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At the Borders of Medicine and Magic: A New Work by Ælfric?

At the Borders of Medicine and Magic: A New Work by Ælfric?

By Richard Shaw (University of Toronto)

Paper given at the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium – Seventh Annual ASSC Graduate Student Conference (2011)

Shaw’s paper offers strong evidence that Ælfric of Eynsham, a 10th century English abbot and writer of many Anglo-Saxon texts, was also responsible for penning the Tables of Lucky and Unlucky Days. The main proof that Ælfric was the author of this previously anonymous work is that the Old English phrase, ‘swa swa us seegað bec’ (“Just as the books tell us”) is used five times in this text. This particular phrase can be found over 45 other times in Old English works, all of which are by Ælfric, and Shaw points out that in the only other time that phrase is used, it comes from a work which is also likely written by Ælfric

Richard Shaw also notes that the work has other vocabulary consistent with Ælfric’s other writings. If this was a text written by the prolific Anglo-Saxon writer, it would certainly fit as another example of his many educational/technological works.

The main problem is the Tables of Lucky and Unlucky Days is a text about blood-letting and when it should and should not be done. The text notes several times throughout the year when blood-letting should not be practiced – for example, it says “Again in the month that we call May the third day is mischievous, and the seventh before its end.”

The text suggests that certain periods of the moon’s cycle were not good times for blood letting. These statements seem to run contrary to an establish value of Ælfric, who wrote against the practice of divination or prognostics, but Shaw argues Ælfric’s view of prognostics was probably more limited than scholars have presumed.

Shaw believes that Ælfric would have seen the practice of bloodletting according to lunar cycles as “basic scientific practice,” which had been advocated by other noteworthy Anglo-Saxon scholars, including Bede. The text even includes this line: “This is no sorcery, but wise men have made experiment of it through holy wisdon, just as God dictated to them.”

Click here to read more papers from the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium

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