Today is the second-to-last day of January, and by my calculations it is the last day of Æftera Giuli in a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon calendar. Before we start a new month on either calendar, I want to turn attention to what sort of duties would have kept an Anglo-Saxon physician busy in the winter time.
According to Bede, winter has been underway for some time now. According to Bede’s The Reckoning of Time (translation by Faith Wallis), the earliest Anglo-Saxons may have recognized only two seasons, with winter (starting around the time of the fall equinox) the half year during which the night was longer than the day.
Rather than think about what the treatments were for illnesses we know to be most common in winter, I searched the extant Anglo-Saxon medical texts for references to winter or specific months of winter (such as January). I will not catalogue all the instances I found, but will provide one or two examples from each of the major texts: the Old English Herbarium, Bald’s Leechbook 1, Bald’s Leechbook 2, Leechbook III, and Lacnunga. All quotations are from Cockayne’s translation. This translation contains language that was archaic even when it was published in the nineteenth century, but it is the only public domain translation currently available. More readable translations include those by Pollington (Herbarium, Leechbook III, Lacnunga), Grattan and Singer (Lacnunga), and van Arsdall (Herbarium). As far as I can tell, Cockayne’s edition remains the only translation of Bald’s Leechbook 1 and 2 available in modern English, though “modern” is hardly the best word to describe his translation.
|Navelwort, from the Pseudo-Apuleius Herbarium section of the codex Vossianus Latinus Quarto No. 9 (VLQ 9), folio 62v, Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden. This Latin manuscript dates from sixth-century Italy and is the oldest surviving text of the Pseudo-Apuleius herbarium complex. Based on the later Anglo-Saxon edition of the Herbarium, D’Aronco identifies navelwort (cotyledon) as Umbilicus pendulinus DC. or Cotyledon umbilicus L.|
A survey of the texts quickly reveals a wide variety of tasks for the Anglo-Saxon leech during the winter. Although most herbs would have been gathered in late summer or early fall, a few were specifically recommended for collection during the winter. The Old English Herbarium (Chapter 44; pp. 147, 149 of Cockayne, Volume 1) recommended that a plant used in a poultice for swelling, identified by D’Aronco in the Old English Herbarium facsimile edition as navelwort (Umbilicus pendulinus DC. or Cotyledon umbilicus L.), should be collected in winter. Bald’s Leechbook 2 (Chapter 24; p. 215 of Cockayne, Volume 2) included the following remedy for liver disease: “five and twenty bunches of ivy berries, gathered in the month which we hight in Latin Januarius, and in English the second Yule, and of pepper as much, rub these up with the best wine and heat it; give it to the sick man, after his nights fasting, to drink.” The reference to Æftera Giuli is the only example I have found of an Old English month name being used in one of the Anglo-Saxon medical texts; the Latin names are used in all other cases where months are specified.
|Ivy, from Liber II of De Materia Medica by Dioscorides, Manuscrit Grec 2179 (MS Grec 2179), folio 2v, Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Plant identifications for this ninth-century manuscript in Greek are taken from Bonnet, Edmond. 1903. Essai d'identification des plantes médicinales mentionnées par Dioscoride: d'après les peintures d'un manuscrit de la Bibliothèque nationale de Paris (Ms. Grec No. 2179). Janus 8: 169-77, 225-32, 281-85. Bonnet identifies this image as lierre (ivy), Hedera helix L.|
Apart from the few herbs that could be gathered fresh during winter, the Anglo-Saxon healer would have had an extensive collection of medicinal herbs that were collected earlier and preserved for use during the winter. With their ease of storage, seeds were often recommended for use during winter. Remedies with seeds sometimes were highly complex, including seeds of many different native or imported plants and recommended for a wide variety of conditions, as in the following jaundice remedy from Leechbook III (Ch. 12; Cockayne Volume 2, pp. 315, 317):
Work thus a good dust drink for the yellow disease. Take seed of marche, and seed of fennel, seed of dill, seed of everthroat, seed of fieldmore, seed of satureia, savory, seed of parsley, seed of alexanders, seed of lovage, seed of betony, seed of colewort, seed of costmary, seed of cumin, and of pepper most, of the others equal quantities; rub all well to dust, take a good spoon full of the dust, put it into strong dear ale, let the man drink a cup full at night fasting. This drink is also good for every ailment of limb, and for head ache, and for want of memory, and for eye wark, and for dull hearing, and for breast wark, and lung disease, loin wark, and for every temptation of the fiend. Work thyself dust enough in harvest, when thou hast the worts, use it when thou hast need.
Another remedy from Lacnunga (Chapter 111, Cockayne Volume 3, pp. 71, 73; the same remedy is Chapter 178 in Pollington translation and Grattan and Singer translation) contains even more herb seeds and is suggested for even more health conditions. The “dry” disease included in the list of maladies is þeór, thought to be some kind of inflammation.
A king was hight Arestolobius, he was wise and good at leechcraft, he arranged also a good morning drink against all infirmities, which stir throughout mans body, within or without; the drink is good for head ache and for giddiness and fever of the brain, for a flowing armpit, for lung disease and liver wark, for flowing gall and the yellow disease, for dimness of eyes, for singing in the ears, and defective hearing, and for heaviness of the breast and puffing of the visceral cavity, for pain of milt and of small guts, for unhealthy fæcal discharge, and in case a man is not able to pass water, against the ache of the "dry" disease and spasm of sinews, against knee wark, and foot swelling, for elephantiasis, and for other itching blotches, and spasms of the "dry" disease, and every poison, for every infirmity and every temptation of the fiend. Work thyself dust enough in harvest and use when need be. Work moreover, a drink of these worts, take seed of marche, dry, and seed of fennel, of parsley, of fieldmore and earthgall, of dill and rue, of colewort and celandine and feverfue, and two mints, that is garden mint and horse mint, and seed of betony, of lovage and alexanders and sage and sclarea and wormwood and savory and bishopwort and elecampane and henbane and agrimony and stonecrop and horehound and nepeta and woodroffe and sanicle and carline thistle; put equal quantities of all these worts; then take of these worts, that follow, of each one as much as two of the others, that is to say, cummin and costmary and pepper and ginger and gum mastich; work all these worts to a very small dust; and put of the dust a good spoon full in a drinking cup full of cold wine, and give to drink at night, fasting; make use of this drink, when need be to thee.
Other plants were dried and crumbled for winter remedies. In its fresh form, various parts of water dock (identified by D’Aronco as red dock (Rumex aquaticus L.) or great water dock (Rumex hydrolapathum L.)) were recommended for mouth sores, tooth pain, upset stomach, and pain of the side of the body. For mouth sores and tooth ache, the dry form was also said to be equally effective: “if thou have it not green, take it dry … it will have the same good effect … its ooze and its dust is to be preserved in winter, since it does not appear at every time; its ooze thou shalt hold in a rams horn; dry also the dust, and keep it” (Old English Herbarium, Ch. 30; Cockayne, Volume 1, p. 127). A five-herb remedy for gout (Lacnunga, Ch 9 in Cockayne Volume 3, p. 9; Ch. 23 in Pollington translation and Grattan and Singer translation) could be prepared around harvest time and used later as needed: “For the wrist drop, ivy and cinqfoil, adderwort and ladderwort and earth gall; work up the worts at harvest and scrape them small and dry them, and keep them over winter and use them; when thou hast need of them boil them in ale.”
|Water dock, from the Pseudo-Apuleius Herbarius section of the Manuscrit Latin 6862 (MS Lat. 6862), folio 43v, Bibliothèque Nationale de France. This Latin manuscript is a ninth-century example of the Pseudo-Apuleius herbal complex. Based on the Anglo-Saxon edition of the Herbarium, D’Aronco identifies water dock (brittanica) as red dock (Rumex aquaticus L.) or great water dock (Rumex hydrolapathum L.).|
Not all winter remedies relied on native plants or even on any type of plant. A few herbs and plant products included in the remedies cited above, such as pepper, cumin, costmary, ginger, and gum mastic, are not native to England and some of them do not grow well in England. They were most likely imported at some point during the Anglo-Saxon period. In Bald’s Leechbook 2 (Ch. 64; Cockayne Volume 2, p. 289), the following remedy using an imported non-herbal product is included in the section of remedies said to be sent by Patriarch Helias of Jerusalem to King Alfred: “Similarly also petroleum is good to drink simple for inward tenderness, and to smear on outwardly on a winters day, since it hath very much heat; hence one shall drink it in winter.”
In some cases, different remedies or treatment approaches were recommended for the same condition depending on whether the patient presented in summer or in winter. A remedy in Bald’s Leechbook 1 (Ch. 17; Cockayne Volume 2, p. 25), possibly for congestion, provided alternate versions for summer and winter:
Work thus a swilling or lotion for cleansing of the head … then the flegm runneth out. Again, another swilling in summer; mingle together a good bowl full of wine boiled down with herbs and a moderate one of vinegar, and hyssop, so the wort hight, its leaves and blossoms, and let the mixture stand for a night, and in the morning boil it over again in a crock (or earthen pot), and let him sup it lukewarm and swill his jowl and wash his mouth. For the same in winter, put in a chalice a spoon full of the dust of mustard and half a spoon full of honey, then after that mingle this with water, and heat it and strain it through a linen cloth and swill the jowl with it; after that leechdom frequently swill the throat with oil.
Although the Anglo-Saxon healer would not have had many herbs to gather in winter time, he or she would have kept busy compounding remedies and treating patients for a variety of conditions. It would take some space to prepare and store the herbs, so it seems likely that dedicated herb workshops and still rooms would have developed at some point, for healers inside and outside of monastery walls.