Steve Pollington : Avalonia Author Interviews
( March 2005 – Q indicates question by Avalonia, SP indicates answer by Stephen Pollington)
Q: Your book “Leechcraft” is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in Anglo-Saxon healing, mythology and cosmology. How did you come to write this book and how long did it take to do all the research?
SP: As somebody who spends far too much time and money in bookshops, I’m often struck by the disparity in coverage: some periods and topics receive a vast amount of detailed attention, others almost none. Having picked up a copy of the Early English Text Society edition of the Old English Herbarium, it struck me that the English medical tradition had not really been adequately covered, and that scholars were still working from the Rev. Cockayne’s three-volume compendium dating from the 1860s. This is the famous work called “Leechdoms, Wortcraft and Starcunning of Early England”; a truly fantastic title!
My publishing house, Anglo-Saxon Books, were enthusiastic about the project but felt that the work should include all the major texts, so the Old English side of the project expanded beyond my original idea. And in researching the subject, I quickly discovered that a fair proportion of the original OE terms cannot confidently be assigned to a modern (Linnaean) plant-name. So that stretched the modern research aspects of the project too.
Fortunately, recent work on both the bio-chemical properties of the ancient remedies and on the semantics of plant nomenclature allowed me to put together something more than just a bland translation of the key texts.
In all, the project took nearly four years to complete, of which about one year was simply working on the translations of the texts. Researching the plant-names and other background data was very labour-intensive, and it’s fair to say that the research is not over yet.
Q: In addition to your work on Anglo Saxon lore, you have also written books on Old English. When did you first develop an interest in Anglo Saxon and Old English and how relevant do you feel it is to us today?
SP: I have been involved in the promotion of Old English subjects for more than a decade. My interest grew out of purely etymological research into word-roots and hidden meanings – ‘hidden’, that is, because of the processes of erosion and accretion which words suffer. I mean, ideas such as that the root of the words ‘finger’ and ‘fist’ are both in the word ‘five’ (one of five digits, and a ‘bunch of fives’ respectively). Research like this inevitably leads into the study of Old English – both language and culture – and to a new appreciation of the language. Despite the way in which Modern English has absorbed vocabulary from around the world, the core of the language is still the same Germanic structure that was spoken and written by King Alfred or King Harold.
It’s also fair to say that to get a complete understanding of the modern language, you absolutely have to understand the historical contexts which are its foundations. A lot of what we think of today as ‘irregularities’ are simply the normal forms of words from Old English, retained because they are so familiar. And you can see the process at work: a word like ‘thrive’ until recently would rhyme with ‘drive’ (I thrive, I throve, I have thriven) but more often now it just takes the blanket -ed ending (I thrived, I have thrived). The same thing is happening with ‘strive’: ‘strove’ and ‘striven’ are being replaced by ‘strived’. This is an entirely natural process, which we mostly don’t notice – nobody nowadays would say ‘I have holpen’, we’d say ‘I have helped’. A knowledge of OE gives you an entirely different perspective on processes like this.
Q: Much of what you write about in Leechcraft is based on oral traditions. How much of this tradition do you think survived to this day and can you share any interesting traditions (or customs) which are still used in Britain today that we inherited from the Anglo Saxons?
SP: The oral traditions are, by their nature, difficult to recover unless someone wrote them down. However, records of country traditions were collected from the 17th century onwards, as part of the Enlightenment interest in the curious and picturesque. Some of these customs were ‘improved’ by the Victorians – the rude bits taken out – and are still under threat from population movement. So, I suspect that very little survives to this day, compared with the huge body of material which was once known. The industrial revolution broke the many-thousand-year link between the people and the land, and the folk who stayed behind in their villages can only have been aware of part of the local tradition.
That said, the Anglo-Saxon heritage is still very much with us – we still love ceremony, we still celebrate special occasions with strong drink, we still inhabit a world which closely resembles the mental map of the Anglo-Saxons. All our hardiest words – mother, father, land, earth, tree, field, sky, love, hate, live, die, eat, drink, sleep, wake – are Anglo-Saxon words, Anglo-Saxon ideas really
Q: Anglo Saxon healing seems far more holistic than many of the conventional and alternative methods used today. How important do you feel this approach to the whole person is to healing?
SP: It seems to me that any approach to healing which systematically ignores a part of the evidence is unlikely to be wholly successful. Tinkering with the bits that are easy to fix is perhaps a common human trait, but dealing with both symptoms and their causes is more successful as a strategy. Reliance on potions and lotions – whether industrially produced or home-made – is only ever going to be able to deal with part of the problem.
Q: Many of the animals which were around at the time of the Anglo Saxons are now extinct, do you know if any of the herbs and plants which were used are also extinct in Britain today, or are they all still available?
SP: The greater part of the Anglo-Saxon armoury of medical materials is still available today. Common plants such as mint, daisy, buttercup, dandelion and cress all have their place within the system, as well as perhaps slightly less well-known ones like feverfew, wormwood or pennyroyal. This does bring us back to the problem of identifying OE plant-names with modern plants, which was a major hurdle to research for the book.
Q: Runelore is another subject you have written about and touch upon in Leechcraft. What would you consider the best way for someone to learn the workings and symbolism of the Runes and how would these be incorporated into the work of the healer?
SP: The whole subject of the runes has been extensively over-exploited in the last 25 years. Runes certainly did play a part in healing – for example, they were used to empower substances – but the greater part of our knowledge is based on a few Scandinavian sources. Anyone wanting to take up the study of runes should think first of their use as ciphers, symbols pointing to important ideas. There are a lot of books available to the beginner, but frankly most of them are either derivative or based on inadequate research.
I think the only valid approach to the runes for the beginner is through the language-based material: you have to understand that side of the script before any of the esoteric material will really make any sense.
Q: Again you have also written about the history of the English Warrior – how do you reconcile your interest in War with your interest in healing?
SP: First, I think I’d say that I have an interest in Anglo-Saxon culture as a whole – the bigger picture which covers the whole range of activities, the social structure, the language, mythology, material culture and so on. Warfare was probably not the major concern that some historians have portrayed it as, but it was important in two ways. Firstly, the bond between the lord and his supporters was the central relationship of that society and it is present in their whole political and artistic tradition. Secondly, Anglo-Saxon society was highly successful, which meant that it was always under threat. Military strength was only one of the means used to defend the land, but it was an important one.
Beyond those points, I think that the central divisions of ancient European societies generally were between rulers, warriors and producers: the “three functions” of Dumezilian ideology. To investigate one function inevitably brings the researcher up against the others; it is a re-statement of the holistic perspective. My books have all aimed to provide a good discussion of the available evidence, to act as a springboard for further research or to fill a gap in the present range of published material. To that extent, the subject matter of each overlaps the others.
Q: In the section on the use of amulets you discuss the differences between the amulets used by men, women and children and how they were used for a variety of issues – what was the most common use for amulets?
SP: That is actually a very interesting question. The use of amulets is assumed from occasional finds in the archaeological record, and from written references. If I said to you that they were used for “good luck” that would sound like an evasion, but actually it isn’t. Good luck is the quality called ‘hæl’ which is the root of our words ‘heal’ and ‘health’, as well as ‘whole’ and ‘hale’. It is a kind of “being in tune with the flow of time” if you like, and amulets were used to manipulate this quality. They are a physical remains of ritual, which is itself intended to influence (rather than to control) how things turn out.
The central concerns of life appear to have been childbirth, protection from harm and disease, successful harvests. In the Christian manuscripts it is clearly stated that no man is to secure his health by tying any plant onto himself or by using any ‘token’, unless it be God’s holy cross. This is good evidence that people actually were using tokens (i.e. amulets and talismans) for their well-being. The church didn’t bother to clamp down on practices that people were not using.
Q: Have you personally tried any of the remedies given in some of these old manuscripts?
SP: Some of the recipes in the manuscripts are straightforward salves and they use ingredients that are familiar to us today. In researching the book, I attempted to grow quite a few of the plants in my garden at home – not always successfully, clay soil does not suit every kind of plant. My wife uses some of them to prepare salves.
As regards the drinks, I will admit to having played with some of the recipes but not really seriously. I should imagine some would be a bit robust for our palate today. Camomile and feverfew infusions are available as ‘fruit teas’ of course, but some plants like wormwood are very bitter.
Q: How safe are the recipes given in manuscripts such as the Lacnunga for people who want to try then today?
SP: As I mentioned previously, my wife has made salves using the plants grown in our garden. You cannot expect me to go into print encouraging your readers to experiment with vegetable substances with possibly harmful side-effects! Given that the plants were ‘mighty’, as the manuscript puts it, this indicates that they are full of active ingredients. Add to that the fact that identification of some of the names is not yet certain, and it would be rather irresponsible to recommend this.
Having said that, I know an old countryman who still puts a few leaves of feverfew into a sandwich if he has a headache, and it works as quickly as any shop-bought pill. I would recommend that anyone looking to reproduce these ancient remedies should first study the research to determine which plants are meant, and then look at the known biochemical effects of these plants.
Q: Do you know of people practising Anglo Saxon healing with success today?
SP: There certainly are herbalists using much the same native plant species as the Anglo-Saxons may have used, but I am not aware of any who specify that theirs is the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Country folk still have the remnants of the tradition in their local lore.
Q: What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing your books?
SP: Between work, a young family, research projects and various talks and presentations, I don’t have a lot of time for much else. I have been building up a collection of reproductions of early northern European artefacts which I use to illustrate my talks sometimes – and I do seem to spend an awful lot of time in bookshops.
Q: Are you planning any lectures (or workshops) in the near future?
SP: I have been cutting back on talks and presentations over the last couple of years due to changes in my work pattern and the need to keep things in balance. Recently I was invited to talk at a historical society’s get-together in the US, and I must say I am glad I accepted, as talking with people who share a similar interest but a very different approach to it certainly gave me a new insight into the subject of social structures in early mediaeval Europe.
However, I am always willing to consider invitations and if I can fit it into the schedule I always try to do so.
Q: Are you currently working on any exciting projects that you can tell us about?
SP: Yes and no. I have two or three projects underway. The most exciting from my side is the chance to make some more voice recordings of Old English texts. There has been a lot of demand for good quality recordings, and I want to make a CD with some favourite texts presented in full. It is quite a tall order, but I hope to complete the recording by late spring 2005.
On the writing front, I have identified a couple of areas where there has not been much published recently and I intend to fill those gaps as soon as time permits. Or until someone beats me to it!
Stephen Pollington was born in 1957 and has been active in the field of Old English studies since the publication in 1990 of his book The Warrior’s Way, which is a study of the events surrounding the Battle of Maldon in 991. Since then he has written and lectured on a variety of topics connected to pre-Conquest England, as well as appearing on radio and television.
His principal contributions to learning Old English are his books First Steps in Old English and Wordcraft, which is a Modern to Old English dictionary and thesaurus.
He has specialised in compiling evidence from the widest variety of historical sources and interpreting it for a general readership. He is a contributor to the on-line New Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, has worked as a consultant for television, and was for many years the editor of Wiþowinde, a quarterly journal devoted to Anglo-Saxon England and the Old English language.