The titular character in Denny Bradbury’s latest book is named after the deity of healing, Borvo.
This teenage boy comes from a healing family and we follow his growth into maturity in the time of King Alfred.
Every settlement during this era would likely have a healer within sight. Women, in particular, were more prone to early deaths than their male counterparts: pregnancies, miscarriages and the act of child-birth itself were all dangerous times in the life of a woman in the Anglo-Saxon era.
Archaeologists have also linked other common problems to this era: toothache, headache, earache, burns, and joint pain/bone deformities in particular – linked to the harsh life and lack of certain nutritional items in their diet.
Nowadays we would go to the local shop and buy some medication or ointment to ease our problems – during the 9th century, however, treatments required longer preparation.
Salves, poultices, and infusions would be concocted from local plants: garlic was often used to treat infection; lichens were useful in assisting the mend of broken bones; and camomile for digestion. Nettles, watercress and fungi were also frequently used.
It was not only ‘potions’ which were used in healing – advice was given, amulets worn and chants were sung. Stones such as amber were thought to ward off evil spirits and joint pain; emerald to aid memory; and garnet for general good health.
There was a time when historians looked back to this period of history and ‘laughed’ at the so-called medical treatments – the idea of trial and error, praying to gods and ‘hoping for the best’.
Medical manuscripts written in the age – such as ‘The Leech Book of Bald’ by Bald, a companion of King Alfred – talk of flying venoms and a variety of elves (wood elves, water elves, bright elves and dark elves).
Taken at face-value these seem irrational causes of problems. Yet look closer and understand ‘flying venom’ to mean airborne disease and elves to be carriers of conditions from various natural sources, and you begin to see the start of medical textbooks.
Nowadays, historians take a different view on medical treatment in Anglo-Saxon times.
Aside from community healers who usually learnt their trade through knowledge handed down through family, physicians – few and far in between – were also in existence. During this period, professional medics were named ‘laece’ or ‘leech’.
Many originated from monasteries which were appearing more and more across the ‘British’ landscape. They were taught language, studied Greek and Latin medical texts, and sometimes grew their own supply of herbs within the monastery gardens.
In her latest book, Denny beautifully merges historically sound life in the time of King Alfred, healing treatments and attitudes in particular, with an interesting fictional read.
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