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Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Disease: A Semantic Approach

Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Disease: A Semantic Approach

By Conan Doyle

PhD Dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2011

Bald’s Leechbook – Royal 12 D XVII ff. 20v-21 British Library

Abstract: As a semantic investigation into Anglo-Saxon medicine, this thesis investigates the ways in which the Old English language was adapted to the technical discipline of medicine, with an emphasis on semantic interference between Latin medical terminology and Old English medical terminology.

The main purpose of the examination is to determine the extent to which scholarly ideas concerning the nature of the human body and the causes of disease were preserved between the Latin texts and the English texts which were translated and compiled from them. The main way in which this has been carried out is through a comparative analysis of technical vocabulary, excluding botanical terms, in medical prose texts utilising the Dictionary of Old English Web Corpus of texts, and a selection of printed editions of Latin texts which seem to have been the most likely sources of medical knowledge in Anglo-Saxon England.

As a prerequisite to this comparative methodology it has been necessary to assemble a corpus of Latin textual parallels to the single most significant Old English medical text extant, namely Bald’s Leechbook. These parallels have been presented in an appendix alongside a transcript and translation of Bald’s Leechbook.

A single question thus lies at the heart of this thesis: did Old English medical texts preserve any of the classical medical theories of late antiquity? In answering this question, a number of other significant findings have come to light. Most importantly, it is to be noted that modern scholarship is only now beginning to focus on the range of Late Antique and Byzantine medical texts available in Latin translation in the early medieval period, most notably for our present purposes Alexander of Tralles, but also Oribasius, Galen, pseudo-Galen and several Latin recensions of the works of Soranus of Ephesus, including the so-called Liber Esculapii and Liber Aurelii.


The linguistic study further demonstrates that the technical language of these texts was very well understood and closely studied in Anglo-Saxon England, the vernacular material not only providing excellent readings of abstruse Latin technical vocabulary, but also demonstrating a substantial knowledge of technical terms of Greek origin which survive in the Latin texts.

Click here to read this dissertation from the University of Cambridge

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