Worms in the eye

In traditional pre-Christian European ideas, outside attacks caused many illnesses. This idea was probably considered primitive by Roman-trained doctors, who had a more scientific system based on imbalance of the body’s humors. In our time, we can see merit in both ideas.

One of the major sources of attack was the worm, or in Anglo-Saxon, “wyrm.” Again, I am leaning on Stephen Pollington’s Leechcraft to describe wyrm attacks. Pollington points out that wyrms could be snakes, dragons, parasitic worms, or some other invisible kind. (Earthworms had their own designation, renwyrm, and were not considered harmful. In fact, applying a crushed earthworm to some injuries was healing.) I’ll continue to use “wyrm,” their spelling, when it has this wider meaning than our “worm.”

The snake is one of the oldest mythological enemies of mankind. In addition to the Bible’s most ancient story of a serpent harming the first humans, the Indic and Hittite writings tell of first humans and heroes having to do battle against serpents. In contrast to the Bible’s story, in which the serpent wins the round and is rebuked directly only by God, the Indo-European myths portrayed the hero as the winner. The struggle might be to the death, as it is in Beowulf, but the hero slays the serpent.

The Anglo-Saxon medical directions and charms don’t distinguish what sort of wyrm might be attacking a patient. Some of the directions just mention wyrm attacks. Others specify that the wyrms are inside an organ, attacking it, which could mean parasitic worms. Of course, people in the past had ample evidence that worms really did attack humans. From tapeworms to ringworms to maggots, it was just fact.

One of the eye remedies in Bald’s collection is for wyrms in the eyes. We don’t know if they were visible worms, like maggots, or something invisible and presumed to be there.

The remedy for wyrms in the eye entails minor surgery. The doctor was to flip the eyelids up and lightly score them with his knife. Then he was to squeeze the juice of the plant celandine into the cuts. This, said the directions, would heal the whole problem. The wyrms would die, and the eye would heal.

Celandine is of the poppy family, and when its stem is cut, a yellow-orange latex oozes out. This juice has antibiotic and analgesic properties, but apparently if it’s put into a wound in this pure, strongest form, it’s highly irritating. In effect, it cauterizes the wound without any literal burning agent like a hot needle or knife.

Celandine has high amounts of an alkaloid called coptisine. The alkaloid is bitter and can be toxic to some kinds of cells. Coptisine used in Chinese medicine, though obtained from a different plant. While opium, also in the poppy family, has some coptisine, celandine apparently has much higher levels. Celandine has a number of other alkaloids, and in different strengths, it can be an analgesic. It may have anti-cancer effects as well.

Putting celandine in its strongest form into an eye that has already been scored with light cuts seems like a pretty radical and extremely painful treatment. Considering it in this light, it may have been used only when there was direct evidence that not only wyrms, but actually worms — maggots or some parasite — were present.

The Herbarium, a third manuscript with much Latin influence, suggests toning down the celandine’s effect by pounding its root with wine, and adding honey…and pepper. I can’t help thinking this one hurt pretty badly too. But if these remedies worked at all, which they probably did, any pain was better than going blind in a survival society. There was no room for error in that world; if any member of a family went blind, it might bring them all down. Next, I’ll look at eye salves that included some even more unusual ingredients.

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