Sunday, 25 April 2010

The Cunning Folk

Cunning folk was a term used in English society. They were practitioners of many arts, but some of the more common ones were healing, treasure seeking, finding lost property, fortune telling, and love magic. They were also known as wise men/women, conjurers, and wizards. In Scotland, they were called the spae wife. Some notes I've come across say they were well regarded members of the community, and in many cases that respect likely bordered on fear.

A fine line separated cunning folk from witches because they often performed magic. Generally speaking, the cunning man/woman performed good magic, while a witch performed black magic associated with evil. Some cunning folk specialized in detecting witches.

Owen Davies is often considered to be the leading authority on the cunning folk, yet he narrowly defines the realm to popular magical practitioners, which excludes a number of specialists like the fortune tellers. He states there were at least one cunning person to every 2,500-3,000 English people, and that 2/3 of the cunning folk were male. Gender ratios, however, varied from area to area.

Cunning folk helped people's health, physically and spiritually. The people who opposed them the most were the doctors and clergy. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the cunning folks' magical acts were made illegal under the Conjuration and Witchcraft Acts. Even before the acts went into effect, many clergymen felt they should be weeded out and killed.

Few met that fate because in general people regarded them as valuable members of the community. In the cases where they received the death sentence, they were usually found guilty of performing maleficent magic.

Some historians, including Owen Davies, argue that Europe had no shamans. When the narrowest definition of shamanism relating to the Tungusic language of Siberia is used, it's not surprising to arrive at this conclusion. However, when the more accepted anthropological definition of healers who used magic for curing the sick, divining the hidden, and foretelling the future--often while traveling between the human and spirit worlds--it's easier to see that Europe did indeed have shamans in the cunning folk.

In England, Emma Wilby shows that the cunning folk had familiar spirits and claims that such spirits originate from animistic religion, common among indigenous tribal groups. Fairy folk were common entities with little distinction being made between a fairy and an angel, saint, ghost, or the devil. Generally, fairies were associated with the dead. Few people could see fairies, and it was a realm generally reserved for magical practitioners, such as the cunning folk.

Historians have differing opinions as to whether the cunning folk ever reached the North American shores. At least two of the witch trials in Virginia seem to have been of cunning women. In 1626, Joan Wright was a midwife and had been known for fortune telling people's deaths. Later in the century, the most famous witch trial was that of Grace Sherwood's. She was a known healer and a midwife.

Because of their commonness during the seventeenth century, I have no doubt the cunning folk did indeed reach Virginia.

Kim Murphy


Deborah Swift said...

I have recently done some research on cunning folk in England. They were nearly always women because of their presence at births and deaths - they were the necessary assistants to entering or departing life, the gateway from and to the mystery. I think it highly likely that out of all those deported from these shores for religious dissent at least some would have had this profession. Thanks for posting about this - very interesting. Enjoyed the maypoles yesterday too. Anyone interested in English Shamanism could check out "The Wisdom of the Wyrd" by Brian Bates.Thanks!

Kim Murphy said...

Thanks for your feedback, Deborah. I had wondered about Owen Davies' statement that more cunning folk were men than women. At the same time, he also narrow defined who were cunning folk, so maybe he selectively chose the realms where men were more common. Hmmm...

Most of those who arrived in Virginia didn't tend to leave England because of religious dissent. That was more common in the Massachusetts region. I still find it hard to believe the cunning folk weren't here, especially when a couple of the witch trials read like cunning folk. Thanks for the book suggestion!

Mary Sharratt said...

Great article, Kim! My issue with Owen Davies is focuses on later periods and on *literate* cunning folk who had books or grimoires to work with. In our period, the vast majority of people, including cunning folk, would have been illiterate and most magical practitioners would have worked with lore from their long oral traditions, not from a book.

Kim Murphy said...

I had several issues with Davies, but I thought it was important to cover him, since he is considered to be the "expert." Yes, I agree about the books. What I found interesting in Virginia is that during the 17th century a percentage of people could read, but not write. Granted that percentage is small compared to modern times, but it also gave me an idea as to who among the English were the first to settle here.