Bald’s Leechbook

Bald’s Leechbook Facsimile Edition

Winchester (United Kingdom) — Mid 10th century

Traditional remedies to ward off viruses: an important Old English collection of remedies ranging from Late Antiquity to contemporary Anglo-Saxon sources

  1. Its name is a modernization of the Old English lǣce-bōc or “book of medical prescriptions”

  2. The patron, Bald, is identified in the colophon along with the name of the scribe, Cild

  3. One of the remedies has even shown promise for treating the antibiotic-resistant MRSA virus

Bald’s Leechbook

  1. Description
  2. Facsimile Editions (1)
Description
Bald’s Leechbook

Bald’s Leechbook is a large Old English collection of medical remedies ranging from Late Antiquity to contemporary Anglo-Saxon sources. This important work survives in only one manuscript and its name is a modernization of the Old English lǣce-bōc or “book of medical prescriptions” in combination with the name of the man who patronized the manuscript. The text was created in the 9th century, possibly as part of the educational reforms of King Alfred the Great, and the manuscript itself originates from the mid-10th century. The work is organized from head-to-foot: the first book covers external maladies, the second internal disorders, and the third is a text comprising Anglo-Saxon medical practices predating the influences of Mediterranean sources. Recent research indicates that one of the remedies found in the manuscript, known as “Bald’s eyesalve”, has promise as a treatment for the antibiotic-resistant MRSA virus.

Bald’s Leechbook

Also known as Medicinale Anglicum from an inscription in the binding, Bald’s Leechbook is a large Old English manuscript consisting of medical remedies, diagnoses, charms, and a prognostic text about the dog days of summer. Despite the common misconception that its title is a reference to the use of leeches, the word in this context actually comes from læca, the Old English word for “physician”, thus it is a doctor’s handbook.
Most of its recipes are drawn from the medical traditions of the ancient Greeks and Romans but one text, known as Leechbook III reflects the treatments of the Anglo-Saxons without Mediterranean influences. This splendid compilation thus represents a physician’s attempt at blending the best parts of both traditions. It is a true unicum, the only surviving manuscript to contain these texts.
A Latin inscription in the colophon at the end of the second book both identifies the original patron and also testifies that this was already a precious and coveted codex a thousand years ago: “Bald owns this book, which he ordered Cild to write … Nothing is as dear to me as this treasure.”

A Unique Medical Manuscript

Aside from being the only extant example of the text, Bald’s Leechbook is probably the only medieval medical text to separate external maladies from internal disorders **, which are addressed in the first book and second book, respectively. Both have a table of contents and are organized beginning with the head and finishing with the feet. The text also includes **the only Anglo-Saxon manual on plastic surgery, specifically a prescription for treating a cleft lip and palate. Miscellaneous medical information that caught the eye of the scribe was recorded in the Lacnunga, a commonplace book.

Remedies from Jerusalem for the King of England

One passage contains an Old English translation of various remedies sent by Patriarch Elias III of Jerusalem (r. ca. 879–907) to treat the chronic, debilitating illness that afflicted King Alfred the Great (848/849–899), most likely Chron’s disease or hemorrhoids. It is thus a rare example of the specific treatment given to an early medieval monarch, and an example of deferring to a respected medical authority on the other side of Christendom who would doubtless have ample access to Arab medicine. Aside from treating diseases of the body, the text also addresses ailments of the soul including a salve that is prescribed against elves, night goblins, and devils.

Medical Treatment during the Dog Days of Summer

Since ancient times, the hottest and most uncomfortable part of summer has been referred to as the dog days because of its association with Sirius, colloquially known as the “Dog Star”. Hellenistic astrology made the connection between Sirius and the perceived increase in heat, drought, sudden crop-ruining thunderstorms, lethargy, fever, mad dog attacks, and bad luck in general. The Romans carried on this tradition and transmitted it to medieval and early modern Europeans who believed that bloodletting should be avoided during this time because men are in a weakened state from the heat. Furthermore, abstaining from overeating and the temptations of women was also recommended. Even after the connection between medicine and astrology was severed, the negative effects of particularly hot weather remain very real, and doctors continue to notice a connection between this one to two month period of time and e.g. an increased risk of infection after surgery.

A Thousand-Year-Old Medical Breakthrough

The text includes various treatments for conditions ranging from headaches, circulatory problems, and male impotence to shingles, aching feet, and an infected sty. The last treatment, known as Bald’s eyesalve, includes garlic, leeks, wine, and bovine bile left in a brass bowl for nine days that made headlines in 2015 when it was revealed to have bactericidal effects against the dreaded, antibiotic-resistant MRSA bacteria, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people. Its potential medical applications are still being researched and while Bald’s Leechbook may be unique among medieval medical texts for still being used by modern medicine for now, it has certainly unleashed a new wave of interest in the potential uses of the often maligned and misunderstood medicine of the Middle Ages.

Codicology

Alternative Titles
Balds Arzneibuch
Bald's Laeceboc
Size / Format
256 pages / 27.0 × 19.0 cm
Date
Mid 10th century
Style
Language

Available facsimile editions:
Bald’s Leechbook – Ms. Royal 12 D. xvii – British Library (London, United Kingdom) Facsimile Edition
Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1955
Facsimile Editions

#1 Bald’s Leechbook

Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1955

Publisher: Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1955
Commentary: 1 volume by Cyril E. Wright and Randolph Quirk
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Reproduction of the entire original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
Price Category: € (under 1,000€)
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