The Old English Charms and King Alfred’s Court
Nokes, Richard Scott
Medieval English Studies vol. 10:1 (2002)
Abstract: This article argues that one of the most important of the extant Old English charm texts, Bald’s Leechbook, was compiled during the Alfredian Renaissance, and very possibly at the request of Alfred himself. Though the manuscript itself was scribed at a later date, evidence suggests that the initial compilation of Bald’s Leechbook was either during or shortly following the reign of King Alfred. An internal reference to King Alfred demonstrates that the Leechbook was not compiled before his reign, and other manuscript evidence shows that it could not have been compiled long after. Other evidence suggests that the compilation was done by a team of compilers from a wide variety of sources, and could not have been the work of a single man, implying that the Leechbook was created with institutional support. The sum of the evidence very strongly suggests that Bald’s Leechbook was produced in the intellectual climate of the Alfredian renaissance, and perhaps by the will of King Alfred himself.
The extant corpus of Anglo-Saxon texts contains hundreds of Old English charms. Except for about a dozen “metrical charms” included in Dobbie’s sixth volume of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, most scholars know little about the charms. With a few notable exceptions, the charms have been studied very little, though they have frequently found inclusion in Old English readers. For the Anglo-Saxons, however, these charms could represent the difference between sickness and health, between life and death. They were important to the Anglo-Saxons and, when we examine the manuscript evidence, we also find that they were probably of great importance to King Alfred the Great. One of the most important of the extant charm texts, Bald’s Leechbook, was compiled during the Alfredian Renaissance, and very possibly at the request of Alfred himself.
The Old English charms are scattered around about two dozen manuscripts, but most of these manuscripts are texts dedicated to some other subject, and the charms are found in the margins or the flyleaves. Fewer than half-a-dozen texts dedicated solely to charms still exist today, and these texts are found in only two manuscripts. The most important charm text is found in British Library, Royal 12 D.xvii, and is commonly referred to as “Bald’s Leechbook.” Royal 12 D.xvii contains three separate texts, of which Bald’s Leechbook usually refers to the first two texts, Leechbook I and Leechbook II. Leechbook III, while similar in structure and format to the first two books, is actually of a different origin than Bald’s Leechbook (Wright 14).