Bald's Leechbook

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A facsimile page of Bald's Leechbook.

Bald's Leechbook (also known as Medicinale Anglicum) is an Old English medical text in English and old Latin probably compiled in the mid-tenth century,[1] possibly under the influence of Alfred the Great's educational reforms.[2]

The term Leechbook is not related to leeches as such, although they were used in ancient medicine, but a modernisation of the Old English word lǣċe-bōc ('book of medical prescriptions', literally Old English lǣċe 'physician' + bōc).[3]

The Leechbook's name comes from its owner; a Latin verse colophon at the end of the second book begins Bald habet hunc librum Cild quem conscribere iussit, meaning "Bald owns this book which he ordered Cild to compile."[2]

The text survives in only one manuscript, which is in the British Library in London, England, and can be viewed in digitised form online.[1][4] The manuscript contains a further medical text, called Leechbook III, which is also covered in this article.

Structure and content[edit]

Both of the books of Bald's Leechbook are organised in a head-to-foot order, but the first book deals with external maladies and the second with internal disorders. Cameron notes, "this separation of external and internal diseases may be unique in medieval medical texts".[5]: 42 

Cameron notes, "in Bald's Leechbook is the only plastic surgery mentioned in Anglo-Saxon records".[5]: 169  The recipe in question prescribes surgery for a cleft lip and palate.[6]: vol I ch 13 p57 [7]: vol I ch 13 p56 

Cameron also notes that of the Old English Medical compilations "Leechbook III reflects most closely the medical practice of the Anglo-Saxons while they were still relatively free of Mediterranean influences," in contrast to Bald's Leechbook, which "shows a conscious effort to transfer to Anglo-Saxon practice what one physician considered most useful in native and Mediterranean medicine," and the Lacnunga, which is "a sort of commonplace book with no other apparent aim than to record whatever items of medical interest came to the scribe's attention".[5]: 35 .

Oswald Cockayne, who edited and translated the Leechbook in 1865, made note in his introduction of what he termed 'a Norse element' in the text, and gave as example words such as torbegete, rudniolin, ons worm, and Fornets palm.[7]: 32 [6]: 43 


One cure for headache was to bind a stalk of crosswort to the head with a red kerchief. Chilblains were treated with a mix of eggs, wine, and fennel root. Agrimony was cited as a cure for male impotence - when boiled in milk, it could excite a man who was "insufficiently virile"; when boiled in Welsh beer, it would have the opposite effect. The remedy for shingles comprised a potion using the bark of 15 trees: aspen, apple, maple, elder, willow, sallow, myrtle, wych elm, oak, blackthorn, birch, olive, dogwood, ash, and quickbeam.[8]

A remedy for aching feet called for leaves of elder, waybroad and mugwort to be pounded together, applied to the feet, then the feet bound.[6]: 69  In another, after offering a ritualistic cure for a horse in pain requiring the words "Bless all the works of the Lord of lords" to be inscribed on the handle of a dagger, the author adds that the pain may have been caused by an elf.[9]

Modern applications[edit]

In March 2015 it was reported that Bald's eyesalve recipe  – garlic, leeks, wine, and the bile from a cow's stomach left in a brass bowl for nine days – was tested in vitro and found to be as effective against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) as vancomycin, the antibiotic used for MRSA. The ingredients separately were not effective, but the combination was.[10][11]

It has been suggested that we can learn a lot from mediaeval medicine because wounds must have been ubiquitous in agrarian societies: "If you cut yourself with a scythe, it was highly likely that you'd get an infection." In particular, the use of leeches and maggots is coming into re-use in the 21st century.[12]

Contents and provenance of the manuscript[edit]

Bald's Leechbook and Leechbook III survive only in one manuscript, Royal 12 D. xvii, in the British Library, London and viewable online.[1] The manuscript was written by the scribe who entered the batch of annals for 925–55 into the Parker Chronicle. This suggests that Royal 12 D. xvii is also from the mid-10th century. Since the annals were probably produced in Winchester, Royal 12 D. xvii was presumably produced there too.[13][4]

  • ff. 1-6v Table of Contents to Leechbook i; pr. Cockayne vol. 2, pp. 2–16
  • ff. 6v-58v Leechbook i; pr. Cockayne vol. 2, pp. 18–156
  • ff. 58v-65 Table of Contents to Leechbook ii; pr Cockayne vol. 2, pp. 158–174
  • ff. 65-109 Leechbook ii; 68 recipes. pr Cockayne 176-298. Cockayne provides missing chapter between 56 and 64 from London, BL, Harley 55. Chapter 64 is glossed as having been sent along with exotic medicines from Patriarch Elias of Jerusalem to Alfred the Great, which is the basis for the book's association with the Alfredian court.
  • f. 109 A metrical Latin Colophon naming Bald as the owner of the book, and Cild as the compiler.
  • ff. 109-127v "Leechbook iii." A collection of 73 medicinal recipes not associated with Bald due to its location after the metrical colophon.
  • ff. 127v-end De urinis ?

Editions and facsimiles[edit]

Thomas Oswald Cockayne (ed. & transl.) (1865). "Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland - The Middle Ages - Volume II: Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England, books i, ii, and iii". Internet Archive. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green. Digitised online, original and translation side-by-side.

Leonhardi, Günther. Kleinere angelsächsische Denkmäler I, Bibliothek der angelsächsischen Prosa 6, Kassel, 1905.

Wright, C. E., ed. Bald’s Leechbook: British Museum Royal manuscript 12 D.xvii, with appendix by R. Quirk. Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile 5, Copenhagen : Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1955

Digital facsimile at the British Library

See also[edit]

  • Meaney, A. L. 'Variant Versions of Old English Medical Remedies and the Compilation of Bald's Leechbook, Anglo-Saxon England 13 (1984) pp. 235–68.
  • Payne, J. F. English Medicine in Anglo-Saxon Times, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904.
  • Pettit, E. Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers from British Library MS Harley 585: The ‘Lacnunga’, 2 vols., Lewiston and Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. [Edition, with translation and commentary, of an Anglo-Saxon medical compendium that includes many variant versions of remedies also found in Bald's Leechbook.]


  1. ^ a b c "Royal MS 12 D XVII:Bald's Leechbook". The British Library - Digitised Manuscripts. c. 950. Retrieved 26 February 2023.
  2. ^ a b Nokes, Richard Scott 'The several compilers of Bald's Leechbook' in Anglo-Saxon England 33 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 51-76
  3. ^ Clark Hall, J. R. (1969). A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. 4th rev. edn by Herbet D. Meritt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. s.vv.
  4. ^ a b N. R. Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957, reprint with addenda 1990) 332–3 [no. 264].
  5. ^ a b c Cameron, M. L. (1993). Anglo-Saxon Medicine. University of Cambridge. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511518706. ISBN 978-0-511-51870-6. OCLC 704520736.
  6. ^ a b c Thomas Oswald Cockayne (ed. & transl.) (1865). "Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland - The Middle Ages - Volume II: Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England, books i, ii, and iii". Internet Archive. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green. Digitised online, original and translation side-by-side.
  7. ^ a b Cockayne, Thomas Oswald, ed. (15 November 2012). Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: Being a Collection of Documents Illustrating the History of Science in this Country Before the Norman Conquest. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-04308-3.
  8. ^ Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger: The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium Little, Brown, 2000 ISBN 0-316-51157-9
  9. ^ John McKinnell; Daniel Anlezark (2011). Myths, Legends, and Heroes: Essays on Old Norse and Old English Literature in Honour of John McKinnell. University of Toronto Press. p. 40. ISBN 978-0-8020-9947-1.
  10. ^ Clare Wilson (30 March 2015). "Anglo Saxon remedy kills hospital superbug MRSA". New Scientist.
  11. ^ Harrison, Freya; Connelly, Erin (2019). "Could Medieval Medicine Help the Fight Against Antimicrobial Resistance?". In Jones, Chris; Kostick, Conor; Oschema, Klaus (eds.). Making the Medieval Relevant: How Medieval Studies Contribute to Improving Our Understanding of the Present. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter. pp. 113–134. ISBN 3110546310.
  12. ^ Tait, Amelia (26 February 2023). "Medieval medicine: the return to maggots and leeches to treat ailments". The Guardian.
  13. ^ C. E. Wright (ed.), Bald’s Leechbook: British Museum, Royal Manuscript 12 D. xvii, Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile, 5 (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1955), 12–27.