In English folklore, the cunning woman or cunning man is a professional or semi-professional folk magic user up until the twentieth century EV. Such people were also frequently known as wizards, wise men, wise women, or conjurers. The term "white witch" was infrequently used for cunning folk until recent times, except in the county of Devon.
The historical studies of Owen Davies have shown the extent to which cunning folk were a recognised part of British rural and urban life, and in the nineteenth century EV it is estimated there were several thousand at work across the country. They could be found operating openly in towns and villages across the nation and they were a valued part of the community. Some cunning folk were so successful that they began attracting clients from many miles away. Most offered more limited services to a smaller region. Cunning folk could make a good living from their talents, and there usually was a set monetary charge for their services. The money they earned meant they were often considered, especially by the better educated, as frauds and tricksters, whom got money out of the gullible for parlour tricks. By the nineteenth century when the threat of prosecution was slight they even advertised their services and wrote books. Whether Cunning folk actually did possess any supernatural power is open to debate; certainly some were caught in fraud such as spying on customers to help their predictions, repeatedly promising vast treasure which was never found, and falsely accusing the innocent of theft or witchcraft.
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Usual services offered by cunning folk
- Protection against witchcraft
- One of their most important and profitable roles. Cunning folk claimed to be able to detect evil witchcraft and counter it by using their own spells. Often they would also claim to be able to discover the witch who was responsible for cursing the victim. After the execution of witches in England ceased, cunning folk provided the mains means of neutralising witchcraft for those who thought themselves afflicted by it.
- Using a combination of herbs and spells, they tried to help both people and animals. Some cunning folk had a very good knowledge of herbs and folk remedies.
- Property Loss
- Whether things were lost by theft or by accident cunning folk could supposedly find lost items or even identify criminals using magic.
- Treasure Hunting
- Cunning folk were reputed to be able to find treasure by various spells. One American example is that as a teenager Joseph Smith, Jr. was believed or rumored to have the ability to find buried treasure and—by his mother's account and his own—reluctantly accepted employment to do so in his family's poverty.
- Fortune telling
- Simple prediction of the future using a variety of possible methods ranging from astrology to crystal gazing.
- Love Magic
- Often fortune telling played a role in this. They also offered love spells and potions.
Cunning folk often specialized in, and offered variations on, these standard services. The varieties of spells they used are similar to the Pow-Wow magic used by the Pennsylvania Dutch.
The legal position of cunning folk
The spells and magic services offered by cunning folk were strictly speaking against the doctrines of the Catholic Church. According to canon law such spell casting should be punished. However, most cunning folk were not charged, indeed in the medieval period the village priest might be the one carrying out folk magic. After the Reformation the situation did not change substantially even though Puritan ministers frequently denounced cunning folk they still escaped serious prosecution. This was true even during the great witch hunt from the Tudor period onwards, although cunning folk were more likely to be charged than other people in English witchtrials they still were only a very small percentage of total number of people charged and in fact the majority of them went about their business unhindered. Owen Davies study suggests this is because most ordinary people drew a distinction between helpful magic and malicious witchcraft. In England the common law meant that it was the ordinary people who were responsible for bringing charges against witches and they were not interested in accusing cunning folk. Especially as they formed the first line of defence against witchcraft, and indeed it was often cunning folk who helped accuse others of being witches as they would be consulted on the matter.
When Cunning folk do appeal in trial reports though it is because of unhappy customers. When their magic failed to heal someone or it seemed there was some kind of trickery involved customers often went to the courts. Even after the death penalty for witchcraft was lifted it was still illegal to claim magical powers, especially if you made money out of it, so prosecution remained an occupational hazard.
Cunning folk and religion
Modern Neopaganism might see the activities of Cunning folk as proof of pagan survivals. However all recorded Cunning folk were Christian to one degree or another. Some cunning folk were priests, others were committed and regular church goers, others seldom went to church at all, but there is no evidence they were pagans in the sense of worshiping ancient gods. Cunning folk in general did not worry about how their magic worked, the important thing to them and their community is that people thought it did. Of course some of the practises and spell craft used by the cunning folk may indeed have ancient roots, but the original pagan beliefs that went alongside the use of old charms were long gone nor did they use a shamanic trance during treatment. In fact the spells they used were medieval Christian folk magic which frequently called on the name of God, Jesus, Mary and the saints. After the Reformation this meant Cunning folk were often accused of being Roman Catholics, with good reason and this is the only persecuted old religion they called on. Up to the Stuart period some did claim to have learned their powers from the fairies, but this concept died out later. Cunning folks were as busy as ever by the mid eighteenth century when religious tolerance in Britain ensured that professed atheists as well as Roman Catholics could openly admit their beliefs without danger, indeed some eccentrics did claim to worship Classical deities. There was little reason to hide pagan beliefs any more which seems to indicate the Cunning folk did not have any.
- Cunning Folk (http://www.karisgarden.com/cunningfolk/home.htm) Home page of Owen Davies, an authority on Cunning Folk
- Owen Davies, Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History (Hambledon and London, 2003)
- Wikipedia (2005). Cunning folk (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cunning_folk). Retrieved June 10, 2004.