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Bald's Leechbook: its sources and their use in its compilation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 September 2008


Among the surviving medical writings in Old English, Bald's Leechbook holds a deservedly important place. It is preserved uniquely in London, British Library, Royal 12. D. xvii, a manuscript which may be dated on palaeographical grounds to the mid-tenth century (s. xmed), and which may arguably be attributed to a scriptorium at Winchester.1 Linguistic evidence suggests that this manuscript is in turn a copy of a manuscript written perhaps half a century earlier. Although it is written by one scribe throughout, the manuscript contains three distinct books. A metrical colophon at the end of the second book contains the hexameter ‘Bald habet hunc librum Cild quem conscribere iussit’. Neither Bald nor Cild can be identified, and the ambiguity of conscribere in medieval Latin makes it difficult to determine whether Bald ordered Cild to compile the book or simply to transcribe it. (Because of this ambiguity, I shall refer to the person responsible as the ‘compiler’.) In any case, it is clear that the first two books form a distinct unit, and it is these two books that are customarily described as Bald's Leechbook2 (a practice I shall follow in the present essay). The third book is a collection of medical recipes, of lesser scholarly import, entirely separate from and unrelated to Bald's Leechbook; it will not be discussed further here.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1983

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1 Ker, N. R., Catalogue of Manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford, 1957), pp. 332–3.Google Scholar

2 Bald's Leechbook has been published on three occasions: Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, ed. Cockayne, O., 3 vols., Rolls Ser. (London, 18641866) 11, 1299Google Scholar; Leonhardi, G., Kleinere angelsächsische Denkmäler 1, Greins Bibliothek der angelsächsischen Prosa 6 (Kassel, 1905), 191Google Scholar; Bald's Leechbook: British Museum Royal Manuscript, 12. D. xvii, ed. Wright, C. E., with an appendix by R. Quirk, EEMF 5 (Copenhagen, 1955)Google Scholar; for a discussion of the date and provenance of the manuscript see ibid. pp. 18–23.

3 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne, 11, xxvxxix.Google Scholar

4 ibid, 11, xxv–xxvi, and marginal notes throughout.

5 Talbot, C. H., ‘Some Notes on Anglo-Saxon Medicine’, Medical Hist. 9 (1965), 156–69.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

6 Cameron, M. L., ‘The Sources of Medical Knowledge in Anglo-Saxon England’, ASE 11 (1983), 135–55.Google Scholar

7 Oeuvres d'Oribase, ed. Bussemaker, U. C. and Daremberg, C., 6 vols. (Paris, 18561876)Google Scholar; the Greek and Latin texts of the Synopsis and Euporistes are in vols. v and vi, the latter ed. A. Molinier.

8 Alexandri Practica cum Optimis Declarationibus Jacobi de Partibus et Simonis Januensis (Venice, 1522)Google Scholar; the parts of this Latin text attributed to Philumenus and Philagrius are separately printed as Nachträge zu Alexander Trallianus: Fragmente aus Philumenus und Philagrius etc., ed. Puschmann, T., Berliner Studien 5 (Berlin, 1886), 16129Google Scholar

9 Marcelli De Medicamentis Liber, ed. Niedermann, M., rev. E. Liechtenhan, 2 vols., Corpus Medicorum Latinorum 5 (Berlin, 1968)Google Scholar.

10 Physica Plinii Bambergensis (Cod. Bamb. med 2, fol. 93v – 232r), ed. Önnerfors, A. (Hildesheim, 1975)Google Scholar; Plinii Secundi Iunioris qui feruntur de Medicina Libri Tres, ed. Önnerfors, A., Corpus Medicorum Latinorum 3 (Berlin, 1964)Google Scholar, referred to here respectively as Physica Plinii and Medicina Plinii.

11 Oeuvres, ed. Bussemaker, and Daremberg, v, 919.Google Scholar

12 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne, 11, 224Google Scholar. Cockayne's pseudo-archaic language gives a distorted impression of the compiler's abilities; accordingly, I give my own translation for this and following passages quoted from the Leechbook: ‘Take the best honey, put on the hearth, boil off the wax and the scum, then add to the honey an equal amount of vinegar, so that it is neither too astringent nor too sweet, mix together and put on the fire in a crock, boil strongly over good clean, quick coals until it is mixed so that it is uniform and has the thickness of honey, and that the astringent sharpness of the vinegar is not too evident to the taste.’

13 On the ‘old’ and ‘new’ translations of the Synopsis and Euporistes see Mørland, H., Die lateinischen Oribasiusübersetzungen, Symbolae Osloenses, Supplement 5 (Oslo, 1932)Google Scholar; and Oribasius Latinus (Erster Teil), Symbolae Osloenses, Supplement 10 (Oslo, 1940)Google Scholar.

14 See above, n. 13. Mørland showed that the differences in language of the two translations, previously supposed to be indicative of earlier and later Latin usages, were instead contemporary usages of southern and northern Italian schools, and that both translations could be assigned to the late sixth or early seventh century.

15 Oeuvres, ed. Bussemaker, and Daremberg, vi, 40.Google Scholar

16 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne, 11, 30–2Google Scholar: ‘The eyes of an old man are dimsighted. Then he is to arouse his eyes with rubbings, with walkings, with ridings, either when he is carried or taken in a carriage; and they are to use foods sparingly and timidly [?] and comb their heads and drink wormwood before taking food.’

17 Nachträge, ed. Puschmann, , pp. 76–8.Google Scholar

18 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne, 11, 244–6Google Scholar: ‘How the men are to be treated internally and externally, with hot and cold: internally with lettuce and beet and gourd; let drink in wine; let bathe in fresh water. Externally he is to be treated with oil of roses and with ointments and applications made from wine and grapes, and often an application is to be made of butter and of new wax and of hyssop and of oil. Mix with goose-grease or hog-fat and with frankincense and mint, and when he bathes anoint him with oil; mix with saffron. Foods which produce good blood are good for him such as are shellfish (finny ones), and domestic (and) wild fowl and all birds which live on mountains, and squabs (that is, the chickens of doves), and half-grown hogs and goat's flesh and pea juice with honey, somewhat peppered; and all moist things are not good for the breast and inwards, nor is wine to be taken that heats and humidifies the inwards.’

19 Toller, T. N., An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: Supplement (Oxford, 1921), p. 127 (s.v. clate).Google Scholar

20 Bosworth, J. and Toller, T. N., An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Oxford, 1898), p. 832 (s.v. scilliht).Google Scholar

21 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne, 11, 254.Google Scholar

22 Practica Alexandri 11. 108 (see above, n.8).

23 Marcelli De Medicamentis Liber, ed. Niedermann, I, 78.Google Scholar

24 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne, 11, 20Google Scholar: ‘For ache of half the head: laurel clusters, crush in vinegar with oil, smear the temple with it.’

25 Marcelli De Medicamentis Liber, ed. Niedermann, 1, 68.Google Scholar

26 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne, 11, 20Google Scholar: ‘For headache, take dill flowers, cook in oil, smear the temples with it.’

27 Physica Plinii, ed. Önnerfors, , pp. 114–15.Google Scholar

28 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne, 11, 250–2Google Scholar: ‘For hardness and pain of the spleen: take a new pig's bladder, fill it with strong vinegar, lay it over the hardness of the spleen, then bind it up so that it will not slip off, and let it be on there for three nights tied fast; after that unbind it; then you will find, if it is satisfactory, that the bladder is empty and the hardness softened and the pain allayed. Again, take ivy-leaves, cook in vinegar, and boil bran in the same vinegar, then put in a bladder, bind on the sore place, then at once afterwards give a potion made thus. For hardness of the spleen, take earthgall, beat or rub to powder, so that there are three spoonfuls or more, add powdered savine three spoonfuls, and boiling pitch [?] powdered three spoonfuls; sift all, then give a spoonful in wine to be drunk after the night's fast; if he have a fever as well, give him the herbs to drink in hot water made lukewarm so that the pitch may not be left standing with the other powders. Again, for one having a diseased spleen and for all internal disorders: vinegar mixed with gladden, make thus. Small pieces of gladden rind, put three pounds in a fairly large glass vessel, then add to it the strongest wine, five sextarii; then set in the hot sun in summer when the weather is hottest, and the clear, bright days of which we have written, that it may macerate and soak for four days or more; afterwards give the man with the diseased spleen a spoonful of the vinegar and immediately after give him a drink, because it is very strong for one who has never taken it before. Moreover, this is good, with honey added, both for disease of the spleen, and for stomach and for consumption, and in case one spits blood, and for all internal diseases; moreover, it also soon does away with scurfiness and itch. This medicine is good for either scurfiness or itch: make a wax salve from vinegar; take vinegar five spoonfuls, put in a new pot, add oil one bowlful, cook together, sprinkle on new sulphur five spoonfuls, and a little wax, boil down again until the vinegar is boiled off, then remove from the fire, and stir, and afterwards anoint with it the scurfiness and the itch.’

29 It is interesting that Somner, W. (Dictionarium Saxonico-Latino-Anglicum (Oxford, 1659))Google Scholar, referring to this chapter of the Leechbook, has the following explanation for the word hrean: ‘Phthisis, a disease in the lungs, with a consumption of the whole body.’ No authority is given for this definition.

30 See below, pp. 180–1.

31 Medicina Plinii, ed. Önnerfors, , p. 86.Google Scholar

32 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne, 11, 100Google Scholar: ‘For the same take an earthworm, grind thoroughly, add vinegar and bind on and anoint with it. For the same take savine, grind to powder and mix with honey and anoint with it. For the same take cooked eggs, mix with oil, lay on and foment strongly with beet-leaves.’

33 Theodori Prisciani Euporiston Libri 111 cum Physicorum Fragmento et Additamentis Pseudo- Theodoris, accedunt Vindicani Afri quae feruntur Reliquiae, ed. Rose, V. (Leipzig, 1874).Google Scholar

34 ibid. pp. 474–5; Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 11, 198.Google Scholar

35 ibid. pp. 475–6; Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 11, 242.Google Scholar

36 See, e.g., Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 11, 186Google Scholar, where the first recipe of ch. viii is similar to Theodori Prisciani, ed. Rose, p. 326, lines 1–3Google Scholar; likewise, the first recipe of ch. xi (Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 11, 186Google Scholar) is similar to Theodori Prisciani, p. 326, lines 6–8

37 See Sudhoff, K., ‘Codex Medicus Hertensis (Nr. 192)’, Archiv für Geschichte der Medium 10 (1917), 265313Google Scholar; the Old English text is ptd Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 1, 1373.Google Scholar

38 Passionarius Galeni: Galeni Pergameni Passionarius a Doctis Medicis Multum Desideratus, etc., (Lyons, 1526).Google Scholar

39 The first part of the Petrocellus has been edited by De Renzi, S., Collectio Salernitana, 5 vols. (Naples, 1865) iv, 185281Google Scholar. For the second part, of which De Renzi gave only a couple of chapters, I have used London, British Library, Sloane 2839, and, on the basis of it, corrected where necessary De Renzi's text, which was taken from a very poor manuscript.

40 The manuscript Cambridge, Peterhouse 251 (St Augustine's, Canterbury, s. xiex) contains good texts of the Liber Aurelii (167v–86r) and Liber Esculapii (186r–91v). The manuscript is listed Gneuss, H., ‘A Preliminary List of Manuscripts Written or Owned in England up to 1100’, ASE 9 (1981), 160, at 13.Google Scholar

41 Peterhouse 251 also contains Galeni ad Glauconem Medendi Liber 1 (129v–42.v), A.d Glauconem Liber 11 (142v–58r) and Liber Tertius (158v–67v).

42 Caelius Aurelianus was a fifth-century writer whose massive works were epitomized into the much smaller Aurelius and Esculapius; see Cameron, ‘Sources’, p. 141.

43 On the possible involvement of Gariopontus in the making of the Passionarius, see De Renzi, , Collectio 1, 137–49Google Scholar; and Thorndike, L. and Kibre, P., A Catalogue of Incipits of Scientific Writings in Latin (Cambridge, Mass., 1963)Google Scholar, under the incipit ‘Cephalea est dolor capitis qui multum tenet’.

44 The only instance I have found is in a part of Leechbook 11.xxxvi (Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 11, 242Google Scholar) which seems to be translated from Passionarius 111.2, which in turn is the same as Liber Esculapii, ch. 34. For equivalent chapters in Liber Esculapii and Passionarius, see Rose, V., Anecdota Graeca et Graeco-Latina, 2 vols. (Berlin, 18641870) 11, 180.Google Scholar

45 For differing views on the origin of Petrocellus see De Renzi, , Collectio iv, 185Google Scholar; and Talbot, ‘Notes’, p. 168.

46 Cassii Felicis De Medicina ex Graecis Logicae Sectae Auctoribus Liber Translates, ed. Rose, V. (Leipzig, 1879)Google Scholar; see Cameron, ‘Sources’, p. 141.

47 See also Talbot, ‘Notes’, p. 168.

48 See above, n. 38.

49 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 11, 202Google Scholar: ‘Take goat's milk still warm freshly milked, give to drink. Prepare also as a potion an adder worked as physicians know how.’

50 Talbot, ‘Notes’, p. 163.

51 Peterhouse 251, 149v.

52 Glossae Medicinales, ed. Heiberg, J. L., Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Hist.-filol. Meddelelser 9.1 (Copenhagen, 1924), 86.Google Scholar

53 See above, n. 38; cf. Talbot, ‘Notes’, p. 163.

54 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 11, 202Google Scholar: ‘In the beginning he should be treated with applications and salves. It should be of barley groats cooked in lye and of dove's dung prepared with honey, and then let the salve be laid on a hot cloth or skin or paper; wrap him up with it; the swelling will soon become soft and burst inwardly. Drink mulsa, that is honeyed drinks, every day and goat's milk boiled and water in which good herbs have been cooked.’

55 Peterhouse 251, 148v–9r.

56 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 11, 290Google Scholar: ‘Lord Elias, patriarch of Jerusalem, directed that all this be told to King Alfred.’

57 ibid. 11, 120.

58 ibid. 11, 292.

59 Complete information about these manuscripts and their relation to the Leechbook may be found in Torkar, R., ‘Zu den ae. Medizinaltexten in Otho B. XI und Royal 12 D. XVII. Mit einer Edition der Unica (Ker, No. 180 art. 11a–d)’, Anglia 94 (1976), 319–38Google Scholar; see also Ker, , Catalogue, pp. 230–4.Google Scholar

60 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 11, 30Google Scholar: ‘Again for dimness of the eyes: juice of earthgall, that is herdwort, smear on the eyes; the sight is thereby sharper. If you add honey that helps. Then take a good handful of the same herb, put in a kettle full of wine and cook “ofnete” for three days, and when it is cooked wring out the herbs and sweeten the juice with honey; drink a bowl full every day after the night's fast.’

61 London, British Library, Add. 43703, 262v 16–24.

62 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 1, 134–6.Google Scholar

63 Marcelli De Medicamentis Liber, ed. Niedermann 1, 136.Google Scholar

64 Physica Plinii, ed. Önnerfors, p. 42.Google Scholar

65 ibid. p. 7.

66 Schaumann, B. and Cameron, A., ‘A Newly-Found Leaf of Old English from Louvain’, Anglia 95 (1977), 289312Google Scholar; see also Ker, N. R., ‘A Supplement to Catalogue of Manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon’, ASE 5 (1976), 121–31, at 128 (no. 417).Google Scholar

67 Schaumann and Cameron, ‘Newly-Found Leaf’, p. 301.

68 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 11, 64–6Google Scholar; ‘For sore thigh, smoke the thigh thoroughly with fern. Again, as a drink: pepper, wine, walwort, honey. Also for the same: apple-tree, thorn, ash, quickbeam, boarthroat, ashthroat, elecampane, bishopwort, ivy, betony, ribwort, radish, “spracen”, pepper, mastic, costmary, ginger, sal ammoniac [?], nettle, blind nettle; make into a potion. If the thigh is numb, dig up the lower part of sedge, boil in water, let steam on the limb that is numb; anoint with a salve which is made thus of hog's fat, sheep fat, butter, ship's tar, pepper, mastic, ‘swegles apple’, sulphur, costmary, vinegar, oil, cucumber, radish, elecampane, bishopwort, ‘smearwort’, hove, wormwood, beewort, salt, ash, apple-tree, oak, thorn.’ By one of his rare errors of transcription, Cockayne omitted line 15 from 24v of the Leechbook; I have supplied it from the facsimile.

69 Schaumann and Cameron, ‘Newly-Found Leaf’, pp. 292–3. (Letters in parentheses in the last lines replace those lost where a corner of the leaf was cut off.)

70 The relationship of the various surviving medical recipes in Old English is discussed fully in an article by Meaney, A. L., in ASE 13 (forthcoming).Google Scholar

71 Marcelli De Medicamentis Liber, ed. Niedermann 1, 246–68.Google Scholar

72 Medicina Plinii, ed. Önnerfors, pp. 24–5.Google Scholar

73 Talbot, ‘Notes’, pp. 157–67.

74 See above, pp. 155 and 156.

75 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 11, 8Google Scholar: ‘Many and excellent medicines for a body become livid and mortified, and whence the disease comes, and how it should be treated if the body is so far mortified that there is no feeling in it, and how the dead blood should be drawn off; and if a man's limb should be amputated or cauterized how that should be done; pottages and potions and salves for the disease.’

76 See Celsus, , De Medicina, ed. Spence, W. G., 3 vols., Loeb Classical Lib. (Cambridge, Mass., 19601961) 111, 589–92.Google Scholar

77 For the chapters in Ad Glauconem Liber 11 corresponding to the chapters in the Passionarius, see Peterhouse 251, 133r and 140r.

78 Celsus, , De Medicina, ed. Spence 11, 102–4.Google Scholar

79 See above, p. 155.

80 See below, p. 178.

81 See above, p. 158.

82 Old English words in the following lists are from passages in the Leechbook for which Latin sources have been found, except where specified otherwise. References in parentheses after entries are to chapters of the Leechbook as found in Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 11.Google Scholar

83 As in the third Leechbook (Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 111, 338).Google Scholar

84 See above, p. 158.

85 Bonser, W., ‘Anglo-Saxon Medical Nomenclature’, Eng. and German Stud. 4 (19511952), 1319.Google Scholar

86 See above, pp. 159–60.

87 See Grattan, J. H. G. and Singer, C., Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine Illustrated Specially from the Semi-Pagan Text ‘Lacnunga’ (Oxford, 1952), p. 115Google Scholar; see also pp. 103 and 111.

88 Pliny, , Natural History, 10 vols., Loeb Classical Lib. (Cambridge, Mass., 19381962) iv, 102 (=xv.30)Google Scholar; C. Plinii Secundi Naturalis Historia Libri xxxvii, ed. Mayhoff, K. and Jan, L., 3 vols. (Leipzig, 18751906) 11, 545.Google Scholar

89 Grattan, and Singer, , Anglo-Saxon Magic, pp. 8091.Google Scholar

90 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 11, 290.Google Scholar

91 ibid., 11 26–38.

92 Alexander von Tralles, ed. Puschmann, T., 2 vols. (Vienna, 1879) 11, 269.Google Scholar

93 Ltechdoms ed. Cockayne, 11, 196216.Google Scholar

94 ibid. 11, 242–56.

95 ibid. 11, 276–8.

96 See, for instance, Leechbook 11.xxi (Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 11, 204–6)Google Scholar, where the symptoms described – cirrhosis, vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal rigidity – fit well with liver fluke infection.

97 Any good text on clinical parasitology will supply further information on these infections. See, e.g., Faust, E. C., Russell, P. F. and Lincicome, D. R., Craig and Faust's Clinical Parasitology (Philadelphia, 1957)Google Scholar; epidemiology and symptomatology of human infection with the sheep liver fluke are discussed on pp. 56–62.

98 ibid. p. 278.

99 MacArthur, W., ‘A Brief Story of English Malaria’, British Medical Bull. 1 (1951), 769.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

100 Faust, , Russell, and Lincicome, , Craig and Faust's Clinical Parasitology, pp. 202–5 and 212–13.Google Scholar

101 See, e.g., the latter part of Leechbook 11.xvii (Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 11, 198)Google Scholar, where the symptoms described – chills, vomiting, enlargement of the liver and soreness of the abdomen – are consistent with infection by Entamoeba histolytica; cf. Faust, , Russell, and Lincicome, , Craig and Faust's Clinical Parasitology, pp. 216–30Google Scholar. For the description of surgery of the abscesses, see Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 11, 208.Google Scholar

102 The charms are listed and discussed with references in Wright, , Bald's Leechbook, pp. 1516Google Scholar; one might compare the large number of charms in the Lacnunga (see above, n. 87).

103 Alexander von Tralles, ed. Puschmann 11, 319 and 475.Google Scholar

104 Voigts, L. E., ‘Anglo-Saxon Plant Remedies and the Anglo-Saxons’, Isis 70 (1979), 250–68Google ScholarPubMed. This article, which I did not see until after the above was written, comes to similar conclusions about the quality of Anglo-Saxon medicine and the availability of ingredients. These conclusions are especially interesting because they are arrived at by somewhat different arguments and documentation from those I have used above.

105 I have to thank Dalhousie University for sabbatical leaves and grants which enabled me to study abroad; the University Library, Cambridge, and the British Library for unfailing co-operation; the librarians of Trinity College, Cambridge, St John's College, Cambridge, and Peterhouse for access to manuscripts and books in their care; Professor P. A. M. Clemoes and Dr M. Lapidge for help beyond their editorial duties; and my wife for her support and willingness to read and criticize endless drafts. Anyone who has worked in the field of Anglo-Saxon science and medicine cannot fail to acknowledge the outstanding work of Oswald Cockayne, whose Leechdoms are a monument to his exceptional learning and dedication.

1 Leechdoms, ed. Cockayne 11, 44–8Google Scholar. Cockayne's division of this chapter into six sections has been followed here.

2 Marcelli De Medicamentis Liber, ed. Niedermann 1, 256.Google Scholar

4 Pedanii Dioscurtdis Anazarbei De Materia Medica Libri Quinque, ed. Wellmann, M., 3 vols. (Berlin, 1980) 11, 74.Google Scholar

5 Claudii Galeni Opera Omnia, ed. Kühn, C. G., 20 vols. (Leipzig, 1826) xii, 36.Google Scholar

6 Marcelli De Medicamentis Liber, ed. Niedermann 1, 254–5.Google Scholar

7 ibid. 1, 254.

8 ibid. 1, 260.

9 London, British Library, Sloane 2835, 22r–4r; found also as ch. 34 in De Renzi, , Collectio iv, 212–14Google Scholar, in a text so corrupt as not to be useful for our purposes.

10 Oeuvres, ed. Bussemaker and Daremberg vi, 593.Google Scholar

11 Physica Plinii, ed. Önnerfors, p. 64.Google Scholar

12 ibid. p. 65.

13 Marcelli De Medicamentis Liber, ed. Niedermann 1, 254.Google Scholar

14 Oeuvres, ed. Bussemaker and Daremberg v, 883.Google Scholar

15 Medicina Plinii, ed. Önnerfors, p. 25.Google Scholar

17 ibid. p. 24.

18 Pliny, , Natural History, Loeb Classical Lib. vi, 32.Google Scholar

19 Marcelli De Medicamentis Liber, ed. Niedermann 1, 238.Google Scholar

20 See above, n. 9.