The Influence of Latin in Early Anglo-Saxon Medicine

Richard Hamid

copyright 2001

Medicine and Magic

            The practice of medicine in early Anglo-Saxon history is not relegated to the backwards world of hocus-pocus magic and spells, as is often thought, but is rather a very serious discipline.  Practitioners of the science were learned physicians and, as the evidence suggests, had two main methods for the rational treatment of the sick:  1) a pharmacopoeia consisting of plant origin, and 2) surgery.

            As Blackwell suggests, the pharmacopoeia of the Anglo-Saxon physician was very large and contained many exotic names for ingredients due to the inheritance of Latin plants used for treatments (305).  Although most were useless and harmful, some were very successful in treatment ie. garlic for bacterial infection, iron salts to replace iron deficiency from malaria, and lichens for tuberculosis (305).  Surgery was also practiced by physicians, as the evidence suggests, through such procedures as the lancing of abscesses, amputations due to gangrene, and sutures for hare-lip (305).

            Where these rational forms of treatment fail, mostly due to infections from dirty needles, the irrational practice of magic was often invoked (305).  Magic is often associated with the medicine of early Anglo-Saxon period on account of a major text, The Lacnunga, which survives from the period that mixes both medicine and magic. Because there are not a lot of complete medical texts which survive, it appears that this book was used as a major text by physicians; however, this is not the case.  This text appears to be used more by the general public instead of by trained practitioners as the references to pagan gods and spells indicate.  It is interesting to note that Old English does not have one specific term for magic but for aspects of it (Blackwell 298).  Medicine, on the other hand, has a very large vocabulary.   


The texts of the early Anglo-Saxon practitioners were written in both Old English and Latin.  The Old English medical manuscripts, for the most part, are merely translations of the Latin works.  It is no wonder that the terminology of Old English medicine primarily consists of Latin.  Approximately five hundred pages survive from this period which, considering the loss of texts, indicates a large amount of medical content (Blackwell 304).  Through these texts, Old English medical vocabulary grew from Latin.       

            Knowledge for the treatment of illness by practitioners of medicine in England was as advanced as in any other part of the Western world due to the inheritance of the texts of classical Graeco-Roman medical tradition which had not evolved and was still practiced (Grattan 4).  The spread of this knowledge came about through Christian missions from the Mediterranean culture, primarily Italy (Grattan 4).  This medical knowledge prior to the twelfth century in Anglo-Saxon England did not improve since the high point of Greek study in the second century A.D. but, as Grattan notes, was in a state of decay:  “Looking at the whole matter from another angle, we may contemplate the deterioration of rational Greek medicine by contact with folk-elements—Mediterranean, Near Eastern, and Northern—as an incident in a vast cultural movement extending through the ages” (4).  The native Anglo-Saxon medicine was nothing more than a hodgepodge of Greek medicine which was corrupted firstly by elements of Roman religion, secondly by Mediterranean folk elements, and thirdly by both religious and magical ideas imported to the Roman world by Christian and other agencies (Grattan 4).  This “new-age” medicine would not change until the reintroduction of Greek thought into the Western world in the eleventh through fourteenth centuries through works in Latin which were translated in Arabic due to the Moslem world (Grattan 4). 

The information of medical texts in England, Cameron argues in “The Sources of Medical Knowledge in Anglo-Saxon England,” would be found in traditional manuscripts of two types (144).  The first type of manuscript contains non-medical texts but have medical material on empty pages and margins, for example the Ramsey Scientific Compendium (144).  The second type of manuscript is devoted to medical material alone, for example Bald’s Leechbook (144).

Within the manuscripts at this time, medical works can be found by numerous classical sources which were chiefly influenced both directly and indirectly by Galen as Cameron lists in his essay.  These include the works of such important writers as:  Dioscorides, Philumenus, Philagrius of Epirus, Oribasius, Vindicianus, Theodorus Priscianus, Pseudo-Apuleius, Marcellus of Bordeaux, Caelius Aurelianus, Cassius Felix, Alexander of Tralles, Practica Alexandri, Pliny the Elder, and Isidore of Seville (137-142).

Semantics of Anglo-Saxon Plant Names

            The direct influence and dependence of the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary of medicine on the Graeco-Roman tradition of medicine in England is not more evident as in the names of plants of the pharmacopoeia.  All of the descriptions of plants, notes Grattan, found in the early Anglo-Saxon texts on medicine are translated and many of the names of plants used in treatments are transliterated from works which had long existed in Latin (80). The Anglo-Saxons did not contribute any new observations in terms of plants, even native plants, until approximately 1120 (80).  Confirmation of this fact is found in the main herbal texts of the period:  De material medica, and the Herbarius.  As a result, most of the plants studied by the physicians and used for treatment were insignificant due to the fact that the flora in England was and still is very different from that of Italy where the texts originate (81).  

            To determine plant names of English origin in the pharmacopoeia is a nearly impossible task due to the fact that even simple terms derive from Latin, as the following words indicate (Grattan 84):

English                                                A.S.                                                     Latin

beet                                                      bete                                                      beta

chestnut                                                cisten beam                                          castanea

lily                                                        lilie                                                       lilium    

mint                                                      minte                                                    mentha

rose                                                      rose                                                      rosa

As a result, many mistakes are made in classifying the plants of England as belonging to the same species as in Italy.  These mistakes are mainly due to a lack of a standard classification system (ie. Linnaean) and errors in copying [ie. 1. the drawing of  English plants, although different Latin species, with an incorrect Latin name ex. hennebelle,  and 2. the distortion of Latin words with Latin figures ex. daffodil from Latin asphodel with picture of Mediterranean  asphodel] (Grattan 82-83).  Plant names of the pharmacopoeia are thus:  1) similar plants of the same species ie. Latin:  linum, mentha, pirus, rosa, ruta, A.S.:  linsæd, minte, pirige, rose, rude, English:  linseed, mint, pear, rose, rue, 2) similar yet different species ie. Latin:  feniculum, lubestica, A.S.:  finol, lufestice, English: fennel, lovage, and 3) completely different species ie. Latin:  beta, confirma, malva, petroselinum, A.S.:  bete, confirma, mealwe, petersilie, English:  beet, comfrey, mallow, parsley (Grattan 84).  

            Because of the ancient Latin medical treatments, many plants needed to be imported.  In the Lacnunga, of the one hundred and twenty plants mentioned approximately eighty were in use (Grattan 88). Of these eighty, nearly fifty-three were imports including aloes, ginger, hemp etc., with the remainder of plant names lost through time (Grattan 88-89).   

For Further Reading

Primary Sources:

Cameron, Laurence.  “Medical Literature and Medicine.”   The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of

Anglo-Saxon England.  Ed. Michael Lapidge, et al.  Great Britain :  Blackwell, 1999.    

- - -. “The Sources of Medical Knowledge in Anglo-Saxon England.” Anglo-Saxon

England vol. 11.  Cambridge: UP, 1983. 135-55

Grattan, J.H.G. and Charles Singer.  Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine.  London:  OUP, 1952.

Meaney, Audrey.  “Magic.”  The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England.  Ed.

Michael Lapidge, et al.  Great Britain :  Blackwell, 1999.   

Anglo-Saxon Medicine:

Bonser, Wilfrid.  The Medical Background of Anglo-Saxon England.  London:  OUP, 1963.

Cameron, M.L. “Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine.”  Anglo-Saxon England vol. 17. 

Cambridge: UP, 1988.  191-216  

---.  Anglo-Saxon Medicine.  Cambridge: CUP, 1993.