Book Review: ‘A History of Women in Medicine’ by Sinead Spearing

A History of Women in Medicine: Cunning Women, Physicians, Witches by Sinead Spearing is published by Pen & Sword. I was fascinated to read this book, as I have myself for some time been considering writing a nonfiction book on the subject of the Anglo-Saxon ‘cunning-woman’.

Sinead Spearing is “a psychological historian specialising in the research of obscure beliefs. She worked as a professional musician before returning to university to study psychology and philosophy. Following a number of articles published in Journals including those of The British Psychological Society and Mensa, Sinéad began researching the bizarre world of Old English medicine, psychiatry and associated supernatural traditions.”

This is an excellent survey of the subject, with a scholarly but accessible tone, and a graceful style, clear and objective.


‘Witch’ is a powerful word with humble origins. Once used to describe an ancient British tribe known for its unique class of female physicians and priestesses, it grew into something grotesque, diabolical and dangerous.

A History of Women in Medicine: From Physicians to Witches? reveals the untold story of forgotten female physicians, their lives, practices and subsequent demonisation as witches. Originally held in high esteem in their communities, these women used herbs and ancient psychological processes to relieve the suffering of their patients. Often travelling long distances, moving from village to village, their medical and spiritual knowledge blended the boundaries between physician and priest. These ancient healers were the antithesis of the witch figure of today; instead they were knowledgeable therapists commanding respect, gratitude and high social status.”


As I read Sinead Searing’s account of the known history of ‘cunning-women’ in Anglo Saxon communities, a curious irony occurred to me. It is often only because of the witch trials that we even know of these women at all, because the trial itself necessitated documentation. Thus they enter the historical archive. So we may surmise that for each one we know about by this means, there were many more within English communities. Within this account, Spearing presents the ancient physicians of the day: and they were exclusively women.

The author considers ‘wise-women’ to be a better term for us to use now rather than ‘cunning-women’ simply because the word ‘cunning’ in our present times has such a different meaning. In Saxon times it meant ‘knowledgable’ and ‘wise’. However throughout this book she uses the term ‘cunning-woman’ because that is the term they would themselves have used, and those who read this book will understand its true meaning.

The account takes as its starting point the discovery of the skeleton of the cunning-woman in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery excavated at Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire. With her were numerous grave-goods which were eventually proven to have been the equipment and materials traditionally used by cunning-women.

In this account, she is given a name ‘Mildred’ (probably pronounced Milthrith at the time) and the author then goes on to re-imagine Mildred’s life and work using all the evidence that has since come to light, through ancient texts and through archaeology. I enjoyed this, and readers cannot but feel immensely grateful to Bishop Bold who got his scribe to collect and record the remedies of the cunning-women and record them in the book known to historians as Bold’s Leechbook. This now stands as a vital document opening up to us the numerous remedies used. These can be seen to have used many herbs which science has proved to be effective in curing various ills today.

The author examines the history of Christianity and Paganism in Britain, and the struggle for the hearts and minds of the people. I cannot help feeling that St Augustine gets huge blame in this history. He comes over as a woman hater, a religious fanatic, and insanely obsessed with what he saw as the ‘diabolical nature’ of Paganism. He was tragically influential in creating the damaging link between pagan equals woman equals bad.

The author concentrates in this book on the region where the cunning-craft, or Hwicce are most active: Mercia, in other words, the Midlands. Penda was a pagan king here, and the Hwicce are only spoken of after he came to his throne in Mercia. The author refers to this region from henceforth as Hwicce Country.

After St Augustine, next up in the war against the cunning-woman with her herbs, magic and incantations, was King Alfred the Great.

In just one hundred years since Alfred’s first overt use of the Hwicce’s name to describe sorcery, it had been successfully adopted as a label for diabolical magic.

From now onwards ‘Hwicce’ means a practitioner of witchcraft, which no longer includes anything beneficial – forever identifying cunning-women and their activities of healing, magic and prophesy with malevolent practitioners of black magic.

To the reader, it seems almost like a kind of ethnic cleansing, rather like the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition – and all ethnic cleansing always begins with a period of demonising those seen as ‘other’.

Pope Gregory hit upon an idea to change the pagan ways of the obdurate English – turn the old pagan temples and sacred spaces into Christian ones. It was very successful – he correctly saw that the power of the site itself was what really caught the imagination of the people: i.e. sacred space. Saints assumed the positions of old gods honoured at ancient wells, and cunning-women may have used Christian prayers along with their incantations.

The author explores the history of ‘witch persecution’ which is really a case of mass hysteria. Then she moves on to its lingering elements, right through to the 1950s, and probably beyond, as we see the resurgence of Wicca and Shamanism. The book ends by citing three cases of witchcraft in Warwickshire, primarily of the murder of Charles Walton at Lower Quinton in Warwickshire, a murder which was never solved, but which is thought to have been motivated by a fear of witchcraft. I referred to this and the other two cases myself in my own book Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire.

Ultimately, I found Sinead Spearing’s book a compelling account, and highly recommend it to those of you intrigued by this aspect of British history.

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Published by SC Skillman

I'm a writer of psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My latest book, 'Paranormal Warwickshire', was published by Amberley Publishing in November 2020. Find all my published books here:

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