BALDS LEECH BOOK. NATURAL MEDICINE IN ANGLO SAXON ENGLAND.
There is a lot to cover in this post regarding Balds Leech Book. For an understanding of the ancient work and it's role in ancient medicine, natural medicine, and modern medicine I have to first cover the world the book came from. This will be the first in a series of posts on the subject so I hope you guys enjoy.
ANGLO SAXON ENGLAND IN THE 9TH AND 10TH CENTURY.
When most of us think of 9th and 10th century Anglo Saxon England and what life must of been like we tend to think.... dark. Rome had fallen and it was almost as if someone had hit the dimmer switch on western society. Kings were constantly vying for power and position, Vikings were still stubbornly and viciously sacking and occupying cities, disease was a mysterious force often interpreted as the anger or ill will of unseen forces, and civilization was a muddy and smelly affair.
During this time England was filled with political intrigue and crisis to a level that even today historians still play catch up on. The monastic institutions weren't only involved in day to day worship and the compiling of information. The powerhouses of England such as Winchester, Canterbury, and York all were home to Abbots or Bishops who were related to one member of nobility or another who all wanted to centralize England under one ruler. Edward the Elder had died (874-924) leaving a disputed succession and the race was on to secure endorsement from church and other nobility to lay claim to the throne. The role of the church expressed through the endorsement of those who were from influential families in the monastic orders was huge. The crowning of Æthelstan as ruler of the Anglo Saxons probably wouldn't have occurred without the endorsement of Dunstan who later would become Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London, and Archbishop of Canterbury, later canonized as a saint.
I mention Dunstan as a church official and political operative due to the fact that we almost have to speculate what influence he received from Ælfheah (Al-Feh-a) the Bald who was Bishop of Winchester in 934. Ælfheah the Bald is thought to be a relative of Dunstan, and key in influencing him to go into the monastic orders and leave the notion of a political career behind him. The key hole we have to peek through during this period in the 10th century is provided by a family biographer of Dunstan named Adelard who compiled works on Dunstans life. It is in fact through these works the perception of Dunstan as a master of illuminated works, written letters, and the chronicler of information is known to us today. It is believed that Ælfheah the Bald was instrumental in influencing these passions in Dunstan.
Dunstan and Ælfheah the Bald are important due to the fact that it is from their time that Balds Leech Book was compiled. Balds Leech Book is in three parts and is series of cures compiled from the peasantry around the South West of England in the 10th century. During this period monastic medicine was dominated by Mediterranean influence almost entirely. So much so that Patriarch Elias of Jerusalem sent medical advice to King Alfred of Wessex in the 9th century to help him cope with debilitating disease. A reasonable argument can be made that Balds Leech Book was the first herbalist work that was solely Northern European. But whether or not it was a work of Balds or a tribute by Dunstan we will never know.
PEASANTS KNOWLEDGE OF MEDICINE. SUPERSTITIONS AND SOLUTIONS.
For peasants during this period it was almost as if a war was always brewing above their heads and often could, and usually would fall on top of them. A number of social reforms were taking place during this period and the view of the peasant as a superstitious brute who was a vile faced monster was begin to change. Socially it was altering from seeing the common man as a Caliban yet to find his Shakespeare, to the realization of their vital role in society.
For the peasantry of Anglo Saxon society the world was both a light magical place and a dark sinister one. Supernatural agency was a means of understanding an incredibly uncertain world. In Balds manuscripts we see this animist and spiritualist view as the principle avenue through which humans interacted with nature and coped with disease. Sinister elves were responsible for seizures, colds, and infection. In their perceptions the ill will of the supernatural was besieging them in much the same way we interpret viruses and bacteria besieging us today. A sound argument can be made from an anthropological stand point that the discovery of bacteria actually killed the perceptions of elves in northern European culture as sinister forces flinging arrows of disease.
The decision the church made during this time to chronicle the various remedies of the peasants of the South West of England was probably guided by a number of influences. The common perception of the Catholic Church marauding around small villages looking for heretics to burn for their persistent superstitions is actually so far from the truth of the matter that it still shocks me it's even believed. In the 9th and 10th century the church itself was painfully aware of the fact that there was a wealth of overlooked cures to be found by consulting with village wise women and elders. The fact that much of it could be perceived as heretical was often overlooked.
The Roman Catholic Church itself had gone through and discarded many practices in relation to an awareness of seasonality and light returning to the world which today would be classed as heretical. The spiritual context of peasants knowledge in regards to medicine was actually seen by and large to chroniclers of the 9th and 10th century as a sort of proof of supernatural agency playing a role in the world. There was a dovetailing of sorts rather than a hijacking of knowledge and belief during this period.
In Balds works we find a number of remedies that today we would call barbaric. Particularly in book three. For instance the notion that eye ache could be cured by removing the eyes of a healthy crow and held to the back of the neck to cure the patient. But outside of these remedies that rely on sympathetic magical practice we find a gold mine of herbalist knowledge. The use of alliums and various plants that are known to have dominant medicinal properties can be found throughout. The combinations of these ingredients are complex and precise to the point that it can become a bit dizzying to follow.
Like many primitive cultures the Anglo Saxon peasantry was aware of the properties of elements that existed around them in the natural world. But the precision involved still leaves historians and anthropologist puzzled to this day. How knowledge of these remedies began in a culture does make anyone wonder where it began. Predominantly due to the precision involved. Basically if Balds recipes weren't followed to the letter... they didn't work.
SUPER BUGS AND ANCIENT REMEDIES. FINDING SOLUTIONS FOR THE PRESENT IN THE PAST.
Today modern medicine works on a model of centralization predominantly driven by the commercial interest of the pharmaceutical industry. So much so we have a large number of clinical professionals who prescribe medications they haven't fully researched, or simply cycle through patients to get them in and out as fast as possible. This has lead to a number of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria which even the World Health Organization has stated is one of the bigger threats to global populations.
Virologist and microbiologist tread through the dark tropical regions of the world in search for the best marketable molecule to cure illness, and that cure is ridden until it's no longer effective or profitable to do so. Often times researchers are reliant upon cultures that already exist in these regions to find compounds of medicinal value. One can't help but draw parallels to the monks who gathered information from the seemingly primitive peoples of 10th century England .
Anyone who has seen antibiotic resistant infections take their toll on a patient will tell you it's a horror. It can shake the most experienced clinical professional to their core to witness the suffering involved. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Klebsiella pneumoniae, Escherichia coli (E. coli), and leishmania are opportunistic and ruthless. Around 2015 Nottingham University put together the Ancientbiotics team. It was a group of microbiologists, medievalists, parasitologists, wound specialists, and pharmacists who researched ancient remedies found in ancient manuscripts. Mainly Balds Leech Book. They focused on a remedy intended to treat eye infections and tested it against the bacteria's listed above which are resistant to traditional antibiotic treatment. It was found through the course of the study that if the recipe wasn't followed exactly it didn't work. I will provide a link to the study at the end of this post but the recipe is as follows:
“Make an eyesalve against a wen: take equal amounts of cropleac [an Allium species] and garlic, pound well together, take equal amounts of wine and oxgall, mix with the alliums, put this in a brass vessel, let [the mixture] stand for nine nights in the brass vessel, wring through a cloth and clarify well, put in a horn and at night apply to the eye with a feather; the best medicine.”
From a personal perspective I wasn't really surprised that a reconstructed 1,000 year old remedy could provide a solution to something that threatens us in today's modern age. Despite the many welcome advancements in modern medicine a return to the level of importance placed on the natural world and what it offers is long overdue. Sadly a larger part of the scientific/medical community still suffers from the twitch handed down to them from late 19th century materialism. That twitch being defined by the belief that all superstitious cultures approach to health is primitive and ignorant. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that only recently have we stopped looking at primitive cultures as sources of scientific pillage and begun to examine the potential for hybridization of culture and medicine. The Ancientbiotics Team work with Balds Leech Book is a perfect example of this and an effort that was long overdue. Better late than never I suppose.
WE ARE ALL PART OF AN ECHO.
The Anglo Saxon peasantry of the 9th and 10th century share a lot more with us today than we realize. We are surrounded by wars, violence, political intrigue just as they were. In many ways the bulk is above us yet could fall on our heads at any given time in the form of scarcity, economic collapse, or war. Our discovery of bacteria replaced their elves, political philosophies replaced their demons and night walkers, frightening and emotive tales are told by media personalities in front of the light of the television rather than in the village hall around a fire. Yet despite the grim commonalities there is also (for many of us) a deep seated need to connect with the natural world.
For the individual who pursues natural medicine, wild food foraging, or self sustainable living the instinct to connect with and explore that thing growing out of the ground is unexplainable. One of the big take away's I've gotten from a love history is that no matter what institutions or powers that rise in mankind's journey, the instinct to be a part of the natural world persists in our unfolding story. At a time where disease and illness are growing more robust than the methods to treat them, I can't help but look back and see how important the information and perceptions of over 1,000 years ago still hold relevance for us today. It makes the pursuit of connecting to the natural world all the more rewarding.
Well guys that's it for now. This is the first post in a series of post I'm currently working on regarding Balds Leech Book. In this post it was mainly about the world the book came from, the culture at the time, and a bit on its role in modern medical research. I'm basically trying to bring the history and the role of natural medicine together so hopefully I can make it work. It is a huge topic with a lot to offer, so in coming posts I will cover different remedies that are found in Balds Leech Book that still have loads of uses today... Don't worry though. I won't be adding stuff like rubbing pig poop and ash on your shoulder to treat muscle ache.. some things are best in the past. Again thank you so much for reading and best of luck on your projects and posts.
link to the Nottingham University study into MRSA using Balds eye salve:
image credits: wikipedia
oxford University archives