First Encounters with Leechbook III

My first contact with Leechbook III came during my junior year at Rice University in a survey of Old English literature in translation. For the final project of the course, the instructor asked students to create their own early medieval manuscript based on codicological principles they had learned over the semester. My partners and I, all of who were enamored with fantasy fiction, decided that we should make a grimoire, a sort of "spell book" based on Anglo-Saxon charms. A rapid library catalogue search lead us to Cyril E. Wright's (1955) facsimile of MS Royal 12 D xvii,i a manuscript containing Bald's Leechbook and Leechbook III; and J.H. Grattan and Charles Singer's (1952) edited edition of the Lacnunga, a collection of medieval medical remedies in both Latin and Old English transcribed from MS Harley 585. I was the scribe for our project, choosing the charms we used (several elf and demon charms we plucked from the Leechbooks and the Lacnunga) and copying them into a hand similar to the insular miniscule of Royal 12 D.

My interest in Old English charms led me to pursue a semester-long independent study of the Leechbooks and the Lacnunga (this time in Old English, not in translation), which surveyed scholarship about medieval medicine. Each week I met with my advisor, and we discussed one or two remedies in association with a critical essay or book chapter on early medieval medicine from the Anglo-Saxon period. This allowed me to develop a strong knowledge base in preparation for my senior thesis, which I would begin the following year. All my research during this independent study seemed to tell me that even the most current scholarship on the Leechbooks and Lacnunga was stuck in a circular debate over their so-called "pagan" and "Christian" content, categories that stem from the "Grimmian" inspired interests of nineteenth and early-twentieth scholarship. These early scholars divided the remedies in these texts into two categories: if the cure was purely herbal and perhaps could be traced to a continental source, it was classed as a "recipe;" if prayers, incantations, or supernatural elements were part of the disease or cure, it was considered a "charm." The charms were further subdivided into categories of "pagan magic" or "Christian belief." Felix Grendon's (1909) Anglo Saxon Charms is a premier example of how these categories and subcategories inflect both the editorializing process of the Leechbooks and the Lacnunga and the interpretation of the recipes contained therein. Grendon plucks 146 recipes from both texts that he considers "charms." Then he further subdivides, and thereby re-categorizes, these pagan and Christian charms into five types:

  1. Exorcisms of diseases or disease-spirits.
  2. Herbal Charms.
  3. Charms for transferring disease.
  4. Amulet charms.
  5. Charm remedies.
  6. (Grendon, 1909, 123)
Grendon's chapters not only present material from the Leechbooks and Lacnunga outside of their manuscript contexts but moreover reorganize "charms" into clusters such as exorcisms, herbals, amulets, etc. Godfrid Storms' (1948) Anglo-Saxon Magic attends to a similar editorial and scholarly rubric, based on the amount of "Germanic magic" content contained within a remedy (11). Like Grendon, Storms excises only magical, pagan "charms" from the Leechbooks and Lacnunga, then edits, collocates, and translates them to suit the prevailing scholarly categories and interest in paganism, superstition and magic.

During the 1970s, scholars began to move away from the binary classifications of "recipe" or "charm" and "pagan magic" or "Christian belief" that had long underwritten editorial practices and scholarship of Anglo-Saxon medicine. Stanley Rubin's (1974) Medieval English Medicine appeals to the remedies as a result of blended secular medicine and Germanic tradition rather than superstition; however, his study still places heavy emphasis on the influence of pagan elements. M. L. Cameron's (1993) Anglo-Saxon Medicine presents a similar, partial break from the classification systems of earlier scholarship. While Cameron organizes elements within an individual remedy into traditional "pagan" or "Christian" categories, like Rubin he considers each remedy as an amalgamation of Germanic and Christian culture. Cameron's work moves to see the remedies as sites of cultural and religious exchange in Anglo-Saxon England. Karen Louise Jolly's (1996) Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context advances Cameron's argument, using terms like "folklore" and "liturgy" in place of "pagan" or "Christian" in her discussion of the remedies. Jolly recognized that using words like "magic" or "pagan" carry a stigma of superstition, and scholars need to change their vocabulary when discussing the remedies in order to "cure … this tendency toward valuing modern notions of rationality" at the expense of medieval ones (1996, 97). Although the scholarship of Rubin, Cameron, and Jolly redirects that of Grendon and Storms, all place emphasis on the need to categorize the charms into groupings or belief systems that would help to understand Anglo-Saxon medicine as a whole.

At the end of my directed reading on the Leechbooks and Lacnunga, I received a Minter Summer Scholarship to visit the British Library to look at the manuscripts themselves—to see, for the first time, the remedies as they appear unencumbered by the editorial re-collocation and critical apparatus of scholarly editions. What surprised me is how visually different they are from one another. The Leechbooks are compiled in Royal 12 D, a large manuscript (265 mms by 190 mms) made of thinner white vellum. There are almost no marginalia present and only a handful of notes can be found throughout. The manuscript is in pristine shape with minimal damage to the final pages. It has large margins and is meticulously organized into chapters, beginning with ailments of the head and moving towards the feet in consecutive chapters. The exemplary state of the Leechbooks stands out in stark contrast to the Lacnunga (Harley 585), a small manuscript made of dark, rough vellum with copious marginalia and little internal organization. The Lacnunga seemed well used, and the remedies within it were not organized according to a Table of Contents but as if they were added piecemeal by several different scribes.

Of the two manuscripts, I was drawn to Royal 12 D – and thus the Leechbooks – because of its seemingly unused appearance. Royal 12 D is a manuscript that dates between 900-950 AD,ii although its content is copied form earlier sources.iii Its remedies are written in the same hand, and N. R. Ker has identified the scribe of Royal 12 D as someone who worked in the Winchester scriptorium.iv The date and provenance of Royal 12 D may indicate that this copy of the Leechbooks was produced during the large educational reforms begun by King Alfred in the latter half of the ninth century. And if the Royal 12 D copy of the Leechbooks was part of these scribal reforms, it may explain perhaps why the manuscript remained in relatively unused condition. In comparison to the much-handled and highly annotated Lacnunga, one might surmise that Royal 12 D was a fair copy meant as an exemplar for scribal transcription or, as is indicated by an inscription in Leechbook II, a prized possession produced during a high time of productivity in Winchester for a connoisseur of medical texts.v

My research at the British Library generated more questions than answers. But I felt that one thing was clear: while Rubin, Cameron, and Jolly strove towards a new lexicon for evaluating the remedies of the Leechbooks and the Lacnunga, all were using editions that dated to the nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries. Rather than engaging in a critical project that might employ the arguments of contemporary scholarship, I decided to make a new edition and translation that would replace outmoded ones of the previous centuries. Fairly new translations of Bald's Leechbook (Leechbooks I and II) had been published or completed, and more secondary scholarship was available on those texts, so I set off to translate Leechbook III for two reasons: 1) only two editions of the Leechbook III exist – Oswald T. Cockayne's (1865) print edition and Barbara M. Olds' (1984) unpublished dissertation; and 2) Leechbook III contains – to use the terms of Grendon, Storms, and Jolly – the highest percentage of "pagan charms," "magical" material, and "folkloric" elements of all three Leechbooks. Leechbook III contains 63 remedies for a variety of diseases ranging from a headache to elf-disease. Most of the remedies are herbal salves or ointments, but many contain prayers, incantations, and actions to be performed in conjunction with making and applying the herbal element. Others are still more unusual, like prescribing a whipping a patient with a whip made from dolphin kin or capturing and throwing-away a dung beetle as part of making a Chapters 61-63 (xLi-xLiii) alone are dedicated to various kinds of elf-diseases, and are the longest remedies in all of Leechbook III, with Chapter 62 (xLii) occupying four pages on its own. The prevalence of supernatural beings in Leechbook III was one of the most enchanting aspects of the manuscript for me.

Preparing the Edition of Leechbook III

As I transcribed Leechbook III from a facsimile during the Fall semester of 2013 and began to translate its remedies, it became clear to me that while editorial collocation and word choice did have some bearing on how the scholars I had read perceived the materials, previous editions and translations were not the primary roadblock to research on the Leechbooks. Rather as I worked on my edition of Leechbook III, I began to see it not as a text to be read but rather as directions to be performed. As I was working on my edition, I was likewise teaching a Student Taught Course on Anglo-Saxon medicine, and my students, who ranged from English majors to pre-medical students, asked if these remedies were still in use today. I began to consider the remedies as simple directives that outlined or sketched out embodied healing practices, and the punctuation of my edition reflects this. Take, for example, Chapter 40, a remedy for the condition, "Wiþ þon þe mon sie monaþ-seoc" (In case a person is month-sick):

xL. Wiþ þon þe mon sie monþ-seoc: nim mere swines fel. Wyrc to swipan. Swing mid þone man. Sona bið sel. Amen. (Folio 120r)

xL. In case a person is month-sick: take the skin of a dolphin. Make [it] into a whip. Whip the man with [it]. Soon [he] will be well. Amen.
While this remedy is the only one in Leechbook III that prescribes whipping a man in order to effect a cure, it is a concise example of the order, tone, and pacing of directives used in every remedy in Leechbook III. "Genim" is the first directive in the majority of the remedies, as it is in this one. It instructs the leech firstly on what ingredients and supplies to gather to prepare the cure. "Genim," like "Wyrc" and "Swing," is conjugated in the imperative mood, and is the first "step" in the remedy. I often tell friends and family when they ask what a remedy is, that the remedies are very close to modern day cooking recipes because they could be laid out into numbered steps, with an imperative beginning each. Just like recipes, the remedies are instructions for the actions a leech must perform; they are not meant to just be read but to be skillfully interpreted. Lori Ann Garner's (2004) article, "Anglo-Saxon Charms in Performance" expresses this precisely when she writes "[w]hen we look at [a] text as an aid to performance rather than an ultimate product in itself, the debate becomes more a problem of editing than of performance, where completeness of any kind is illusory" (25). Garner asserts that viewing the remedies as a performance can illuminate the healing properties and consequently blur the lines of the traditional binaries, categories, and subcategories that have prevailed in scholarship thus far.vii Garner (2004) claims that "[b]ecause they are so deeply rooted in their performance context, the Old English charms require us to move beyond conventional text-based literary analysis and classification to apply performance-based approaches that allow us to examine the charms on their own terms" (20).

I put into practice Garner's call to viewing the remedies as performance. As the "final exam" of my student-taught course, my class and I performed part of one of the longest, most complex, and most ideologically fraught remedies of Leechbook III, Chapter 62, "Wið ælfadle" (For elf-disease). I "collected," as best I could similar plants from the grocery store, and they performed the following selection:

Lxii. … Wyrc þonne drenc font wæter: rudan, saluian, cassus, draconzan, þa smeþan wegbrædan, niþewearde feferfugian, diles crop, garleaces .iii. clufe, finul, wermod, lufestice, elehtre, ealra emfela. Writ .iii. crucem mid oleum infirmorum and cweþ "pax tibi." Nim þonne þæt gewrit, writ crucem mid ofer þam drince. Sing þis þær ofer: "Deus omnipotens, pater domini nostri iesu cristi, per inpositionem huius scriptura et per gustum huius, expelle diabolum a famulo tuo, N." and credo and Pater Noster. Wæt þæt gewrit on þam drence and writ crucem mid him on ælcum lime and cweþ, "Signum crucis xpī conseruate in uitam eternam. Amen." Gif þe ne lyste, hat hine selfne oþþe swa gesubne swa he gesibbost hæbbe and senige swa he selost cunne. Þes cræft mæg wiþ ælcre feondes costunge. (Folios 123v-125r)

Lxii. … Then make a drink of fountain water: mountain rue, sage, reed, dragon aurum, the weary greater plantain, the lower part of feverfue, dill's top, three cloves of garlic, fennel, wormwood, lovage, lupin, all in equal parts. Write three crosses with oil of unction and say "peace to you." Then take that inscription, make [the sign of] the cross with [it] over the drink. Sing this over [it], "Omnipotent God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, through the imposition of this writing and through the taste of it, drive out every devil from your servant, N." and the creed and Pater Noster. Wet that inscription in the drink and write a cross with it on each limb and say: "The sign of the cross of Christ preserve [you] until life eternal. Amen." If you do not want [this], command himself or the closest relative he has and sign as he best he can. This craft is powerful against every temptation of the fiend.
They used the plants to boil a "drenc," then recited Latin prayers and sayings, wrote out a "writ," and signed with it over the body of the patient. Our voluntary patient, who had no experience with the remedies before we began, sat in wide-eyed horror at first as students took turns speaking Latin and signing the cross over him. Afterwards, the students said that performing a remedy made clear the importance of action of the leech and reaction from the patient in enacting a cure, both physically and psychologically. Several commented that the potent smell of the drink produced reminded them of teas or other drinks from their home countries, while others remarked on the incantatory feeling when a student recited one of the prayers. It became obvious that the remedies are much more than words on a page; they draw on all the senses – sight, hearing, smell, and touch – to produce an overwhelming performance that attacks illness from every sensory pathway. Even after nearly a year of study on the Leechbooks, the effects of performance on the remedies only became obvious after trying one.

Leechbook III: A New Digital Edition

This digital edition is not meant as a comprehensive study of Leechbook III. As a senior thesis, it is constrained not only by time but also by my own limitations as a student paleographer, editor, and translator. That said, what the edition does do is supply a critical apparatus that follows Garner's call to "examine the charms on their own terms." Although a digital edition may not move directly towards performative engagements with the remedies, the editorial decisions I have made attempt to enable the reader to encounter each remedy in terms other than the divisionary classifications like "pagan magic" or "Christian belief," "charm" or "recipe," "Germanic" or "folkloric" material. For example, folios 109r-111r function as a Table of Contents that numbers each remedy as it appears in Leechbook III, and the remaining folios order, number, and introduce the remedies accordingly. I have hyperlinked each entry in the Table of Contents to its corresponding remedy as a means of facilitating use of the Leechbook III as a manual rather than as a narrative that must be read in sequence. Likewise, the Leechbook recipes, like those of all Anglo-Saxon medicine, are filled with over 200 common and uncommon plant names. Each plant ingredient has been hyperlinked to its corresponding entry in the Dictionary of Old English Plant Names, an in-depth database of Old English botanical vocabulary that includes congruent images from later herbariums. I have included the hyperlinks to show the extensive herbal knowledge of the Anglo-Saxons and the plethora of both native and foreign plant matter available to the Anglo-Saxon leech. For example, Chapter 8, "Wiþ bite" (For cancer), which lists forty-four different herbs:

viii. Wiþ bite: wyrc sealfe. Nim þas wyrte safenan and mersc mealwan and attorlaþan and weoþobend and hwerhwettan and clufwyrt and sigel hweorfan; hind heoloþan, mucgwyrt, wudu fillan, garclifan, wrætte, lufestice, mageþan, giþcorn, wad, finul, þefan þorn, selfæte, eoforþrote, cicena mete, dulhrune, wylisc moru, hnut beames leaf, næp, gearwe, hofe, hoc leaf, alexandre, fica, perfica, se fula wermod, sio greate banwyrt, ac leaf, wegbræde, grunde swelge, read clæfre, leahtric, þufe þistel, taru, hege clife, cluf þung, englisc moru, dynige. (Folios 113r-113v)

viii. For cancer: make a salve. Take the plants sabine and marsh mallow and fumitory and honeysuckle and squirting cucumber and buttercup and smooth cat's-ear; wood sage, mugwort, wild chervil, agrimony, madder, lovage, chamomile, caper spurge, woad, fennel, buckthorn, wild oat, stemless carline thistle, chickweed, pellitoeries of the wall, carrot, hazelnut tree's leaf, wild rape, yarrow, ground ivy, common mallow leaf, alexanders, fig, periwinkle, the foul wormwood, the great daisy, oak leaf, greater plantain, groundsel, red clover, leathric, smooth sow thistle, resin, cleavers, celery-leaved buttercup, parsnip, dynige.
The "Glossary" of this digital edition complements and extends these aims. In addition to a free-standing, alphabetical list of all plants and animal products used in Leechbook III, I have listed a lexicon of Old English medical applications. The actions of gathering ingredients and preparing a salve, ointment, or bath were as much a performance as were incantations and prayers, therefore it is just as important to have a clear understanding of these words as the other aspects of a remedy.

While the digital aspect of my edition of Leechbook III presents the material through a lens that might facilitate a different sort of reading practice (and possibly performance), I have attempted to present its content in proximity to both manuscript context and previous editions and translations. My transcription preserves the foliation of Royal 12 D, with the Old English of each folio set against facing-page translation for easy use by both Old English and Modern English readers. My translation seeks to present a conservative, but fresh alternative to those of Oswald T. Cockayne and Barbara M. Olds. Cockayne's translation of Leechbook III, which is contained in his 1865 Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft volume, is a product of its time. As Anne Van Arsdall (2008) writes, "Cockayne preferred a quaint and deliberately antiquated translation style, which made the medical remedies read like literary curiosities" (136).viii As an extreme example, Cockayne (1865) translates Chapter 38, "Wiþ þon þe wifum sie forstanden hira monaþ gecynd" (In case a woman's monthly cycle is hindered), half in Latin to avoid talking about a woman's period: "xxxviii. In case mulieribus menstrual suppressa sunt; boil in ale brooklime, and the two centauries…"(331). Olds' edition is an unpublished, 1984 PhD dissertation of Leechbook III that includes an excellent revision of many of Cockayne's "Victorianisms." However, I feel that Olds' translation is, at times, too "scientific." Olds attempts to map modern medical conditions that, to me, seem incompatible with the Leechbook's Old English terminology. For example, Olds titles Chapter 68 "Wið weden-heorte" (literally, "For mad-heart") as "For heart problems" and translates the phrase as "raging heart," imposing a modern medical diagnosis and Modern English translation to a phrase that is conceptually and lexically uncertain. I approach Leechbook III conservatively, allowing for some literal translation, particularly when there is no Modern English terminology or understanding as to what may be meant with respect to an illness, directive, or cure. Where Cockayne is, at times, over literal, I have relaxed the translation to better match Olds so that the disease or treatment may be better understood.ix Further, in moments at which the Old English is particularly perplexing, I cross-reference my translation with those of both Cockayne and Olds. By working between and against Cockayne and Olds, this edition attempts to create a translation that is attentive to the editorial history of Leechbook III as a way towards newly envisioning the text.

As alluded above, one of the biggest changes I made as an editor regards the punctuation of the text, and I will give a brief overview of the formatting choices and tools available on the website. It was important to me to maintain manuscript pagination after my work with the manuscript at the British Library, therefore the website follows manuscript foliation beginning on page 109r, the first page of Leechbook III in Royal 12 D. The Table of Contents (found on pages 109r-111r) is hyperlinked on the Old English side to take users directly to the chapter referenced for easy navigation. A navigation/search bar has also been included for scholars or students looking for a particular word, disease, or ingredient.x In the toolbar, I have created an abridged "Glossary" of ingredients and applications that are used throughout the Leechbook III. Although it is by no means a complete index of the medical and material vocabulary used in the text, the website aims to facilitate searches and research as simply as possible. Further, I have compiled a "Bibliography" of secondary sources that outline the scholarly history of Leechbook III and Anglo-Saxon medicine, generally speaking. Included in the bibliography are Cyril Wright's 1955 print facsimile of Royal 12 D, and both Cockayne and Olds' translations of Leechbook III. Also included are scholarly articles and books, many of which I have used myself in this introduction, to aid further research into the Leechbook III and other Old English medical texts. I have also included articles from the past ten years which point towards greater intertexuality between the Leechbooks and other areas of research such as gender, performance, magic, and history of medicine studies. While I make no claims to its comprehensibility, this bibliography should provide a good start to those interested in pursuing work with Leechbook III. Within the edition itself, all plant ingredients have been hyperlinked to the Dictionary of Old English Plant names, which provides in-depth research into the Old English botanical vocabulary including congruent images from later herbariums. Health and welfare has far-reaching implications in any society, so it is only fitting that the website provide far-reaching resources in reference to the Leechbook III.

This website aims to provide, if not a comprehensive resource, then an excellent platform upon which to begin a study of the Leechbook III. I have rarely encountered a text so truly captivating, mystifying, and enchanting as Leechbook III in my years of reading and literary study. It is a work that never ceases to surprise me and to provide yet another exciting path to explore. I am thrilled to present the Leechbook III: A New Digital Edition.


  1. Hereafter cited as Royal 12 D.
  2. Cyril Wright based his dating of 955 AD upon a comparison of the hand used in Royal 12 D xvii to that the hands responsible for the Parker Chronicle entries dating 892-924 AD and 925-955 AD. This helps to date the manuscript because the entries for 925-955 were most likely written all at once at the end of the period, due to lack of detailed events, meaning that the script for those entries, as well as that used in the Leechbooks, comes from 955 or just after. See Bald's Leechbook, 18-22.
  3. Stanley, 1974. 55.
  4. Cited in Jolly, 1996, 106.
  5. Leechbook II concludes with a colophon stating that someone named Cild compiled the remedies for another person named Bald. Bald's social status and profession remain unknown, though van Ardsdall presumes that he was a physician (2008, 135).
  6. See Chapter 40 (Xl, Folio 120r) and Chapter 18 (Xviii, Folio 115v), respectively.
  7. Garner, 2004, 20-21.
  8. For a comprehensive discussion of Cockayne's work as a translator, see Van Arsdall, 2002, 1-34.
  9. Perhaps the most obvious example of this comes from a comparison of Cockayne, Olds and my own translations of the remedies concerning women's monthly cycles and childbirth found in chapters 37 and 38 (folios 118v-119r).
  10. We are continuing to work on the navigation bar to better improve its ability to search the website, especially when dealing with Old English search terms. Please be patient as we sort out the best way to serve the website.

Works Cited

  1. Armovick, L. K. 2006. Written Reliquaries: The Resonance of Orality in Medieval English Texts. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  2. Arsdall, A. V. 2002. Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine. New York: Routledge. 1-34.
  3. ———. 2008. "Rehabilitating Medieval Medicine." 135-41. In Misconceptions About the Middle Ages. Edited by S. J. Harris and B. L. Grigsby. New York: Routledge.
  4. Buck, R. A. 2000. "Women And Language In The Anglo-Saxon Leechbooks." Women and Language 23.2. 41-50.
  5. Green, M. 2005. "Bodies, Gender, Health, Disease: Recent Work on Medieval Women's Medicine." Studies In Medieval And Renaissance History 17.2. 1-46.
  6. Cockayne, O. T. 1865. Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, Being a Collection of Documents … Illustrating the History of Science in This Country before the Norman Conquest. Vol. 2. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green.
  7. Garner, L. A. 2004. "Anglo-Saxon Charms in Performance." Oral Tradition 19.1. 20-42.
  8. Grattan, J. H G, and C. Singer. 1952. Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine; Illustrated Specially from the Semi-pagan Text Lacnunga. London: Oxford Univ.
  9. Grendon, F.  1909. Anglo-Saxon Charms. Folcroft, PA: Folcroft Library Editions.
  10. Jolly, K. L. 1996. Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context. Chapel Hill, NC: North Carolina State University Press.
  11. Olds, B. M. 1984. Leechbook III: A Critical Edition and Translation. Diss. University of Denver, 1984. Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertations.
  12. Rabin, A. 2010. "Ritual Magic or Legal Performance? Reconsidering an Old English Charm Against Theft." 177-98. In English Law Before Magna Carta: Felix Liebermann and Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, Edited by S.Jurasinski, L. Oliver, and A. Rabin. Leiden: Brill.
  13. Rubin, S. 1974. Medieval English Medicine. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.
  14. Storms, G. 1948. Anglo-Saxon Magic. The Hague: M. Nijhoff.
  15. Weston, L. M. C. 1995. "Women's Medicine, Women's Magic: The Old English Metrical Childbirth Charms." Modern Philology: A Journal Devoted To Research In Medieval And Modern Literature 92.3. 279-293.
  16. Wright, C. E. 1955. Bald's Leechbook (British Museum Royal Manuscript 12D. Xvii). Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger.