Leechcraft

Some time I shall take a trip to the village of Henstridge in south Somerset and ask people the meaning of the name of the village. I suspect that most people wouldn’t know (I was equally ignorant when my parents lived there). Once you know Swedish though, it’s not so difficult – we have another village up the road called Horsington and then a village where the Knights Templar used to be so that Henstridge is probably simply the ridge where the stallions were kept (“hingst-rygg”).

Unlike Swedish place names, our English place names are often opaque, especially the ones formed during the period that Anglo-Saxon was spoken (500-1200). Anglo-Saxon is still a foundation of modern English but it has been so heavily overlaid with Norman French after England’s Norman rulers spoke French for 300 years that it’s almost a foreign language. I learnt hardly anything about it in school and I suspect that this is still the case. It’s taught as part of some university English Literature courses but I believe it has to fight for survival there and may often be an optional extra course at just a few universities. This lack of knowledge is not helped by there being so few inscriptions in Anglo-Saxon – they had quite an extensive literature but only the odd inscription has survived in churches.

It fascinates me though and improving my Anglo-Saxon will definitely be part of my personal plan for 2018 (it’s a very green plan as it consists largely of recycled goals).

Swedish is a great help here as the Scandinavian languages of the first millennium were not so far removed from Anglo-Saxon and speakers of the two languages could probably understand one another after a fashion (once they’d stopped hitting one another). I wonder whether some of the confusions in modern English spring from these meetings – for example, our horrible mess with “shall” and “will”,where two verbs have become entangled.

Knowing Swedish and Anglo-Saxon makes not just place names but other bits of English more comprehensible. For example, we have some churches that have a “lych gate”, a roofed gate used for sheltering coffins until the clergyman arrives. It doesn’t make much sense in Modern English (a vague meaningless association with “lichen” perhaps) but when you know that the Swedish word for body is “lik”, it all falls into place.

It’s amusing to think of what English might have been like had the Norman conquest not happened.

We would probably call a doctor a “leecher” and the science of medicine “leechcraft” (these words were “laece” and “laececraeft” in Anglo-Saxon).  In fact, I’m cheating a bit here as the words “leech” and “leechcraft” actually exist in English with these meanings but the words are archaic and hardly known (perhaps in Chaucer, I shall check).

We have similar words in Swedish, “läka” to heal and “läkare”. Oddly enough I’ve found no trace of a similar word in German where the word for doctor “Arzt” is derived from the Greek Archiatros (chief something…). Perhaps a word likes this exists in some German dialects. I have to include the history of German in my plan for the year….

Another interesting word here is “leech”, a worm-like parasite once used in medical treatment for removing blood from sick people. It seems to come from the same Anglo-Saxon word, laece. Could it have originated from an umbrella word for people (or animals) that heal before the profession of doctor/läkare/laece crystallised as a profession?

 

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