The Anglo-Saxon cunning woman

Women played a leading role in early English society – none more so than the Anglo-Saxon version of the modern female priest. Martin Carver reports...

This article first appeared in the November 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine

A plan of the cunning woman. (Tania Dickinson)
Invading Britain, scrapping for territory, chasing out the Vikings – you can be forgiven for thinking that the early history of England is all about blood and guts and the charismatic male. But surprisingly, Anglo-Saxon women played a leading role in the court, in the church and yes, on the battlefield too. Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians was a 10th-century field-marshal, leading the western advance against the Vikings, building forts and taking the Danish surrender at York. 
 
Three hundred years earlier, the wife of Raedwald, king of East Anglia, had proved herself a canny politician, preventing her devil-may-care husband from breaking important alliances or betraying his refugee guest Edwin for money.
 
It’s true that history has little to say about these women and, to some extent, they have been written out of the script. When Æthelflæd died of exhaustion at the end of her campaign, her brother, the future King Edward the Elder, was quick to integrate her forces with his – and to merge the story of her conquests in the official triumph of Wessex. 
 
Raedwald’s queen is mentioned by the Venerable Bede, but he doesn’t give her a name – perhaps because she was a pagan and talked King Raedwald out of being Christian. Bede gives us some formidable abbesses like Hilda of Whitby, who orchestrated the synod that united the English churches. Later history offers us some impressive queens like Emma, feisty second wife to two monarchs – Æthelred the Unready and Canute – but tells us all too little of the machinations  they must have practised.  
 
Archaeology, however, opens the door a little wider. It not only shows us a range of the female activists we know must have been present in every society, but even something of their special role – and none was more special than the so-called cunning woman. Don’t be misled by the title – this was not a witch or a fortune-teller or the professional magician we know from later centuries. The Anglo-Saxon cunning woman was the equivalent of the female priest, but in an earlier religion and centuries before her first Christian successor.
 
Our cunning woman was found buried at Bidford-on-Avon in Warwickshire, lying on her back with her head turned to one side. She lived in c550 AD, was aged between 18 and 25 (no crone this) and was some 1.60m (5ft 4ins) tall. Her peplos (a long gown) was fastened by two brooches – an Anglo-Saxon ‘small long’ and a western British penannular, showing allegiance to the two main culture groups of the age. 
 
Slung between the brooches was a necklace of 39 beads of red, green and yellow glass, amber and gold-in-glass. To this was added the tools of her trade. Slung across her back was a kind of leather bib to which was sewn a dozen tiny bronze buckets with curved handles. By her right hip was a big bag and next to it a sharp knife with a stubby blade and a long decorated bone handle. What could all these objects mean?
 
The eminent Anglo-Saxon archaeologist Tania Dickinson studied the objects and worked out their original positions: the beads festooned around the neck; the bib with its dangling buckets hanging across the breast; the bag with its vanished organic contents suspended from the hip; and the ‘surgical’ knife hanging beside it. 
 
Dickinson concluded that “the odd mixture of amulets and ‘junk’ may be both the stock-in-trade and sign of women possessed of special powers” and she identified the Bidford-on-Avon lady as a rare example of a cunning woman or shaman. 
 

Divining the future

 
Since then, archaeologist Neil Price has found female shamans to be important players among the Vikings – in fact, they were recorded as active all round the Arctic circle into recent times. Shamans’ powers included divining the future, healing, shoring up the timorous and protecting the vulnerable – a mixture of doctor, psychiatrist, marriage councillor, midwife, politician and priest. Their prescriptions included remedial potions, laying on hands and reporting visions induced by signing and dancing – altogether not so distant from their modern successors, the doctors and the bishops of the 21st century. 
 
English women were excluded from these roles for a millennium, but back in the earliest days of the English village the local cunning woman must have been a familiar sight, at once uplifting and reassuring.  
 
Martin Carver is a professor emeritus at the University of York’s department of archaeology.
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