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Women and Language in the Anglo-Saxon Leechbooks [1].

Abstract: This paper describes how women are presented in the Anglo-Saxon Leechbooks, medical texts written in Old English around a.d. 950. Trying to reconstruct the way women were understood in terms of illness during the Anglo-Saxon period is a difficult task, namely for the same reasons women have had a difficult time reconstructing any aspect of their medieval history. The paper explores clues that the texts reveal about the use of the books. It describes how the compilers recognize women, how the language describes women, and how the compilers interpret popular beliefs about women. By studying the language of the texts, the paper presents a glimpse of how the male learned culture intersected with common perceptions of the ways of women.

Introduction: Historical Background

The Anglo-Saxon Leechbooks, medical texts written around ad. 950, are the oldest surviving collection of medical recipes from the Anglo-Saxon period (c. a.d. 4491066) written in Old English (Cameron 30). The Leechbooks establish themselves within a long tradition of medical books from the Greco-Roman tradition, some of which were translated, others of which were at least known to the Anglo-Saxons (Cockayne II, Preface xxvi, xxix; Wright 15). As Weston points out, the Leechbooks encode a "male textual tradition," for they present the public written discourse of the male learned culture which consistently established the male as normative voice (280).

It is very difficult to discern the precise function and use of the Leechbooks; moreover, we do not know with certainty who the precise users of the Leechbooks were. It is presumed that the Leechbooks "were obviously written as handbooks for practising leeches" (Wright II), but, even though professional healers (leeches) would indeed be likely users of the books, they cannot have been the sole users, nor the only people to seek out and profit from the information contained in the medical recipes.

It is important to stress that there is no historical evidence of independent hospitals existing during the Anglo-Saxon period, although places to care for particular groups of sick people certainly existed; earliest recorded evidence of a hospital in England dates around 1070 (Orme 20). Recorded names of practicing leeches during the Anglo-Saxon period mentioned by Bede and other writers of the time number only around seven. A few royal and ecclesiastical establishments cared for their own sick and infirm in designated areas of their estates, and certain monasteries had infirmaries notably for their sick and elderly members (Orme 17-19), but other people in society had to manage as best they could with healing themselves and their families.

So even though a professional class of healers begins to emerge toward the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, the period is particularly characterized by all different types of people performing the role of healer (Kieckhefer 59). Monks, priests, and professional healers worked alongside surgeons, lay healers, midwives, and folk healers, many of whom were ordinary men and women with no formal medical training (Kieckhefer 56). Moreover, even though the subject of medicine is often discussed by current scholars as if women played a marginal role in this aspect of life (see Cameron specifically), as Weston argues, women would have had much of the responsibility of the long and short-term care of the sick in their daily domestic lives: "[F]emale healing practices constituted less a professional specialty than an inseparable part of everyday domestic duties and participation in the community of women" (281). The information contained within the Leechbooks would thus have been of interest to all these groups of people; the distribution of medical lore probably commonly took place among them (Kieckhefer 56).

The area of women and medicine provides interesting questions about the intersection of divergent gendered traditions of the period: that of the male literate medical tradition on the one hand and the oral lay folk tradition within which women lived and worked in their domestic lives on the other. The former discourse was public, the latter private, but both traditions continued side by side throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. Trying to reconstruct the role of Anglo-Saxon women in these medicinal activities is a difficult task, namely for the same reasons women have had a difficult time reconstructing any aspect of their medieval history. To begin, there is very little source material that relates to women "since the historical record is biased toward the public and against the private sphere to which the majority of women have been relegated" (Potkay and Evitt 1). Surviving authored texts by women are almost non-existent in the period, so women's own voices and viewpoints are not directly accessible to us. Mo st of the population could not read or write; public written discourse was thus restricted to those with authority, primarily the male clergy, who were responsible for the maintenance and preservation of documents (Potkay and Evitt 1).

Language and the Anglo-Saxon Leechbooks

In this paper, I am interested in describing how women are depicted in the language of medical texts. What clues do the texts reveal about the use of the books? How do the compilers recognize women? What language do they use to describe women? How do the compilers interpret popular beliefs about women that persisted in women's everyday lives? By studying the language of the texts, we obtain at least a glimpse of how the male learned culture intersected with common perceptions of the ways of women.

When we study texts from the Anglo-Saxon period, we do not find examples of the ordinary, everyday language of ordinary people. The language we encounter is mostly formal and literary and most attention in the area of linguistic study has been given to poetic language; even the prose we find is often highly ornate, or is heavily influenced by translations from Latin, or consists of legal or administrative or ecclesiatic language. The Anglo-Saxon Leechbooks, practical medical texts, offer us something different to analyze. Here we encounter very simple language, particularly uncomplicated syntax and everyday vocabulary. In fact, the precise purpose of the Leechbooks is to be as simple and direct as possible so that the reader can follow the instructions set forth in the medical recipes. The Leechbooks do not exemplify ordinary language; the discourse is, after all, written medical text. However, in addition to its pragmatic function, the Leechbooks present medical recipes that were most often conducted in the context of daily life experiences and involved ingredients from everyday domestic life. These aspects thus provide us with a text that more closely represents the language of everyday life than other extant Anglo-Saxon documents.

The Manuscript

Bald's Leechbook is the name given to Books I and II of a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript now in the British Museum (Royal 12. D. xvii). The complete manuscript is a collection of practical medical recipes and remedies and so has come to be called a Leechbook, although the manuscript, like other Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, contains no formal cover page or title from the period. Leech, an archaic word meaning "physician," is derived from Old English Icece, which has the same sense; it is akin to Old High German lahhi, which means "magician or healer," and is related to the verb lacnian, which means "to heal." The only item approximating a title is a piece of leather from a medieval binding pasted to a sheet of parchment with some words in Latin, indecipherable in the facsimile, assumed to be written around the thirteenth century and identified by Ker as Medicinale anglic' (333). There is also a small pigskin label with the scribbled and edited words Medicinalis Anglicus, probably written in the seventeenth o r eighteenth century (Wright 12), which means "English Medicinal."

Bald is the name of the Anglo-Saxon owner of Books I and II of the manuscript; we know this because a colophon telling us this information is included at the end of Book II. However, we do not know who Bald was, nor do we have any reference to a person named Bald in Anglo-Saxon texts dating to the same period of the manuscript (Cameron 30-31).

The manuscript has been printed in the Early English Manuscript in Facsimile series, this one edited by C. E. Wright in 1955. From the facsimile we can see that the manuscript is plain, without drawings or illustrations, and is divided into three books, each one preceded by a detailed listing of contents to follow. Bald's Leechbook comprises Books I and II: Book I essentially deals with remedies for diseases of the external body, arranged in head to foot order; Book II concerns internal illnesses. Book III, the third book of the manuscript, is referred to as Leechbook III; it covers a variety of subjects, is not so well organized as Books I and II, repeats similar recipes to Books I and II, and is thus assumed to be separate from Bald's Leechbook, although contained within the same manuscript (Wright 14-15; Cameron 42; Meaney 237). Within each book, entries are identified by chapter numbers: Book I consists of 88 chapter items, Book II consists of 67 (although the original end of 56 through beginning of 64 ar e missing), and Book III should contain 76 chapters according to the contents listing but only 73 remain.

The three books of the manuscript were first published in Anglo-Saxon font with a modern (nineteenth-century) translation in 1865 by Cockayne in Volume II of a three-volume work he produced on Anglo-Saxon medical texts as part of the Rolls Series. Quotations from my paper are from that edition. Please note that the quotations in my paper from Cockayne's nineteenth-century translation are not edited to show modern conventional spelling of the possessive case. Moreover, italicized words in Cockayne, which indicate his insertion or substitution of words or phrases in his translation, are not italicized in my paper. Citations refer to Book number, medical recipe chapter number, item-number, and page number: (I, xlv-5, 115) thus refers to Book I in Cockayne, medical recipe number xlv-item number 5 within xlv, and located on page 115 of Cockayne). Cockayne's Old English is presented here with edited Modern letters, except ash (ae), eth (o), and thorn (p) and word-initial "v."

The Discourse Context

The discourse context of the Leechbooks is not at all certain. Nothing is known of the production context of Leechbook III (Meaney 237). A little more is known about Bald's Leechbook. In the Latin colophon following Book II, we are told that Bald ordered someone named Cild to write the book, conscribere in Latin meaning "to compose or to write" in the sense of authorship. Again, we have no other information about a person named Cild during this period (Cameron 31). There is some discussion that the Latin verb may just as well mean "to copy" so that Cild may have simply been the scribe who copied what an unknown writer composed (Cockayne, Preface xxi; Wright 13). All three books appear to have been written by the same scribe (Adams and Deegan 88).

Within Bald's Leechbook, we do have a clue that the author of the manuscript is male, for in a well-cited entry, the author uses the Old English masculine demonstrative pronoun se to refer to himself:

Against bite of snake, if the man procures and eateth rind, which cometh out of paradise, no venom will damage him. Then said he that wrote this book, that the rind was hard gotten.

Wio naedran slite gif he geget and yt rinde sio pe cymo of neorxna wonge ne dereo him nan atter. ponne cwaep se pe pas boc wrat paet hio waere torbegete. (I, xlv-5, 115)

This is the only occasion in which the author of the text refers to himself as one individual. The few other references to the author in the text suggest multiple authors, the verb form in Old English indicating plurality:

--the acid drink of which we wrote in treating of the half dead disease. (I, Lxxix, 153)

--[O]ne must give him vinegar in the southern leechdom which hight oxymel, which we wrote of against the half dead disease. . . . (II, xxxix, 249)

--[T]hen set this in the hot sun, in summer, when the hottest seasons are, and the clear white days of which we have written. . . . . (11, xli, 253)

--and oxymel, of which we wrote before. (II, xliii, 255)

The encoding of a "male textual tradition" (Weston 280) is evident in the combined voices of a male author with other learned voices, namely Oxa and Dun, who are mentioned several times as teachers and authorities in the book and were perhaps recognized as medical teachers. Whoever the author of the text (and henceforth I use the word author to comprise all or any compilers of the text), the addressee or reader of the texts is most often intended to be any person who will follow the instructions of the recipes or remedies and administer them to or on the person who is ailing (and here I refer to what the language reveals, not necessarily to what the compilers intended). Even though the reader as healer is at times talked about in the third person (particularly in the contents listing, where an impersonal distance is thus created between author and reader), the reader is most often spoken to directly so that a certain conversational closeness is achieved in the texts between author and reader. Often entries ar e directives in the imperative mood instructing the reader to follow specific procedures that either result in the creation of salves, ointments, medicinal drinks, and so forth, or involve other actions that, when carried out, will help the patient. A typical imperative directive is the following, which reads very much like a cookbook today:

For the same [sore and ache of ears], take garlic and onion and goose fat, melt them together, squeeze them on the ear.

Wio pon ilcan genim garleac and cipan and gose rysele gemylte togaedere wring on eare. (I, iii-4, 41)

Commands are also repeatedly made throughout in the subjunctive mood, translated as "let + verb", as in the following: [2]

For worms [f. "all creeping things, here insects"] in eyes, take seed of henbane, shed it on gledes, add two saucers full of water, set them on two sides of the man, and let him sit there over them, jerk the head hither and thither over the fire and the saucers also, then the worms shed themselves into the water.

Wip wyrmum on eagum genim beolonam saed scead on gleda. do twa bleda fulle waeteres to sete on twa healfe and site paer ofer braed ponne paet heafod hider and geond ofer pet fyr and pa bleda eac ponne sceadap pa wyrmas on paet waeter. (I, ii-23, 39)

The author also addresses the reader directly throughout with the pronoun you, Old English pu (no sg.; gender neutral in Old English), often giving direction (I, xxxv, 85), other times appealing to the reader's knowledge of the symptoms at hand, or speaking directly to the reader about ingredients that may or may not be available:

If thou wouldst know whether it be neck purulence, take an earthworm entire, lay it on the place where the annoyance is, and wrap up fast above with leaves....

Gif pu wolde witan hwaeper paet heals gund sie. genim angeltwaeccean gehalne lege on pa stowe paer hit apruten sie and bewreoh faeste ufan mid leafum. (I, iv-2, 45)

While the author comfortably addresses the reader( throughout with pu, meaning the assumed reader as the person administering to a patient, the text occasionally makes an interesting deictic shift so that it soon becomes clear that the assumed reader pu is no longer the healer at all but has become someone rather different-the patient:

Again for loathing [or nausea], boil strongly in ale slightly sweetened with honey, rue, wormwood, bishopwort, marrubium, drink of this as hot as thy blood be, a cup full, do so when need be to thee.

Eft wip wlatunge rudan wermod bisceop wyrt marubian wyl on ealao swike geswet mid hunige leohtlice. gedrinc swa hates swa pin blod sie scenc fulne do swa ponne pe wearfsie. (I, xix, 63)


[S]it on a bucket, and robe thee over from above with a garment lest the vapour escape; pour the prepared hot liquor under the stool into the bucket, let it reek on thee. on bydene and pe oferhref ufan mid hwitle py laes se aepm ut. geot under pone stol on pa bydene laet reocan on. (I, xxxii-2, 77)


A drink for pock disease [f. 'small pox']; boil water in a crock, add honey, skim continually the foam away till it will foam no more; then sip and drink oft and whilom as thou hottest may...

Drenc wio poc adle wyl water on croccan do hunig on fleot simle baet fam of ob baet hit nelle ma faeman. sup bonne and drinc oft and gelome swa bu hatost maege .... (I, xl, 105)

At times, the text makes a deictic shift in address even within the same entry, as we see in the following:

[D]rink all this by drops, rest awhile, poke thy finger into the gullet, spew up again all and more if thou may; then in the morning let blood from the arm or from the neck, as much as he may bear....

Drink eall be dropan rest hwile sting finger on ciolan aspiw eft eall and ma gif bu maege. bonne on morgen forlaet blod of earme. oooe of sweoran swa maest areafnan maege. (I, lix, 131)

This shifting of "you" the reader as healer-physician to "you" the reader as healer-patient (the patient healing him or herself), which we also find in Leechbook III, provides additional support for the existence of multiple authors (composers), for in the writing of the text, multiple authors would be more likely to assume a slightly different deictic stance, writing the same linguistic forms but using them to point out and refer to something completely different. [3]

But the issue raises questions about the perceived audience of the text and the perceived function of the text. The Leechbooks are assumed by current scholars to be instruction books for healer-physicians, a claim consistent with the directive voice throughout most of the text. We do have allusions in non-medical sources to a small professional class of healers (very few in number) that existed in Anglo-Saxon England and we know the names of several practicing physicians (Cameron 19-29). If we continue with this assumption, the shift in directive voice may be seen as a stylistic divergence, for the shifts can be understood as the direct discourse that a healer would speak to a patient. They are the dialogic voice of the healer, in other words, the words the healer would use in instructing the patient directly (rather than words directed to the physician as instruction to carry out on the patient).

On the other hand, the dissonance created in the directive "bu" could capture a reality about the function and use of the book. There were very few physicians in Anglo-Saxon England that we know about but enormous numbers of sick people. There is no doubt that folk medicine persisted alongside the emerging medical tradition of the tenth century, for the majority of people would have had to manage as best they could with any advice they could obtain. Were the Leechbooks perceived as not only training books for physicians but also medical reference books for lay people (those who were literate and had the capability of obtaining books)? [4] If so, the mixing of directives reveals a mixed perception in audience. The text reveals a fusion of healers, in other words: reader as healer-physician but also reader as lay-healer, as patient healing him or herself.

Even though this shift occurs in a number of entries, most often the patient is referred to in the third person and is rather the person spoken about than the person spoken to. [5] Throughout the Leechbooks, the patient is habitually referred to by Old English mon (and its counterpart orthographic forms), clearly seen for example in the following:

In case that a mans mouth be sore, take betony and triturate it, lay it on the lips.

Wib bon gif mannes muo sar sie genim betonican and getrifula lege on ka weolore. (I, v, 49)

Cockayne translates Old English mon into Modern English throughout the Leechbooks as "a man", so that there remains some ambiguity in the semantic meaning of mon. whether, for instance, particular references are to the male gender specifically or to a gender neutral and inclusive meaning of "person in general." Richards and Stanfield in a recent essay on Anglo-Saxon women and the law point to the same issue of gender ambiguity in their reading of the early law codes (91). Our understanding of man is, of course, a problem throughout Anglo-Saxon texts (Mitchell 264-268). As Fell points out, even though Old English mann carries masculine grammatical gender, it often semantically embraces the female:

A panegyric in an eleventh-century fragment on the virtues of St. Mildrio mentions that she remembered we were all born of one clay, descendants of Adam and Eve, ealle of twain mannum comon. The impossibility of saying in Modern English that we are all 'descended from two men' should make us hesitate over the way we translate the word mann elsewhere in Old English.

... It is observable in the manumission clauses of wills and in inventories that the word menn must be used of people in general, and we may note that the list of Bishop AEoelwold's gifts to Peterborough in the 10th century distinguishes wepmen and wimmen and geonge men. (17-18)

Our understanding of Old English man is particularly difficult to disambiguate in the law codes because without a context for the codes it is often not possible to know whether certain activities being talked about also included women in their interpretation. For instance, in cases of theft and murder where man is used, are women included as criminals? If not, what happened then to women who murdered or stole property or possessions since the noun "women" is in general not used specifically in relation to these activities. (See for instance in particular the Kentish laws of Hlothhere and Eadric on theft in Attenborough 19). If we follow just a few items in Attenborough's King Alfred's codes, we see the extent to which pronouns ambiguity is problematic. Many entries are obviously male specific:

#18, if anyone lustfully seizes a nun ... (73)

#20, if property is entrusted to a monk... (75)

#21, if a priest slays another man ... (75)

But then #23 follows:

If a dog tears or bites a man [Old English mon], [6] shillings shall be paid for the first offence. (75)

And we are left then with the question of whether mon here embraces the same penalty by the owner to a female victim.

But the meaning of mon in the Leechbooks is much easier to disambiguate than in the law codes because it becomes evident early on that the books are about treatment of people's diseases, not men's diseases in particular. For instance, there is no reason at all for us to assume that women would be excluded from the following item listed in the Contents of Bald's Leechbook (I, lxxiii, 17):

A Leechdom if any limb of a man be chapped.

Laecedom gif men hwilc lim cine.

Nor from the following entry which treats a bloody nose:

If blood run from a mans nose too much, take green betony and rue, pound them in vinegar, twist them together like as it might be a sloe, poke it into the nose.

Gif men yrne blod of nebbe to swioe genim grene betonican and rudan gecnuwa on eced gewring tosomne swilce sie an slah sting on oa nosu. (I, ix-1,55)

In addition, there is no reason to assume that women would be excluded from an entry treating tiredness from a long journey:

If a man is tired by a long journey, let him drink betony in the southern drink, oxymel....

Gif mon fram longum wege geteorod sie drinc betonican on pam fuorenan oxumelle. (I, lxxix, 151-2)

In fact, the majority of the uses of mon in the Leechbooks are indeed gender neutral and refer to people in general. A more appropriate translation, then, for Cockayne's "a man" in most cases is rather "a person" throughout. We have evidence, in fact, that the book is meant for all types of patients because some entries refer to the treatment of patients of varying genders and ages, but also classes and ethnicities, as we see in the following entry for "swarthened and deadened body" (84):

Apply the leechdoms according as thou seest the state of the body. For a mickle difference is there. in the bodies of a man, a woman, and a child; and in the main or constitution of a daily wright or labourer and of the idle, of the old and of the young, of him who is accustomed to endurances, and him who is unaccustomed to such things. Yea, the white bodies be tenderer and weaker than the black and the red.

Do pu pa laecedomas swilce pu pa lichoman gesie. for pon oe micel gedal is on waepnedes and wifes and cildes lichoman. and on pam maegene paes daehwamlicam wyrhtan and paes idlan paes ealdan and paes geongan and paes pe sie gewin prowngum and paes pe sie ungewuna swelcum pingum. Ge pa hwitan lichoman beoo mearuwran and tedran pone pa blacan and pa readan. (I, xxxv, 85)

In summary, the discourse features of the Leechbooks reveal instructions of male authorship addressed to the reader as healer-physician, but also to the reader as healer administering directly to him or herself. When the patient is spoken about in the text, Old English mon is most often used to mean "person in general." The intended purpose of the Leechbooks is for the medical treatment of persons of all ages, genders, social classes, and ethnicities.

Gendered Text

The largest portion of remedies, then, are aimed at treating the body in general; mixed in with these are the small remainder addressed specifically to problems unique to men, women, and children. Remedies relating to the treatment or even mention of children number only around five and deal with such illnesses as worms and sore "inwards" (I, xlviii, 121), treatment of quinsy (I, iv-6, 49), and problems of overeating or digestion (II, xxxv, 241).

In the case of ailments specific to men, mon becomes at times difficult to disambiguate. One expects that the following is male specific:

If a mans hair fall off, work him a salve, take the mickle wolfs bane, and vipers bugloss....

Gif mannes feax fealle wyrc him sealfe nim pone miclan pung and haran sprecel. . . . (I, lxxxvii-1, 155)

We can assume this because the same entry later continues with the following:

In case that a man be bald, Plinius, the mickle leech, saith this leechdom....

Wip pone gif man calu sie. Plinius se micla laece seyp pisne laecedom. (I, lxxxvii-1, 155)

The following also is likely to be male specific:

Gif mannes getawa beop sare oooe apundene betonican getrifula on wine bepe pa saran stowa and pa apundenan mid py. Eft gif hie dylstihte sien oppe geborstene genim saluian seoo on waetere bepe mid pa getawa. (I, xxix-1, 71)

If a mans instrumenta genitalia be sore or puffed out, triturate betony in wine, bathe with that the sore and puffed up places. Again, if they be mucous, or in eruption, take sage, seethe in water, bathe with that the instrumenta.

"Instrumenta genitalia" is Cockayne's translation for the Old English getawa which translates simply as "apparatus, implements, genitalia" in Hall.

A more questionable entry is one which follows remedies for better digestion of beef, spider bite, and bite of a mad dog, all easily gender inclusive:

If a man be too salacious, boil water agrimony in foreign ale, let him drink thereof at night fasting. If a man be too slow ad venerem, boil that ilkwort in milk, then thou givest him corage.

Gif mon sie to wraene wyl hindheolopan on wiliscum ealao drince on neaht nestig. Gif mon sie to unwraene wyl on meolce pa ilcan wyrt ponne awraenst pu. (I, lxx, 145)

This remedy is followed by remedies for muscle pulls, bloodletting, and loss of a limb, also all gender inclusive. It is not possible to tell whether in the entry cited above women were assumed as included in having problems relating to lust. Certainly, the early church fathers remind us that women were perceived as having overabundant carnal appetites. [6] However, the relevant Old English words help us out very little, for the entry includes only variant forms of essentially the same word, all gender unspecific: wraene means "loose or lustful"; unwraene means "not lustful," and awraenst is the inflected verb form of awraenan, which means "to be lustful or sexually unrestrained."

In Bald's Leechbook, we learn about women specifically only a few times: woman's milk is mentioned as an ingredient in a few recipes (I, ii-1, 29; I, iii-9, 43). This folk belief occurs as well in Leechbook III (III, ii-4, 309; III, ii-6, 309; III, iii-1, 311; III, xlvii, 339). Women's body parts are mentioned a few times, not singled out but rather included in a list of general body ailments, as in the following entry on intestinal illnesses. A recipe involving leek and rue, oil, butter, pitch and wax to cleanse the "wamb" is immediately followed by this statement:

These things are valid either against loinache, when a man pisseth sand, or for diseases and pain of the long gut, or of the wamb, or of the small gut, and for dysentery, or for diseases of the maw, and gripings, and for tenderness of the naturalia of women.

pas hing magon ge wip lenden ece. ponne mon sonde miho ge wio roppes ge wio wambe and smael pearmes adlum and ut waerce ge wip magan adlum and clawunga, and wip wifa tedrum gecyndum. (II, xxxii, 235-237)

Old English gecyndum, translated by Cockayne as "naturalia of women," is derived from the noun cynd, which means many things and is thus effusive: Bosworth-Toller define it as either 1) nature, kind or 2) a sort or gender (certainly revealing an abstract meaning at its core or center); Hall mentions origin, generation, birth, but also property or quality; offspring; and finally


A similar mention of women occurs at the beginning of Book II and is concerned with diseases of the maw:

Also from disease of the maw come many and various diseases of burston wounds, and cramps, and epilepsy, and fiends disease, and mickle murmurings and uneasiness without occasion, and erysipelatous eruptions, and immoderate desires for meat, and immense want of appetite, and daintinesses, and sore internal diseases in foeminae naturalibus, that is, the uterus, and in the feet, and in the bladder, and despondency, and immoderately long wakings, and witless words.

Eac of paes magan adle cumao momge and misSenlica adla geborstena wunda and hramma and fylle waerc and fienda adl, and micla murnunga and unrotnessa butan pearfe and oman and ungemetlica mete socna and ungemetlice unlustas and cisnessa, and sara inadle on wifes gecyndon and on potum and blaedran, and on unmode, and on ungemet waeccum and ungewitlico word. (II, i-1, 175-177)

Cockayne's "foeminae naturalibus" is Old English gecyndon and is the same word as used in the previously mentioned entry (with an inflectional difference in number), although as we see, Cockayne translates the word quite differently here by inserting the phrase, "that is, the uterus," which does not occur in Old English. It does appear, though, that the word gecynd in Old English is used to capture all different types of female body parts. The word becomes even more all-encompassing when we see its use in Leechbook III: in several entries, monao gecynd refers to menstruation (III, xxxviii, 303; III, xxxviii-1, 331).

According to the contents listing for Book II, Chapter Sixty was devoted extensively to the subject of women, but the chapter unfortunately is missing from the extant manuscript along with other recipes dealing with bladder stones, half-dead disease, jaundice, head-ache, lung disease, and constipation. The contents for Chapter Sixty read as follows: [7]

Leechdoms for the obstruction of the naturalia of women and for all tendernesses of women; if a woman may not bear a bairn, or if a bairn become dead in a womans inwards, or if she may not kindle or bring into the light, put up on her girdle these prayers, according as it saith in these leechbooks; and a manifold token that a man may understand whether it will be a boy child or a maiden child, and for disease of women, and if a woman may not mie, and if a woman may not easily be cleansed, and for haemorrage of women, and if a woman be out of her mind, and if thou will that a woman have a child, or a bitch a whelp, or if matrix in a woman be overgrown, or if a woman should suddenly grow silent: one and forty crafts.

Laecedomas wip wifa gecyndum forsetenum and eallum wifa tydernessum gif wif bearn ne maege geberan oppe gif bearn weorpe dead on wifes Innobe oooe gif hio cennan ne maege do on hire gyrdels bas gebedo swa on wifum laecebocum segp and manigfeald tacn peat mon maege ongitan hwaeper hit hyse cild pe maeden cild beon wille. and wip wifa adle. and gif wif migan ne maege. and gif wif ne maege raoe beon geclaensod and wip wifa blodsihtan. and gif wif of gemyndum sie and gif bu wille peat wif cild haebbe oppetife hwelp oppegif men cwio sie forweaxen. oppe gif man Semninga swigie. an and feowertig craefta. (Contents, II, lx, 173)

Here we note specifically the use of man at the end of the entry:

It is used in an otherwise feminine context specifically indicated by the repetition of wif throughout.

... oppe gif men cwio sie forweaxen. oppe gif man Semninga swigie.

A specific entry in Leechbook III convinces us that man must always be at least considered for multiple gendered readings. The entry is about women's menses, and uses the noun "woman" (wif) in the beginning of the entry. But the last line in the entry shifts to se mon, in a context obviously that is unique to women (menstruation). Here we find convincing evidence that Old English grammatically masculine man not only embraces the female semantically but can also be used to refer to women exclusively:

Si muliebria nimis fluunt [if a woman's menses flow too much]; take a fresh horses tord, lay it on hot gledes, make it reek strongly between the thighs, up under the raiment, that the woman may sweat much.

Gif wife to swipe offlowe sio monap gecynd. Genim niwe horses tord lege on hate gleda laet reocan swipe betweoh pa peoh up under paet hraegl paet se mon swaete swipe. (III, xxxviii-2, 331-333)

Very few entries in Bald's Leechbook reveal specific attitudes about gender differences. In the above entries on women just mentioned, we notice that "witless words," "out of her mind," "grow silent" are included in the discussion of women. The topic of madness and folly of man in general occurs throughout the Leechbooks (i.e., I, lxvi, 143; III, xl, 335). In the entries above referring to women specifically, Cameron notes that the references might not be to folk attitudes at all but rather to a consequence of a particular uterine condition: textual references of the time mention "suffocation of the womb" as resulting in such illness that women are unable to speak (134-5).

One particular entry, though, that does reflect a specific folk attitude about gender differences is found in Book 1:

For the same again [against neck purulence], mingle together bere or barley meal and clear pitch and wax and oil, seethe this, add a boys or a childs mie, make into an external application on the matter.

Wip pon ilcan eft beren melo and hluttor pic and weax. and ele men tosomne seop do cnihtes oppe cildes migepan to to onlegene do on pone gund. (I, iv-3, 45)

By itself, the only observation here is that "boys" precedes "childs" suggesting perhaps a preference for the boy's. This folk attitude becomes reinforced in Leechbook III in an entry for palsy:

Again, take coriander, dry it, work it to dust, mingle the dust with milk of a woman, who brought forth a male, wring through a purple cloth.

Eft nim cellendran adrig gewyrc to duste gemeng peat dust wip wifes meoluc pe weapned fede awring purh haewenne clao ... (III, xlvii, 339)

This entry clearly suggests a preference for milk from a woman who had produced a male child, waepned in Old English unambiguously specifying a male person.

The discussion thus far shows that gender is, on the whole, neutralized in Bald's Lenchbook from what we can tell in the remaining extant manuscript: no one gender is emphasized; the presentation of both men and women gets equal attention, the body in general assuming primary importance; and reflected attitudes about gender differences are minimal.

Women and Leechboak III

Leechbook III has more references to women than we have available to us in Bald's Leechbook. We find drinking potions and amulets for women who are not able to have children; bathing potions to get rid of afterbirth, drinking potions for expelling a dead fetus, eating and drinking remedies to stop bleeding after childbirth, and wise instructions for prenatal care (III, xxxvii, 329; III, xxxvii, 331).

Folk attitudes about women in Leechbook III appear a few more times than in Bald's Leechbook. In addition to chapter 47 above, which refers to milk from a woman who brought forth a male, we find in chapter 6 a remedy involving an amulet, a woman's spinning whorl:

For cheek disease, take the whorl, with which a woman spinneth, bind on the mans neck with a woollen thread, and swill him on the inside with hot goats milk; it will be well with him.

Vio ceoc adle nim pone hweorfan pe wif mid spinnao bind on his sweoran mid wyllenan praede and swile innan mid hate gate meolc him bip sel. (III, vi, 311)

In this remedy, a woman's spinning whorl is used as an amulet and it is worth noting again that the remedy may suggest applying the amulet to anyone, not just a male person; the antecedent of his, in other words, can very likely be mann implied here. Again, Cockayne's translation is a bit misleading, for he inserts a noun, "the mans" when only his appears in Old English. As we have previously seen, even though his is grammatically masculine, when referring to mann, it often semantically embraces the female. I have been unable to find out what the reference is here to cheek disease, but doubt that it is gender specific if it refers to a sore or canker in the mouth.

Spinning whorls and thread-boxes have been found regularly in Anglo-Saxon women's graves (Leyser 14-15), so it is not surprising to see a whorl mentioned here as an amulet. The activity of spinning and weaving is often found in Anglo-Saxon illustrations associated with Eve and Mary; the mention here suggests a link to magical, protective, or healing powers. But the activity of spinning may also have been feared: we have one example in the Penitential of Burchard of Worm (c. 1010) that suggests that watching women at work with their spinning means engaging in diabolical activity with them and is thus to be avoided at all times (Leyser 14-15).

Of course, in the remedy for cheek disease mentioned above, the amulet appears to be used as a protective rather than destructive device. But it is curious that if the whorl was associated with such healing powers, it is mentioned only once in the Leechbooks and, furthermore, that it is used in a treatment for cheek disease rather than an illness that would have been more debilitating.

In chapter 61, we find another folk reference: mention of women with whom the devil has sexual intercourse. But the exact allusion of who these women are is uncertain ("Work thus a salve . . . for the women with whom the devil hath carnal commerce") (III, lxi, 345). Once again, the word mann is used presumably in reference to women specifically ("Wyrc sealfe ... and pam mannum pe deofol mid haemo") (III, lxi, 345). The rest of the entry is about elves and night visitors that can haunt anyone.

A final folk entry that has baffled scholars is the inclusion of chapter 57 in Book III, "against a woman's chatter". Cameron says that one just simply does not know "into what category to place a treatment such as this one." (40):

Against a woman's chatter; taste at night fasting a root of radish, that day the chatter cannot harm thee.

Vip wif gemaedlan geberge on neaht nestig raedices moran by daege ne maege pe se gemaedla sceppan. (III, lvii, 343)

Whatever the noun gemaedla means here--and there is much confusion about that--it is clearly that which is harmful to the patient, although the degree of harm believed likely to occur is not evident. Inclusion of this entry, if the attitude here is misogynistic, excludes the reader as female and reminds us that the discourse we are engaging in (in Leechbook III) is gendered and restrictive; indeed, the reader addressed as pe here is then assumed to be male, for there is no way to explain how a woman's chatter might be considered harmful to another woman.

But several things are puzzling about the noun gemaedla. The noun is translated by Cockayne as "woman's chatter"; Cameron in his discussion of this entry recently translates the noun as "a woman's mad behaviour" (40). This is probably the result of a discrepancy we find in our Old English dictionaries: Bosworth-Toller define the masculine noun gemaedla (with no macron) as "talk"; Hall defines the masculine noun gemaedla (with a macron) as "madness." I believe Hall's definition (and consequently Cameron's) is in error.

Even though we would think that such an everyday word would occur with frequency throughout Anglo-Saxon texts, gemaedla surprises us. In a search through the Dictionary for Old English Corpus, we find only two occurrences of the noun, both from Leechbook III, one in chaper 57 (the item we are looking at), and the second in the table of contents listing that refers to this precise entry (HI, Lvii, 303. Wip wif gemaedlan). In fact, Bosworth-Toller and Hall both give as their back-up citations for their definition of the noun this precise entry in the Leechbooks. The same information appears in the Thesaurus of Old English (Robert, et al.).

I believe that if we look at other similar morphological formations of variant words, there is more support for a reading of "chatter" here for gemaedla than "madness." Similar morphological formations which contain the semantic notion of madness do not include in their morphology the letter "I" and include vowel length of the root vowel. For example, we find the adjective gemaed meaning "troubled in mind or mad" and the adjective mad meaning "silly or mad". The verb gemaedan means "to madden or make foolish."

Bosworth-Toller, on the other hand, claim a relationship of gemaedla with the noun gemaoel which means "speech, conversation, talking, harangue." The adjective madelig means "talkative or noisy." The related verb is maoelian which means "to harangue or speak." So we see that related words containing the notion of "talk" include in their formation the letter "I" and do not include vowel length of the root vowel. If we look at the manuscript in facsimile, we see clearly that the word contains an ash as vowel and the consonant "d" rather than thorn, but since Bosworth-Toller claim the relationship of gemoedla to gemoeoel, it seems likely that gemoedla is just a variant form of the same word.

The medical entry becomes particularly important if indeed gemoedla does mean "chatter," for it provides a link to the well-documented historical tradition of desired silencing of women and the persistent attitude that women's talk is idle, complaining, excessive, and bothersome. But the entry pushes the notion a bit further, suggesting the belief of physical harm to the man as a consequence. We do not know the extent of the harm thought to be the result or what specific symptoms were thought to be exhibited as a result of the chatter. It is possible that in the entry rather than simply "chatter" here, "haranguing" is the meaning more intended by gemoedla; we see, after all, that that extended meaning is included in related forms of the word. We do find some reiteration of this idea that women's talk is harmful in Le Fevre's The Lamentations of Matheolus, a translation of a poem written by Mathieu of Boulogne in 1295: "[M]y wife's evil charms are too potent. She is always armed with arguments which torture m e terribly" (in Blamires, et al. 181). But here the harm presumed is psychological. The entry in Leechbook III, in contrast, suggests the radish root as medicinal and as a way to protect the body and does not include ritual procedures or incantations typical of charm remedies.


Meaney, upon examining the over one hundred Anglo-Saxon medical recipes preserved in various documents, concludes that Bald's Leechbook is the most sophisticated of all English medical documents (251). It is also "by far the most comprehensive and best organized of all Old English medical compilations" (251) and contains more detailed entries where additional material was added (239). Work conducted on the compilation of the document was done systematically with a preconceived plan in mind so that "an enormous amount of material from many and varied sources" (251) could be sorted, classified, and ultimately selected for inclusion in a meaningful and purposeful fashion. The recipes in Leech book III, on the other hand, show evidence of having been simply entered in the book as the compiler obtained them (237).

We observe, then, that in two essentially male-encoded and authorized medical documents of the same period, textual presentations of women, although similar in many respects, are not identical. Linguistic features related to the discourse context throughout Bald's Leechbook and Leechbook III are consistent. Both reveal inconsistency in the linguistic forms used to address the reader of the texts, suggesting that the compilers may have envisioned different types of healers as users of the information contained in the books. The texts are most often directed to a professional leech or lay healer but include at times an addressee presumed to be a healer in a common household, often the patient treating him or herself.

In addition, the discourse features of both texts reveal that the person spoken about is most often the patient. The compilers refer to the patient generally as "a person in general," including all genders in their referent of Old English man. The compilers specify a few recipes which address and recognize problems unique to women, men, and children. Problems unique to women are often not singled out but are rather simply mentioned in the same recipe within a long list of other ailments common to both men and women or are sometimes mentioned in relation to problems in animals. The compilers consistently use one all-encompassing word, gecynd, throughout the texts to capture women's different reproductive body parts. So, although women are recognized as having medical problems unique to their gender, the texts reveal a tendency to capture common ailments of people in general and draw attention at times to similar conditions even in animals.

Folk attitudes about women are voiced more persistently in Leechbook III than in Bald's Leechbook. The fact that the compilation process for Bald's Leechbook involved more deliberate and systematic selection and arrangement of material raises questions about the absence in Bald's Leechbook of more entries revealing folk attitudes about women, especially since Bald's Leechbook contains its fair share of folk elements related to other matters. Can we (and should we) speak consistently about the attitudes and voice of a male learned culture as if they belong to one homogeneous group? Does the medical tradition of the time reflect an attempt to more objectively present women and their illnesses? Or is Bald's Leechbook simply a reflection of individual compilers making individual choices?

Author R. A. Buck is Associate Professor of English and Linguistics at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois (Ph.D. in linguistics from Northwestern University). In addition to teaching general language and linguistics classes, she teaches the History of the English Language, Old English, and offers seminars in a range of medieval topics (Women and Old English Literature; Medieval Women Writers; Anglo-Saxon Prose). She has published articles on a variety of language issues in various journals including American Speech, Journal of Pragmatics. Word, Style, and English Today.


(1.) Portions of this paper were presented at the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on Anglo-Saxon England, Medieval Institute, Kalamazoo, Michigan, on 29 July 1999. I am grateful to Paul Szarmach and Timothy Graham for their help in the research stage of this project.

(2.) Throughout this paper, a quotation in brackets preceded by "f." is Cockayne's footnote on this particular entry. In addition, throughout my paper, the Old English word man appears in variant forms because throughout the Anglo-Saxon period the word is not spelled consistently (i.e., man, mann, mon, monn).

(3.) Leechbook III (i.e.. Ill, iv, 311; Ill, v, 311; Ill, xxviii, 325; Ill, lviii, 343).

(4.) From the later Middle Ages throughout Europe, we find illustrated manuscripts containing images or women performing and assisting in healing functions and reading medical recipe books (see Rawcliff; MacKinney).

(5.) Most often the patient is referred to in the singular, but a shift occurs to the plural in several entries, again suggesting the work of multiple authors (see, for instance, Il, xxviii, 225; Il, xxxi. 231; Il. xxxii. 235; Il, xxxiii, 239).

(6.) For instance, Isidore of Seville in Etymologies:

But some think she is called 'female' [femina] through the Greek etymology for 'burning force' [i.e. Greek fos] because of the intensity of her desire. For females [feminas] are more lustful than males, among women [mulieribus] as much as among animals. (In Blamires, et al. 43)

(7.) Including a reference to a bitch and a whelp in this entry concerning women may seem odd; however, the Leechbooks throughout include medical recipes for the treatment of animals.


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Author:Buck, R. A.
Publication:Women and Language
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Date:Sep 22, 2000
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