I’m going to take some Anglo-Saxon herb lore books as representative of medieval herbal medicine. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms took to literacy fairly readily, especially after King Alfred made a serious initiative to teach reading and build up libraries. During a period we call the “Dark Ages” for its relative lower literacy, there are three major medical books existing in King Alfred’s language.
The oldest, Bald’s Leechbook, seems to have been compiled around 950 AD. The others must date from the 1000s, probably before 1066, although written Old English continued to be used for another century. In discussing them, I am leaning on Stephen Pollington’s translation and notes in Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing.
Medieval medical books typically started at the head, closing with foot remedies. Their organization in an analytic sense is non-existent, apart from this general order. I wanted to extract some logical principles from the remedies and present them that way, but it’s really too difficult a task at this time. So let’s discuss them starting with the first ones, and see what develops from there.
It isn’t easy to translate any of these recipes because local and country names for plants often vanish outside of their time and place. Even now in America, there is much local variation in wildflower names. In England, and in medieval times, there could be a dozen different names for the same plant. Scholars who compile dictionaries are often left with single-appearance words whose identity they can only guess at, with context, and not easily. Most of the plants can be identified, but not all.
Bald’s Leechbook deals with head pain partly with herbal brews, and partly with what we can only view as charms. The other major manuscript, the Lacnunga, offers some recipes for head salves. I’ll summarize them so you can get the idea:
a) mustard seed and rue, crushed in oil, mixed into hot water, wash the head with it.
b) pennyroyal (now often called fleabane, and in the mint family) boiled in butter, applied as a salve.
c) salt, rue, ivy berries, pounded and mixed into honey, applied as a salve.
d) roots of hammorwort and everlasting, pounded and mixed with water into a lather, so the lather is used to wash the head.
e) four herbs boiled in water: groundsel, hindhealth, fen-cross and cockle; use the water to wash, and use the boiling mixture’s steam as a vapor treatment.
The next brew for treating head pain seems to be specifically for a sinus infection, because of the way it’s applied. It begins with beet roots; beets were a native root in Europe and were always part of the peasant diet. In this case, the beets are crushed into honey, and this sticky mess was wrung out to obtain the liquid. Now the person with this kind of head pain has to lie down face up, facing a hot sun, and with his head dropping lower than his body (off the edge of a bench?). The doctor pours the red juice into his nose, so that he thinks it has reached the brain—that is, up into the sinus cavities. Then the patient should sit up suddenly and let it all run out. This should be repeated until the infection is washed clean. (There’s an interesting detail that I don’t understand. In managing this treatment, the patient puts butter in his mouth first.)
Bald’s Leechbook also offers two remedies that could not be medical, in our terms. In the first, the pain is treated by tying an herb’s root to the head with a red thread. Red threads had magical meaning; they were probably silk but could have been wool. No doubt silk, as more expensive, was considered more effective.
In the other charm, someone has to find a large swallow fledgling and remove its digestive gravel. Three of these stones, taken without allowing them to touch dirt, water or other stones, are sewn into a cloth bag. The type of cloth, it says, doesn’t matter. The bag is applied to someone with a head-ache or a variety of other problems including nightmares.
The old texts don’t distinguish one type of remedy from the other. They were collecting everything known to be effective, and the swallow-fledgling stones were apparently much respected by some person or text that contributed. We can’t imagine cutting open a baby bird to remove its stomach, but they killed animals all the time for many purposes. Swallows were common birds, easily found and therefore easy to catch with a net. There’s a long history of keeping them semi-tame, with artificial homes, to help discourage flies and mosquitos.
There was probably a basic logic that if swallows could catch insects out of the air as they flew, they should be able to catch other attacks. Their digestive stones, therefore, should trap harmful spells, evil spirits, and perhaps even flying venom and worms. Seen in this light, it’s no wonder that having a good swallow-stone charm bag would seem pretty valuable for a village doctor.