A large reference for this article has been Owen Davies' book “Popular Magic: Cunning-Folk in English History," one of the most concise and well-written histories on the cunning folk.
The cunning folk were healers, diviners, and practitioners of Christian folk magic in Europe from at least the 15th to the early 20th century. For over five-hundred years the cunning folk worked to provide magical services to local populations and sought out obscure knowledge through books and experimentation. They worked hard at their jobs, were entrepreneurial, and on occasion travelled many miles outside of their town to stay with someone in need of magical aid, healing, or simply a reassuring person to talk to. The cunning folk of historic Europe are an unshakeable influence on and early precursor to all of magical spirituality today.
“Cunning Folk” is a term used by historians to describe both male and female professional practitioners of magic in Europe. These cunning people were physicians, healers, psychics, magicians, and providers of magical services to their clients. The cunning folk were the wise women and men. In the cunning folk’s historic society eclectic knowledge and wisdom was key; the cunning folk were seen by the population as distinct in society for their knowledge acquired from either a supernatural source, a hereditary ability, or from their literacy, as many people back then couldn’t read or write. They were central to the experience of the magical world for the majority of people; and almost everyone knew at least one cunning man or woman.
When you think of magic in Europe, you are most likely to think of witches and their Sabbath in the woods at night. Although cunning folk were referred to in rare instances as “White Witches”, in Early Modern Europe the cunning folk were seen by the majority of the population as very distinct from witches. Cunning folk tended to work alone, using Christian names of God in their magic, reading from Christian grimoires, and utilizing Biblical verses. To them magic was a helpful tool which accompanied their Christian religious beliefs rather than composing them. Many today attempt to mystify or glamorize the cunning folk as “the true historic witches." Outside of fantasy the cunning folk were ordinary, if only a bit kooky, people who could read and developed an interest in magic. They sent for mail order books, studied up the most popular of them, in some cases even just bought the books to look impressive on the shelf. Witchcraft was persecuted because it was seen as heretical and diabolic, where cunning folk were safe from persecutions. In fact, the same grimoires used by the cunning folk were brought into circulation largely because so many Catholic clergymen studied and practiced with them.
Cunning-craft differed from witchcraft and witches in the religious sense as well, because witches were seen as believing in a mix of devil worship and paganism, as flying to their Sabbath with the goddess Diana and meeting with the Devil, and the witches' rituals were seen as heretical and often criminal. Where the cunning man worked alone in his home, witches travelled to a Sabbath to meet with a coven. They were seen as anathema to the Christian God, whether this meant paganism or diabolism. The classical Grimoires were not seen as the domain of the witches as reading and writing was seen as a pure, Godly act mastered only by nobility or clergy. The cunning folk, not commonly charged with heresy, were for the most part safe from the witch persecutions, because even if the church didn’t always approve of their magical practices they were still not seen as diabolic or heretical and were therefore not under the church’s authority.
The cunning folk’s magical practice was generally self-taught and learned from grimoires and magical texts which were purchased by mail-order to be used by those who had the advantage of being able to read. They practiced low magic otherwise called folk magic. Magical practice was not a means to gain enlightenment, but to solve everyday problems.
The cunning folk were some of the first professional psychics in history. They would often run their businesses out of their homes. They would set up a lobby at the front and then a parlor room in the back. Clients of the cunning folk back then wanted to know about practical things. Their farm animals, their families, their neighbors, their love life, etcetera.
Another thing people often went to a cunning person for was to detect a thief. They could receive better results this way than through any of the legal systems. For this problem the cunning folk had many ways to divine the identity of the thief. One of these methods was scrying in a bowl of water, a black mirror, or even urine. The cunning person would have the client pee into a container and if bubbles formed in a certain way on the glass it could indicate the curser’s identity.
If someone had reason to believe they had a curse placed upon them, and they approached a cunning person for help, there were three ways the cunning person could go about the situation. The first was to go to the source of the harmful magic and tackle the witch physically or through the courts. The second was for the cunning person to break the spell at a distance via magical rituals and spells. The third was by using a mix of charms or herbs to cleanse the victim’s body of the negative attached energy. Sometimes a combination of all three of these would be used until the ailment disappeared.
One way to tackle the witch was by “scratching” where a client was told to find the person they believed to be the witch, scratch them with their fingernails, and if blood came they would be healed of the curse’s magic. If no blood came, either the person wasn’t the witch or they wouldn’t be cured of the curse. This of course caused a lot of arguments between the scratcher and the scratchee.
To tackle the witch through magic often a witch bottle was utilized. They would take wine, hair, nails of the client, horseshoe nails, thorns, and pins. They would put the ingredients into a vessel which symbolized “the witches’ bladder." The witch bottle was then either put into the fire, boiled in water, or buried. It was supposed to cause the witch excruciating pain while it was being heated in order to get them to stop casting harmful spells.
If a farm animal died under mysterious circumstances, the cunning folk would suggest the client remove the dead animal’s heart, stick it with pins, roast it, or hang it inside of the chimney. This was supposed to “burn the curse away."
All of these interesting methods were utilized, but the most common cure for a curse was a written charm or an herbal remedy. The herbs used were kept secret by the cunning folk and rarely written about, but we can assume they used the same herbs as the popular mystical physicians of the time. In the subject of herbal medicine and the mystical properties of herbs Nicholas Culpeper’s book “The English Physician and Herbal” was very influential from the 1800s and onward. In it he writes, “bay is the best herb, it resisteth witchcraft very potently, as also all the evils old Satan can do to the body of man.” The cunning folk would write on paper a simple charm or prepare a small bag with certain herbs to be worn around the neck. I especially like to use little charms like this for simple magical assistance.
All of medicine back then was based on the four humors of the body which are black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. This cosmology got some things right, but medicine was still in its early days. For the beginning part of the early modern era the cunning folk’s medicine was often as good or better than what an actual doctor could prescribe. Compared to orthodox doctors, many cunning folk also showed exceptional customer care. They often travelled for clients, made night calls, and offered to stay days at a time if need be. One cunning man travelled twelve miles by horse to see an elderly man, sat up with him all night, and went to morning prayer with him the next day. A cunning man called Mr. Teare said about his customer care, “The crab who hides away in his hole is never fat."
To further amaze their customers and build their reputation many cunning folk dressed in eccentric clothing and decorated their showrooms to look magical and exotic. (Some also dressed in regular clothes.) One cunning woman had dried herbs hung from her ceiling and a stuffed dried lizard on a table. During consultations she wore a conical hat and a shawl scrawled with magical signs and symbols.
Folk magic of the cunning folk variety didn’t end in Europe; Germans and English settlers transported practical magic and herbal remedies to America later on, and these practices soon expressed their own unique styles. Among some of the American cousins of the cunning folk’s practices are pow-wow, granny-magic, and even hoodoo contains some unmistakeable European elements.
At the end of this brief entry on folk magic and history, we can take a look at spiritual businesses today-- psychics, mediums, healers, shamans, and professional spellcasters-- and we can see many commonalities with the cunning folk. In the past people needed clarity and confirmation in their life that they received from those with a special gift or spiritual knowledge, and it is the same today. It is the same just as it has been throughout human history. Whether a wise-woman, a shaman, or a medicine-man, people have always sought out those with a mystical insight to part the veil between the known and the unknown.
It is my belief that humanity has truly never stopped believing in the beneficial magic of nature and the mind, but that the face of that magic only shifts gradually with the passage of time. By learning about the spirituality of the past, we can more fully understand the spirituality of the present.