One of the earliest known medical textbooks in the English language is Bald’s Leechbook, a three-volume anthology (the third of which is believed to be independent) of Anglo-Saxon cures, remedies, medicines, salves, recipes, and laws thought to have been written in the mid 9th to early 10th century. The only copy still in existence, now held at the British Library in London, is believed to be a copy of the original manuscript, dating from the early 11th century.
The cures listed in the leechbook (leech is an Old English word for a physician, incidentally) begin in head-to-toe order, before moving onto descriptions of how to treat various injuries and diseases, covering everything from snakebites and spider bites to demonic possession and insanity. Predictably, there are some fairly unusual remedies and procedures involved—20 of which are listed here—but between the raw hare’s bile, boiled crabs eyes, and porpoise-skin whips are some remarkably progressive ideas and remedies. The book is renowned for advocating surgery to correct a harelip, as well as outlining a relatively informed method for amputating a limb—and not only that, but in 2015 researchers at the University of Nottingham found that one of the eye salves listed in the book was effective in killing the notoriously antibiotic-resistant infection MRSA.
One Anglo-Saxon cure “for head wark” was to crush together some beetroot and honey, smear the juice all over the patient’s head, and then have them lie on their back in the sun and let the juice run down their face. If the headache only affected one half of the head, however, it was best to smear a mixture of laurel oil and vinegar all over their cheeks.
2. HEAD WOUND
But what if your headache is the result of a head wound? No problem. Just smush up some betony leaves, smear them on the injury—and stuff some cress up your nose.
Aside from smearing a raw hare’s gall (liver secretions) on your face, cataracts or “mistiness of the eyes” can apparently be cured by mixing the ash of burnt periwinkles with bumblebee honey and rubbing it directly into your eyes. Can’t find any fresh periwinkles to burn? Try “the fatty parts of all river fishes melted in the sun” as a substitute.
4. SWOLLEN EYES
Catch a live crab, cut off its eyes, and put them against the neck of the patient—but only after returning the blinded crab to the water, of course.
Garlic, onion, and goose fat might sound like the start of some fine French recipe, but melted together and squeezed directly into the ear, they’re apparently the perfect cure for earache. If you think that sounds unpleasant, it’s probably still preferable to the other salves on offer—dripping crushed ant eggs or the mushed up gall of a bull, a buck, and a boar into the ear canal also did the trick.
“If blood run from a man’s nose too much,” the leechbook advises, “poke into the ear a whole ear of barley, so he be unaware of it.”
7. NECK PAIN
One remedy for sore throats, swellings, quinsy, tonsillitis, and other types of “neck sickness” is to take “a white thost,” dry it out, crush it up, mix it with honey if necessary, and rub it on the patient’s neck—a “white thost” being another word for album graecum, a white lump of dog excrement. The dog who provided the poop, however, “must gnaw a bone ere he droppeth the thost,” otherwise the remedy won’t be effective.
All kinds of herbals remedies were recommended for “mickle hicket” (hiccups), each one depending on what started the hiccups in the first place; a number of different causes of hiccuping were identified, including “It cometh from the very chilled maw or from too much heated maw” (a cold or hot stomach), “from too mickle fulness, or too mickle leerness” (eating too much, or being very hungry), and “evil wet or humour rending and scarifying the maw” (probably a reference to a stomach bug, or burning acid indigestion). If someone is hiccuping because they’ve eaten too much, then “a good spew” apparently works, whereas if they’re hiccuping because of an indigestion that feels “like it scarifieth … within the maw,” then get them to drink some lukewarm water, and then “put a feather in oil, poke him frequently in the throat [with it] that he may spew.”
9. SHOULDER PAIN
“Mingle a turd of an old swine which be a fieldgoer with old lard” and smear it on the affected area.
Apparently a salve made from cream, brass filings, and old soap can help fix a corn on your hands and feet.
A mixture of dog urine and mouse blood smeared on warts should get rid of them.
“In case that a man cannot retain his urine,” burning the claws of a boar or another swine and sprinkling the ashes into his drink would solve the problem; alternatively, he could try eating a fried goat’s bladder, or a boiled ram’s bladder. For women, however, the cure wasn’t quite so bad—an infusion of garden cress steeped in warm water would do the trick.
One of a number of treatments recommended for swellings was to remove the canine tooth of a live fox, bind it in the skin of a fawn, and hold it against the affected part.
Wash “a black snail” (i.e. a slug) in holy water and get the victim to drink it. For a spider bite, mix a hen’s egg and some sheep excrement into a bowlful of ale, and get the victim to drink it without knowing what it is. Good luck with that …
A salve of burnt goat excrement, wheat stalks, and butter, heated over a fire and smeared onto the skin was apparently an effective way of treating a burn.
As well as drinking an infusion of fennel and feverfew, typhus could be treated by having the patient write out a prayer while saying the names of the four gospels, and then hold the paper against their left breast—so long as they did so outdoors, and never brought the paper inside the house.
If a man has a tendency to “overdrink himself,” get him to take a swig of an infusion of betony leaves before his next drink. But if all else fails, try eating five slices of roasted pig’s lung in the evening.
Anglo-Saxon hair restorer was made from a mixture of burned bees and willow leaves mixed with oil, which was smeared onto the head after a bath. This salve—which probably dates back to Roman times—was presumably based on the fact that willow catkins and bumblebees are themselves covered in soft fluffy hairs.
19. DEMONIC POSSESSION
This being the 9th century, what Bald’s Leechbook labels as “fiend sick”—or “when a devil possess the man and controls him from within”—were probably psychological problems with no apparent physical cause, like epilepsy, hysteria, or schizophrenia. In any case, the treatment was typically the same: an infusion of various plants and herbs including lupins, betony, fennel, and lichen was boiled together and given to the patient to drink out of a church bell.
To cure a “lunatic,” try killing and skinning a “mereswine” (a porpoise—mereswine literally means “sea pig”) and making a whip out of its skin. Whip the patient with it, and “soon he will be well. Amen.”
Transform yourself into a healer by picking up a dung beetle and its dung ball, and, holding it your hands, say aloud, “Remedium facio ad ventris dolorem” (“I remedy for a bad stomach”). Then throw the beetle over your shoulder without looking at it, and for the next year, whenever someone has a bad stomach, you’ll be able to cure it simply by laying your hands on their belly.