The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 32
V.—Lic, Lich, Lichfield, Lichgate
V.—Lic, Lich, Lichfield, Lichgate.
The Saxon word for a dead body is lic. In later Saxon times the sound of the final c was probably softened to ch in order to distinguish it from lic = like, for the word for the living body is lichoma. The word lic (or lich) is entirely lost in modem English, having been superseded by the Romance word corpse. The word is found in the Gothic Gospels of Ulphilas, date 360, or about three centuries older than our oldest specimens of Saxon. Its form is there leik, and it has descended to the modem Germans in the word leiche, which is more Gothic in form than the Saxon. But although this word has entirely dropped out of the common English tongue, and indeed had disappeared before the time of Chaucer, it is still found embedded in a few compound words and names.
The shrieking lich-owl, that doth never cry
But boding death, and quick herself inters
In darksome graves and hollow [unclear: supulchres]."
The poet suggests that the name of the city of Lichfield is so called from a traditional massacre or battle upon the spot; but I shall presently suggest another and, I think, a more probable etymology.
A thousand other saints, whom Amphibal had taught,
Flying the pagan foe, their lives that strictly sought,
Were slain where Lichfield is, whose name doth rightly sound,
There of those Christians slain, dead-field, or burying-ground.
However plausible this etymology may appear, I have reason to doubt whether Lichfield has any connection with lic—a corpse. In Lye's Saxon and Gothic Dictionary, I find an explanation, of which the following is a translation, under the word Licedfeld:—
"The name of a city and Episcopal See in Staffordshire. Licetfeld, Sax. Chron., A.D. 716, 731. Liccet-feld, Beda, 523. At the present day, Lichfield. Some derive the name from lic—a dead body; q.d., the field of corpses (Lambard Die). Others from leccan, to irrigate; q.d., the irrigated field. Others, lastly, would call it Laecet-feld—i.e., the field of the Leeches, or medical men, from Laece—leech or curer."*
In Benjamin Thorpe's edition of "Six of the Saxon Chronicles," the name occurs five times as Licetfeld, and once as Licced-feld. Licetfeld may, therefore, be accepted as the oldest form of the name. In the "Chronicle" A.D. 710, the entry stands thus : "In this year Ceolred, the King of Mercia, died, and his body resteth in Licetfeld."
In 731, we have a reference to "Aldaine, the Bishop of Licetfeld."
* In the original:—Licedfeld, nomen urbis et sedes episcopalis in agro Staffordiensi. Licetfeld, Sax. Chro., 716, 731, Liccetfeld, Beda, 523. Hodie vero Lichfield, nomen autem deducunt nonnulli a Lie = Cadaver, q. d., cadavorum campus (Lamb. Die) alii [unclear: a] leccian = irrigare; q. d. irriguus campus. Alii denique, Laecet-feld appellavi volunt—i.e., Sanatorum campus a Laece = Sanitor, medicus, Lidg. Mon, in Vita, S. Alb.
A similar difficulty besets us in the case of Laece, a curer or leech. We have Laece-hus—Leech-house = hospital; Laece-craft—Leech-craft = the art of the curer; Laece-sealfe—Leech-salve = Ointment; Laece-seax—Leech-knife = a lancet.
But if we adopt the second of Lye's derivations from leccan, to water or irrigate, the difficulty vanishes; the t is the termination of the past participle, and in Licet-feld is used adjectively for the watered field, or as we should now say, the water meadow. This, moreover, well agrees with the character of the country close round Lichfield, at least in the winter season. In the Saxon version of the Psalms, vi. 6—"I water my couch with my tears," the verb leccan is employed; and in King Æfred's translation of "Boethius, xxxix. 13), the verb leccan is used to express that "hail and snows and frequent rain water the earth in winter—lec-ath tha earthan on wintra."
It seems to me, therefore, that the conclusion is irresistible—that Lichfield is neither Drayton's dead field or field of corpses, nor the Leech-field or hospital close, but is simply the water (ed) field or water meadow—a solution which accords with the aspect of the country, and probably did so in a much greater degree 1000 years ago. Thus, it needs no myth to account for it.
* The soft th, as in those, and the sharp th, as in think, were marked by two distinct letters in Saxon-English, which, I believe, are not to be had here.