Medieval Medicine (and Toothpaste!)

We’ve got this stereotype of medieval people as being stupid and ignorant. When late-medieval poet Petrarch started referring to the early Middle Ages as a time of darkness, he probably didn’t guess that some day he would be lumped into that pejorative category of the “Dark Ages.” Legit scholars today would never use the term “Dark Ages” (except ironically), but the idea remains fixed in the popular mind. I’ve had these types of conversations hundreds of times:

Student: In medieval times, people didn’t know about sex.
Me: Where do you think modern people came from?
Student: Huh. I never thought about it that way.
Me: NOW who doesn’t know about sex?

Student: Medieval people didn’t know as much as we do today.
Me: Like what?
Student: Well, like how to drive cars and stuff.
Me: Why would they know how to drive a car? They’d never seen one.
Student: Right. They were too ignorant to know how to make them.
Me: Could YOU make a car?
Student: Well, no. But I could probably find someone who could.
Me: Can you ride a horse?
Student: I … probably not.
Me: So they were stupid because they never saw a car, but you’re some kind of genius because someone else made you a car, and because you can’t ride a horse even though you’ve seen one?
Student: Riding a horse doesn’t make you brilliant!
Me: Neither does owning a Honda.

You get the picture. And to be fair, 19th and early 20th century scholars often reinforced this attitude. J.H.G. Grattan and Charles Singer’s book Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine (1952) has this little gem:

Surveying the mass of folly and credulity that makes up the A.S. [Anglo-Saxon] leechdoms, it may be asked, “Is there any rational element here? Is the material based on anything that we may reasonably describe as experience?” The answer to both questions must be, “Very little.”

Since that time, scholars have pushed back hard against this idea. For example, just this past week at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, Renée Trilling gave an excellent paper on the subject entitled “Between Science and Superstition: Thinking About Anglo-Saxon Medicine.” Historian Winston Black has a recent article intended for popular audiences, and I’ve got a forthcoming article entitled “The Rationality of Medieval Leechbooks.”

The truth is that we have hundreds and hundreds of pages of medieval remedies, and they run the gamut from There’s-No-Way-This-Would-Work to Hey-This-Totally-Works, with every variety in between.  And they are based on an understanding of how the body works that is drawn from observation and reason. Want to find another place where some remedies work, and some don’t? Try the over-the-counter remedy section of your local pharmacy.

So, as a little bonus, here’s a recipe for breath-freshening toothpaste found in Bald’s Leechbook:

If a man’s breath is foul, take good barley meal & clean honey & white salt, mix it all together and rub the teeth with it well and often.

Basically, the medieval remedy for bad breath is to brush your teeth with toothpaste often. Sounds good to me!

Pope Francis Knows about Second Breakfast

Billy Kangas over at Patheos unearthed a message Pope Francis gave in 2008 using Lord of the Rings to illustrate his point. The relevant part, translated via Google Translate:

Mankind always conceived as a way of life; man as a traveler who, when born is started, and throughout its existence, meets people or situations that put back on track (sometimes with a mission, others with a crisis). In the Bible this reality is constant: Abraham is called to stand in the way “without knowing where he was going”; God’s people sets out to free the Egyptians. So in the history or mythology of other peoples Aeneas, to the destruction of Troy, overcomes the temptation to stay and rebuild the city, taking his father slippers, begins the climb up the mountain whose end shall be the foundation of Rome . Other mythological stories show the human journey and return home to the primordial belonging. So if Ulysses or so poetically expressed by Hölderlin in his Ode on the return home. Tolkien, in contemporary literature, takes Bilbo and Frodo in the image of man who is called to walk and heroes know and act, walking the drama going on between good and evil. The “man on the road” implies a dimension of hope; “Enter” hope. Throughout human history and mythology that man is not a still, stagnant being, but “on track”, called “vocado”-hence the term vocation, and when you enter this dynamic stresses then vanishes as a person or corrupted. Moreover, the set off is rooted in an inner restlessness that impels man to “get out of it”, to experience the “exodus of itself.” There is something outside and in us that calls us to perform the way. Exit, walk, conduct, accepting the open and give the shelter … this is the way.

Free Book Offer for Medieval Scholars!

We here at Professor Awesome’s University like free stuff. And we like smart people. So we especially love giving free stuff to smart people.

Side note: We also love giving smart stuff to free people. And free smart stuff to free smart people. We’re just givers, really.

So, this week only, in honor of the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies, in conjunction with Witan Publishing (purveyors of fine medieval scholarship), we are offering the medieval scholars in our audience TWO chances to get a free medieval e-book of their choice. Your two opportunities:

  1. You can submit a proposal for a book with Witan Publishing. Just click here and send in your initial submission, and mention your free book selection (from the Witan titles listed below) in the “Comments” box (also, mention if you want it in Kindle or Nook format). Whether Witan decides to pursue your project or not, you’ll get the ebook absolutely free, courtesy of Professor Awesome’s University and Witan Publishing.*
  2. What if you’re a medieval scholar but don’t have a project ready for publication at the moment? No problem! Everyone in attendance at Professor Awesome’s session at K’zoo can also choose a free e-book. Just come  to “Irrationality as a Fruitful Methodology,” Session 504 in Schneider 1220. Unfortunately, it is a Sunday morning 8:30am session (boo!), but check out the luminaries in that session: You’ve got The Skipper (of the Englisc Listserv), The Swain (of the Heroic Age), Jenn Jordan (of Darwin Carmichael fame), Deanna Forsman (also of the Heroic Age), and Silas Mallery! All these folks PLUS a free e-book!

Do either of those, and you get to pick one of these freebies, in either Kindle or Nook formats:

  • Formal Combats in the Fourteenth Century by Steven Muhlberger
    Formal Combats in the Fourteenth Century presents the lifetime of scholarship by respected professor Steven Muhlberger in an accessible format that will engage both scholars and amateur enthusiasts alike. Adapted from various scholarly addresses over Muhlberger’s career, each chapter represents a different element of formal combat. Muhlberger presents formal combats as neither senseless violence, nor stylized maneuvering, but rather as controlled violence with deep personal and political implications. He examines formal combats both among nobles and non-nobles, questioning what these deeds meant practically, culturally, and morally.
  • Drout’s Quick and Easy Old English by Michael D.C. Drout, Bruce D. Gilchrist, and Rachel Kapelle
    Michael D.C. Drout has now transformed his classic “King Alfred’s Grammar” into a comprehensive guide for learning Old English. Appropriate for students and enthusiasts alike, Drout’s Quick and Easy Old English presents the basics of the language in an accessible form. Even the most novice student can learn to read the classics of medieval literature in their original language with this system. Drout’s Quick and Easy Old English covers:

    • The history of Old English
    • Orthography, covering the unfamiliar characters of Old English writing
    • Pronouncing Old English
    • Grammar, from nouns and verbs to pronouns and adjectives
    • Tricks for translation

    With the help of Bruce Gilchrist and Rachel Kapelle, Drout provides exercises to reinforce the lessons. After years of testing in classrooms and online, these exercises have been thoroughly vetted for accuracy by scholars around the world, and have guided countless students through their first lessons in Old English.

  • Insular Art Forms: Their Essence and Construction by Robert Stevick
    Dr. Robert Stevick’s Insular Art Forms: Their Essence and Construction emerges as the most innovative work of his long and illustrious career. Building on years of research into medieval manuscript design and construction, Stevick has produced a masterpiece examining the ingenious ways in which insular scribes used geometry and mathematics to produce complex and beautiful designs. In addition to a detailed academic description of these processes, Stevick provides videos clearly illustrating the methods he describes, and materials for practical hands-on recreation of their methods. Insular Art Forms is the only guide that offers both a true scholarly study of these methods and the means for modern readers to reproduce them.Included along with Insular Art Forms is the Insular Art Online Companion, a collection of videos created by Dr. Stevick to explain certain concepts within the work.
  • Beowulf: A Verse Translation for Students by Edward L. Risden
    Beowulf: A Verse Translation for Students offers the famed Anglo-Saxon epic in Modern English. Noted Beowulf scholar Edward L. Risden has crafted a translation that is accessible even to students with no previous familiarity with medieval literature, preserving the beauty of the original verse without sacrificing accuracy. Risden’s translation presents the tale of the warrior Beowulf and his lifetime of intrigue, heroic deeds, and battles with monsters, and his ultimate confrontation with a dragon. Risden’s Beowulf is the exciting yarn of adventure that should electrify the imagination of every student.
  • Alfgar’s Stories from Beowulf by Edward L. Risden
    Alfgar’s Stories from Beowulf is a work of original fiction by noted medieval literary scholar Edward L. Risden adding to the traditional tale of Beowulf, a heroic Scandinavian monster-slayer. Inspired by the original epic, Risden has created a work of gripping adventure and deep emotion. In “Grendel’s Mother,” Risden approaches Beowulf from the perspective of the feral monster of the same name from the epic. “Lay of the Last Survivor” tells of a fated man who finds himself alone, the sole inheritor of a violent and greedy culture. “Scyldingasaga” goes back to the past before Beowulf, to the exploits of Scyld, Beowulf’s legendary ancestor, events that ultimately set the stage for the famous poem. In “Freawaru’s Lament,” Risden builds on a digression in Beowulf to the story of a woman whose marriage leaves her trapped between two families in conflict that can only end in tragedy for her. 

*One small caveat: It has to be a serious proposal of medieval scholarship, not a memoir of that time you went backpacking through Europe or your research into Malaysian business practices.

Jean de Meun’s Fortune-Telling Dice

Apparently Jean de Meun, a medieval writer most famous for writing the continuation of The Romance of the Rose, wrote a fortune-telling manual that used 12-sided dice called The Dodechedron of Fortune. The Folger Library has an English-language version, including a sample page of fortunes.  From reading the descriptions of other scholars, it looks like Jean based his 12 on the 12 signs of the zodiac.

No word yet on the location of Jean de Meun’s Monster Manual or Fiend Folio.


[For medieval scholars: Looks like it might be covered a bit in a special session at the International Congress on Medieval Studies this Friday at 1:30. Session 239, Fetzer 2040. I already had that marked in my own program even before I knew they were covering this.]