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Beside their native herbal medicines and the more scientific therapeutics and pathology which they had borrowed from the Greeks the Anglo-Saxons made a large use of charms and what are called magical rites in the treatment of disease. It would be a mistake to suppose, as is sometimes thought, that this was their only or chief method of treatment or that it was in any way peculiar to the Anglo-Saxons. A great deal of it was taken from the later Greek and Latin medical writers who show a credulity and superstition quite equal to that of the Anglo-Saxons. Again, the magical and superstitious medicine lasted much longer than the Anglo-Saxon period. It went on all through the Middle Ages up to recent times and is not extinct even at the present day. But it is by no means characteristic of our own country. Indeed, the numerous collections of “folk-lore,” or what is called “folk medicine,” from the peasantry of continental countries show that these ancient superstitions are more prevalent and more inveterate among them than they are among our own people. What is most remarkable is not only that the same general beliefs have survived but that the very same forms of words have in many cases been preserved for centuries and may be even now recited in certain places.
It is very difficult to define precisely what is meant by magical medicine or what by charms. But, broadly, they imply a belief in some supernatural efficacy belonging to verbal formulae, recited or written, in special circumstances or with reference to special objects. Originally it would seem that this belief implied also the belief in spirits, demons, or some supernatural beings who could be either conciliated or coerced by the use of certain words. The belief in supernatural personages gradually waned and in the case we are now considering heathen or mystical conjurations were to a large extent replaced by Christian prayers and benedictions, while the occult rites of unknown origin were superseded by the services of the Church.
Without pretending to a complete classification the various magical processes and charms may be brought under the following heads: 1. Prayers or invocations addressed to medicinal herbs or to supernatural beings supposed to have power over them. 2. Special verbal formulae or observances employed in collecting the medicinal herbs or other natural remedies. 3. Prayers and mystical words repeated over the patient or written and applied to some parts of his body, with or without ordinary remedies. Such words are very often in a foreign tongue unknown to those who use them, such as Latin among the barbarous or uneducated, Greek or Hebrew among the Latins, and so on, sometimes in a quite unknown language, which have been called Ephesian charms. But they may also be in the vernacular. 4. Direct conjurations or exorcisms addressed to diseases as if they were evil spirits. 5. Narrative charms—that is, trivial stories relating to sacred or legendary persons who suffered from or did something analogous to what the patient is suffering from. 6. Material magic—that is, the attribution of magical power to certain objects, such as plants or parts of animals, stones, or engraved gems called amulets, these objects being not used medicinally but applied in some way to the patient's body. 7. Transference of disease, by a magical formula or ceremony, to some animal or material object or in some way to the outside world. Examples of all these can be found in older medical literature as well as in the Anglo-Saxon books and also throughout succeeding centuries.
The actual origin of these beliefs and practices is extremely obscure and cannot here be considered. Doubtless there was an element of traditional popular belief in each particular country and also, as regards European medicine, an introduction of Oriental superstitions. But they formed no part of the regular classical medicine of the Greeks and Romans till the period of its decline. Hippocrates, Galem, Aretaeus, and Celsus are entirely free from such superstitions. The first Greek medical writer of any repute who introduced the incantations into the practice of medicine was Alexander Trallianus, who has been already referred to as having been a great authority with the Anglo-Saxon leeches. Alexander has been blamed, and justly, for thus lowering the character of Greek medicine. He was, however, followed in this by later Greek physicians and by those late Latin writers to whom the Anglo-Saxons were much indebted. The Latin work of Marcellus Empiricus, older than Alexander, which appears to be partly founded on Roman popular medicine or folk-lore, was the great repertory of superstitious rites and formulae.
On examining the Anglo-Saxon charms a considerable number are found to be directly taken from, or founded on, passages in the late Latin writers; a few are suggestive of passages in the Greek physicians. From all these sources it is easy to find examples of the various kinds of magical medicine above spoken of.
1. The invocation of herbs is found in Alexander Trallianus. For instance, he recommends as a remedy for gout that the sacred herb hyoscyamus, or henbane, should be dug up with certain precautions and addressed as follows: “Sacred Herb! I summon thee to the house [of my patient] to stop the rheum of his feet,” &c.; “I conjure thee by the great name Jaoth Sabaoth.” The Anglo-Saxons did not use prayers addressed to the herbs themselves, as benedictions and Christian prayers addressed to God or the saints were often substituted. But there are instances of certain formulae of conjuration. For instance, the herb mugwort (artemisia) had the reputation of preventing a man who carried it with him from getting tired on a journey. But it was to be gathered before sunrise with these words, “Tollam te, Artemisia, ne lassus sim in viá.”
2. Special words and mysterious rites were often made use of in gathering medicinal herbs to give them special virtue. The formulae used by the Greeks and Romans being generally heathenish, the Anglo-Saxons often substituted Christian prayers. For instance, for gathering celandine the directions are: “Delve round the root and take it up with thy two hands turned upwards, and sing over it nine paternosters, and in the ninth, at the words ‘Deliver us from evil,' snap it up, &c.” There are also some very remarkable Anglo-Saxon “lays”—poems celebrating the virtues of herbs. In one of them Wodan (Odin) is referred to, showing that it must have originated in heathen times. In many of the directions for gathering herbs the essential thing was to name the sick man and his father. This was a popular belief among the Romans, as quoted by Pliny. For the old ceremonies the Anglo-Saxons often substituted prayers and litanies. Thus before gathering certain herbs litanies of the saints and the paternoster were to be sung in church. Then the clergy or choir were to go three times round the herbs intended to be gathered singing the same. The herbs were to be brought into the church with the same song and 12 masses sung over them in honour of the Twelve Apostles. Then they could be used.
3. The most important part of magical medicine consisted in mystical formulae, conjurations, and prayers either uttered over the patient or written out and in some way applied to his body. Many, or perhaps all, were, it would seem, originally meant to be sung, as shown by the words “carmen” and “incantamentum.” These were well known among the Greeks and many instances might be quoted from the poets of wounds being healed by the use of magical words. Alexander Trallianus recommends for the gout that a certain verse of Homer (Iliad II., 95) should be written on a gold leaf while the moon was in the sign of Libra, wrapped up and applied, presumably to the patient's joints. Why this particular verse was chosen does not appear; it would not seem specially appropriate.
The Anglo-Saxon charms were mostly in Latin, sometimes with corrupted Greek or possibly Hebrew words. One charm is described in the book as Scottish, but according to the editor the words belong to no known language. On the other hand, in another case, the apparently unintelligible words turn out to be corrupt Irish. In some the words seem to be without doubt mere rhyming or jingling nonsense—as, for instance, “Gonomil, orgomil, marbumel, &c.,"-—words which were to be sung into the right ear of a man but the left ear of a woman in case he or she had swallowed a worm in drinking water. The use of such charms was often combined with the use of drugs. In one prescription a drink made of 12 herbs over which seven masses had been sung was to be drunk out of a church bell with the accompaniment of singing certain psalms. Also the mass priest was to sing a formula of benediction over the patient. This was for a “fiend-sick” man—that is, a demoniac or lunatic. Sometimes charms were written on the “holy dish,” or sacramental paten, and washed off with holy water which was to be drunk.
4. Exorcisms addressed to diseases as evil spirits are not common. An example is a charm for a strange “swelling.” The sufferer was to sing a paternoster, to draw a line round the sore, and to say, “Fuge diabolus! Christus te sequitur.” There is an elaborate charm against agues and fevers in which they are adjured in the name of Christ to depart. A form of words against “poccas”—that is, small-pox-—is remarkable because this word is taken as the equivalent of variola. Many formulae of this kind are found in late Latin writers.
5 Narrative charms—-This class of charms was used by the late Romans—-for instance, by Marcellus Empiricus and probably in still earlier times. In the Anglo-Saxon books they are always scriptural stories or else Christian legends. One of the most extraordinary, or most absurd, is against toothache. It relates how when Christ was sitting with His disciples Peter looked sad and when our Lord inquired the cause he complained of toothache, whereupon Christ uttered a long adjuration addressed to migraine or other pains not to harm the servant of God. This was, of course, to be repeated. The story of Longimus, the traditional name of the centurion who pierced the side of Christ upon the cross, was told in order to take away a stitch in the side. To hasten child-birth the story of the raising of Lazarus with the solemn words, “Lazarus, come forth!” was thought to be efficacious. All these narratives and others like them were used not only by the Anglo-Saxons but frequently in the Middle Ages.
6. Amulets derived from natural objects-—As a preservative from fits a fox was to be caught, its canine tooth knocked out while it was alive, and the animal then set free. The tooth was then to be wrapped in a fawn skin and carried on the body. The eyes of a crab removed from the living animal were good for affections of the eye if hung round the neck. In all cases the animal was to be kept alive. For headache certain herbs were to be bound on the head with a red fillet. There are many similar prescriptions in Alexander Trallianus and Marcellus Empiricus.
7. Transference of disease-—It is a common belief in many parts of the world that disease is something which can be got out of the sick man and transferred to something outside. The Anglo-Saxons had mysterious rites, sometimes combined with forms of words, for this purpose. Often the disease was transferred to running water. Thus for a certain skin disease it is ordered to score or to scarify the neck after the setting of the sun, to pour the blood silently into running water, to spit three times, and to say, “Have you this evil and depart away with it.” Or, again, a hazel or elder stick was to be taken, a name written upon it, and stained with blood. Then it was to be thrown over the shoulders or between the thighs into running water. In another case an oaken stick was to be stained with blood, then four strokes were to be made with it towards the four quarters of heaven. Then it was to be thrown away and a certain charm was to be recited. This was a charm against “flying venom,” or, in modern phrase, air-borne contagion.
Later books of Anglo-Saxon medicine.--One book contained in the three volumes of “Leechdoms” differs a good deal from the rest. It is that which bears a Greek title interpreted as meaning. “Of Schools of Medicine.” This title, however, only refers to the first chapter of the work. The rest consists of a collection of medical receipts differing from those in the other books of the Anglo-Saxon library. It is entirely free from charms and superstitions and the prescriptions are for the most part simpler than those of the Anglo-Saxon leeches. This treatise has been shown by a German philologist, Dr. Max Löweneck, to be based upon a Latin work belonging to the first period of the school of Salerno—viz., the Practica of Petroncellus or Petronius—a work written probably about A.D. 1035 and printed in the “Collectio Salernitana.” One fragment has been traced to the writings of another Salernitan teacher, Gariopontus, of the same period. But these identifications do not account for the whole of the Anglo-Saxon text, and it does not seem that this was translated directly from the Latin. The actual origin of the work is therefore still somewhat obscure. The date of this manuscript is the first half of the twelfth century, probably before 1150. It shows that the Anglo-Saxons were beginning to profit by the teaching of the school of Salerno before that school was influenced by the Arabian medicine. It also shows that the Anglo-Saxon medicine like the other written literature of that language went on for some time after the Norman Conquest. To this same period belongs another manuscript which contains a version of the Herbarium of Apuleius later than that previously spoken of. This is not included in the Rev. O. Cockayne's “Leechdoms” but has been published in Germany, as edited by Herr Berberich. This manuscript is referred to the middle of the twelfth century, about 1150. It therefore touches on the extreme limit of Anglo-Saxon written literature, and, indeed, is called by Herr Berberich “Early Middle English"; but, like the last-mentioned work, it shows the long continuance of Anglo-Saxon medicine after the Conquest. This work closes the early English medical library and as the celebrated Anglo-Saxon Chronicle came to an end in 1150 the general literature and medical literature of our early ancestors reached their limit about the same time.