Blood and the Anglo-Saxons

Blood and the Anglo-Saxons

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Blood and the Anglo-Saxons: Spiritual bodies, blood taboos and the significance of ‘sawul-drior’

By Hana Videen

Paper given at King’s College London, November 15, 2012

Introduction: Blood, a substance belonging to both the physical and the spiritual bodies, is not easy to define. Anglo-Saxon medical texts discuss it straightforwardly enough, using only the term ‘blod’, not the poetic words of ‘dreor’ or ‘swat’. The only times that ‘swat’ is used in Anglo-Saxon leechbooks refer to actual perspiration or sweat (not the kenning ‘battle-sweat’ meaning ‘blood’) or to the juice of a plant. ‘Blod’, however, is mentioned frequently in Old English medical lore and is closely connected to the liver. Bald’s Leechbook, copied down in the mid-tenth century, discusses blood in its section on liver diseases:

…the [liver] is the material of the blood, the blood’s house and food. When there is digesting of meats, and they become thin in the liver, then they change their appearance and turn into blood. And where there are impurities, it [the liver] casts them out, and it gathers clean blood, and through four veins it quickly sends it to the heart and also all throughout the body as far as the outermost limbs.

From this leechbook and others, it is clear that the Anglo-Saxons understood ‘blod’ to have a specific medical purpose: to transport the nutritional elements of food to all parts of the body. Blood here has a carefully defined corporeality; although it is implicated in discourses of health and wholeness, it does not appear to be metaphorical or spiritual.

The division of science and religion in Anglo-Saxon England did not exist the way it does for us today. One cannot simply divide concepts of blood into the secular and the religious. Karen Jolly says, ‘The scanty pictorial evidence we have relating to professional doctors, or leeches, suggests that this term referred to laymen’; that said, the manuscript of Bald’s Leechbook was copied down in a religious foundation. Anglo-Saxon leechbooks are a combination of scholarly classical concepts and native remedies. Many manuscripts were copied directly from Greek and Latin sources; however, Jolly says these ‘elite or intellectual’ manuscripts ‘show us something of the scholarly medical worldview of the times, but […] were not practical guides for the everyday treatment of disease’.

Watch the video: Genetics and the Anglo-Saxon Migrations (June 2022).