The Diagnosis and Treatment of Wounds in the Old English Medical Collections: Anglo-Saxon Surgery?
By Debby Banham and Christine Voth
Wounds and Wound Repair in Medieval Culture, eds. Larissa Tracey and Kelly De Vries (Brill, 2015)
Introduction: [the physician Cynefrith, who was present both when she [St. Æthelthryth] was dying, and when she was raised from the tomb … used to recount that, when she was ill, she had a very large swelling under her jaw; “They told me,” he said, “to cut into that swelling, so that the harmful fluid inside would flow out … [and at her translation in 695 or 6] they showed me too the wound of the incision that I had made, healed up, so that, wonderfully, instead of the open and gaping wound with which she had been buried, the slightest traces of a scar were then visible”] (Bede, Historia ecclesiastica IV.19)
Bede’s story of the medicus Cynefrith cutting open (incidere) St. Æthelthryth’s swelling in order to aid its healing provides a rare glimpse into the treatment of illness or injury by surgical means in the Anglo-Saxon period. Whether one follows The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition as “the treatment of injuries, deformities or other disorders by manual operation or instrumental appliances,” or that given by Charlotte Roberts in the most recent published survey of the discipline in Anglo-Saxon England: “the branch of medicine concerned with treating diseases or injuries by means of manual or operative procedures, especially by incision into the body;” we do not find much evidence for surgical treatments in Anglo-Saxon written sources.
Early medieval England was a dangerous environment with a high risk of physical harm, which could result from warfare, day-to-day lawlessness, or accidents in the home or the workplace. Anglo-Saxon physicians must have encountered many instances of wounds that called for surgical attention, and one might thus expect to find numerous references to procedures like that undertaken by Cynefrith in the extant medical texts. But medical collections in Old English are dominated by potions and salves of one kind or another, to the almost complete exclusion of techniques involving “the knife.”