OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312



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The Leechbook of Bald
Plants named in the Leechbook of Bald

The earliest surviving Old English herbals -- the Lacnunga and the Leechbook of Bald -- are important for many reasons, one of them being the insight they give us into the plants available to people in Britain during the centuries between the departure of the Roman legions in the first century CE and the arrival of the Normans in 1066.

Leech, in Old English lęc, means healing, and the Lęcboc of Bald is a medical guidebook used by a practicing physician named Bald who lived in 10th century Britain. It included three texts bound together, the second of which ends with the words “Bald had this book; he ordered Cild to record it” (Bald habet hunc librum Cild quem conscribere iussit).

The Leechbook was written in Worcester, probably under the influence of Ęlfred the Great, between the years of 925 and 955 CE. Its scribe was also the author of the entries made in the Parker Chronicle. Describing the Leechbook, manuscript (Royal 12, D xvii), which survives in a single copy in the British Library, Eleanor Rohde says:

…this perfect specimen of Saxon work has nothing fragile about it. The vellum is as strong and in as good condition as when it first lay clean and untouched under the hand of the scribe Cild who penned it with such skill and loving care. …The Leechbook of Bald was evidently the manual of a Saxon doctor, and he refers to two other doctors, Dun and Oxa by name, who had given him prescriptions.

The Old English Herbals


A page from the Leechbook
 A page from the Leechbook of Bald

The first book begins with a discussion of treatments for disorders of the head, then proceeds methodically down the body, and concludes with information about treatments for disorders of the feet. The Leechbook is unusual, however, in that the first book deals with external disorders, while the second focuses on internal disorders. The Leechbook also provides diagnostic information to help the physician select the best treatments for specific conditions.

The prescriptions of the Leechbook rely on locally known medicinal plants, and do not refer to Latin treatments, suggesting the existence of a well-developed British tradition of health care practice. However, it does appear that Bald was familiar with Latin medical references and Mediterranean plants, and that he also had access to some plant materials that could not have been obtained locally. In addition to prescribing the use of certain plants, treatment sometimes included specific prayers, incantations, or rituals.

Then as now, the British were highly knowledgeable about plants:

… the Anglo-Saxons had names for, and used, a far larger number of plants than the continental nations. In the Herbarium of Apuleius, including the additions from Dioscorides, only 185 plants are mentioned, and this was one of the standard works of the early Middle Ages… But from various sources it has been computed that the Anglo-Saxons had names for, and used, at least 500 plants.

Elinor Rohde, The Old English Herbals

For nearly a century, the only translation available of the Leechbook was that by Rev. Oswald Cockayne. In addition to translating the text of this and other Anglo-Saxon medical books, Cockayne made a careful study of the plants named in other Anglo-Saxon medical texts, identifying plants through review of early glossaries, other early manuscripts, and manuscript illustrations. Though we can't be certain of the identity of every plant named in the Leechbook, Cockayne’s research lays a foundation on which to base reasonable identifications of a good many of the plants found in the Leechbook.


Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England, Vol. 2 (PDF) http://archive.org/details/leechdomswortcun02cock


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