Until more researchers at places like Nottingham University recreate Anglo-Saxon medicinal recipes, we won’t know if there are hidden secrets like the surprisingly effective antibiotic made from leeks and garlic. Some of the others sound possibly effective, now that we know one was. And some are just plainly no good, from our perspective.
The most outstanding no-good remedy involving a live bird tells us more about magical thinking than about medicine. How does the world work? What is permissible to do, in a quest for health? Does it matter if you know why it works?
The raven has special status in nearly all polytheistic/nature religions. In Norse religion, the raven was Odin’s special bird. Odin’s two ravens were named Thought and Memory. They flew through the world, bringing him back news. The Celts — Gauls, Britons and Welsh — who preceded the Germans in Europe also revered the raven. Ravens acted as messengers for their gods, too. According to Celtic legend, the Tower of London must be guarded by ravens. The raven’s special status must have been cemented by the Roman legions who occupied Celtic Europe. The cult of Mithras was the most popular religion at the time, and the raven represented a messenger god — and was one rank in initiation — here, too.
If the raven is a divine messenger, then its eyes matter a lot. It has to see what’s happening, right? I hope you can see where this is heading…or maybe I hope you can’t.
Eye infections often led to blindness, and blindness was a terrible disability in the Middle Ages. It was worth doing just about anything to avoid becoming blind. We feel that laboratory testing on animals is a legitimate act (most of us do anyway), and they felt that mutilating a raven was also just fine.
“Take a living raven, take the eyes out of it and, still living, bring it into water. Put the eyes on the neck of the man who needs them, and he will soon be well.” (Pollington, Leechcraft)
There’s no further explanation in Bald’s Leechbook. Immediately after this statement, the list turns to ten more remedies that don’t involve a mutilated living bird. As is generally true, the doctor’s training will help him know when to choose which remedies, so apart from the eyes being swollen, there is no guidance about which cases require a raven.
It’s likely that by Christian times, the raven’s eye remedy was rarely used, and it was only included for completeness. But we don’t know. It may have been viewed as the really effective (but rather extreme) remedy to be tried last when the herbs failed. It’s the only remedy of this type that I could find in the two texts. It’s very clearly magic, not medicine.
I don’t know any explanation for why the raven had to be put into water while its eyes were put onto the patient’s neck. Probably the bird had to be quickly drowned so that it could not take its eyes back, while the eyes were still living. Then the power was transferred to the human, as the bird died. It’s also possible that they had a whole program for teaching ravens to fly under water. If so, that experiment has been recreated in modern times, though it failed.