Hybrid creatures emerging from the pages of Old English medical texts readily capture the modern imagination. A powerful medicinal root in an Old English herbal is rendered with distinctly human arms and legs; a swarm charm inscribed in the margins of Bede’s Old English history addresses bees as Valkyrie-like beings; an entry in the compilation known as the Lacnunga identifies a wayside plant as both herb and mother. Yet the most powerful forms of hybridity in the Old English healing tradition are more subtle and pervasive: linguistic hybrids of Latin and vernacular, cultural hybrids fusing Christian liturgy and Germanic lore, and generic hybrids drawing simultaneously from an ambient oral tradition and an increasingly ubiquitous culture of writing. Hybrid healing seeks to meet such textual hybridity with a methodological hybridity of its own. Drawing from a range of fields including historical linguistics, classical rhetoric, archaeology, plant biology, folkloristics, and disability studies, a series of close readings examines selected Old English medical texts through individually tailored combinations of approaches designed to illustrate how the healing power of these remedies ultimately derives from unique convergences of widely disparate traditions and influences. This case-study model positions readers to appreciate more fully the various forces at work in any given remedy, replacing reductive assumptions that have often led early medieval medicine to be dismissed as mere superstition. By inviting readers to approach each text with appropriately diverse critical frameworks, the book opens a space to engage the medieval healing tradition with empathy, understanding, and imagination.
This opening chapter introduces the book’s eclectic approach and provides essential context for the Old English remedies and medical texts, works that are often less familiar than the more canonical heroic poetry. Framing its discussion through an investigation of a somewhat cryptic Exeter Book riddle that alludes to a lack of healers in a time of unending pain, this introduction invites readers to observe the meaningful overlap across traditions, genres, and modes of meaning within early medieval healing lore. After a detailed critique of ‘hybridity’ as both a biological reality and a theoretical concept, this chapter provides an overview of the subsequent chapters, each of which tackles a question or issue in the medical corpus that has been particularly troublesome or confusing to modern-day readers. Through its series of close readings, the volume seeks not only to offer a way through such complex texts but also to uncover what these remedies can teach us about healing logic and thought in early medieval England.
The concept of hybridity has long offered a powerful model for understanding many of the complex and dynamic processes that arise from cultural interactions, but what happens when we push this metaphor to its extremes? Hybrid cars, hybrid computers, and even hybrid literary genres are generally understood as positives, merging the best of two valued models through ‘hybrid vigor’. However, the model is also one that, if left unexamined, becomes fraught with the potential for reductive oversimplification implying the acceptance – or even glorification – of exploitation, appropriation, and subjugation of groups and traditions subsumed during the hybridization process. This chapter first situates the concept of hybridity within the historical and agricultural contexts of early medieval England, offering a close analysis of the Æcerbot land remedy, and then probes the biological basis of the metaphor for parallels that help us appreciate its generative potential as well as its limits. Healing practices open a space where suffering can be navigated and contested, and Old English remedies create healing networks across diverse religious and cultural belief systems. This chapter argues that the process parallels that of biological hybridity, where diverse entities are brought together and crossed in the hope of – but without the certainty of – positive outcomes. In this construct, sites of pain and adversity in effect become sites of hybridization – embodying all of the hope, risk, and power intrinsic to that process.
Hybridity of metaphor in Ic me on þisse gyrde beluce
Lori Ann Garner
Chapter 2 examines metaphorical weapons that appear in Old English charms and remedies and asks: what happens when we consider the weapons as more than abstract metaphors for battling disease, when we think of the weapons in more concrete, literal terms? The chapter first brings oral theory into dialogue with approaches from archaeology in an analysis of the Old English Herbarium entry for yarrow, a medicinal herb whose healing properties are deeply connected in traditional lore to the legendary battles of Achilles. The chapter then builds toward analyzing in greater depth an Old English alliterative poem from the margins of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, opening ‘Ic me on þisse gyrde beluce’, a generically hybrid poem in which weapons serve as metaphors for healing and protection. Old English traditional remedies frequently employ weapons (both as metaphors and also as healing implements) to conceptualize disease and to negotiate power over illness and adversity in early medieval England, providing important glimpses into how ‘battles’ against ailment might have been understood and imagined by the texts’ earliest audiences. In metaphorically equating items of the most elite warrior’s armor – specifically a sword, shield, mailcoat, and helmet – to the four gospel authors, Ic me on þisse gyrde beluce essentially elevates figures associated with Christian liturgy to the highest values of loyalty, honor, and protection within the vernacular heroic tradition. Finally, the chapter concludes by discussing several debated matters of editing and translation.
Extending the previous chapter’s investigation of weaponry into another poetic charm text, Chapter 3 examines the verse incantation of a metrical incantation in Harley 585 (ff. 175r–176r) ‘wið færstice’ [‘against a sudden pain’], which ascribes pain to spears (garas) sent by mighty women from another realm. It is all too easy to dismiss this seemingly incongruous poem as mere superstition or abstract metaphor. But what happens if we look at this incantation in terms of strategies employed within actual Germanic warfare? The speaker – presumably the healer – threatens to return the attack with a flying arrow (‘fleogende flane’), and the incantation makes multiple references to smiths forging weapons of iron. This enigmatic incantation is framed on either side by a recipe and instructions involving herbal preparations. So different in tone and content is the incantation from the herbal recipe that some have argued they constitute entirely separate entries in the Lacnunga. However, when we bring a more complete awareness of specific weapons and battle strategies to our analysis of the text, we see that this incantation not only operates in tandem with the herbal preparation but emerges from the same underlying logic. In this construct, the herbs are the healer’s weapons, and the battle against pain parallels important heroic scenes in Beowulf. An appendix to this chapter then draws from the field of ethnopoetics to offer a newly edited text and translation of the remedy that more fully reflect the complex network of associations in play.
Chapter 4 examines ways that herbs are sometimes invoked as actual sentient beings in early medieval medical texts. Bringing studies in medieval rhetoric to bear on orally performed incantations required by Old English healing recipes, this chapter offers a close analysis of the direct address employed in two medical texts within the Harley 585 manuscript in order to communicate with a wide range of plants, specifically mugwyrt (mugwort), wegbrade (waybread), attorlaðe (identified as cockspur grass or possibly betony), and mægðe (mayweed or chamomile) as they appear in the Lacnunga within the so-called ‘Nine Herbs Charm’ and the herbs ricinum (castor-oil plant) and peruica (periwinkle) as treated in the Herbarium. While the charms in the Herbarium and the Lacnunga both involve direct address in soliciting the respective herbs’ assistance, the specific manner in which the herbs are addressed – and, consequently, the relationships implied between healer and herb – differ markedly from each other. Such variation in the two types of address and the attendant methods of persuasion reflect distinct cultural differences between Latinate and Germanic modes of expression and conceptions of herbal healing, yet their juxtaposition within a single manuscript devoted to healing practice nonetheless suggests that these variant strains of thought were not seen as competing or mutually exclusive. As with many aspects of early medieval culture, such variation in the rhetorical devices employed for the persuasion of plants reflects the productive hybridity emerging from Germanic and Latinate influences and helps us better understand healers’ complicated conceptions of herbal power.
Chapter 5 turns to questions of transmission and reception, focusing on the mandrake root (mandragorum) as it appears across manuscripts versions of the Old English Herbarium, a text preserved in four manuscripts dating from the tenth century to as late as the twelth. Centering its analysis on the anomalous entry for the anthropomorphized mandrake in a historically neglected manuscript, this chapter challenges the privileging of lavishly produced manuscripts over less visually appealing counterparts. The beautifully illustrated copy of the Herbarium in MS Cotton Vitellius C.iii has typically served as an authoritative base text, with the copy in MS Harley 6258B most often being viewed as demonstrating far less care and planning in its production. However, it is precisely the omissions, organizational departures, and other ‘flaws’ that suggest a close connection of this seemingly lesser text to the actual performance of medical practice. This chapter is thus aimed at helping to rebalance the historical privileging of literate culture over oral tradition in scholarly treatments of the Old English medical corpus, a tendency that risks reading natural variation across versions as ‘mistakes’ and connections to folklore as irrational. Finally, by applying approaches found in Matthew Hall’s groundbreaking Plants as Persons and Michael Marder’s Plant-Thinking to the mandragorum entries, this chapter confronts our societal privileging of human over plant. An Appendix offers a newly edited and translated text of the mandrake entry reflecting the chapter’s analysis.
Chapter 6 continues to examine early medieval notions of health and healing by analyzing ways that remedies in Bald’s Leechbook challenge modern conceptions of hearing and deafness. Centering discussion around remedies in the third chapter of Bald’s Leechbook, this chapter brings important work in Deaf studies to bear more directly on our perception of medieval oral/aural culture. Although scholars in Deaf studies have long applied interpretive models from oral theory to analyze the cultural expressivity of signed storytelling, the influence of Deaf studies has yet to be fully felt in the fields of oral theory or Old English studies. A hybrid theoretical approach bridging these two fields productively complicates our understanding of early medieval England as a largely oral/aural culture, and evidence from surviving medical texts, law codes, and the archaeological record indicates a range of sensory perception that seems to have been widely recognized. The entries in Bald’s Leechbook suggest a worldview in which the capacity for hearing, though important, was not assumed. Rather, the faculty of hearing itself is described as changing and changeable, in terms of experience rather than identity. Old English texts describe a variety of circumstances that might temporarily or permanently limit one’s auditory range at any point in one’s life – through such forces as violence, illness, wind, or disease. This chapter’s hybrid approach seeks to broaden our awareness of health and healing beyond a modern medical model and to productively complicate our understanding of both hearing and deafness in pre-modern eras.
Chapter 7 returns to the missing healers referenced in the Exeter Book riddle discussed in the Introduction, known as Riddle 5 or Anhaga. Where previous chapters explored medicinal texts and remedies, this last seeks to demonstrate ways that knowledge of Old English healing can inform interpretations of Old English poetry more widely. As ubiquitous as the medieval healer has become in modern film and media, herbal healing and healers are virtually non-existent in Old English heroic verse, and so we can be left with the (false) impression that healing charms and remedies constituted a distinct position in early medieval thought, separate from narrative genres. Outside of the medical texts, one of the only references left to us in surviving poetry laments a lack of healers. Yet this complaint buried within the highly formulaic language of exile and warfare in the Exeter Book’s Anhaga riddle can nonetheless provide an enormously productive key to interpreting the riddle’s warrior persona within a complex network of material objects that have previously been proposed as possible solutions. This chapter explores insights that this seemingly simple riddle can offer into herbal remedies, into material culture, and – most of all – into the playful, probing modes of thinking that subtly but powerfully link concepts of deadly warfare and herbal healing in Old English poetry and culture.
With empathy and imagination—hybridity in the field
Lori Ann Garner
Old English medical texts such as the Herbarium frequently direct practitioners to find healing herbs, such as leon-fot above, ‘in fields’ [‘on feldon’]. Though feld has since come to refer to cultivated land ‘devoted to a particular crop’, the Old English word had a sense of wildness about it: ‘open country’, ‘land unencumbered by obstruction’. It was in such open, untamed fields that hybridity could best abound and new healing resources be discovered. And in turn it is in correspondingly open academic fields where the complex texts from early medieval England can be most fully understood. As a conclusion to this book’s eclectic approach, this final chapter first looks closely at a single brief remedy, the seemingly unassuming entry for Lion’s Foot in the Old English Herbarium, through the lens of each previous chapter’s approach in turn. Following this up-close strategy, the chapter then pans back out to examine how the analyses in the preceding chapters intersect with and inform one another.