‘Woman is the gate of the devil, the path of wickedness, the sting of the serpent, in a word, a perilous object.’Saint Jerome, 4th century.
In the small Cotswold village of Bidford-on-Avon you will find ‘the grave of someone with special powers.’ At least that is the conclusion reached by archaeologist Tania Dickinson when, from a sixth century cemetery, a woman was discovered buried with an array of unusual items: scalpels, antler cones, metal cylinders and amuletic bucket pendants containing organic matter and threads. All were contained within a large leather bag.
Researchers have identified this bag, and others like it discovered with similar women, as a motif of cunning-women (cunning meaning ‘knowledgeable’ in Old English). The strange items within these ‘doctor’s bags’ seemingly evidence of these women’s specialisation in medicine, ritual and prophesy. Yet how can we be sure? As the local Warwickshire museum asks on its website for example – ‘What use would the antler cone have?’ No one seems to know.
From my own research with ninth century Old English herbals such as Bald’s Leechbook III and the Lacnunga manuscript, this question is answered and now challenges the widely accepted historic account of medical history, which places medical practice and development firmly in the hands and minds of men. Great names such as Hippocrates and Galen come instantly to mind when pondering medical history. Yet from the dusty pages of forgotten Old English herbals, ancient remedies are painting a very different picture: Cunning-women healed the sick, prophesied the future and communicated with spiritual beings. They also used what we might call spells and charms to locate lost property and protect people, homes and livestock from harm. Such activities may seem preposterous to us today but in a world where natural occurrences were experienced within a supernatural cosmology, magic was considered a logical tool of agency. Using herbs and metaphysical abilities to heal the sick was the healthcare of the day and from the Old English herbals it is clear that some of these women were highly skilled physicians and surgeons.
For example, the antler cone and small scalpel can be seen in this remedy for worms in the eyes:
‘Gif wyrmas sien on eagum scearpa þa bræwas innan, do on þa‘If worms be in the eyes, score inside the eyelids, put celandine juice into the cuts, the worms will be dead and the eyes healthy.’
scearpan celeþonian seaw, þa wyrmas bioþ deade ond þa eagan hale.’
We can imagine the tiny blade, scoring the fragile inner skin of the lid and the funnel-like instrument, like a small antler cone with holes at either end, being carefully used to drip ointment into the eye. This is a physician’s work and women just like the Bidford-on-Avon cunning-woman are being discovered across the land, buried with ‘doctor’s bags’ in peculiarly ritualistic, distinctive graves: some are buried face down at the edge of cemeteries, covered in stones such as the cunning-woman of Lechlade. She was found buried beneath rocks and placed at the far north of the cemetery as if shunned and feared. Others have been found decapitated or secured in their graves with metal spikes in a mode of burial usually reserved for murderers. Andrew Reynolds explains these strange modes of burial:
‘In the pre-Christian centuries Early Anglo-Saxon communities arguably marked the burials of people considered somehow different, and perhaps dangerous to the living, in distinctive ways, and certain of these locally determined but widely understood modes of treating social ‘others’ can be observed to continue until the nineteenth century in England.’
This begs the question – if cunning-women were respected and knowledgeable physicians, why were they buried in these deviant ways? Curator Sue Banning from the British Museum sees it as a consequence of their special and powerful nature, she says:
‘these women were very well respected, but they were quite feared as well.’
This spirit of fear would become exploited and built upon during the medieval era when the Church institutionalised gender discrimination, portraying women as lesser creatures than men – a view which persists today. With the Augustinian reworking of woman’s role in sin, the misogynistic writing of Bishop Prüm, the assimilation of paganism by Pope Gregory and the infamous Malleus Malleficarum (and all this before the advent of the witch trials), early female physicians were successfully re-branded as evil witches who fornicated with the devil. If they cured a patient then it was the devil’s work. If they failed to remedy a patient, that was the devil too.
At the height of the witch-hunts, neighbours would turn on neighbours, friends on friends and family members on loved ones. Suspicion of witchcraft seemed to underlie almost any misfortune during a time when supernatural causes were suspected for almost every ill. The Malleus Malleficarum (Kramer, 1487) stands as the most significant document fuelling this air of social suspicion and paranoia.
Although trials for witches were already underway by the time he wrote the Malleus, his Hammer of the Witches, Kramer’s document marks a turning point in the European witch-hunts that enabled systematised, organised interrogation against certain accepted measures of guilt. The book was a best seller and the picture it portrayed of witches and women in general was so fear-inducing that hysteria spread throughout the western world. Whether one reads the original Latin version, Montague Summers’ translation or the Maxwell-Stuart rendition, the content remains breathtaking for the modern reader as Kramer’s view of women unfolds:
‘What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable
punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable
calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of
nature, painted with fair colours!’
Today, the term ‘cunning-woman’ has been lost from regular parlance and is confused with the loaded term ‘witch’, mingling herbal healing with notions of evil. It is not easy to speak of these matters at all today without the spectre of witchcraft and witches overshadowing them. The researcher must tread carefully through centuries of controversy, misinformation and deep-rooted prejudices to reveal anything of the real cunning-women. Yet from their remedies, preserved in obscure Old English language within equally bizarre old herbals that speak of nightwalkers, hags and elves, we find their voices retained – powerful, present and potent.
By Sinéad Spearing
*Image: Female physician blood-letting in John of Arderne, Medical treatise. England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century.London, the British Library, Manuscript Sloane 6, f.177v.
*Spearing, Sinéad. A History of Women in Medicine: Cunning-Women, Physicians, Witches. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2019.
Spearing is a historian and the author of ‘Old English Medical Remedies’ and ‘A History of Women in Medicine: Cunning-Women, Physicians, Witches.’ www.sineadspearing.com.