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Anglo-Saxon Magico-Medicine

Anglo-Saxon Magico-Medicine

Barley, Nigel

Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, Vol.3:2 (1972)

Introduction: The value of studies of belief, cosmologies and symbolic systems generally is now widely accepted. The structuralists have shown them to be far to important to be relegated to the periphery of anthropological investigation. But why should an anthropologist concern himself with the present topic, when presumably an Anglo­ Saxon scholar would be better qualified linguistically to do so? Let me, in answer, quote the words of Singer and Grattan, perhaps the foremost authorities on the subject. They sum up Anglo- Saxon medicine as:­ ‘A mass of folly and credulity.’

We may ask whether the people who translated and illuminated the ‘Herbarium’, whose remedies show such a wealth of plant names, did not show a real botanical awareness. Apparently not:

‘No Anglo-Saxon had any knowledge of these (the Linnaen) presuppositions. Furthermore, the men who wrote the Early English magico-medical texts seem to have been almost incapable of enum­erating, exactly nor had they much appreciation of measure or weight though they often copied lists of these. Their colour discrimina­tion was poor and their vocabulary for colours meagre and vague.’

The work of Marcellus Empiricus, which was apparently of great influence among the Anglo-Saxons, is summed up as: ‘A mass of disgusting absurdities which touch the depths of pagan superstition, further depraved by the incursion of Christian symbols. ‘

I am sure I need not comment. One recognises a severe lack of the anthropological perspective. The book from which these quotations are taken was published – by the way – in 1952.

The study of Anglo-Saxon magico-medicine presents an anthropologist with special problems. We have to accept the evidence on the subject bequeathed to us by a whole series of historical disruptions and disasters. Viking raids, library fires, and Christianity seem very often to have conspired to rob us of the very stuff of research. But if the quantity of data is thus reduced, its breadth is not. There remains a mass of tantalising hints and possible connections.

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