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Magic and Medicine in Early Medieval England: Charms, Cures and Curses


Admission requirements

Relevant BA-degree. A basic working knowledge of Old English language and literature is required; students who haven’t followed a course in Old English can contact the tutor some weeks before the course starts for an alternative, online means to grasp the basics of Old English.


What do you do if your horse has been shot by an elf? Want to get rid of a dwarf? Did you know that sleeping next to a fat child may cure your stomach ache? At first glance, medical texts from early medieval England are filled with superstition and magical practices. Traditonally, scholars have treated this medical corpus with disdain, but later scholars have questioned the “Eye of Newt”-reputation of early medieval mecidine and highlighted the possible efficacy of botanical, herbal and pratcial treatments outlined in Anglo-Saxon texts such as Bald’s Leechbook, the Old English Herbarium and the enigmatic Lacnunga. One of the treatments for an eye stye in Bald’s Leechbook, for instance, was recently shown to be effective more effective than modern-day antibiotics against the MRSA super bug.
This course will consider the primary sources that allow us to reconstruct medicinal and magical practices in early medieval England. We will be looking at Old English charms, leechdoms, prognostics, curses, penitentials and amuletic texts. While many of these texts are relatively under-researched, they shed a unique light on Anglo-Saxon culture, as well as on the daily life and beliefs in the early Middle Ages. The texts will be explored in their historical and intellectual contexts: how do Old English remedies align with classical theories of (humoral) medicine; how can we account for the presence of pagan, germanic features in the Old English charms; and how do written curses and magical spells tell us something about the transition from orality to literacy? These are only some of the questions we will explore.
The complexity of the primary material calls for a multi-disciplinary approach and this course will introduce students to the various research methods available for studying medieval documents. These methods include manuscript study, placing a document in its historical and cultural context, digital humanities, cultural linguistics and literary criticism.
This course will appeal to students interested in Old English language and literature, Anglo-Saxon culture, Medieval Studies and medieval medicine.

Course objectives

Upon successful completion of the course, students will have:

  • improved their ability to read and interpret important works of Old English literary culture, both in translation and in the original language.

  • gained a thorough understanding of medicine and magic in early medieval England and how such texts relate to contemporary theories, archaeological finds, manuscript context and current medical knowledge.

  • further developed their ability to analyse works of literature, to understand these works as belonging to their historical and cultural moments as well as specific textual traditions, and to make interesting and meaningful claims about these works in both written or oral form.

  • further developed their independent research skills.

  • produced a final research paper that represents the very best writing they were able to produce at that moment.


Visit MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method


1) Research paper of 1500-2000 words after Block I
2) Research paper of 2500-3500 words after Block II
3) Presentation of 15-20 minutes on selected secondary literature
4) Participation and preparation of weekly readings
ResMA only:
5) Additional paper (or extension of research paper 2) of 3000 words, which reflects on the theoretical approaches to the primary source material.


  • Element 1) 25%

  • Element 2) 45%

  • Element 3) 20%

  • Element 4) 10%


  • Element 1) 20%

  • Element 2) 30%

  • Element 3) 15%

  • Element 4) 10%

  • Element 5) 25%

The final mark for the course is established by determining the weighted average.


If the average grade is a 5,49 or lower, one or two of the research papers will need to be retaken. There is no resit for the presentation, participation and preparation (elements 3 and 4).

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

Course materials will be made a available via the online content management system (BlackBoard/Brightspace).
We will be working with these books (note that these are available online via the Leiden University Library Catalogue):

  • M. L. Cameron, Anglo-Saxon Medicine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)

  • E. Kesling, Medical Texts in Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture (Woodbridge, 2020)


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available on the website.

Registration Studeren à la carte en Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. M.H. Porck

Student administration: Arsenaal
Coordinator of studies: ms. Mr.drs. P.C. Lai


Not applicable.