The medical practitioner in Anglo-Saxon England
Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Vol.20:97 (1970)
Introduction: Anglo Saxon medicine has been considered at some length during the past half century or so but little or nothing has been written about those who practised it – the physician or to give him his contemporary title, the leech. This essay, therefore, is an attempt to direct some light, however dimly, upon these somewhat elusive practitioners. While it is true that definite evidence relating to them is extremely sparse in the sources and cannot be compared, for example, with the much more readily available material concerning their Continental colleagues, nevertheless, even at this distance of time, some picture of their activities can be discerned from the surviving source material.
The Anglo-Saxon physician was known to his contemporaries as a leech or in Old English,”laece”and was not at all concerned with the treatment of specific disease but was expected to deal with all kinds of illness and injury and with a host of symptoms the causes of which were completely beyond his comprehension. In addition, he had to face the ever-present problems of his time; famine, plague and violence.
Some indication of his appearance may be suggested from several surviving illustrations where the leech is portrayed at work. There is no evidence in the illustrations that he wore the clerical tonsure; he appears both shaven and bearded and is clothed in the normal dress of the period-there is no suggestion of the wearing of any distinguishing medical dress as was to be the case in the later medieval period. This would indicate that in addition to the monastic physician whose activities were mostly, though not entirely, restricted to the monasteries, there was a body of lay practitioners who were available to treat the general population.