Cunning Folk Gallery

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Cunning-Folk, Popular Magic in English History (Hambledon and London, 2003)
Cunning-folk, who were also known as wise-women, wise-men, conjurors and wizards, were an integral part of English society right up until the early twentieth century. Over the centuries hundreds of thousands of people must have consulted them regarding a wide range of problems, but particularly those concerning affairs of the heart, theft, sickness and most important of all witchcraft. They were multi-skilled, or at least professed to be so. They practised herbalism, treasure-seeking and love magic. They revealed the identity of thieves and divined the whereabouts of lost and stolen property. The more learned cunning-folk also practised astrology, while the less learned pretended to be masters of the art. The most lucrative aspect of their business was the curing of those people and animals who were thought to be bewitched, and also the trade in charms to ward of witches and evil spirits.

The magical activities of cunning-folk were effectively made illegal under the Conjuration and Witchcraft Acts of 1542, 1563 and 1604 - the same laws which were used to prosecute suspected witches. In particular these Acts were directed at any person or persons who took

"upon him or them by witchcraft, enchantment, charm, or sorcery, to tell or declare in what place any treasure of gold or silver should or might be found or had in the earth, or other secret place; or where goods, or things lost or stolen should be found or be come; or shall use or practise any sorcery, enchantment, charm or witchcraft to the intent to provoke any person to unlawful love"

Under the 1542 Act the punishment for such offences was death, though there are no records suggesting that the sentence was ever carried out, and besides, the Act was repealed a few years later in 1547. The Elizabethan Act of 1563 prescribed one year's imprisonment and four stints in the pillory for a first offence, life imprisonment for a second offence, and death for those who conjured up evil spirits.

Long before these laws were passed the religious and ecclesiastical authorities had expressed their concern about the activities of cunning-folk, and a number were prosecuted for fraud by the London authorities, and for moral offences by church courts up and down the country. In fact, up until the mid-sixteenth century there was far greater concern over the threat cunning-folk posed to society than there was over the activities of harmful witches. Even during the main period of the witch trials members of authority, clergymen in particular, urged that cunning-folk should also be rooted out and exterminated. Very few shared such a fate, however, for the simple reason that, on the whole, the common people saw them as valuable members of the community. In the rare instances when cunning-folk were sentenced to death under the conjuration and witchcraft statutes it was because they were accused and found guilty of harmful witchcraft, rather than for their beneficial magical practices such as theft detection or for conjuring spirits. Even when witchcraft and conjuration ceased to be a crime, following the Witchcraft Act of 1736, the same law ensured that pretended witchcraft or magic remained a punishable offence. So from 1736 onwards cunning-folk could no longer be prosecuted for what they said they could do, but for what they could not do. In other words witchcraft and magic became legally defined as fraudulent beliefs and practices.

Authoritarian concern over the popularity of cunning-folk continued into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though it was no longer based on a fear of Satan, but on the 'credulity' and 'ignorance' that cunning-folk were said to promote through their magical activities. As a result, sporadic prosecution of cunning-folk continued, though usually under the rather inappropriate laws against vagrancy (particularly after the Vagrancy Act of 1824) rather than the more appropriate Witchcraft Act.

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@ Owen Davies 2003