Medieval herbal manuscripts

By Dr Frances Watkins, medical herbalist & researcher

An introductory guide to the main primary sources for studying early medieval herbal remedies in Old English texts.

Researching medieval herbal formulations has become more accessible recently with some of the larger libraries digitising their collections and giving free access to view and download images. The DMMapp (Digitise Medieval Manuscripts App) links to more than 500 medieval manuscripts that can be browsed for free.


Old English Herbarium

Figure 1.
Figure 1. British Library, Harley MS 585, folio 48v (by permission of the British Library).


Three of four surviving Old English Herbarium manuscripts from 10th and 11th century England are held at the British Library with digital images available from the online Digitised Manuscripts department (Figures 1 and 2). The detailed record for each manuscript includes an overview of content, physical description including number of scribes and decoration, foliation and binding, provenance and a select bibliography:

A fourth copy of the Herbarium which was prepared for illustration but not completed resides in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University (Bodley MS 130).


Bald’s Leechbook

Another substantial herbal text in Old English is Bald’s Leechbook (BL, Royal MS 12 D, XVII), a copy of an earlier exemplar believed to have been compiled for physicians to the royal household. Book I concentrates on the ‘outwards’ beginning with remedies for from the head and moving down to the lower limbs. Book II focuses on remedies for internal complaints and the third book, is a collection of herbal remedies considered to be from an older tradition.


Original manuscripts

Whilst digitised manuscripts allow more flexibility for studying of the texts in your own time there may be an occasion when you need to consult the original text in an archive. As a research student, you may be asked to present a letter of introduction stating the manuscript/s you wish to view, the purpose and anticipated completion date of your research. The request must be signed by your supervisor and authorised with an official stamp from your academic institution. Often there is a facility to request a meeting with one of the librarians in your specialist subject to discuss any questions you may have regarding your research.



Figure 2. British Library, Cotton Vitellius CIII, folio 20r (by permission of the British Library).
Figure 2. British Library, Cotton Vitellius CIII, folio 20r (by permission of the British Library).

For those who do not read or write Old English and/or Latin, a number of critical editions and/or translations of the herbal texts are available albeit some may seem somewhat antiquated, particularly Cockayne’s rendition of Bald’s Leechbook for which there is currently no contemporary translation. For a contemporary interpretation of the Old English Herbarium Van Arsdall’s book makes an interesting read and discusses the Old English Herbarium as a practical medical text along with an account of Cockayne’s turbulent life.

Cockayne, O., (1864). Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England: Being a collection of documents, for the most part never before printed, illustrating the history of science in this country before the Norman Conquest. Vols 1-3. Reprint. London: Thoemmes Press, 2001.

De Vriend, H.J. (1984). The Old English herbarium and medicina de quadrupedibus. London: Oxford University Press.

D’Aronco, M. A. and Cameron, M.L. (1998). The Old English illustrated pharmacopoeia: British Library Cotton Vitellius C III. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde & Baggger.

Hunger, F.W. T. (1935). The herbal of Pseudo-Apuleuis: from the 9th century manuscript in the abbey of Monte Cassino [Codex Casinensis 97] together with the first printed ed. of Joh. Phil. de Lignamine (edito princeps Romae 1481) both in the facsimile. Leyden: E.J. Brill.

Pettit, E. (2001). Anglo-Saxon remedies, charms, and prayers from British Library MS Harley 585: The Lacnunga. Vols 1-2. Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press.

Van Arsdall, A. (2002). Medieval herbal remedies: the Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon medicine. New York: Routledge.

Pollington, S. (2008). Leechcraft early English charms plantlore and healing. Norfolk: Anglo-Saxon Books.

Van Arsdall, A. (2014). Evaluating the content of medieval herbals, in Critical approaches to the history of Western herbal medicine, Francia, S. and Stobart, A. eds. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Wright, C.E. (1955). Bald’s Leechbook Early English MSS in Fascimile. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde & Baggger.



The critical views of scholars John H.G. Gratton and Charles Singer (1952) were largely responsible for discrediting the medieval herbal remedies and, in particular, the Lacnunga formulations for being ‘sterile formulas’, which is in stark contrast to Cameron who considered many of the herbal remedies would have been effective, and more than 130 of the medicinal plants in the Old English Herbarium  are still used. Collins (2000) provides an excellent overview of the design and production of Arabic, Latin and Old English medieval manuscripts and a comprehensive study by Morgan et al. (2013) details many different styles of manuscript illumination. When researching herbal remedies, it is useful to consider formulations that came before your period of interest as well as those that followed to form an understanding of the transfer of herbal knowledge which occurred through the centuries.

Cameron, M.L. (2006) Anglo-Saxon medicine. Cambridge University Press.

Collins, M. (2000). Medieval Herbals. London: The British Library and University of Toronto Press.

Clemens, R. and Graham, T. (2007). Introduction to manuscript studies. New York: Cornell University Press.

Gratton, J.H.G. and Singer, C. (1952). Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine. Illustrated specially from the semi-pagan text ‘Lacnunga’ (Reprint. 1971). The Wellcome Historical Medical Museum: Folcroft Library Editions.

Morgan, N., Panayotaova, S. and Rushforth, R. eds. (2013). A catalogue of Western book illumination in the Fitzwilliam museum and the Cambridge colleges. Part Four. C.700- c.1100. London: Harvey Miller Publishers.


Palaeography/ handwriting

The composition of the manuscript, traits of individual scribal hands and the scripts used all contribute to a better understanding of how and when the manuscript was created and the interrelationship between different copies of the same text. It is amazing to think that Kerr (1957) was able to recognise and remember an individual hand across the hundreds of different manuscripts – well before the dawn of computers and digital images…

Gneuss, H. and Lapidge, M. (2014). Anglo-Saxon manuscripts: a bibliographical handlist of manuscripts and manuscript fragments written or owned in England up to 1100. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kerr, N.R. (1957). Catalogue of manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lapidge, M. and Gneuss, H. eds. (1985) Learning and literature in Anglo-Saxon England: studies presented to Peter Clemoes on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday. Cambridge: Cambridge.

Scragg, D. (2012). A conspectus of scribal hands writing English 960-1100, Manchester: D.S. Brewer.

Stokes, P.A. (2014) English vernacular minuscule from Æthelred to Cnut, c. 990-c. 1035. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer for the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies.


Blogs of interest

British Library Manuscript Blog

Medieval Manuscripts Provenance, weekly notes and observations

Medieval Manuscripts Online