Ailments in early medieval England

Archaeological examination of burial grounds suggests that Anglo-Saxons generally enjoyed good health. However, like people today they were also vulnerable to aches and pains, viruses, bacteria, parasites, violence and ageing.

The majority of Anglo-Saxons did not live past the age of 45. Due to the heavy physical work they did, osteoarthritis of the joints was a common problem. They had to deal with parasites including head lice and burrowing worms. In the 8th century Bede wrote of a “Spring fever,” which may have been malaria. Asthma was also known.

Major contagious diseases in circulation included tuberculosis, leprosy, and plague.

Accidents and violence also meant that some people lived with burns, amputations and battle wounds. Up to half of young women who died probably did so due to giving birth without modern medical help.

The Anglo-Saxon diet was less sugary than today’s average English diet. For this reason they had relatively few dental problems.

Herbal medicine in early medieval England

Over 1,000 pages of Old English medical texts dating from the 9th century survive in four major collections.

  • The Old English Herbarium
  • The Lacnunga
  • Bald’s Leechbook
  • Leechbook III

All the texts make some use of information found in Latin medical texts. Leechbook III is considered to make the least use of Latin sources. It also has the most remedies for afflictions caused by elves. One of these elf-caused diseases may have been chicken pox or measles.

Scientists studying these medical texts have found medicines comparable to modern drugs. One remedy suggested for spleen pain uses willow bark. Today a synthetic derivative from the bark of the willow Salix alba L. is used in aspirin.

Codeine, morphine and thebaine all derive from a particular white poppy, Papaver somniferum L. In Anglo-Saxon medical texts part of this plant appears as an ointment used for headaches and sleeplessness.

Old age in early medieval England

Many Anglo-Saxons died before the age of 45. Research suggests that 26.7% of men lived past 45 and only 14.3% of women. The risks of childbirth without modern medicine is the likely explanation for this.

After the menopause, women were more likely to outlive men. A study of nine individuals who died after 75 found that seven were women and only two were men.

The same study assessed the status of the nine individuals’ burials by looking at the objects that were placed in the grave with them. It found that only one of the women received a high status burial whereas both of the men did. It concluded that “ageing in Anglo-Saxon England was a gendered process, with fewer older women as respected as their male counterparts.”