Many early English medical remedies have been dismissed, even by sympathetic scholars, as “mere placebo,” with the implication that therapeutic benefits to the patient, if any, are thereby insignificant. My article challenges such dismissals of placebo responses in Old English medicine. I draw on current research demonstrating that in certain conditions, a placebo effect, or “meaning response” (to use Daniel Moerman’s term), can have striking success in bringing about healing. I describe contemporary clinical practices shown to enhance patient responses to pharmaceutical treatments both inert and active, and demonstrate that these strategies are also visible in early English medical practice. Understanding the cultural components of belief that provoke placebo responses also allows a discussion of medieval medicine that does not force us to distinguish anachronistically categories of “magical” and “medical.” Ultimately, an understanding of the meaning response in medical treatment moves us beyond the simplistic binary of medical recipes that “work” (by modern biomedical standards) and those that do not, offering us a view of the interplay of chemical and cultural healing practices in embodied experience.
Brackmann, Rebecca. "'It Will Help Him Wonderfully': Placebo and Meaning Response in Early Medieval English Medicine." Speculum 97.4: 1012-1039.