Conference Agenda

4A: Cultures of Healing in the Early Middle Ages (c. 750-900)
Wednesday, 08/Sept/2021:
3:15pm - 4:30pm

Session Chair: Dr. Debby Banham, University of Cambridge


Cultures of healing in the early middle ages (c. 750-900)

Chair(s): Banham, Debby (Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge)

As traditional scholarship has it, the early middle ages were not exactly a high point of medical knowledge: watered-down texts inherited from Late Antiquity were mixed with a range of superstitious, pseudo-religious or outright pagan habits, and these centuries produced nothing worth keeping in later periods. This session aims to present some results of fresh research that re-interprets early medieval cultures of healing. It will show how medical knowledge became thoroughly Christian, was far from provincial and that those texts traditionally labelled ‘superstitious’ were, in fact, part of venerable learned traditions.


Presentations of the Symposium


Christian Rituals in Early Medieval Medical Recipes: The Use of the Lord’s Prayer

Burridge, Claire
Department of History, University of Sheffield

Early medieval medicine has traditionally been cast as irrational and ineffective, a folkloric medicine guided more by superstition and religion than by science. The appearance of explicitly Christian features in remedies, such as the use of holy water as an ingredient or the saying of prayers during the preparation of a treatment, has been interpreted as evidence of this ‘backwardness’. Yet the incorporation of such Christianised material points to a complex, evolving relationship between medicine and religion and reveals the inappropriateness of dividing healing practices into distinct ‘secular’ and ‘spiritual’ categories in this period. A systematic investigation into the ways in which Christian rituals were integrated in early medieval medical recipes can provide a more nuanced perspective on this relationship.

The proposed paper takes the Lord’s Prayer as a case study, analysing the appearance of this ritual within a sample of approximately 6500 recipes written in early medieval Europe. By considering the ways in which this prayer is used, examining the specific types of treatments in which it is included, and exploring the presence of other healing rituals, both Christian and non-Christian, involved in these recipes, this paper reassesses not only the intersections between medicine and religion but also the intertwining of Christian and pre-Christian rituals within healing practices. This in-depth analysis uncovers striking patterns regarding the use of the Lord’s Prayer in recipes, highlighting the integrated, holistic approach to medicine during this period and offering new insights into its evolution.


When the Saints Go Marching In: Relics and Rational Cures around 800

Leja, Meg
Department of History, Binghamton University

The paper explores healing options available to individuals in early medieval Europe. Focusing on a manuscript that survives from the turn of the ninth century, I use it as a lens onto changing perceptions of the relationship between traditional herbal/dietetic medicine and saintly forms of healing in the Carolingian Empire. The core of the manuscript consists of works on anatomy, humors, bloodletting, herbal recipes, and signs of illness. But what makes the collection unique is the combination of hagiographical and medical writings in one codex. The so-called “religious” works at the beginning of the book include a passion of two late antique physicians-turned-saints and a moralizing history of the treatment of disease. The history offered cautionary advice to those studying Hippocratic cures, reminding them that knowledge of plants and anatomy was only effective if a doctor sought to placate and worship the omnipotent God. However, far from drawing boundaries between “classical” and “Christian” forms of healing, this codex assembled by an anonymous scribe was a clear attempt to unify therapeutic techniques grounded in reason and experience with cures that stemmed from faith and saintly intervention. Such an agenda takes on particular significance when we consider that the early ninth century witnessed the growing popularity of Roman relics and their transplantation from Italy to northern Europe. Surging interest in the cult of relics’ ability to cure bodily diseases triggered new forms of competition within the early medieval medical marketplace. The reconciliation of these tensions is the focus of the paper.


The Dangers of the Dog Days

van Rhijn, Carine
Department of History and Art History, Utrecht University

This paper will focus on the way in which the so-called Dog Days (Dies caniculares) featured in early medieval medical and medico-astronomical thinking. Traditionally considered to be a typical example of early medieval (‘dark age’) superstition and therefore not part of the medical corpus, this paper will show how, quite to the contrary, ideas about the Dog Days were part of learned traditions inherited from Late Antiquity and a fixed feature of the early medieval cultures of healing. These ideas were, moreover, not passively received and copied in the Carolingian period, but creatively applied and thought through. Especially during the ninth century, with its wide-spread interest in learning and knowledge, there was an upsurge in the composition of all kinds of new texts that built on received ideas, and this includes writings that reflected on the Dog Days. How this worked will be illustrated through manuscripts from the period, that feature Dog Days in contexts as varied as Christian calendars, medical treatises, astronomy, and short tracts about different kinds of unlucky days. One element unites these texts: when Sirius, the Dog Star, was in the night sky, undergoing any type of medical treatment (especially bloodletting) was potentially lethal.