How did people Anglo-Saxon England treat a headache or indigestion? Here are fifteen cures for minor ailments from the Lacucgna, which include what to do if your finger nail falls off, and how Jesus Christ cured Peter’s toothache.
Recently, researchers in the United Kingdom discovered that an Anglo-Saxon remedy for eye infections is effective against the bacteria Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) – click here to read about it – which has prompted interest in the possibilities medieval cures has for modern-day medicine.
There are just a handful medical books from Anglo-Saxon England that deal with medicine – one of these is called the Lacnunga, which means ‘remedies’ in Old English. The text, which is found in the manuscript Harley 585 that is kept at the British Library, was written in the late 10th or early 11th century. Written mostly in Old English, but also with some Latin and Old Irish, it offers a wide variety of cures for dozens of medical problems for people and in some cases for animals. Most of the remedies are simple ointments or drinks made up of a few ingredients, while in other cases the Lacnunga offers a prayer or chant that will return one’s health.
Here are fifteen cures from the Lacnunga:
1) For headache: pound root of beet with honey; strain, put the juice into the nose; lie him face upward toward the sun, and hang downward until the brain is reached; before that let him have butter or oil in his mouth; then sit him upright; then let him lean forward; let the mucus flow from the nose; do that often until it is clean.
2) An eye-slave: take the lower part of strawberry and pepper; put it in a cloth, wrap it up; put it into sweetened wine; drip one drop from the cloth into either eye.
3) For cough: take ‘run’ honey and seed of wild celery and seed of dill; pound the seed finely; mix thickly with the honey, and pepper well; take three spoonfuls while fasting.
4) In the event that man or beast drinks an insect, if it is male sing this song which is written hereafter into the right ear; if it is female sing it into the left ear:
Gomomil orgomil marbumil marbsai ramum tofeð tengo docuillo biran cuiðœr cæfmiil scuiht cuillo scuiht cuib duill marbsiramum.
Sing this incantation nine times into the ear and the Our Father once.
5) For diarrhoea: take a hen’s egg; lay in vinegar for two nights; if it is not cracked, tap it a little; lay again in the vinegar for a night; then beat it in butter; lay in oil; then put it over a fire for a little while, give to eat.
6) For dizziness: take rue and sage and fennel and ground ivy, betony and lily; pound all these plants together; put them in a bag; soak with water, rub vigorously; let it drain out into a vessel; take the liquid and warm it, and wash your head with it; do so as often as you need to.
7) For lice, salve: hog’s fennel, celery-leaved crowfoot, radish, wormwood, an equal amount of all these; pound into a powder, knead with oil; anoint the whole body with it.
8) If a nail has come off a hand: take wheaten grains, pound; mix with honey; place on finger; boil blackthorn-bark; wash with the liquid.
9) In the event that a woman suddenly goes dumb: take pennyroyal and grind to a powder and wrap in wool; lay it under the woman; she will soon be better.
10) For indigestion: let common centaury be taken; dry to a powder, sprinkle onto ale or onto whatever you want to drink; you will be better.
11) In the event a person cannot sleep: take seed of henbane and juice of spear mint, stir together and anoint the head with it; he will be better.
12) For pain of the teeth: Christ sat upon a marble stone; Peter stood sad before him, holding his hand to his jaw, and the Lord questioned him, saying: “Why are you sad, Peter?”
Peter replied and said, “Lord, my teeth hurt.”
And the Lord said, “I adjure you migraine or malignant drop by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and by heaven and earth and by the twenty orders of angels and by the sixty prophets and by the twelve apostles and by the four evangelists and by all the saints who have pleased God from the beginning of the world, that the devil cannot harm him, the servant of God, neither in the teeth, nor in the ears, nor in the palate, neither break his bones, nor chew his flesh, so that you may have no power to harm him, neither in sleeping, nor in waking, nor may you touch him for sixty years and a day.”
Rex pax nax in Christ the Son. Amen. Our Father.
13) If a person scratches at his belly: the plant is called gullac (comfrey); dig it up roots, make into a powder, take a good spoonful, a full eggshell of win or of good ale, and honey; give to drink early in the morning.
14) Write this along the arms for fever:
+ T + ωA. And crush greater celandine in ale: Saint Machutus. Saint Victoricus.
15) If the haemorrhoid is situated on a person’s rump: then take roots of clate, the greater one, three or four, and smoke them on hot embers, and then draw the one you have chosen to use from the hearth and pound it and make it like a little cake, and apply to the rump as hot as you can bear, when the cake cools, then make more and apply to the rump, and be in response for a day or two; when you do this – it is proven medical practice – the roots are not to be dug with an iron implement, and do not wash them with water, but let them be wiped with a clean cloth; and put a very thin cloth between the rump and the cake.
You can read these and more cures in Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers from the British Library MS Harley 585: The Lacnunga, edited and translated by Edward Pettit and published in two volumes by Edwin Mellen Press. Click here to learn more about the book from the publisher.
The British Library has digitized the manuscript Harley 585 and you can read the text here.
* Please note that these medical remedies are only intended for historical analysis – do not attempt these cures
Top Image: British Library MS Harley 585