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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

VII. From Alfred to the Conquest

§ 10. Quasi-scientific works

From these we must turn to consider the quasi-scientific works of this period, which have all been printed by Cockayne in his Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft in Early England. As might be expected, they have little literary value, but are extremely interesting from a historical standpoint, since they throw many valuable side-lights on the manners and social conditions of the time. Cockayne’s collection begins with the Herbarium that passes under the name of Apuleius, a work stating the various ills for which each plant is a remedy. It appears in four MSS., the one printed by Cockayne dating from the first half of the eleventh century. Following this is an English version of the Medicina de quadrupedibus of Sextus Placidus, about whom nothing is known, which describes the various kinds of animals and the use of their bodies in medicine.

Even more interesting is the leech-book in Cockayne’s second volume. The author was evidently acquainted with the Greek and Latin authorities on medicine, for the work is full of their prescriptions, and Helias, patriarch of Jerusalem, is mentioned as having sent such prescriptions to King Alfred.

Lastly, Cockayne printed in his third volume two collections of miscellaneous recipes, and a number of prognostications, interpretations of dreams and a horologium. The first collection is extremely interesting on account of the heathen nature of many of the prescriptions, which require for their efficacy the repetition of charms. Some of these are mere gibberish, in which, however, fragments of Greek, Latin and Hebrew may be traced; others, such as the celebrated charm against the stitch, show close connection with Scandinavian mythology; while in some, such as the charm to bring home straying cattle, there is a curious mingling of Christian nomenclature and heathen superstition. All these works are deeply tinged with poetic feeling; and the desire to propitiate the powers that distribute storm and sunshine is visible throughout. The date of these compositions is not known, but most of the manuscripts belong to the eleventh century.

From the foregoing survey of English prose literature during the eleventh century it is clear that the language had attained considerable development as a literary medium. In the hands of Aelfric its vocabulary becomes less concrete, its construction more logical, and, though it was still seen to best advantage in simple narrative, it was moulded by him with fair success to philosophic requirements. But, in the years that followed the Norman conquest, the development of English prose met with a great check, and four hundred years elapsed before the vernacular was again employed with the grace and fluency of Aelfric.