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 probably compiled in the ninth century, possibly under the influence of Alfred the Great's educational reforms.[1]

It takes its name from a Latin verse colophon at the end of the second book, which begins Bald habet hunc librum Cild quem conscribere iussit, meaning "Bald owns this book which he ordered Cild to compile."[1] The term leechbook is a modernisation of the Old English word lǣce-bōc ('book of medical prescriptions', literally Old English lǣce 'medical doctor' + bōc).[2]

The text survives in only one manuscript, London, British Library Royal MS 12 D XVII.[3] The manuscript contains one further medical text, called Leechbook III, which is also included herein.

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".[4]

Cameron notes, "in Bald's Leechbook is the only plastic surgery mentioned in Anglo-Saxon records".[5] The recipe in question prescribes surgery for a cleft lip and palate.[6]

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".[7]

Oswald Cockayne, editor and translator of an 1865 edition of the Leechbook, made note in his introduction of what he termed 'a Norse element' in the text, and gave, as example, words such as torbegate, rudniolin, ons worm, and Fornets palm.[8]


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.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11]

In March 2015, the Leechbook made the news when one of its recipes, Bald's eyesalve – which includes garlic, leeks, wine, and the bile from a cow's stomach left in a brass bowl for nine days – was tested as a potential antibiotic treatment against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).[12][13]

Contents and provenance of the manuscript[edit]

Bald's Leechbook and Leechbook III survive only in the manuscript London, British Library, Royal 12 D. xvii. 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 likewise from the mid-10th century. Since the annals were probably produced in Winchester, Royal 12 D. xvii was presumably produced there too.[14][15]

  • 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]

Cockayne, T. O. Leechdoms Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England Being a Collection of Documents, for the Most Part Never Before Printed Illustrating the History of Science in this Country Before the Norman Conquest, 3 vols., London: Rerum Britannicarum Medii Ævi Scriptores (Rolls Series) 35 i–iii, 1864–6 (reprint 1965) vol. 2.

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 Nokes, Richard Scott ‘The several compilers of Bald’s Leechbook’ in Anglo-Saxon England 33 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 51-76
  2. ^ Clark Hall, J. R.. (1969). A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. 4th rev. edn by Herbet D. Meritt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. s.vv.
  3. ^ Ker, N. R. Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon, Oxford: 1957, Reprint with addenda 1990. Item 264.
  4. ^ Cameron, M. L., Anglo-Saxon Medicine, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 7, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p 42.
  5. ^ Cameron, M. L., Anglo-Saxon Medicine, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 7, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 169.
  6. ^ Leechbook i, chapter 13 (Cockayne p. 56).
  7. ^ Cameron, M. L., Anglo-Saxon Medicine, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 7, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 35.
  8. ^ Thomas Oswald Cockayne (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. p. 32. ISBN 978-1-108-04308-3.
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ Thomas Oswald Cockayne (1865). Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England: being a collection of documents, for the most part never before printed, illustrating the history of science in this country before the Norman conquest. Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green. p. 69.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Clare Wilson. "Anglo Saxon remedy kills hospital superbug MRSA". New Scientist. Retrieved 31 March 2015.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ N. R. Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957) 332–3 [no. 264].