Wið færstice is an Old English medical text surviving in the collection known now as Lacnunga. Wið færstice means 'against a sudden/violent stabbing pain'; and according to Grendon, a famous scholar who has published a collection of Anglo-Saxon charms, says, “the charm is intended to cure a sudden twinge or stitch, possibly rheumatism that can be due to being shot by witches, elves, and other spirits that fly through the air.” Scholars have often sought to identify this as rheumatism, but other possibilities should not be excluded. The remedy describes how to make a salve, but its main interest lies in the unique charm which follows. This describes how the færstice has been caused by the projectiles of 'mighty women' (ða mihtigan wif), whom the healer will combat. The charm also mentions elves and provides the only attestation outside personal names of the Old English form of the name of the Old Norse gods, the Æsir.
As with many old Anglo-Saxon charms, it is presumed that physical gestures were intended to accompany the recitation of the text. In this case, the Wið færstice is intended to be accompanied by boiling feverfew, red nettle grown in grain, and plantains, then boiling it all in a bowl of butter. A knife is dipped into the potion and then rubbed against the source of pain. Despite the popular use of the aforementioned herbs in forms of remedial healing, it is important to note that the usage of these plants may have been more symbolic than practical. Many old Anglo-Saxon charms draw upon the symbolism of both pagan traditions as well as ancient Christian traditions, and the usage of plants in the texts were likely related to these religious references.
M.L. Cameron wrote in an article titled, Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Magic, “For too long we have believed that the past was filled more with superstition and stupidities than with experienced judgments about medicine.” Anglo-Saxon charms often contain three elements: the recitation or incantation of the actual charm, spiritual invocation, and medicinal herbs. This charm is believed to have been an effective cure for rheumatism, muscle cramps, joint pain, a “stitch in the side’ from overexertion, or an angina pain. The first element of the charm is the chanting or singing that brings a magical aspect or pagan influence to the charm. The second part is invoking either the gods or God, attempting to receive help in recovery. The third element is crucial for this charm. The first two parts were simply part of the religious aspect, the herbs, however, are what made this charm work. The three herbs that are boiled in butter and then smeared on the affected area could very well stood alone without the incantation and calling God and/or nature to help the patient. The Anglo-Saxons were a religious people, being part of a time in history when religion was crucial and defined you. According to Karen Jolly, in her book "Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context, the only thing that matters when it comes to charms is, "how to invoke the hidden virtues of natural ingredients to counteract the visible and invisible causes of a patient’s complaint and to alleviate the symptoms of both physical and mental-spiritual distress." Nowadays, people view these charms as something simply ridiculous, however, one can see that they whole-heartedly believed that all three elements were crucial and were the only way that one could be cured. It turns out that despite having the incantation and invocation, the herbal remedy was medically relevant.
The poem, translated roughly from its Anglo-Saxon roots, reads as follows:
Against a sudden stitch, feverfew and the red nettle that grows by means of a building, and plantain; boil in butter.
- Loud were they--oh! loud, When they rode over the hill;
- single-minded they were when they rode over the land.
- Shield yourself now: this evil, will be able to survive.
- Out, little spear, if you are here within
- I stood under a linden-wood shield, under a light shield, 5
- where those mighty women arrayed their forces
- and screaming they sent spears.
- To another of them I intend to send in turn
- a flying spear back against them
- Out, little spear, if it is here within 10
- A smith sat, forged a little sax
- iron weapons, exceedingly wonderful.
- Out, little spear, if you are here within.
- Six smiths sat, making deadly spears.
- Out, little spear, not in, spear. 15
- If you are here within piece of iron,
- or shot in flesh or shot in blood
- the work of a witch, it shall melt.
- If you were shot in the skin or were shot in the body
- or were shot in the bone or were shot in the blood 20
- or were shot in a limb, never would your life be harmed;
- if it were shot of evil spirits or if it were shot of elves
- or if it were shot of a witch, I will help you now
- This is a remedy to you for a shot of evil spirits, this is a remedy to you for a shot of elves,
- his is a remedy to you for a shot of a witch; I will help you. 25
- Fly there spear into the mountain top.
- You be healthy, may God help you.
- Then take that sax, put into the liquid.
- Hall, Alaric, 'The Meanings of Elf and Elves in Medieval England' (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Glasgow, 2004), pp. 10–12
- Pettit, E. (2001). Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers from British Library MS Harley 585: The ‘Lacnunga’, 2 vols., Lewiston and Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press.
- The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2009. 40-42. Print
- Cameron, M. L. “Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Magic.” Anglo-Saxon England. 1988. 191-215.
- Cameron, M.L. "Anglo-Saxon Medicine." Cambridge University Press. 1993.
- Jolly, Karen Louise. “Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context.” The University of North Carolina Press. 1996.
- McGillivray, Murray. “Metrical Charm 4: To Stop a Stabbing Pain (“For a Sudden Stitch”).” Online Corpus of Old English Poetry. 12/12/07.
[Edition, translation, commentary and bibliography]