Anglo-Saxon Medicine within its Social Context

Anglo-Saxon Medicine within its Social Context

By H.M. Cayton

PhD Dissertation, Durham University, 1977

Bald's Leechbook

Abstract: This thesis considers the medical history of the Anglo- Saxons, and utilises all available sources of evidence, whether documentary, archaeological or medical, in an attempt to gain a comprehensive view of the medical aspects of society.

The medical knowledge of the Anglo-Saxons was derived mainly from late Classical medicine, and the transmission of Classical sources into Anglo-Saxon medical texts is considered briefly. The resulting medical theories are an uneasy fusion of Classical doctrines such as the four humours, and pagan Teutonic ideas such as the worm and elfshot as carriers of disease. These theories are discussed at some length in a separate chapter.

The herbs and other ingredients used in remedies are analysed, and the relatively small group of herbs which forms the nucleus of the pharmacopeia is isolated and examined in detail. Other chapters consider social aspects of medicine, such as the growth and status of the medical profession, the treatment of those within the community who suffered from mental illness, and the reactions of society to the recurrent epidemics, famines and other disasters which afflicted them.

The final two chapters consider the scientific evidence, which is mainly derived from palaeopathology, and attempt to relate it to other sources of information, Palaeopathological reports on skeletal-groups from various Anglo-Saxon sites have provided basic information such as sex, height, age at death and so on, and evidence for any disease which affects bone structure such as leprosy, tuberculosis, gout or osteoarthritis. But they record beside more subtle changes reflecting diet, occupation, social conditions and general way of life. Palaeopathology can thus be used to complement the documentary and archaeological evidence while adding new information as well, and so helps to place Anglo-Saxon medicine within its social context.

Click here to read this thesis from Durham University

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