Sunday, 21 October 2012

Martin Carver's "The Anglo-Saxon Cunning Woman" in BBC History Magazine

Earlier today, I went out for Sunday lunch at a nearby noodle bar with some old school friends, before we popped into the local shops to procure some tacky Halloween decorations for this year's festivities. Loitering somewhat in Asda (the British name for "Walmart"), I began to peruse the collection of magazines that the supermarket had on offer, briefly flicking through a copy of BBC History Magazine (Vol 13, No 11, November 2012). Although it's not a magazine that I would normally buy, this time I decided to fork out the necessary £3.99 and obtain a copy for myself, all for a single article located on page 25. Written by the eminent Martin Carver, perhaps archaeology's greatest living Anglo-Saxonist, the one-page article was a part of the "Anglo-Saxon Portraits" ongoing series which accompanies the program of the same name broadcast on BBC Radio 3. As you have probably realised from the title of this blog post, Carver's article was entitled "The Anglo-Saxon Cunning Woman", and was devoted to a little-known and much-neglected area of Anglo-Saxon archaeology that I have taken a great interest in, and which was the subject of my bachelor degree dissertation.


Page 25, BBC History Magazine 13(11)

The term "cunning women" is of course Early Modern in origin, where it was used as a synonym for related terms like "wise woman". Here, it applied to professional or semi-professional practitioners of folk magic, who made use of their arte for the purposes of healing, de-witching, searching for stolen goods and sometimes even hexing; in this latter capacity, some cunning women were considered to be witches, and persecuted accordingly. From what we can gather, these cunning women, and cunning men, were almost certainly Christian in their cosmological worldview, even if they varied widely in their personal devotion to Christ. The cunning profession was widespread in Britain until the early twentieth century, where the changing nature of society ultimately left it obsolete. Folk magic of course continued, being offered by fortune tellers, Wiccans, Traditional Witches and the like, but the cunning profession itself was essentially gone.

Subsequently, Audrey Meaney, another towering figure in Anglo-Saxon archaeology, appropriated the Early Modern term "cunning woman" for usage in the Early Medieval, or Anglo-Saxon period of English history. In her important work, Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones (BAR, 1981), she argued that there were certain female burials in the archaeological record that represented professional magico-religious practitioners in Anglo-Saxon England, both in the era of paganism and of Christianity. Her work was expanded on by archaeologist Tania Dickinson, who devoted a 1993 paper to discussing a particular grave at Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, that she considered to be that of an Anglo-Saxon cunning woman.

Here, Carver has offered a brief overview of the little that we currently know of the Anglo-Saxon cunning craft, referencing Dickinson's work as well as that of Neil Price, whose truly excellent work The Viking Way (Uppsala University, 2002) explores the role of magico-religious specialists in Scandinavia, utilising a multidisciplinary approach embracing both archaeology and history. Carver has decorated his short piece with images of the skeleton and knife found at Dickinson's Bideford-on-Avon burial, and also spent much of the page on the wider issue of women in the Anglo-Saxon world. Ultimately, it is brief yet informative, and I would hope that it might inspire some readers to take a greater interest in the world of Anglo-Saxon ritual and religion, the subject which so captivates me.

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