An Eventful March: Bald's Leechbook and MRSA, Anglo-Saxon England and Genetics, and Modern Folk Belief and the Huldufólk in Iceland

I. Bald's Leechbook and MRSA
In an interesting development for Old English scholars, numerous Western outlets report that an Old English remedy for an eye-sty recorded in Bald's Leechbook (compiled in the 9th century and surviving in a single manuscript) has shown to be effective in treating Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), bacterium that have become immune to beta-lactam antibiotics. reports:

"The medieval medics might have been on to something. A modern-day recreation of this remedy seems to alleviate infections caused by the bacteria that are usually responsible for styes. The work might ultimately help create drugs for hard-to-treat skin infections.

The project was born when Freya Harrison, a microbiologist at the University of Nottingham, UK, got talking to Christina Lee, an Anglo-Saxon scholar. They decided to test a recipe from an Old English medical compendium called Bald's Leechbook, housed in the British Library.

Some of the ingredients, such as copper from the brass vessel, kill bacteria grown in a dish – but it was unknown if they would work on a real infection or how they would combine."

This particular remedy has been tested before but with negative results by Brennessel, Drout, and Gravel in 2005 (see their results here). Michael Drout has subsequently responded to Harrison's and Lee's 2015 results on Drout's blog here.

II. Anglo-Saxon England and Genetics
A genetic study out of the University of Oxford published in March in Nature has received media attention from outlets such as the BBC and The Guardian. The study has implications on what we know about Anglo-Saxon England, the Migration Period, the Celtic peoples as an ethnic group, and subsequent migrations in the era. Peter Donnelly comments:

"According to Prof Peter Donnelly who co-led the study, the results show that although there is not a single Celtic group, there is a genetic basis for regional identities in the UK.

'Many of the genetic clusters we see in the west and north are similar to the tribal groupings and kingdoms around, and just after, the time of the Saxon invasion, suggesting these kingdoms maintained a regional identity for many years,' he told BBC News."

III. Modern Folk Belief and the Huldufólk in Iceland
A feature on the influence of modern Icelandic folk belief in the huldufólk ('hidden people') in Iceland was recently published in The Guardian (and definitely look at the fascinating accompanying pictorial!). A sample from the article:

"Road-builders are used to seeing their plans scuppered by the protected habitats of bats and newts, or sites of special scientific interest and outstanding natural beauty. But in Iceland, there is another hindrance: the world of the huldufólk, as they call them, the hidden people.

The rock, known as Ófeigskirkja, has been at the centre of an eight-year battle to stop a road being built through this 8,000-year-old landscape, a spectacularly barren and evocative terrain a little to the north of Reykjavík, which some believe is a site of supernatural forces. In a country of such desolate stony expanses, haunted by howling winds, bubbling geysers and fiery eruptions, it’s not hard to see why more than half of the population entertains the possibility that a parallel community of elves, dwarves and ghosts might exist – a statistic repeated in tourist brochures since a landmark 1975 survey. But few, like Jónsdóttir, claim to have a direct line to them, allowing her to hear their cries for help ..."

While modern Icelandic folklore is an area which I intend to delve further into he future, readers may be interested in similar folk beliefs surrounding the Landdísir recorded in 18th and 19th century Iceland (but probably reaching back into at least the Old Norse period).

BBC and Carnival Films Announce "The Last Kingdom"

Per, a new eight-episode television drama from the BBC and Carnival Films set in the 9th century and focusing on interactions between the Anglo-Saxons and their Viking Age Scandinavian cousins is on its way:

The BBC and “Downton Abbey” producer Carnival Films have teamed up to produce historical drama series, “The Last Kingdom,” BBC America announced Wednesday.


Set in the year 872, when many of the separate kingdoms of what we now know as England have fallen to the invading Vikings, the great kingdom of Wessex has been left standing alone and defiant under the command of King Alfred the Great. Against this turbulent backdrop lives “The Last Kingdom’s” hero, Uhtred. Born the son of a Saxon nobleman, he is orphaned by the Vikings and then kidnapped and raised as one of their own. Forced to choose between the country of his birth and the people of his upbringing, his loyalties are ever tested. What is he — Saxon or Viking? On a quest to claim his birthright, Uhtred must tread a dangerous path between both sides if he is to play his part in the birth of a new nation and, ultimately, seek to recapture his ancestral lands.


Much like History Channel’s “Vikings,” “The Last Kingdom” will combine real historical figures and events with fiction, exploring themes like religion, politics, warfare and the quest for identity.