Bald’s Leechbook: The Doctor is In

I find as I do research on the so-called Dark Ages that time and time again, my preconceived notions about what life must have been like have been proven wrong. It’s hard to fight against the popular culture’s perception of the Early Middle Ages, that perception that people’s lives were “nasty, brutish, and short.” The Roman Empire had collapsed, the barbarian hordes had destroyed civilization as we know it, and the world was plunged into a cultural, scientific, and artistic darkness that would last until the Renaissance.

Some of that is true, up to a point. But the more I read about this time period, the more I find ways in which all of those assumptions are challenged.

Take medicine, for example. How did people treat the various diseases or injuries they suffered? I don’t know about you, but what springs to my mind is a muttering priest praying over a patient or a cackling crone stirring up a brew of some entirely unhelpful mix of ingredients, and administering it, along with a spell or two, to the sick.  Mainly, I imagine that people died of things that are easily cured today, and that people then had no idea of how the human body worked or how to fix anything that might go wrong with it.

Well, the truth is skirting around the edges of those ideas, to be sure, but perhaps, like me, you will be surprised to discover exactly how medicine was practiced in those days.

First of all, I have explained before about how the lack of written material from this era makes it hard for us to understand the customs and people of the day. But surprisingly, there are around five hundred leaves of connected medical texts in Old English that survive from this time period. So when you think about how little written material we have, to have this many medical texts surviving gives you a clue that there must have been a lot of medical texts available at the time.

The most important of these texts, called Bald’s Leechbook, presumably owned or named after a physician named Bald, comes to us from the ninth century, but is a copy of a work from about fifty years before. A leech was another name for a physician, because, yes, they did use leeches to treat some ailments (they are surprisingly effective in reducing swelling and bruising after an injury, because they are great at sucking blood out). It is a compilation of the best of medical knowledge stretching back to the Roman and Greek empires, and ultimately back to the celebrated Roman physician, Galen.

This gives us an important clue that the medical knowledge of the Greeks and Romans was not lost in Dark Ages Britain. From references in Bede’s histories, we see that both laymen and clerics were named physicians. And from looking at the remedies prescribed in the Leechbook and from other sources, we can see that a wide variety of cures and treatments for various maladies and injuries were available to the Anglo-Saxon physicians of the time. Most of these were plant-based herbal remedies, made up of both locally available plants and even some exotic ingredients such as cinnamon, pepper, or ginger, that would have been obtained from the far East through Arabic traders into the Continent, finally reaching Britain.

Some of these ingredients were helpful, some neutral, and some harmful. Others, containing ingredients such as garlic, onion, oxgall and copper salts, are very useful indeed against bacterial infection.

Just how useful was proven in 2015. Microbiology experts at the University of Nottingham recreated a recipe that was meant to be an eye salve, for eye infections. At the time, of course, physicians had no idea of bacteria or viruses, but found this recipe effective against eyes that were inflamed and sore. The university scientists recreated the recipe, consisting of crushed garlic and onion, 25 ml of English wine (which they obtained from a historic vineyard near Glastonbury) and bovine salts dissolved in distilled water. Bovine salts consist of dried bile from a cow’s intestine, in case you were wondering (I had to look it up, too!).

They thought it might have some positive effect, based on the ingredients, and made a large batch, which they tested on one of today’s antibiotic-resistant superbugs named MRSA. To their great astonishment, the mixture wiped out almost 90% of the MRSA bacteria. They cannot completely explain this, for the ingredients, separately, will not have the same effect. So it is the combination of the ingredients mixed together that prove effective, and they cannot, as of yet, explain why or how. Research is continuing.

There is evidence from studying skeletons found from this era, and from treatments prescribed in the Leechbook,  that surgery was also attempted at this time, and in some cases, successfully. Amputations for gangrenous limbs, using silk thread to suture abdominal wounds, and even plastic surgery in terms of suturing cleft palates was practiced.

Even brain surgery. Yes. Some skulls from this period (and even from pre-historic times, believe it or not) show evidence of trepanation. This is the drilling of a hole through the skull to expose the dura mater that covers the brain. This could be done after a head injury, to clean out the bits of bone and blood that collect under the skull and relieve pressure and pain that results. If you have ever drilled a hole in a fingernail to relieve that throbbing pain that results from an injury to a finger where blood is collecting under the nail, you get the idea.*

Even more astonishing than the fact they attempted this is the fact that the patient often survived, as shown by the trepanned holes in the skulls being edged with new bony growth, meaning the person lived for some time after.

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A trepanned skull of a 50 year old woman from 3500 BC (!), France.  Yup, she survived this (see the rounded edges of the bone?). That’s one huge hole….This procedure wasn’t always just for head injuries. Condidtions such as epilepsy or other psycological ailments could have trepanning as a “cure” – to let the “evil spirits” out. Image from wikicommons

There is, however, some “darkness” in Dark Ages medicine. There were certainly things that physicians could treat – mending broken bones, infections resulting from wounds, etc. However, there were maladies that they had no understanding of the causes and therefore had to resort to guessing how to fix it, or to charms. Things such as eczema or allergic reactions, or even the plague, would have been beyond their understanding as they didn’t know about the causes of these and so could not treat them.

Enter the Lacnunga (“Remedies”), a tenth century collection of medical and related materials. It is this collection that has given Dark Ages medicine it’s bad name, so to speak, for here we find the various remedies for ailments that involve charms, incantations, and other odd practices. Often they are a combination of ancient pagan practices with Christian prayers or symbolism. So we have, for example, this charm:

If cysts pain a man at the heart, let a virgin go to a spring which runs straight east, and draw forth one cup full, with [in the direction of?] the current, and sing thereon the Creed and Pater noster, and then pour it into another vessel; and let him/her draw again a second and sing again the Creed and the Pater noster; and do so that you have three [cupfuls]; do this nine days; soon he will be well.

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The first page of the Lacnunga. Image from wyrtig.com

 

Here we see sacred waters (the spring), running east (the direction of the coming Day of the Lord, when Christ will rise in the east), the virgin (note male or female), the number three, the number nine, the Creed (the Apostle’s Creed, the fundamental beliefs of every Christian), the Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer). This is a marvellous mixture of both pagan and Christian elements, and it shows in a very elemental way how the culture of the time was being tugged between these two belief systems, just as do Beowulf and the insular art of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

But as a medical treatment for “cysts of the heart” (whatever that may be), it is, of course, useless. Except in the giving of hope, which as we all know, is a powerful kind of medicine all in itself, so it’s not to say that these charms were always ineffective.

So were Dark Ages physicians simply ignorant hacks that killed more patients than they cured, using guesses and folklore to treat their patients?

I believe the evidence says no. As the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England states, 

If we can trust the evidence of the surviving medical literature it appears that Anglo-Saxon medicine was no worse than any other of its day, and that at its best it was probably better than most.

And maybe even better than our own, in treating MRSA, at any rate!


*I never, ever do this. My hubby has done this to himself. I can’t watch. I can’t even imagine doing this to treat a head injury. “Come here, Ecbert. Let me drill into your head with this big drill. It will make you feel better. Honest. “ Yikes. They were made of sterner stuff than I, to be sure.

 

Featured image: a facisimle page from Bald’s Leechbook, from Wikipedia

What’s for Dinner, Ecgfrida?

As a historical fiction author, getting all the little details right about the era you are writing about can make you break out in a cold sweat. Unless, of course, you happen to be an expert in that era of history and can write all about it with ease. Most of us, however, rely on research to get the details needed to support the story we are trying to tell and make the era come alive.

Little details,  like what the people of the time wore, and, more importantly, what they ate. Why is food so important to a writer? Well, if you think about it, we humans spend quite a lot of time acquiring food, preparing food, and eating food, don’t we? Perhaps “acquiring” doesn’t take so long in our modern era, but in the Dark Ages they didn’t exactly have supermarkets to run to when they ran out of milk.

It’s not to say that your story has to have endless lists of what people are eating, but when you do have your characters sitting down for a meal, you had better know what’s on the menu, right? I suppose you could  avoid writing about eating at all. But doing so takes away from the writer an important setting in which people talk to one another. Having your characters sit down at a meal is a handy way to have them interact.

So, figuring out what they would be eating is important. It gets complicated, though.  First of all, forget the food for a moment. My books are set in Anglo-Saxon 7th century Britain. What about the plates? Utensils? They wouldn’t be dining on fine china and using the family silver, right?

There’s not a whole raft of information out there about the Dark Ages in general and the 7th century in particular, although there is more than you might think. However, little details like this are even more difficult to determine, just because we don’t have a lot of first-hand written information about the customs of the people, especially those of the everyday people.

But for a quick answer, no, more than likely people would not use plates, at least not china ones, but bowls or wooden (or bread) trenchers. Pottery dishes were used, and even glass ones, but those would have been for the upper class, only. Horns from cattle and oxen were also made into drinking vessels, decorated with bands of silver or brass. Utensils would consists of  spoons and knives, but no forks. Those came much later.

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Amazingly, this 7th century glass beaker was found intact (!) by a bulldozer operator in 1977, in Cambridgeshire. Note the narrow, rounded bottom. It was not meant to be set on the table, but held in the hand until the drink was finished. Bottoms up! Image from BBC History of the World.

So, back to the menu. What were the Anglo-Saxons eating, anyway?

Much less meat than we do, for a start, and a whole lot more grains, legumes, vegetables, and fish. Fruits, such as grapes, apples, and pears, were fairly common in Britain at the time, along with various nuts such as hazelnuts and walnuts.

There was game to eat, certainly, such as hares (rabbits were imported by the Romans but didn’t get established in the wild until the twelfth century), deer, and the Saxon’s favourite, boars. Poaching (and the related land laws) was not as big a deal at this era as it would become later, so ordinary people could hunt for game. But hunting was not exactly easy, and it required specialized tools (bows, spears, or even falcons), and it came with a certain amount of danger as well as uncertainty.

In other words, if you didn’t have the time or means to hunt, you couldn’t rely on it for a steady source of meat. One alternative, which was much more popular (at least according to archeological digs, where they can see what kind of bones are left behind) was fish and seafood.

This makes sense, seeing as Britain is a relatively small island, with access to both the sea and lakes and rivers. And people made use of the bounty they found there. Fish, oysters, mussels, even porpoises show up in Anglo-Saxon garbage heaps. And don’t forget the lowly eel, which seems to have been very popular as a dish.

Other sources of protein were eggs, and milk. Milk was probably not drank much past childhood, but it certainly was made into cheese and butter. Cows as well as sheep and goats would be a source of milk. Also a source of meat, although it seems, from what archeologists can determine, that pigs were the domesticated animal most often eaten by the regular person. Which makes sense, I suppose. The other animals are useful for other things besides their meat, but what else can you do with a pig? Plus, although all of the domesticated animals then would have been smaller than today’s varieties, pigs can provide a fair amount of meat.

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In 2012, archeologists found the skeleton of a woman who had been buried with a cow in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, dating from the late 5th century. This is extremely unusual, only 31 animals have ever been found buried in England, all horses buried with men as part of their grave-goods.  A cow is a high-value item due to it’s meat, to bury it with the woman shows the respect others had for her. She also had jewelry and other objects indicating high status. Photo (and interesting article, click on link to read) from BBC.com

Cultivated grains and legumes were of course a large part of the menu. Barley was the most common cereal grain to be grown, but wheat started to make an inroad at this time, and other grains such as rye and oats were also eaten. Bread, using barley, and in the later years, wheat, was baked on hearth-stones, and would have been small, and round. It could be unleavened, or made with wild yeast (captured from the air) or even made using the sourdough method, by which you keep a continual source of fermenting dough on hand.

After the cereal grains, the most important part of the diet would have been pulses such as beans and peas. In fact, it seems likely that each household probably had a pot of briw  simmering over the fire all the time. This was a sort of pottage or stew in which broth, cereal grains, peas or beans, and whatever else was handy was thrown together. If you were lucky the day’s briw might even contain some meat.

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A typical Anglo-Saxon briw. Image (and pottage, with anachronistically orange carrots) by Abigail Young on PictureBritain

The leek was the vegetable of choice for the Anglo-Saxons, which was a catch-all word that covered not only what we think of leeks but also garlic and onion. They also grew cabbage, beets, turnips, and carrots (which were white, not orange). Potatoes were not introduced into Britain until much later, 1586 to be exact). Herbs were grown, too, although it seems that many of the herbs we would use for flavouring they used for medicinal purposes, and not for food.

People did drink water, if they could find a spring or other sources of fresh water. But just like us, they would prefer some kind of flavoured drink such as beer, ale, or cider over plain water. Ale (a type of beer made without hops) was a popular drink, but don’t think that everyone was drunk all the time because they drank a lot of alcohol. The alcohol content in their everyday ale would have been quite low, although I am sure that for special feasts they would make stronger drinks. Wine and mead (a type of honeyed beer) were mainly for the upper class.

Honey was used for a sweetener. Sugar, although being produced in Africa at the time, did not generally make it to Britain’s shores. There is some evidence of sweet treats being made for desserts but these were not on the menu regularly.

On the whole the Anglo-Saxons had a fairly healthy diet, especially in comparison to our own, with its over-indulgences in meat and sugar. Their main problem would have been getting enough to survive and on top of that, giving some to the king as food-rent for the privilege of being his subject (basically…although the king was supposed to provide things like roads and bridges and the upkeep of such, as well keep a secure and prosperous kingdom, etc).  But if the harvest was good and your animals free of disease (or attack by wolves) and the winter not too harsh and the kingdom (and therefore your holding) not in upheaval due to wars or raids, you had a good chance of sitting down to a fairly good meal every day.

Smoked eel, anyone?


Featured image by Mandy Barrow, from PrimaryHomeworkHelp

 

 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

There is an important historical document (er, documents…but more on that later…) from the Early Middle Ages that I will confess I hardly looked at when doing my research for my trilogy. Which might seem odd, seeing as I have already explained how there are very few contemporary historical documents from this era. So why did I not dive into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle?

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The statue of King Alfred the Great, by Hamo Thornycroft, erected in Winchester in 1902. I really love this king. I will definitely write a blog post about him some day! 

Part of the reason was timing. This chronicle was begun, as far as we can tell, sometime around the year 891 AD, during the reign of Alfred the Great, in Wessex. So it mainly describes the events after that year, although there is some reference to what happened before that, starting at Caesar’s invasion in 60 AD. But mainly that history was taken from other sources, most importantly from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and so I relied more on Bede’s accounts than the Chronicle, as Bede’s was the more contemporary source.

Another reason was that of setting. As Alfred was King of Wessex, he was most interested in chronicling the history of the kingdom of Wessex in particular. Understandably, of course. So while there are details about that kingdom in the Chronicle (especially regarding those years before the scribes starting writing it) there is not much about the northern kingdoms, which of course I was more interested in. Not to say that there weren’t interesting things happening in the south, but you can only cover so much, right? So, for example, here is the entry about the year that my book opens, 643 AD:

A.D. 643 . This year Kenwal succeeded to the kingdom of the West-Saxons, and held it one and thirty winters. This Kenwal ordered the old church at Winchester to be built in the name of St.
Peter. He was the son of Cynegils.

As you can see, not much there that could help me with my book, which is set in the kingdom of the Angles, in Bernicia and Deira.  In contrast, here is a random entry from the year 978 AD. At this time scribes were writing down what they thought was pertinent information as each year passed, so you get some fascinating tidbits about the year’s events:

A.D. 978 . This year all the oldest counsellors of England fell at Calne from an upper floor; but the holy Archbishop Dustan stood alone upon a beam. Some were dreadfully bruised: and some did not escape with life. This year was King Edward slain, at eventide, at Corfe-gate, on the fifteenth day before the calends of April. And he was buried at Wareham without any royal honour. No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain. Men murdered him but God has magnified him. He was in life an earthly king — he is now after death a heavenly saint. Him would not his earthly relatives avenge — but his heavenly father has avenged him amply. The earthly homicides would wipe out his memory from the earth — but the avenger above has spread his memory abroad in heaven and in earth. Those, Who would not before bow to his living body, now bow on their knees to His dead bones. Now we may conclude, that the wisdom of men, and their meditations, and their counsels, are as nought against the appointment of God. In this same year succeeded Ethelred Etheling, his brother, to the government; and he was afterwards very readily, and with great joy to the counsellors of England, consecrated king at Kingston. In the same year also died Alfwold, who was Bishop of Dorsetshire, and whose body lieth in the minster at Sherborn.

Compared with the terse, factual events of the 643 AD entry, there is lots of drama and intrigue here! The collapse of an upper floor of a building which killed and maimed many of the important counsellors to the king; the king himself murdered and hastily buried without due honour, which prompted a medieval tongue-lashing from the outraged scribe; and the king’s brother, Ethelred, consecrated king with “great joy”. Hmm. My writer’s brain could do a lot with this. The death of the counsellors, prompting some instability in the kingdom? The elder statesmen, who could have tempered the younger hot-heads, gone, allowing youthful ambition to fester? Was it perhaps the king’s brother, with the aide of those younger counsellors, behind the plot to kill the king and so gain the throne? Which is why he was welcomed so eagerly? Lots of things one could research further and write about!

This immediacy of detail is the most fascinating and valuable aspect of the Chronicle. But it is not just one document. The Chronicle is actually several different documents. The original one was begun in Wessex at Alfred’s command, and several copies were made of it and sent to various monasteries across Britain. From there those documents were independently updated as the years went by. In one case the Chronicle was still being updated in 1154! All told, nine manuscripts survive for us to study today.

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This map shows the various places the surviving chronicles were written, and where they are now kept. As you can see, the focus was definitely on southern England.

Of course these documents that make up the Chronicle cannot be seen as being 100% accurate, even though they were being written contemporarily. There are parts where the different versions contradict each other for the same year, and there could be many reasons for that. The scribes would rely not only on their own knowledge of what happened that year, but also on word-of-mouth as to what happened in the rest of the country. So information certainly could get easily distorted. And sometimes, the scribes, having agendas of their own and kings that they were beholden to, would distort information to favour these. Propaganda is a very old art, indeed. The whole idea of objectivity would have been quite foreign to their mind set, so all the information has to be cross-referenced with whatever sources can be found outside of the Chronicle to get a closer handle on exactly what happened.

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The opening page of the Peterborough Chronicle, the latest surviving version, begun in 1120, after the monastery was destroyed by fire. If a monastery’s copy of the Chronicle was destroyed or lost, other monasteries would lend their copies so that the monastery could copy the entries from before the date their copy was destroyed, and begin again the contemporary entries. In this case, although the earlier entries were transcribed in the original Anglo-Saxon (Old English) the newer parts contain some of the first written examples of Middle English.

But even with these caveats, this marvellous undertaking  opened up a window to this era that is invaluable to historians and interested amateurs alike. We owe a great deal of debt to the foresight of King Alfred, who made the original decision to begin to write down the events of his kingdom, as well as to Bede, whose account  likely inspired him to begin a similar work.

The Chronicle is seen as the single-most important document to come out of the Early Medieval period. Our knowledge of this time would be scarce, indeed, without it.

 

Photos from WikiCommons

Wandering Through the Web, Again

Awhile back I posted about some of the places I have enjoyed while trekking through cyberspace. Today I thought it might be interesting to you to have a look at some of the specifically Dark Ages or historical websites I like to visit when I am looking for information on the people and places that make up Northumbria in the 7th century.

  1. Bamburgh Research Project – for approximately twenty years there has been an archeological dig going on at Bamburgh. The team have explored various places on the site, and post about their important discoveries on this blog. Piece by piece they are giving historians a better picture of what this site actually contained throughout the years. Every summer they have spots for students and community members to take part in the dig as well. Oh, how I would love to do that! One of these days I would like to do a more complete post on this important project, so stay tuned…

2. Regia Anglorum – this is the website of an early medieval re-enactment and living history society, specializing in the 9th-13th centuries in Britain. So yes, they make their own costumes and get together to re-inact important battles, etc. Which sounds like quite a lot of fun, doesn’t it? Although their specialty is a time period a couple hundred years after the 7th century, this website has a wealth of information about the early middle ages in general.This is one of the sites I used the most at the beginning of researching my book, when trying to get a handle on understanding practical things that a writer needs to know, such as clothing, culture, social structure, food, customs, and all the other details that bring a book to life. Wonderful resource! And, they also have a permanent site in Kent where they are constructing a fortified manor house (a long hall) in the style of the late Anglo-Saxon period. Another place to add to my ever-growing list of places to visit.

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The gang from Regia Anglorum in front of Wychurst, their Anglo-Saxon hall. Photo from Regia Anglorum.

3. Heavenfield – I mentioned this site before, but it’s worth mentioning again. This site is run by historian and scientist Michelle Ziegler, and it is full of great information about the early middle ages. Particularly if you are interested in plagues and disease, this is the place for you, as she often links posts from her other blog, Contagions.  But disease isn’t her only interest. This page on the site has some really good articles about some of the Early Medieval Kings, all backed by solid research.  Ms. Ziegler can be found in other places around the web as well. I found  this article from The Heroic Age magazine really crucial in helping me to understand the interconnecting relationships of the various kings of the region, and in particular, the section entitled “Politics of Exile” gave me a way into understanding Oswy’s story that I hadn’t had before.

4. Other Dark Ages authors – often authors who write about a particular era will have interesting facts and information about that era on their website or blog. I try to do that here, too! I have found some great information on other author’s blogs, including that of A.J. Sefton,  Carla Nayland, and Octavia Randolph.

There are numerous other web resources out there for research into the Dark Ages. Wikipedia has a lot of information, of course. But one must always be careful when you are using the web for research. Check the sources of the article you are looking at, and always look at more than one source for the information you are seeking. That will help you to avoid misinformation and inaccuracies that would be easy to find if you don’t research properly.