The Old English Charms


King Alfred's Court

Richard Scott Nokes

The extant corpus of Anglo-Saxon texts contains hundreds of Old English charms. Except for about a dozen "metrical charms" included in Dobbie's sixth volume of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, most scholars know little about the charms. With a few notable exceptions, the charms have been studied very little, though they have frequently found inclusion in Old English readers. For the Anglo-Saxons, however, these charms could represent the difference between sickness and health, between life and death. They were important to the Anglo-Saxons and, when we examine the manuscript evidence, we also find that they were probably of great importance to King Alfred the Great. One of the most important of the extant charm texts, Bald's Leechbook, was compiled during the Alfredian Renaissance, and very possibly at the request of Alfred himself.

The Old English charms are scattered around about two dozen manuscripts, but most of these manuscripts are texts dedicated to some other subject, and the charms are found in the margins or the flyleaves. Fewer than half-a-dozen texts dedicated solely to charms still exist today, and these texts are found in only two manuscripts. The most important charm text is found in British Library, Royal 12 D.xvii, and is commonly referred to as "Bald's Leechbook." Royal 12 D.xvii contains three separate texts, of which Bald's Leechbook usually refers to the first two texts, Leechbook I and Leechbook II. Leechbook III, while similar in structure and format to the first two books, is actually of a different origin than Bald's Leechbook (Wright 14).

Bald's Leechbook is called such because of the mention of "Bald" in a colophon at the end of Leechbook II. The colophon reads,

Bald habet hunc librum cild quem conscribere iussit;

Hic precor assidue cunctis in nomine Xristi.

Quo nullus tollat hunc librum perfidus a me.

Nec ui nec furto nec quodam famine falso.

Cur quia nulla hihi tam cara est optima gaza.

Quam cari libri quos Xristi gratia comit.

[Bald is the owner of this book, which he ordered Cild to write (compile?);

earnestly here I beg everyone in the name of Christ

that no deceitful person should take this book from me,

neither by force nor by stealth nor by any false statement.

Why? Because no richest treasure is so dear to me

As my dear books which the grace of Christ attends] (13)

Despite the fact that Bald is mentioned as the owner of the book, and Cild as the writer, we need not assume from this that they are the compilers. More likely, Cild copied the book from an exemplar for Bald.

Many of the issues of the origins of Bald's Leechbook were raised by C.E. Wright, who produced a facsimile edition of the Royal 12 D.xvii in 1955. Wright also raises the issue of the association between these two books and King Alfred the Great. After a lacuna in Book II (the end of chapter LVI, the beginning of chapter LXIV, and all the chapters in between are lost), we find some remedies that Elias, Patriarch of Jerusalem, sent to King Alfred. The text reads, "þis eal het þus secgan ælfrede cyninge domine helias patriarcha on gerusalem" [All this Elias, Patriarch of Jerusalem, commanded thus to be told to King Alfred]. This bit of text offers a great deal in the way of dating the text by the use of internal evidence, and Wright also points out that this passage demonstrates the closeness between this text and King Alfred. We have corroboration of traffic between Alfred and Elias in Asser's Life of King Alfred, particularly on medical matters. Asser, a Welsh member of Alfred's court, writes that Alfred was

plagued continually with the savage attacks of some unknown disease, such that he does not have even a single hour of peace in which he does not either suffer from the disease itself or else, gloomily dreading it, is not driven almost to despair. (Keynes 101)

In the same paragraph, Asser writes that he himself had seen and read letters and gifts sent by Elias. While he does not explicitly state that the contents of the letters included medical remedies (he is instead making a point about Alfred's far-flung international involvement), his mention of Alfred's malady in conjunction with the letters of Elias is certainly suggestive. Based upon this passage, Wright speculates that

[t]he very full and precise recording of this in Bald's Leechbook brings that work in its original form of Books I and II very closely into relation with Alfred or at any rate his reign and perhaps even with his circle, and it is indeed not improbable that it does in fact belong to the large corpus of works which were inspired by the king and formed part of the attempt which he made to effect an intellectual recovery after the devastation occasioned by the Danish wars ... (18)

Therefore, while a direct connection between Alfred and the Leechbook is impossible to prove, such a connection is a very strong possibility according to Wright.

Wright also raises the issue of Anglo-Saxon physicians, though he chooses not to dwell on it. In the Leechbook, two physicians with Germanic male names, presumably Anglo-Saxons, are credited. The first, found in Book I, fol. 45v, is Oxa, whose name is found in the phrase "Oxa lærde þisne læcedom" [Oxa taught this leechdom]. The second is Dun, found in Book II, fol. 106v, in the phrase "Wiþ lungen adle læcedom Dun tæhte" [Dun taught this leechdom against lung disease]. Beyond these two references, nothing more is known for certain about these figures Oxa and Dun. Wright takes their presence here, however, as confirmation that a professional class of leeches had developed at the time and the remedies affiliated with them had passed into the general corpus (Wright 16).

Wright is therefore in partial agreement with the main arguments of this study. He relegates Cild to the relatively minor role of scribe, but suggests through implication that Bald was the main force behind the compilation of the books. Wright acknowledges some kind of link between Bald's Leechbook and the court of King Alfred the Great. He is also willing to speculate that the text might have arisen out of the intellectual climate fostered by Alfred. Finally, he acknowledges Anglo-Saxon sources for these remedies and, even if he shows contempt for their abilities, sees the existence of a native class of physicians (Wright 13-18). In her article, "Variant Versions of the Old English Medical Remedies and the Compilation of Balds Leechbook," Audrey Meaney agrees that the original copies of Books I and II were compiled during the reign of Alfred, and she goes even further to suggest that the original fair copy was also produced during Alfred's reign, by Cild for Bald (236).

While other scholars have also described the physical manuscript of Bald's Leechbook, N.R. Ker and Wright occupy the primary positions; Ker because of the scope and reliability of his Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon and Wright because the physical text was of paramount importance to him in editing a facsimile edition. Even in these two representative sources, however, we see that the Leechbook has generally been taken as a whole, and even those who are careful to differentiate between Bald's Leechbook proper (Books I and II) and Leechbook III give scant attention to the differences between Books I and II.

In order to demonstrate that the texts of Books I and II were originally compiled in the atmosphere of the Alfredian Renaissance, we must first establish that the original texts can be dated to that approximate time. In order to establish this fact, we must first show that Book I and Book II were compiled at about the same time, then demonstrate that this time frame is compatible with an Alfredian origin. Fortunately, as I noted above, we have the internal evidence of references to both King Alfred and Elias of Jerusalem, both of which help us put the dating of the original text into context.

Obviously, the text had to be produced during or after the reigns of Alfred and Elias. Alfred reigned from 871-99, and as he is clearly referred to as "cyninge" in the manuscript, the original compilation cannot be before 871. Furthermore, the dates we have for the office of Elias are c.879 907 (Keynes 270), so the date must be pushed back even further, to 879 at the earliest. Therefore, we cannot have a date of compilation any earlier than the end of the ninth century (s. x ex), and very possibly the original compilation occurred in the tenth century.

Another possibility is that the text has a much earlier origin, and the story of Elias sending remedies to Alfred was a late ninth-century addition. This scenario is the one presented by Godfrid Storms, who suspects that Oxa and Dun were the originators of the Ur-compilation. He writes,

In Oxa and Dun we may suspect two Anglo-Saxon physicians who compiled books of medicine for their own use from the works of various classical authors ... and they added what they had learned by their own experience or from oral tradition. It is impossible to tell at what time, in what century, lived those two Anglo-Saxon medicine-men who first compiled their practical lore. In the eighth century, perhaps, or even earlier.... We are certain of one late ninth century addition in sections LXIV of Book II, where there are some prescriptions said to originate from Dominus Helius, patriarch at Jerusalem.... The story of this incident was added to Book II (13-14).

Thus, Storms sees the treatment of these remedies at King Alfred's court as being simply another small emendation, and not the primary compilation as others have suggested.

As we will note later, Storms correctly conjectures that the text almost certainly went through various stages of emendation. We have no evidence, however, to suggest that the emendation of the text occurred before the reign of King Alfred, and much evidence to suggest that the emendations were made after the table of contents was already formed. Showing that the remedies generally had pre-Alfredian origins is irrelevant to the issue, as no one is alleging that Alfred had some sort of research laboratory, and his court was discovering new remedies through experimentation. If we assume that these two texts are wholly or mostly compilations, then by necessity most of the remedies would have to pre-date the compilation. Storms argues that "[t]owards that end of both books we meet with a number of prescriptions that differ from the preceding ones," and that this "number" of prescriptions all come from Oxa and Dun (13). The text, however, does not claim that Oxa and Dun were the originators of a "number" of the remedies, but only one remedy for Dun and two for Oxa. The phrase "Oxa lærde þisne læcedom" [Oxa taught this leechdom] occurs only twice in Chapter XLVII of Book I, and the phrase "Wiþ lungen adle læcedom Dun tæhte" [Against lung disease a leechdom that Dun taught] occurs only once in Chapter LXV of Book II. We have no reason to assume, simply because of these three remedies, that they compiled all of the charms at the end. Furthermore, Oxa's remedies are in Book I, which deals with external medicine, while Dun's remedy is in Book II, which deals with internal medicine. If Storms is correct, then Oxa would have collected only remedies for external afflictions, while Dun would have collected only remedies for internal afflictions. Rather than positing these two men as early specialists in internal or external medicine, Occam's Razor suggests that each is only responsible for one or a few charms, and that they were placed in their respective books by the ninth-century compilers.

We have now narrowed the original compilation date to a period between the beginning of the reign of Elias of Jerusalem (879) and the scribal production of our extant manuscript. The year 879 is almost assuredly an overly-early date, since we need to allow for time for communications between Alfred and Elias, then for the compilation of those remedies into the text of Book I. An earliest date in the very early 890's is more likely, since Asser's text was written in 893 (Keynes 41), and by that time some correspondence had already passed between Alfred and Elias. In order to narrow our date further, we must establish the date for production of the existing manuscript.

As was mentioned above, Ker dates the manuscript in about the middle of the tenth-century (s. x med). He offers as evidence not only paleographic evidence, but also the recurrence of the hand in the Parker Chronicle, annals 925-55. Wright refines that date slightly, recording his analysis of the manuscript in greater detail than Ker. He too identifies the hand in the Parker Chronicle 925-55 as identical to that of Royal 12.D.xvii. He also notes that the content of the Parker Chronicle during those years is "the most meagre record for no less than three reigns," whereas the preceding hand, years 892-924, "are full and circumstantial, written with quite a wealth of detail" (22). From this dearth of detail in the annals written by our scribe Wright concludes that the annals for 925-55 were not written year-by-year, but rather in a single block in 955 or a little after. Therefore, we know that the scribe of our manuscript was alive and active during this time period. Furthermore, Wright guesses that the Royal 12.D.xvii manuscript was written in the decade before c. 960. A more recent work concentrating on the Parker Chronicle, edited by Janet M. Bately, points out that the script in these annals is very even, further indication that they were all written at the same time (Bately xxxv). She also argues that the same scribe also made an entry for 956, which was subsequently erased (Bately xxxv). While this 956 entry pushes our date for the scribe forward another year, the movement is not very significant, and still indicates that this section of the Parker Chronicle was produced in the middle of the tenth century. She indicates that "[t]he script used by scribe 3 is the Square minuscule typical of the 940s and 950s in general" (xxxv), suggesting that the scribe was not writing at too late a date.

We can therefore estimate the parameters for the production of Bald's Leechbook as being between c. 890 and c. 960, a stretch of seventy years. If the text were compiled early in this period, then circumstantial evidence very strongly suggests a link between the production of the text and the Alfredian renaissance. If, however, the text were produced later in the period, such as in the 940's or 950's, then we are looking at many decades past the reign and direct influence of Alfred. Using the paleographic evidence of Royal 12 D.xvii cannot help us narrow this window for original compilation. We have a strong indication, however, that Alfred was in some way involved in the original compilation and writing, as is evidenced by the mention of him in the text.

To modern eyes, the mention of Alfred is not particularly surprising. After all, he is Alfred the Great, and as such merits mention whenever a text can be linked to him. The cult of King Alfred, as Keynes and Lapidge call it, however, did not really rise until the modern era. While Alfred was not an insignificant king to the Anglo-Saxons, he was not the epitome of the warrior/scholar monarch he has come to represent today. In their introduction to Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and other Contemporary Sources, Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge trace the popularity of Alfred through history. As they point out, the first references to Alfred as "the Great" do not appear until the sixteenth century, centuries after the Anglo-Saxon period had ended. While Asser praises Alfred highly, this praise is not surprising as Alfred was his patron. Alfred received positive mention from Anglo-Saxons, but we have no evidence to show that he was particularly exalted by his countrymen after his reign. They note that King Æþelred (978-1016) named all of his sons after earlier kings, but did not use Alfred's name until his eighth and final son was born, after even the name "Edward," in whose death Æþelred was widely believed to have conspired. Unlike King Edward the Martyr (c.962-79), Alfred was not popularly received as a saint. In the years following his reign, Alfred's reputation was as a good king, but not one of particular note. As Keynes and Lapidge stated, there is "no evidence from the Anglo-Saxon period that Alfred was raised above his fellow kings in the estimation of his countrymen" (45).

What are we to make, then, of the mention of Alfred found in Book II? No other Anglo-Saxon king is mentioned by name in the Leechbook. As I noted above, among Anglo-Saxons only Oxa and Dun have remedies attributed to them. For an Anglo-Saxon writer to have mentioned Alfred here is a little odd when we step away from our modern notions of Alfred as "the Great" and instead consider him as the Anglo-Saxons did. The writers mentioned Alfred because they were living close enough to his own time that they knew the provenance of the remedies associated with him and respected him enough to bother including those origins. Furthermore, they were working as a team of at least two writers. The cooperation of a team of people on a project of this scope implies institutional support of the type one might find Alfred providing. Therefore, while proving that the compilers put together Bald's Leechbook as part of Alfred's educational and intellectual policies is not possible, the sum of the evidence very strongly suggests that Bald's Leechbook was produced in the intellectual climate of the Alfredian renaissance, and perhaps by the will of King Alfred himself.

(Wayne State University)


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The Old English Charms and King Alfred's Court

Richard Scott Nokes

This article argues that one of the most important of the extant Old English charm texts, Bald's Leechbook, was compiled during the Alfredian Renaissance, and very possibly at the request of Alfred himself. Though the manuscript itself was scribed at a later date, evidence suggests that the initial compilation of Bald's Leechbook was either during or shortly following the reign of King Alfred. An internal reference to King Alfred demonstrates that the Leechbook was not compiled before his reign, and other manuscript evidence shows that it could not have been compiled long after. Other evidence suggests that the compilation was done by a team of compilers from a wide variety of sources, and could not have been the work of a single man, implying that the Leechbook was created with institutional support. The sum of the evidence very strongly suggests that Bald's Leechbook was produced in the intellectual climate of the Alfredian renaissance, and perhaps by the will of King Alfred himself.

Key Words: Old English Charms, Anglo-Saxon, Bald's Leechbook, King Alfred, Alfredian Renaissance.