Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft

This entry needs the illustrations entered as yet, please be patient.

Most of these illustrations are from the small book Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft by Henry Wellcome which was a free handout at the AMA Conference in 1912. About half of the booklet was advertising for the first aid kits and other supplies Wellcome’s company sold. But the illustrations from old manuscripts are marvelous.

Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft

By Hlafdige Arastorm

aka Tchipakkan

aka Virginia Fair Richards-Taylor          © 2007

Leechcraft is the Anglo-Saxon term for the art of healing, the medieval physician was called a Læcca. (the double cc is pronounced ch- thus leech.)

There were many ways in which a healer attempted to help restore a patient to health. Of course, if there were an injury, he would set the bone; if there were bleeding, he would try to stop the bleeding. Then as now, one took care of most problems by oneself if possible; for example, it was traditional for harvesters to grab a stalk of yarrow (OE gearwe) and tie it around the scythe on the way to the field. Yarrow is a marvelous styptic.

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But sometimes specialists were called in. It goes without saying that a more experienced woman would be called to help during a birth- at some point this experience would lead to strangers calling in the woman as a midwife (“with woman”). Similarly, when you’d tried everything you knew, it was time to call in a specialist. Just as there were traveling smiths (tinkers) and merchants, there were traveling leeches who treated chronic conditions, treating and selling ointments and other preparations. They probably also used their travels to collect special ingredients for their preparations.

A major source of medical help was monasteries, for those who had one in range. As the keepers of written information, monks had access to traditional medicinal knowledge- both good and bad. The Doctrine of Humors explained one treatment that we would rarely try today: bleeding. Illness was due to an imbalance of the elements within the body. Blood was warm and wet, black bile cold, phlegm was cold and wet, yellow bile was warm and dry. Some adjustment was made by diet; Charlegmagne’s physicians frequently counseled him that he should eat less roasted meats and eat more boiled meat, as his natural temperament was hot.  (Then, as now, the advice of a physician was often ignored when not agreeable.) Another way to adjust an excess of sanguine humors was to simply remove some of the blood. Emetics could also be given to purge excess bile.

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This shows an assistant handing a needle to the doctor and a patient who certainly doesn’t look sanguine about the procedure..

One key aspect of bloodletting were an awareness of the astrological influences on the body which were held to have a critical effect on the outcome of the bleeding.

We know that cautery, or the application of hot metal rods was practiced as well. Even past the renaissance cautery was the chosen method to seal a wound and stop bleeding. However the manuscript illustrating Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft by Wellcome shows that it was used much as acupuncture is today, with certain points on the body being points to which the hot rods were held to treat conditions varying from fever to headache to sore throats to hemorrhoids. It would be interesting to compare modern practice with that shown in these surviving charts. Sadly, Wellcome didn’t give much about the content of the manuscripts. The paler are labled “Xth century manuscript”, and the darker ones “from a XIIth century manuscript” or “circa 1150”. (If you find the source, let me know!)

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These illustrations notwithstanding, the majority of the healing art was based on herbalism and prayer or magick (depending upon your point of view). The scriptora of monestaries copied, and recopied, herbal texts from the classical period, until the pictures were hardly recognizable, even when the plant could be found locally.

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This is an illustration of “blistering” for headache, oppression of the stomach, catarrh and hoarseness

Since the classical texts were Mediterranean, the Anglo-Saxon leeches were sometimes confused, even though Latin provided a universal language for clerics. A result of this is that many of these manuscripts have “glosses’ (the Anglo-Saxon translation written into the Latin test) and marginalia added. Copyists and later owners of the books sometimes recorded their personal experiences as well. (Let us not forget that some of these books have been passed hand to hand for 40-50 generations.)

The main surviving texts that we have on Anglo-Saxon treatments were The Leechbook of Bald, the Lacnunga, and the Old English Hebarium. These are not specifically Old English books- they were compilations of earlier works- one is largely the work of a 5th century Roman military physician. At least he would have had significant experience in treating wounds and diseases of soliders.

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This chart shows treatement for gout: cut and cauterize- for hernia- for swelling and pain in the knees- and an operation on hæmorrhoids

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this chart includes spots for headpain- inflammation in the chest-stiffness in the hand and knees- elephantiasis-for cough- for tertian fever..

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For quarternary fever cauterize & bleed- for kidney disease and pain in the hips

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Here is the otolaryngologist working on the eyes and nasal polyps,  note the patient holding the bowl to catch… whatever.

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And here’s our urologist examining the urine.

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This illustration of Mandragora is from the same manuscript in the Wellcome book.

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Here is the doctor instructing his assistant “keep stirring”

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This chart suggests points for sciatica. And quotidian fever

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This shows points for toothache- tertian fever- and dropsy.


Cameron, M L, Anglo-Saxon Medicine, Cambridge U Press 1993

Chevallier, Andrew, The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants

Cockayne, Thomas Oswald, Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: A Collection of Documents, for the Most Part Never Before Printed, Illustrating the History of Science in This Country Before the Norman Conquest. Volumes I; II: III (three volumes)  1866

Dickson, Camilla & James, Plants and People in Ancient Scotland 2000

Bill, Griffiths,  Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, Anglo-Saxon Books 1996

Hagan, Ann, Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink, Processing and

Consumption 1992

Hagan, Ann, 2d Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink, Production and Distribution 1995

Meany, Audrey, Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones, Oxford, 1981

Muller-Ebeling, Ratsch, Christian, and Storl, Wolf-Dieter, Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants, Inner Traditions, Rochester VT 1998

Pollington, Stephan, Leechcraft: Early English Charms Plantlore and Healing. 2000

Rawcliffe, Carole, Medicine and Society in Later Medieval England, Sandpiper, 1995

Ritchason, Jack, Little Herb Encyclopedia, Woodland, 1994

Storms, Godfrid, Anglo-Saxon Magic, West, 1977

Tenney, Louise Today’s Herbal Health 1997

Wellcome, Henry, Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft: An Historical Scetch of Early English Medicine: Lecture Memoranda AMA Atlantic City, 1912

Wellcome,  Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft, , Rose and Nefr Press

Wolfe,Frankie Avalon, The Complete Idiots Guide to Herbal Remedies

See also my booklet Anglo-Saxon Medicine, which contains a list of many of the herbs used, and how herbal preparations are made.

Feel free to contact me with questions, comments and corrections:

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