficacy against MRSA in a recent study by the AncientBiotics group at the University of Nottingham (previous efforts were however less successful Brennessel, Drout & Gravel, Anglo-Saxon England 34:183). Other medicaments might have actually worked too: one Saxon remedy for anaemia involves quenching a red-hot iron poker in vinegar or wine and then drinking the liquid - which would contain iron salts - and pennyroyal (used to help with a long labour or to speed up delivery of the placenta) is indeed a powerful abortifacient.



The first must-read book for an introduction to Anglo-Saxon medicine is undoubtedly Steven Pollington's Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing, which includes full original texts and translations of Bald's Leechbook, the Lacnunga Manuscript and The Old English Herbarium, as well as an alphabetical list of plants and medical materials that's been fully cross-referenced with the source material. M L Cameron's Anglo-Saxon Medicine is a more scholarly tome that places Anglo-Saxon medical practice in the more general context of traditional North European and Classical medical traditions. It's available as a free ebook here.


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