Non-Medical “Science Writing” and Plant Nomenclature in Anglo-Saxon England:

Sheetal Lodhia

Copyright 2001


The Status of Science-Writing: “Science” was not distinguished as an epistemological term involving original and progressive knowledge until the late medieval period.  Science writing was not accessible by the general English population primarily because of the low literacy rate in Anglo-Saxon England. Furthermore, science writing was largely the product of translation and circulated predominantly among the clergy. Richard Rice summarizes “science” prior to the Middle Ages as “deriv[ing] from Greek writings available through the Latin encyclopedists”(669). In addition, Linda Voigts indicates that writings about science in Old English are essentially “monastic” (670).


Works of the English and Anglo-Latin Writers: Science writing in the Anglo-Saxon period existed both in Latin and Old English. The works of Byrhtferth, an eleventh-century monk, and his younger contemporary, Abbo of Fleury, are among the most well known science writings in the Anglo-Saxon period. Fleury, who spent time in French monasteries, introduced the French tradition of “liberal arts” to England: the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialect) and the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music). Fleury’s was one of the earliest attempts to organize learning into different disciplines. The Handboc (or Enchiridion) of Byrhtferth is the earliest work on “science” written in English. Byrhtferth’s treatise is representative of the many broad topics covered by Anglo-Saxon science writers. These include Arithmetic or Numerology, Astronomy and Computus (the examination and calculation of the calendar). Byrhtferth’s writings encompass what we now classify as the “physical” sciences (those that deal with non-organic matter). In contrast, the “life” sciences (which focus on organic matter) and, in particular, the study of plants was distributed among a wider range of sources. John Earle reflects that Anglo-Saxon knowledge of plants was circulated through the various handbooks of herbal medicine (ix-x).


Works of “Science” Known to the English and Anglo-Latin Writers: The most commonly read classical “science” text was no doubt Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Aristotle’s Organon and Bede’s On the Nature of Things were also widely read. Rice also states that Arabic influence on science writing was the most pervasive of all non-Western foreign influences (669), though much of this knowledge was lost during the Crusades as campaigns for Christianity became widespread. With respect to the study of plants, George Anderson states that the Anglo-Saxon taxonomy of plants derives largely from the Herbarium Apuleii, or Apuleius’ Herbal (385), often wrongly attributed to Discorides (Voigts 671).


Nomenclature and “the Scientific Method”: What we currently identify as “the Scientific Method” was actually established quite late in the early modern period with Bacon’s treatise on inductive methods and Descartes’ examination of the deductive method. Anglo-Saxon science writers, however, followed no formal codes. Charles Singer considers analogy the device closest to a kind of Anglo-Saxon scientific methodology: “Research was undreamed of by the Dark Age thinker…the world, both physical and moral, could be explored by playing the game of analogy”(289). Indeed, the use of analogy was pervasive and can even be applied with respect to other kinds of science writing and organizational devices, namely nomenclature.


Plants: As previously noted, the Herbarium is the primary Latin basis for naming plants, after which subsequent English names can be seen to follow analogically. However, Earle suggests that, with respect to the difference between native names of plants and Latin ones, most English ones were rough translations of the Latin. He also indicates, however, that modern readers have no real way to verify the origin of the names: “We cannot be more exact than the authors of the Lists [of plant names] were. It is of course possible that native names might sometimes be matched to [Latin names] in an arbitrary or perfunctory manner…”(lxv). Yet, Earle unlike most contemporary scholars attempts to put forward patterns for the adoption of names. These include the maintenance of Latin names; property-based names; plants grouped according to feature; the translation, or borrowing of names from other languages into OE; and, anecdotal names. (lxvii-xiii).


Names based on Properties / Maintenance of Latin Names: Robyn Mulia asserts that actually many plant names were derived from the effects they had on human physiology (1). She cites Achillea Millefolium, for its ability to staunch blood flow. This plant was named after the hero Achilles, upon whose entire body (except for his heel) an injury would never yield a fatal wound. Pertaining to Achillea Millefolium, Thomas Cockayne’s nineteenth-century translation of the Herbarium states, “Of this wort, which is named Millefolium…it is said that Achilles, the chieftan should find. It and he with the same wort healed them who with iron were stricken and wounded” (1.195). Interestingly, many names based on properties maintain their Latin names in Anglo-Saxon texts (although this is not always the case! See below: Foxglove). Earle confirms this theory: “[With respect to AS nomenclature] The ancient names of the classics are to be respected” (xl).


Grouping of plants based on Features: Plants that share similar features are often grouped together. For example, the words porleac and enneleac (leeks and onions respectively) illustrate this feature. The suffix leac indicates a particular family of bulbous pungent vegetables, with membranes arranged in concentric layers.


Translation/Borrowing of Names: In this category, Earle lists those words for which the Latin name has not been replaced by another non-contiguous name. Among these plants are Urtica (nettle) and Allium (garlic). Interestingly, however, Earle lists variant Anglo-Saxon citations of garlic, which employ both the Latin Allium and the OE gar-leac. Perhaps the latter name indicates the creation of an Anglo-Saxon analogue, based on the qualities of garlic, which are similar to porleac and enneleac. With respect to certain herbs and spices, names have been borrowed from non-European sources. Saffron, for example, comes from the Arabic za faran.

Anecdotal Names: Skeat suggests, “Our [Anglo-Saxon] ancestors had a curious habit of connecting the names of plants with those of various well-known animals” (163). He cites numerous examples, among which are fox glof, wulfes camb and kattes minte. Earle’s glossary reveals that in fact all of these “animal words” are native ones. Yet, contemporary scholars speculate very little about the differences, or reasons behind names that are native in origin and names that derive from other sources. Skeat dismisses the animal names as “simply childish” and states that they came about because “[a] child only wants a pretty name, and is glad to connect a plant with a more or less familiar animal” (163). Pinkie D’Cruz, on the other hand, suggests on her website that the legend of the plant yielded the plant’s name. With respect to Fox’s Glove (Foxglove) she recounts an Anglo-Saxon legend in which fairies used to give the blossoms of the flower to foxes to wear as gloves (to make them inaudible and invisible) so as not to get caught while raiding chicken coops. Similarly, fairies used to wear the blossoms as mittens in order to avoid being seen by humans. In addition, Cockayne, with respect to Foxglove, writes, “It appears that the same plant was understood by Foxglove in the xii century as now” (3.327). Interestingly, the Latin name of Foxglove, from the Herbarium is cited as Digitalis Purpureen (1.267). Thus, the Latin name of Foxglove is property based: Foxglove yields digitalis, one of the most well known cardiac stimulants. Therefore, the Anglo-Saxon name, arising from the legend, seems to have originated distinct from the Latin one based on property.


For Further Reading:




Bonser, Wilfrid. An Anglo-Saxon and Celtic Bibliography (450-1087 AD). Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1957.

Very good, but dated. See especially sections 40 (Agriculture, Mills, Livestock) and 116 (Science – General; Byrthferth; Plants; Astronomy; Animals; Nomenclature; Magic and Charms )


Biggam, Carole P. Anglo-Saxon Studies: A Select Bibliography. 2nd Ed. West Sussex: pa

Englican Gesipas, 1995.

Not as useful as her website. See sections on non-medical science and Agriculture.


General Histories of Science:


Baxter, Ronald E. “Scientific Manuscripts, Early.” Medireview England: An Encyclopedia.

Ed. Paul E. Szarmach et al. New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1998.

Focus on Abbo and Byrhtferth with good review of works in relation to astronomy.


Cameron, Laurence. “Medical Literature and Medicine.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of

Anglo-Saxon England. Ed. Michael Lapidge et al. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1999.

With respect to non-medical science, a good outline of the Herbarium and a nice description of the importance of spices.


Rice, Richard E. “ Science.” Medireview England: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Paul E. Szarmach

et al. New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1998.

Summarizes major Figures in science from Pliny to Galileo


Singer, Charles. “The Dark Age of Science.” The Realist 2 (1929): 281-295.

Very good (if somewhat Whiggish) summary of the major trends in Anglo-Saxon science writing. (Calendar, Astronomy, Numerology) Singer is also bound by eighteenth and nineteenth-century notions of progress “science… demands a conception of progress”(294); therefore, his treatise is often condescending towards Anglo-Saxon science writers.


Thorndike, Lynn. A History of Magic and Experimental Science. 4 vols. New York and

London: Columbia University Press, 1923.

Good account of Pliny’s works and his influence on Science.


Voigts, Linda. “Scientific and Medical Writings.” Medireview England: An Encyclopedia.

Ed. Paul E. Szarmach et al. New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1998.

Intelligent and Informative descriptions of trends and major figures.

Nomenclature: n.b. unfortunately nearly all of the authors who discuss nomenclature focus on the catalogues themselves (the “whats”) rather than the reasons behind the catalogues (the “whys”).


Of Plants:


Anderson , George K. The Literature of The Anglo-Saxons. Princeton: Princeton

University Press, 1949.

See Chapter XIII on “Scientific Writing in the Old English Period.” Good summary of Herbarium Apuleii and medical writing.


Anglo-Saxon Plant-Name Survey. Ed. Carole Biggam. 1999. Aug. 2001


Extensive and well-researched catalogue of all extant AS plant names. However, lacking in socio-historical information with respect to origins of names and differences among them. One notworthy aspect of the site: Biggam lists authors within her plant chart who have written articles about particular plant names, or groups. Her bibliography here is invaluable.


Bierbaumer, Peter. Der Botanische Worschatz des Altenglisher. 3 vols. Bern: Herbert

Lang, 1975-1979.

For those who read German, an extensive and evidently thorough listing of plant names.


Cockayne, Thomas Oswald. Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England.

3vols. London: Longman Green, 1864-1866. London: Kraus Government Publications, 1996.

Translation of Herbarium in PDE and OE, with glosses in Latin See especially Vol 1, chapter 1 “ Herbarium of Apuleius” and chapter II “ ---continued from Dioskorides.” Vol III chapter 6 “Saxon names of plants” lists all those plant names that are native in origin. A “first-hand” look at the Herbarium is invaluable.


D’Cruz, Pinkie. Meanings and Legends of Flowers. 16 Jan. 1998

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Non-academic, but ample list of plant names and myths surrounding them. Site has no index, which makes manoeuvring somewhat time-consuming.


Earle, John. English Plant Names from the Tenth to the Fifteenth Century. Oxford:

Clarendon Press, 1880.

See especially chapter 3 on the “signification” of native plant names. A thorough, but dated source.


Mulia, Robyn Agnes. Where do Plants Get Their Names From? 30 Aug. 2001 <http://>.

Somewhat useful, but focuses on period after Linnaeus.


Skeat, Walter. “Anglo-Saxon Plant-Names.” Notes and Queries. 8th IX (1896): 163-164.

Nice list of “animal” plant names.

Of Animals and Other:


Bonser, Wilfrid. “Anglo-Saxon Medical Nomenclature.” English and Germanic Studies.

4 (1951-52) 13-19)

Interesting in comparison with Plant, Animal and Mineral names.


Whitman, Charles Huntington. “The Old English Animal Names.” Anglia 30 (1907) :


A virtual compendium of animal names. Whitman is the definitive source for all things animal – he has several treatises focussing on different animal groups.