Episode 24: Oops, All Leeches! A Leechdom Special
Updated: Nov 25, 2021
This week, the Leech’s Corner takes center stage! We’re dedicating an episode to some of the longer (and stranger) parts of the Leechbook, including everything from common summertime ailments to elf-diseases.
The Leechbook itself is compiled in a singular manuscript, known most technically as the Royal MS 12 D XVII in the British Library. The tome is written in Old English with some Latin, and was written in four hands (e.g. three different people made notes in this text). The first was the main scribe, while the other three are marginalia.
The manuscript itself is spit into three leech books, the first two of which are known collectively as “Bald’s Leechbook” after the man for whom it was compiled. Leechbooks I and II cover external and internal ailments respectively, beginning from the head and moving to the feet.
Leechbook III is perhaps the most interesting, or, at the very least, the most unusual of the three volumes. While the first two Leechbooks reference Classical sources and Mediterranean herbs, Leechbook III has more local knowledge to early England and references to early Anglo-Saxon or Norse material.
While this post won’t go into all of the remedies we’ve discussed on the show, it will highlight some of our top picks.
The Leechbooks include both specific remedies and generalized cure-alls. For instance, there were a variety of solutions for liver disease. One could create a hot spiced wine, stirred with a hot iron, or have the patient eat some deer-lung jerky with honey. Some cures called for different treatments based on whether the patient had a fever or not — if the patient was fevered, his herbal cures should be drunk with water, not wine.
Other liver-disease remedies were less appetizing. An enlarged liver called for an emetic drink to be downed “in one turn” (i.e. in one go, like a shot), after which the patient should drink bean broth, mashwort, and finally, wormwood for several days.
Among the more specific remedies are those that protect against supernatural (but deadly) ailments such as elf-disease. The majority of these are contained in Leechbook III, as elf problems were more geographically focused in Northern Europe.
One such cure was incredibly specific and relies heavily on incantation, prayer, and belief. Listed as 62 in Leechbook III, this cure instructs:
Take a handful of incense, bishopwort, fennel, lupin, the lower part of enchanter’s nightshade, and moss from a cross, bind them together in a cloth, dip the cloth in holy water, and have three masses sung over it. Then, smoke the satchel over hot coals and blow the resulting smoke at the patient. Sing the Pater, the Creed, and a litany over the man, and draw the sign of the cross over his limbs. After this, dunk the herbs into holy water three times, and then steep the sachet in milk, and have the patient drink it.
This cure illustrates the intense ritualistic practice of early English medicine. The combination of ritual and consumption of a remedy accurately illustrates how local patients and the leech himself would have used this medicine.
Another cure for elf-disease is even more symbolic; it instructs the leech to find helenium on a Thursday evening, sing a Benedictine, Pater Noster, and the Creed, and then stick a knife into the plant. The next morning at dawn, he should go to the church, cross himself, and stay absolutely nothing to anyone on his way back to the plant. After retrieving the knife and a portion of the plant, he should put both items under the altar of the church, and once the sun is up, turn it into a drink with milk and lichen off a crucifix. After scoring the cup on three sides with a sword, the leech should instruct the man to drink the concoction.
Yet another cure for elf-disease suggests gathering equal parts of incense, holy salt, the nether part of enchanter’s nightshade, crop leek, and helenium, and singing nine masses over them. Afterwards, put holy water into a cup of milk and dip the herbs in, and have the patient drink it hot. The leech should also burn frankincense and enchanter’s nightshade on coals and smoke both the house and the patient.
A more curious example in the Leechbook are “elf hiccups,” which also describe discoloration in the eyes. Whatever this elf-sickness was, the cure was essentially a convoluted form of an exorcism. The remedy then goes on to note that, should the leech not want to bother with such a spell, he could just tell the patient or his next of kin to give it their best shot, and “cross oneself as best one can.”
This cure serves as a reminder that a leech was an educated professional, just like a priest or cleric; the leech would (hopefully) know the words behind what he was saying as well as just being able to recite or read the Latin invocations. A common peasant, however, would not know Latin nor be able to read. In a very supernatural world, knowledge of sacred words and spells was essential to protect oneself; without the Leech to provide the words or cure, one’s life and soul were in peril.
Finally, let’s look at a few summertime remedies against sunburn and insect bites! The Anglo-Saxons did not seem to be overly worried about sunburn; it is not outright listed in the Leechbook, but other forms of skin irritation and cures against spider bites are included.
The text divides spiders into two kinds: hunting spiders and weaving spiders, each of which need their own cures against bites. The Leechbook notes that hunting spiders are the stronger spider. If one is bitten by a hunting spider, one should cut the skin around the bite, in a direction away from the bite, collect the blood in green hazel spoon, and throw the spoon over a road.
Weaving spider bites call for a slightly different technique; salves can be easily created, such as a hydromel (a mix of water and fermented honey) applied to the bite or smeared onto iron.
The Leechbook does include one final remedy for a spider bite, albeit it reads more like a bad prank than a cure. Against a spider-bite, one should take a hen’s egg and a fresh sheep’s turd, mix them in ale, and have the patient drink it. We…don’t recommend this one.
That said, we don’t really recommend trying any of these remedies, and we reject any responsibility should you try them. However, if you do put these cures to the test, we’d to hear about it!
(Since Mac also mentioned his glorious cross-stitch from the Agricola in this episode, we wanted to share it with you all!)
Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia!
Bosworth Toller's Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online. Link.
Dictionary of Old English Plant Names. Link.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Emily Wilton. Norton, 2018. Link.
Nokes, Richard Scott. “The Several Compilers of Bald's ‘Leechbook.’” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 33, 2004, pp. 51–76. Link.
William Whittaker's Words. Link.
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