Most of what we know about Anglo-Saxon medicine comes from the medical texts written late into the Viking period. We can see how they translated, mistranslated, and adapted earlier Latin and Greek texts each time showing more and more of their process. There is also, of course, a veritable army of dead bodies that we can tell all kinds of things from. But sometimes it is nice to have a look at those early days and see what was going on through anecdotes and stories of saintly behaviour.
Enter Bede and his Ecclesiastical History of The English People. While he did not write a manual on keeping the sick alive, he did write some interesting things on how others did. More specifically he wrote about that group of people that could read and often practiced medicine, miracles and something in between.
The case I am thinking of today was concerning Bishop John of Beverly, who we meet in book five chapter two (conveniently called John of Beverley’s cures). Here John summons a dumb youth who has a scabby head to come to him to be cured. Given a few hundred years of language evolution I am talking about a youth with no speech rather than a not very clever one. While the youth’s intellect was never commented upon, I suspect he was actually quite clever given what happened to him.
John proceeds to put the sign of the cross on his tongue and gets him to start making letters and short words such as ‘yea.’ John is a patient if unrelenting sort of man and spends every waking minute of the next day teaching the boy to speak. By the end of the unremitting encounter the youth is no longer dumb and can communicate through words. John then sends him off to the physician to cure his scalp.
When Bede recounts this he is full of religious wonder, but when we break it down, Bishop John is doing some really interesting and purely medicinal things. I think from the description we have stumbled into the land of medicine, not miracles.
John starts off icebreaking, giving confidence and probably giving a physical investigation into the limitations of the tongue. Doctors wear white and look very business-like today, it is part useful, part mental. John was doing the same thing, he had God on his side, while conveniently assessing the youth’s tongue. He knew of the youth, almost certainly knew he could understand, if not speak, so gave him a physical inspection.
He then goes through a day of speech therapy starting with the basics and working up. It sounds like there was lesson, practice, progress, next, rinse and repeat. After making progress he sends him to a physician to have his scalp healed and so he moves onto the next treatment. The unnamed physician is successful, and the youth goes off all healed and no doubt waiting to be struck down by some other form of horrible disease of the time.
If John had simply made the sign of the cross and the youth broke into song, a Saxon musical if you like, I would have been more than a little sceptical. But what I like about this is that there is work which is identifiable, the results are not instantaneous and when he can do no more, he sends the youth to a different specialist. This looks like medicine; this looks like therapy.
Was he totally mute before? Maybe, maybe not. Was there anything else going on? Quite possibly. But in the confines of the text this looks a good example of good healthcare when we know that health and well-being were in short supply.