Elfshot, medicine, and changing belief systems

When I first started research for Hild (long ago, in desultory fashion, before I even knew what I was looking for), I encountered the belief among medical historians that Anglo-Saxons thought illnesses (anything from malaria to measles) were caused by being ‘elf-shot’. I raised my eyebrows then shrugged: Hey, if that’s what the experts think, it must be true. But it nagged at me. Unable to leave it alone, I read everything I could find on A-S medical practice and found a confusing mix of sensible, empirical, herb-based treatment (like the eye salve recently shown to kill MRSA; see also recent news about the antibacterial properties of mead) and sheer hocus pocus. For example, take stalks of this and leaves of that, put in a pot under a particular saint’s altar, say 9 masses over it, mash it up with ‘good butter’ (which I’m assuming is clarified butter but don’t actually know) and smear on the forehead to drive out the malevolent spirits.

Except it might not be hocus pocus. Setting aside the use of chants and masses as timing protocols (perhaps 9 masses meant one should steep the goop for 9 days) Alaric Hall in his book, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England 1, convinced me that A-S practitioners were sophisticated psychologists. Their treatments are congruent with modern medicine’s notions of placebo and nocebo effects and psychosomatic illness.

The trick, of course—for both the medieval practitioner and the modern reader—is in understanding what the stricken patient believes. These beliefs changed over time. The worldview of a sixth century pagan farmer differs in many respects from that of a tenth century Christian noble.

What follows is a mix of my old thoughts and new, plus a condensation of Hall’s discussion taken from a post I wrote on my personal blog when I first read the book. Hall’s book is a dense text stuffed with erudition and footnotes. As this is not an academic blog, long, footnoted discussion of etymology, of gloss and lemma and long -i, would be intrusive and tiresome. And so for the purposes of this post assume that all the good stuff about history comes from Hall’s book, and all the mistakes are mine. (I’ve condensed 200 pages of academespeak into a few paragraphs; errors are inevitable. If you want the real deal, go read the book.)

First, an example of how radically the conversion of Christianity changed a concept I’d always thought was ancient and unchanging.

A few years ago I wrote a short ‘position paper’ on sex and SF (yes, ha ha, very funny) for an academic journal. One of the things I tub-thumped about was the notion of Hard SF vs. Soft.

As regular readers know, my most recent novel and its (planned) two sequels are about a Northumbrian royal born in the early seventh century. For the last year or two I’ve been immersed in all things Anglo-Saxon and, to a lesser degree, early medieval—that is, pagan, pre-Christian—Scandinavian.

In the course of my research (some heavily academic, some of it random but entertaining reading of Old English poetry and Old Norse sagas in translation—with the occasional exciting dip into the originals2) I began to understand that, for the pre-Christian Northwest Europeans, gender wasn’t tied as tightly to biological sex as it was a couple of hundred years after their conversion.

The early Scandinavians divided the people of their sagas into hvatr, meaning bold, independent, powerful, vigorous, sharp, dry, and decisive, and blauðr, which covered characteristics such as weak, soft, powerless, dull, yielding, and moist. Guess which quality was most esteemed. (Guess to which category warriors belonged to and which slaves. Guess which kind of SF is the Norm/good and which is the Other/less good…)

In those early days, the elves (ælfe) in A-S poetry were supernatural not-entirely-human males—though their masculinity was suspect, somewhat effeminate. There were no girl ælfe. Instead, to balance the otherworldly gender-suspect male ælfe we had hægtessan, martially-inclined supernatural females.

Things went on this way for some time: male ælfe prancing about in the woods, female hægtessan killing people who got in their way. (Good times, good times…) Then the A-S got themselves converted. The categories of hvatr and blauðr began to seem less important than those of male and female. Gender became more tightly tied to biological sex.3

By the ninth and tenth centuries, elves could be male or female. Gradually the male elves became more manly—though still inhumanly good looking—and the female elves were the epitome of (inhuman) womanhood: blindingly beautiful, irresistibly seductive, wise but, y’know, young looking. It was at this point that hægtessan disappear from the literature. They no longer fit in the Anglo-Saxon worldview. Elves carried the entire gendered supernatural load.

So how do more recent depictions of elves/fairies reflect this history of cultural change? For one thing, in today’s fantasy the queen of the elves/fairies is the boss. The boy elves might be manly, but the queen is more powerful/beautiful/dreaded. For another, there’s changelings.

I don’t think the notion of changelings existed in pre-Christian Europe. (But I’m not a folklore expert. I could be very wrong about this.) Pagan Anglo-Saxons apparently didn’t have a moral problem with abandoning sickly infants. Emotional problems certainly; they were people, after all. They loved their kids—just read any archaeology report about grave goods from that time. When circumstances permitted, they didn’t abandon the babies; they did their best to take care of them. My point is that there was no legal or moral stricture. However, the Church taught that abandonment was wrong, immoral, tantamount to murder; it was most definitely unChristian to leave a child to die, no matter how terrible the circumstances. But some families in medieval times lived marginal lives (again, look at archaeological evidence) and simply couldn’t afford to spend resources on an infant who would die anyway. So they abandoned them, and came up with a rationale to make themselves feel better: they had not imperilled a mortal soul but discarded an inhuman monster. They were protecting their community from evil.

Without the Church, then, I’m guessing there would be no Tam Lin—and all those wonderful modern retellings of same. Without the Church, the girls wouldn’t be in charge of elfland (no Midsummer Night’s Dream, no Galadriel). Without the Church, though, maybe we’d have a few more hægtessan bestriding the land.

Without the Church, too, we’d have different placebos and nocebos.

Medicine (even the evidence-based modern variety) has always relied on the bedside manner of its practitioner. You can have the most competent doctor in the world but if she appears careless and/or uncertain, the patient won’t heal as well. There’s a reason highly-paid consultants tend to be suave: they are first and foremost salespeople. The sale is not always about being liked, it’s about authority: instilling a belief in the patient that the practitioner knows what the problem is and can vanquish it—whether caused by demons, elves, or streptococcus. This is why a man who is cursed will die, even though there seems no earthly reason for it, and why sugar pills sometimes work on a recalcitrant problem.

I believe—but I have no evidence; this is an operating assumption based on my reading and thinking—that before conversion to Christianity, a) there was no unified concept of evil, and b) much medicine was empirical and based on generations of experiment and observation. Early Anglo-Saxons have always struck me as show-me-the-money kind of people. Very Germanic. Their gods were local and particular, suited to specific situations. I think their medicine was similarly tailored. Five Hail Marys and come back in the morning to see the priest would not have worked—at least for any community with a healthy long-term cultural memory—until their beliefs changed, becoming more Roman Christian and less Germanic/polytheistic.

Once you suddenly believe in a single deity who is supposedly omniscient and omnipotent, who does not have a reputation for trying to trick you, and who always knows best, then the specificity and particularity of the remedy becomes unimportant as does the medical experience of the practitioner. What counts then is faith. If you are seen to be unorthodox in your beliefs or behaviour and get sick, then, hey, you’re being punished (by the one true God). If you’re pious, then, hey, you’re being tested (by Satan). Belief in the über-system—the priests who are god’s representative on earth, the saints and their altars—replaces garlic and the cytotoxic effect of copper, and placebo replaces wound hygiene and sensible treatment. Illness is a corruption of the soul and not the body.

I’ll spare you my rant on the perniciousness of dualist philosophy (though if you’re interested I’ve written an essay on the subject) except to say that this is something we can lay directly at the feet of Greco-Roman-filtered Christianity. I’m not convinced that early Anglo-Saxons had any concept like it. One of these days I’ll go through Bald’s Leechbook and amuse myself by sorting the entries into categories: practical experimentation-and-observation remedies probably left over from pre-Conversion times; last-ditch placebos for when the former fail or have been lost; and the flim-flam of con artists and ignoramuses. It’ll be an interesting exercise.


1 Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity (Anglo-Saxon Studies) by Alaric Hall (Boydell Press, 2007)
2 Want to know what this stuff sounds like? Go listen to Anglo-Saxon Aloud, Michael Drout’s astonishing collection of readings. (Note that ‘Old English’ is mostly what came down to us from the West Saxons. My NIP about Hild is mostly concerned with the Angles of Northumbria–who used a pretty different dialect. Drout has a couple of Northumbrian readings, e.g. Bede’s Death Song.)
3 A result of the Conversion (and the importation of Greek-via-the-Romans dualist nonsense) or a necessary pre-condition of the adoption of Christianity? I’m not sure anyone knows.

12 thoughts on “Elfshot, medicine, and changing belief systems

  1. Wow, fascinating! I’ve been quite impressed with the level of early empirical remedies, especially those involving honey, but my studies run a couple of centuries later than yours so I’ve been looking at entirely post-Christian sources. I feel kind of silly now for not realizing that there was probably a lot more of that going on before the conversion, and also probably a lot more people still using the older remedies post-Christianity than it would seem from reading works written mainly by monks.

    Thank you for the book recommendation; I look forward to digging into that history!

  2. Hi Nicola, Thanks so much for this. We could have a really absorbing discussion about early medieval medicinal practices and the conversion to Christianity– and an equally absorbing one about gender and sexuality–but I’m here to point you towards the work of Christina Lee, who has been doing some really important work on the efficacy of early Old English medical recipes working with scientists at Nottingham. Worth exploring!

  3. What a fascinating bit (or several interlocking bits) of history! However, I wonder about your juxtaposition of A-S medicine (A-S are “show-me-the-money kind of people” using “sensible, empirical, herb-based treatment” mixed with “sophisticated psychology”) with Christian faith (which treats illness as “a corruption of the soul” relying on “five Hail Marys” to heal, or even “the flim-flam of con artists and ignoramuses”). Isn’t that precisely the kind of dualism you’re critiquing elsewhere? In your description, A-S medicine is good and hard and hvatr, while Christian faith-healing is weak and soft and blauðr. Or am I misreading it?

    1. Perhaps you were misreading—or perhaps I just wasn’t very clear! I think if one believes in Christ then Christian healing might work well enough for some things: a positive. And some Christians might have maintained their empirical healing knowledge and used it well: also a positive.

      Equally, I think in matters of faith there are always snake-oil salesfolk: if you’re not cured then, hey, you just didn’t believe hard enough. That’s a big negative for me.

      Belief helps even when it comes to splints and antibacterial treatments; the placebo effect is real. If you don’t believe in your practitioner—whether because you don’t believe their belief system, or you simply don’t trust their medical competence—then you won’t heal as fast or as well.

      I admit that, yep, I find con artists—at least those conning the ill person for their own gain as opposed to help the patient—distasteful.

      I’m not sure I’d assign hvatr and blaðr to Cartesian dualism—the mind/body split—but it is a kind of binary. I don’t assign Christianity to one side of that binary or the other. In fact, I’m arguing (without saying so aloud, I realise) for substituting a sliding scale, or spectrum, or range or whatever term works best for you, for binary thinking.

      Make sense?

      1. Yes, thank you! (When I wrote dualism above I was thinking of Hard/Soft SF, Norm/Other & Good/less good binaries more than mind/body dualism, though I have found that Cartesian dualism rarely takes off without a healthy dose of the rest of those mixed in.)

  4. Finally, I caught up with this. Very very interesting thesis. Once Hild 2 & 3 are off your hands, this would make a v good paper at a conference, if you can drop enough hints on early med. listservs etc to get yourself invited.

    1. I’m delighted you enjoyed it! I can’t think what conferences there are coming up that would like this kind of thing. Though it’s broad enough I could take it in almost any direction: medicine, literacy, belief, gender, fantastic literature…

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