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Alfred's great prescription


Alfred's great prescription

Steve Ainsworth looks at how an early book on medicines is likely to have helped in the treatment of a former monarch

When Richard III’s tomb was discovered under a Leicester car park in 2012, it was an archaeological sensation. Alas, not every long-lost English king’s body has enjoyed such a similar rescue and reverential reburial.

When Alfred the Great’s grave was discovered in 1788 at Hyde Abbey in Winchester, the finders were not a team of archaeologists but a work party of prisoners clearing rubble. By the time the authorities came to hear of the find, the stone sarcophagus had been smashed to pieces, the lead covering of the coffin had been stripped and sold, and any contents – not least the bones of the long-dead king – had been scattered to the four winds.

Mystery illness
Despite his acknowledged greatness as a monarch, Alfred suffered from mystery illnesses throughout his life – perhaps colitis, perhaps diverticulitis. But at least he had access to medical care and to the very earliest of Britain’s pharmacopoeias: Bald’s Leechbook. Written in Old English and Latin, the first two parts of Bald’s Leechbook, plus the book known as Leechbook III, were compiled during Alfred’s reign. The book takes its name from a Latin inscription at the end of Leechbook III that begins “Bald habet hunc librum Cild quem conscribere iussit” (“Bald owns this book which he ordered Cild to compile”). The identities of Bald and Cild are unknown.

A leechbook, or ‘laeceboc’ in the original spelling, means a physician’s book. In other words, a leech was a doctor – the annelid worm taking its name from its use by healers, not the other way around.

Surviving text
The text survives in only a single manuscript; previously part of the Old Royal Library, the book was presented to the British Museum by George II in 1757.

Leechbook III reflects most closely the early medical practice of the Anglo-Saxons before it became far more heavily influenced by Mediterranean ideas about medicine. Bald’s Leechbook, in contrast, illustrates a fusion of Anglo-Saxon and Mediterranean practices, as well as what was known as the Lacnunga (an Old English word meaning remedies) – a miscellaneous collection of medical items which the writer thought worthy of note.

A recommended treatment for headache was to bind a stalk of crosswort to the head with a red cloth. A mixture of eggs, wine and fennel root was believed to be good for chilblains – a common enough complaint in the days before central heating. As for ‘gentlemen’s problems’ – forget Viagra. The suggested remedy for male impotence was the common herb agrimony, which, boiled in milk, could excite a man who was ‘insufficiently virile’. Strangely, however, when simply boiled in Welsh beer, agrimony was claimed to have exactly the opposite effect.

However, not all recipes were so simple. The remedy for shingles, for example, comprised a potion using the bark of no fewer than 15 trees: ash, aspen, apple, maple, elder, willow, sallow, myrtle, wych-elm, oak, blackthorn, birch, olive, dogwood and quickbeam.

Tracking those ingredients down would no doubt have left the Anglo-Saxon healer with aching feet. But, no worries, there was a remedy for that too: just collect the leaves of elder, waybroad and mugwort, pound them together and apply the poultice to the feet.

And, if searching for all those herbs, leaves and barks set one on the road to insanity then, naturally, there’s a cure for that as well: “In case a man be a lunatic; take the skin of a mereswine or porpoise, work it into a whip, swinge the man therewith, soon he will be well. Amen.”

Maybe in amongst the multitude of strange and unfamiliar recipes there are some which really are effective but which have passed unnoticed in the modern age.

In March last year, the Leechbook made news headlines when one of its recipes – which included garlic and the bile from a bullock’s stomach – was tested by Freya Harrison, a microbiologist at the University of Nottingham, as a potential agent for use against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It was reportedly 90 per cent effective – good, but probably not quite good enough.

At least any of today’s high street pharmacists who want to work their way through this ancient text in search of any potentially valuable discovery need not trouble to learn Latin or Old English. The Reverend Oswald Cockayne back in 1865 provided a translation (accessible online as ‘Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft’).

One of the most interesting observations that Cockayne makes in the preface to his work is about the international nature of the drugs industry even as far back as the 9th century. King Alfred sought prescription remedies for his illnesses from as far afield as Jerusalem.

Perhaps Alfred’s prescription from the Patriarch of Jerusalem did some good – alhough the king still only lived to the age of 50. Alfred died in 899 AD. No one knows the cause of his death – and now, thanks to the handiwork of those prisoners, we can be sure that no-one ever will.

How Richard III died, however, is no mystery. Eleven wounds, eight of them to the skull, put an end to him at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. It’s certain that no prescription could have possibly put him back on his feet.

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