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Cunning-Folk: popular magic in English history.
Owen Davies.
 Hambledon and London 2003. Hb. £19.95.

“Cunning-folk was just one of several terms used in England to describe multi-faceted practitioners of magic who healed the sick and the bewitched, who told fortunes, identified thieves, induced love, and much else besides.” (p. VII) It is the most convenient term to use that covers both women and men, since ‘wizard’ and ‘conjuror’ apply only to men, and constant reference to wise-women and wise-men is awkward. The author states that his book is the first comprehensive history of English cunning-folk. However, he looks only at the last five hundred years, although the services provided by cunning-folk were also in demand in the Anglo-Saxon and early medieval periods (p. VIII). Despite their many activities, the author considers unbewitching their most characteristic feature. He even concludes the book with a suggested advertisement for jobs as cunning-folk which ends (p. 197) with “Start of employment: when sufficient numbers of people complain of bewitchment once again.”

Chapters discuss who cunning-folk were, what they did, how the law and the church regarded them, and sources of their knowledge. The religious writers mostly classified them with witches, even regarding them as worse than the malevolent witches because they “enticed people into an implicit bargain with the devil by encouraging people to seek magical aid instead of putting their faith in God’s will” (p. 31). Though there were at certain times laws against cunning-folk, there seem to have been few prosecutions under these laws. When there were prosecutions, it was mostly either because of complaints by dissatisfied clients or because those identified as thieves took action for slander.

We tend to regard cunning-folk as coming from a rural community, but their presence was widespread in towns and cities (p. 68). They were mostly at least semi-literate and over 80% were craftsmen, tradesmen or farmers (p. 69). Because people expected round-the-clock service from cunning-folk, the profession was largely closed to the labouring classes (p.69).

We also tend to think of their healing arts and magical practices as being passed down through the generations orally. In the time Davies is writing about, books, both popular and learned, were available. Sometimes they were used by cunning-folk in a cosmetic way to impress clients. But “[I]t was through cunning-folk that the literary and oral traditions of magic merged, and via them that learned magic was diffused more widely.” (p. 129). Culpeper’s Herbal was a source of healing remedies. Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft is a sixteenth-century book that argued that the powers attributed to and claimed by witches were deceptions. In addition to exposing tricks, it gave details of many charms, talismans and rituals. Ironically, this book was used as a source for material by cunning-folk. Other occult texts, sometimes printed books, sometimes manuscript copies of them, mostly translations from foreign sources or new editions of such translations, were also often owned by cunning-folk.

Davies’ book is a detailed and valuable survey of a poorly understood group of people.                                                                                        

Wood and Water 84, Winter Solstice 2003
© Daniel Cohen

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