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

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Maypoles & “Merrie Recreation"

I met Susan Holloway Scott while I was on tour in the U.S. (One of the greatest pleasures of a book tour is meeting other authors.) I am very, very pleased to have her here—at last!—to give a guest post on Maypoles & “Merrie Recreation."

Susan is the author of over forty historical novels and novellas (forty!), and her bestselling books have received numerous awards and honors. With more than three million copies of her books in print, she has been published in nineteen foreign countries around the world.  Her most recent historical novels have been set in 17thcentury England, in the decadent, politically-charged royal court of King Charles II. She is a graduate of Brown University, and lives with her family in a book-filled house outside of Philadelphia, PA.

“Damn, this woman can write! Susan Holloway Scott is so intuitive with period language and so involved in the psyches of her characters,  that you are at all times there with them.” 
--Robin Maxwell, author of Mademoiselle Boleyn

Susan's titles include The Countess & the King: A Novel of the Countess of Dorchester & King James II and (her latest) The French Mistress: A Novel of the Duchess of Portsmouth & King Charles II. You may read about her and her work on her wonderful website (which includes a wealth of historical links).

Susan is also blogging with novelist Loretta Chase at Two Nerdy History Girls ( — a wonderful blog that I mentioned in "Dressing in Starlight," my last post here. You may also join her on Facebook.

And so, without further ado, Maypoles & “Merrie Recreation" by Susan Holloway Scott:

We’re almost in the season of May Day and Maypoles, and there’s no better symbol of the political and social extremes of 17th c. England than a towering May pole with ribbons fluttering.

May poles have pagan antecedents so distant that no one knows exactly where the first was planted. But there’s no mistaking their symbolism: a phallic pole firmly planted in Mother Earth, part of the annual celebration of fertility, procreation, and returning spring. Most May Rites celebrations were in that spirit, too, with much drinking and bawdy carousing. Pious Christians were appalled, as this description from Anatomy of Abuses (1583) by conservative pamphleteer Philip Stubbs (c.1555-1610) attests:
 “All the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, grove, hills, and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them…their Maypole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus: they have twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every oxe having a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this Maypole (this stinking idol, rather) which is covered allover with flowers and herbs, bound round with strings, from the top to the bottom, and sometime painted with variable colours, with three hundred men, women and children following with great devotion. And thus being reared up…they fall to dance about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols….I have heard it credibly reported (viva voce)…that of forty, three-score, or a hundred maids going to the wood over night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled. These be the fruits which these cursed pastimes bring forth.”
Just in case his opinions left any doubters, Stubbs knew exactly who was behind all this mischief: “as superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sports, namely, Satan, prince of hell.”

In Pasquil’s Palinodia, and his progresse to the taverne (1619), the Maypole represents good clean fun, when “Happy the age, and harmelesse were the dayes,/For then true love and amity was found,/When every village did a May-pole raise.”   Still, the author was aware of the threats to the “rod of peace”, hoping that the Maypole would stand:
Where no captritious Constables disturbe them,
Nor Justice of the peace did seeke to curbe them,
Nor peevish Puritan in rayling sort,
Nor other-wise Church-warden spoyl’d the sport.
But the “peevish Puritan” wasn’t far away. While both James I and Charles I explicitly permitted maypole dancing on Sundays, there was increasing objection to the drunkenness, mixed-gender dancing, and sexual shenanigans that accompanied Maypoles. They were singled out by the Long Parliament’s ordinance of 1644, which described Maypoles as “a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness.” The image of grim-faced Puritans chopping down the Maypole is irresistible, but most scholars agree that it likely didn’t happen. Instead, most poles went “underground”,  stored away in sympathetic barns, or blatantly used as a gaudy symbol of popular resistance despite the Parliamentary decree.

It’s hardly surprising that when the monarchy was restored with Charles II that the Maypoles would triumphantly return as well. (Considering the reputed size of Charles’s manly self, it was boisterously appropriate, too.) While lesser Maypoles sprang up all over England, the grandest one was erected on the Strand, on the future site of St. Mary-le-Strand.  This Maypole is described in great detail in The Cities Loyalty Display’d, a tract from 1661.  Made from a “Stately Cedar”, the two parts of the pole were brought by the river to Scotland Yard, where it was assembled with an iron band, and then carried to the Strand to be erected in mid-April.

This really was an impressive Maypole, standing 134 feet high – so tall, in fact, that twelve sailors from the navy were brought in to steep it like a mast, with “Cables, Pullies, and other tacklins” under the command of the king’s brother James, Duke of York and Lord High Admiral.  At the top was a crown and vane with emblazoned with the “King’s Armes, richly gilded,” as well as a wreath, purple streamers, and lanterns to light the pole after dark as a kind of festive lighthouse.

The whole production took about four hours, accompanied by drums beating, trumpets sounding, “Musick” playing, and “great shouts and acclamations” from the “numerous multitudes of  people thronging the streets.” Once raised, Morris dancers, “finely deckt” with purple scarves, honored the Maypole with the first dance, with other revellers soon following.  His Majesty was pleased, as, apparently, was everyone else: “little children did much rejoyce, and ancient people did clap their hands, saying, golden dayes begin to appear….God preserve the King.” Within a hundred years, the Maypole had changed from a symbol of Satan to that of the King himself.  Not a bad transformation!


Note on the illustration: it is  not, regrettably, from the period. Susan adds,  " It really is amazing that no 17th c. artist painted or drew a Maypole -- esp. that huge one on the Strand. What a scene that must have been!"

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Footmen-The First Distance Runners

Chosen for their impressive height, for it was considered absurd to have a pair of footmen who didn’t match in height, their carriage and the appearance of their calves in silk stockings, footmen were also employed for their athletic prowess. Masters would set their footmen in running races against footmen of other great houses with vast sums being bet on the winner.

A footman would hurry ahead of the coach as it approached an inn or country estate so the staff would be prepared for the master’s arrival. They were expected to keep up with a coach without running using a process described as “fair heel and toe,” although they were allowed to trot to ward off cramp.”

For the gentry to set their footmen against their friends’ was very popular in Charles II’s time, as Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary.

August 10, 1660 : I went by water to White-hall to the Privy Seale; and that done, with Mr. Moore and Creed to Hideparke [Hyde Park] by coach and saw a fine foot-race, three times around the park, between an Irishman and Crow that was once my Lord Claypoole's footman. Crow beat the other above two miles.

July 30, 1663: The town talk of this day is of nothing but the great foot-race run this day on Banstead Downes, between Lee, the Duke of Richmond's footman, and a Tyler, a famous runner. And Lee hath beat him; though the King and Duke of York and all men almost did bet three or four to one upon the Tyler's head.

August 11, 1664: This day, for a wager before the King, my Lords of Castlehaven and Arran (a son of my Lord of Ormond's) they two alone did run down and kill a stoute bucke in St. James's parke.

In 1660, betting went up to £1000 on the outcome of a foot race, but this became so prevalent that in 1664, King Charles II passed a law to limit bets to £100 and Queen Anne did so again in 1711 which brought the limit to £10. Runners who won often found no one would run against them, so they would run ‘black’, using assumed names and disguises.

With the coming of hard-surfaced country roads and cobblestoned city streets, coach speeds increased to upwards of seven miles an hour. Footmen were expected to run for up to 20 miles (32 km) without stopping and up to 62 miles (100 km) in a day. Rest-stops were infrequent and brief, consisting of pit stops at coaching inns for the horses to be watered and sometimes changed.

In A Mad World My Masters, a 1608 play by Thomas Middleton refers to a running footman as "you lousy seven- miles-an-hour," "you progressive roundabout rascal," and "linen stockings and three-score-a-day."

They wore light black caps, a jockey coat, white linen trousers, thin-soled shoes and carried a two-meter long pole with a hollow silver ball containing a hard-boiled egg or a little white wine for nourishment. If the coach had to travel at night the running footman carried a torch instead of a pole. In the early part of the 1700's, footmen wore kilts, but these were replaced by breeches, possibly because, as a 1725 writer put it: "Our Village Maids delight to see the Running Footman fly bare-ars'd o'er the dusty Road."

Runners sought odd methods to increase their speed, including the removal of their spleen, or at least reduce its size. The ancient Greeks, baffled by the spleen's purpose and believed it was a hindrance to fast running, used herbs to dissolve it, and in the 17th Century some runners had their surgically removed. Many foot runners, known for theor pale, gaunt appearance, died from consumption from running in high pollution areas after five or six year’s of service.

In the 1670’s, the Duke of Lauderdale gave a dinner-party at Thirlestane Castle . At the laying of the cloth, it was discovered that additional plate would be required from the Duke’s other seat of Lethington, fifteen miles distant across the hills. The running footman instantly darted off, and was back with the required articles in time for dinner.

By 1800, with improved roads, running footmen had a hard time keeping up with coaches and were no longer needed. The last English nobleman who employed one was the infamous Duke of Queensbury who died in 1810.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Under the Spell of the Pendle Witches

Since I'm embarking on my book tour, this post is dedicated to my favourite 17th century firebrand, Mother Demdike, the heroine of my new novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill.

The wild, brooding landscape of Pendle Hill, my home for the past seven years, gave birth to my new novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, which tells the true story of Elizabeth Southerns, cunning woman, more commonly known by her nickname, Mother Demdike.

In 1612, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were hanged as witches. Yet Mother Demdike, the most notorious of the accused, the ringleader who initiated all the others into witchcraft, cheated the hangman by dying in prison. This is how Thomas Potts describes her in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster:

She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had
been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast
place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man
knows. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no
man escaped her, or her Furies.

Not bad for an eighty-year-old lady! Reading the trial transcripts against the grain, I was amazed at how her strength of character blazed forth in the document written expressly to condemn her. When interrogated by her magistrate, she freely admitted to being a healer and a cunning woman. Mother Demdike was so frightening to her foes because she was a woman who embraced her powers wholeheartedly.

As I sought to uncover the bones of her story, I was drawn into a new world of mystery and magic. Every stereotype I’d held of historical witches and cunning folk was dashed to pieces. Mother Demdike became a true presence, a shining light in my life. An ancestor of my heart, if not my blood. Her life unfolded almost literally in my backyard.

Once in a place called Malkin Tower, there lived a widow, Bess Southerns, called Demdike. Matriarch of her clan, she lived with her widowed daughter and her three grandchildren, the most promising one being Alizon Device, a young woman who showed every promise of becoming a cunning woman as mighty as her grandmother. What fascinated me was not that Bess was arrested on witchcraft charges but that the authorities only turned on her near the end of her long, productive career. She practiced her craft for decades before anybody dared to interfere with her.

Cunning craft—the art of using charms to heal both humans and livestock—was Bess’s family trade. Their spells, recorded in the trial documents, were Roman Catholic prayer charms—the kind of folk magic that would have flourished before the Reformation. Yet she also drew on an even older source of power: Tibb, her familiar spirit, who appeared to her in the guise of a beautiful young man.

Other books have been written about the Pendle Witches—both fiction and nonfiction, nuanced and lurid. Mine is the first to tell the tale from Bess’s point of view. I longed to give Bess Southerns what her world denied her—her own voice.

As a writer, I am obsessed with history and place, how the true stories of our ancestors haunt the living landscape. No one in Pendle can remain untouched by the witches’ legacy. As contemporary British storyteller, Hugh Lupton, has said, if you go deep enough into the old tales and can present them in a meaningful way to a modern audience, you become the living voice in an ancient tradition. Mother Demdike’s voice deserves to be heard. I hope you will be as moved by her story as I am.

Take a sneak peak of the novel

Who were the Pendle Witches of 1612?

Read what the critics are saying

Join me on my traditional and virtual book tour

Watch my docudrama of the Pendle Witches, filmed live on location around Pendle Hill

Read Mary Ann Grossmann's interview with me in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press

Learn the charms of the Pendle Witches

Enter the Daughters of the Witching Hill Reader Review Contest

Learn more about Historical Cunning Folk and Wisewomen

Thank you for being a part of this book!